Monthly Archives: April 2011

Poly Styrene 1957-2011 R.I.P.

 

Fronted influential
late ‘70s UK
punk combo X-Ray Spex. See video clips, below.

 

By Fred Mills

 

Marianne Joan Elliot-Said, aka Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex,
passed away yesterday following a battle with cancer. She was 53 and had been
readying a new album for release – Generation
Indigo
is out today in the US,
in fact, and already getting solid notices as a welcome return and an engaging
DIY-styled pop dance album.

 

The big-lunged, confrontational gal behind punk hit “Oh
Bondage! Up Yours!” will always be associate with that tune, of course; her
anti-glamour approach to performance was an inspiration to an entire generation
of aspiring female rockers. She essentially dropped out of professional music by
the mid ‘80s, however, to join the Hare Krishna movement. An X-Ray Spex reunion
in 2008 brought her back into the fold, and by late 2010 it was announced that
she was working on the solo record. (View the video for first single “Virtual
Boyfriend,” below.) Her cancer diagnosis was disclosed to the public just
recently.

 

A tweet posted four hours ago to her Twitter feed reads
thusly:

 

We can confirm that
the beautiful Poly Styrene, who has been a true fighter, won her battle on
Monday evening to go to higher places. PSTeam

 


Read: Synth Gods Book

 

Published by Backbeat Books, this handily covers
the synthesizer’s heyday but does tend to skimp on contemporary artists.

 

By Rev.
Keith A. Gordon

 

The synthesizer
as we know it today was designed and created by Dr. Robert Moog during the early
1950s, but it wasn’t until 1964 at an Audio Engineering Society convention that
the good doctor of engineering physics – a true brainiac degree if ever there
was one – would unveil the end result of almost a decade of work.

 

The first
analog synthesizer to use a keyboard as a controller, the original Moog synthesizer
was, at first, a bit of a curiosity because there was little existing framework
for the use of an electronic instrument at the time. The synthesizer was
introduced to the rock ‘n’ roll crowd at the 1967 Monterey International Pop
Festival, but it would be a year later when Wendy (then Walter) Carlos, an
early adopter of the Moog, released Switched
On Bach
, the first recording created entirely electronically with a
synthesizer, and one of the most commercially successful classical albums of
all time.

 

The success
of Switched On Bach in selling what
was essentially electronic music to the mainstream opened up the floodgates of
experimentation and innovation, especially among rock musicians. Keith Emerson,
while with British art-rock band the Nice, was one of the first artists to
adapt a Moog to his music, as was then session pro Rick Wakeman, later of Yes
and solo fame.

 

When Dr.
Moog introduced the Minimoog synthesizer in 1970 – a smaller, more
stage-friendly instrument for a live performance environment – the
synthesizer’s place in modern music was cast in cement. The popularity of the electronic
instrument fueled the early-1970s wave of Krautrock bands like Kraftwerk and
Tangerine Dream, and was the favored tool of keyboard wizards in prog-rock
bands like Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and many others. Dr. Moog would go on to
invent many innovations in electronic music, earning dozens of ground-breaking
patents, and while Moog would soon have competition from traditional keyboard
makers like Yamaha, the Moog name remains revered among musicians.

 

Keyboard magazine, a consumer publication targeting
musicians, has tracked the popularity and evolution of the synthesizer from the
very beginning, documenting the history of electronic music and its artists
since the 1970s. Keyboard Presents Synth
Gods
, compiled by the magazine’s former editor Ernie Rideout, is a
collection of interviews with various electronic-oriented musicians, some of
whom may not readily come to mind as “synth gods.” Culled from the
pages of the magazine, the interviews were written by regular contributors like
Robert L. Doerschuk, Greg Rule, Ken Hughes, and others.

 

 

Among the
20 artists featured in Keyboard Presents
Synth Gods
are those you might expect – Wendy Carlos, Brian Eno, Rick
Wakeman, Jan Hammer, Edgar Winter, etc – and some that might surprise you, such
as Prince, Bernie Worrell, and Joe Zawinul of jazz legends Weather Report.
These visionary musicians share their ideas and philosophies on electronic
music, some of them reveal their secrets in recording or performing, but all
have something interesting and informative to say about the synthesizer and the
instrument’s role in their art.

 

As is
typical with these sorts of compilations, some of the collected interviews are
more insightful and/or interesting than others, and Keyboard Presents Synth Gods is no different. The conversation with
keyboard wizard Richard Barbieri is a bit of a snore, while Wendy Carlos
seemingly talks forever. On the other hand, Brian Eno’s thoughts on electronic
instruments and their usage are quite fascinating, while French artist Jean
Michel Jarre provides plenty of food for thought with his ideas on the use of
electronic instrumentation in popular music. Joe Zawinul’s comments provide a
unique perspective, coming from the only jazz artist in the bunch.

 

While it
should be a given that Keyboard Presents
Synth Gods
is aimed at an audience with at least a passing familiarity with
the synthesizer and electronic instruments, I have a few minor cavils with the
book itself and not its editorial direction. The interview credited to Trent
Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is primarily with Charlie Clouser and Keith
Hillebrandt of that band. A fascinating conversation with Dr. Moog himself is
all too brief when, in my mind, it should be among the longest interviews in
the book…especially since Moog is an intelligent subject with an easy
conversational style and a heck of a lot of history on his side.

 

Finally,
the majority of the interviews are from the 1970s and ’80s…a watershed period
in the history of the synthesizer, to be sure, but not the end of innovation
with or interest in the instrument. Why no more recent interviews with
contemporary “synth gods” such as Transatlantic frontman and solo
artist Neal Morse, or former Dream Theater keyboardist Kevin Moore (Chroma Key,
O.S.I.)? There are literally hundreds of prog-rock and metal bands doing new
things with synthesizers these days, and their voices should also be heard.

 

That being
said, Keyboard Presents Synth Gods is
nonetheless a quick and impressive read on the musical revolution created by
Dr. Robert Moog’s humble invention. I’d highly recommend the book for any fan
of, or for those with an interest in creating electronic music with the
now-ubiquitous synthesizer.

 

 

 

 

 

Report: William Elliott Whitmore Live DC

April 17 at the Sixth
and I Synagogue: fans were there for the opening act, not the headliner.

 

BY ROXANA HADADI ; PHOTOS BY ADAM FRIED

 

William
Elliott Whitmore isn’t dumb. He knew that barely any people at the sold-out
Chris Cornell show on April 17 at Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, D.C.,
were there to actually see him, an opener added at the last minute to Cornell’s
nationwide acoustic tour.

 

In
fact, the seven songs Whitmore performed during his brief, 28-minute opening
set were “all new to most of you,” Whitmore joked while introducing a new song,
“Don’t Need It,” which was only truly “new to like, four of you.” Modest and
somewhat self-deprecating? That’s just Whitmore’s way – the blues- and
folk-influenced, gritty singer-songwriter is more than accommodating during his
shows, thanking everyone and acknowledging his luck at being able to play music
for a living. Nearly everyone at Sixth and I that Sunday night had no idea who
Whitmore was, but did that stop the guy from delivering a blisteringly good set
that makes us look forward to his upcoming July release, Field Songs? Of course not.

 

 

 

Whitmore
packed a lot of punch into his seven songs, despite performing with just a kick
drum, guitar and banjo. Sitting on a stool and bathed in eerie red light,
Whitmore started off with no preamble, launching right into “From the Cell Door
to the Gallows,” from 2003’s Hymn for the Hopeless. “Well, I
heard six shots ring out in succession/ And it broke the night air like a china
plate/ And in my knife blade I saw my own reflection/ And the devil was at the
front gate,” sang a scruff-sporting Whitmore, who barely paused before then
jumping into “Diggin’ My Grave,” from 2005’s Ashes to Dust.

 

By
now, people were kind of getting into it – there were fewer questioning murmurs
from the audience, more appreciative nods – and Whitmore got more intense, too,
his voice taking on an anguish that was mirrored in the urgent thump of his
kick drum. The acoustics in Sixth and I were amazing that night, allowing every
strummed chord and sung verse to perfectly reach the audience, and Whitmore
benefited greatly from that clarity. “Oh, how I wish that I could have stayed,”
Whitmore lamented, “But the hole is made/ Oh, lord, the hole is made.” After
the regretful song’s conclusion is when Whitmore chose to make his move,
unleashing his customary charm on the audience: “Thank you, friends,” Whitmore
gushed. “Thank you for listening.”

 

But
if you’ve seen Whitmore before, you know he’s not just polite – he can be
undeniably heart-warming, too, as listeners learned when Whitmore announced his
next song would be “about the first hobo I ever met,” the “coolest motherfucker”
Whitmore knew. “This song is for Hub Cale,” Whitmore announced, transitioning
into “Lift My Jug (Song for Hub Cale),” also off Ashes to Dust, the only truly up-tempo song in his lineup that
night. An homage to Hub Cale’s free spirit while simultaneously an attack on
the institutions that made him that way – the anti-The Man sentiment is typical
in Whitmore’s songs, which often sound like a John Steinbeck novel set to music
– “Lift My Jug” won the audience over, even as its lyrics grow more depressing.
“I made my livin’ shovelin’ coal/ Paid my dues for 12 long years/ Then one day
they let me go/ And that time it sure was rough/ And the labor sure took its
toll,” Whitmore sang, and when the audience clapped afterward, they were
certainly more welcoming than they’d been just minutes before.

 

 

 

 

And
really, minutes is all the audience had left with Whitmore – three songs in, he
was already about halfway done with his allotted time. Next up was “Hell or
High Water” off 2009’s Animals in the
Dark
, which Whitmore prefaced by admitting it was the “first time I’ve been
in a synagogue – anyone else?” To be fair, though, he doesn’t “get into
churches much,” either. Then there was “Hard Times,” also from Animals in the Dark, which Whitmore
dedicated to a friend named Chris – “Uh, yeah, different Chris,” he said
sheepishly, referring to Cornell – and used as an opportunity to explain the
benefits of personal challenges and obstacles (“You don’t want an easy life, ‘cause
then you wouldn’t have any character, you know?”). And then there was “Don’t
Need It” from the coming-soon Field Songs,
which followed Whitmore’s everyman theme: “I’m gonna keep the rain off my head/
I’m gonna keep the mosquitos from getting fed/ I don’t need them at all/ No, not
at all,” he crooned, a tantalizing glimpse into the kind of
angry-workers’-field-songs fans will be getting in a few months’ time.

 

And
just like that, nearly 25 minutes had passed, bringing Whitmore to his closer,
“Old Devils,” the first single from Animals
in the Dark
. As he extolled against politicians’ and corporations’ evils
and how they bring about “desperation, death and despair” for everyone else,
Whitmore got more and more frenzied, snarling final lines like, “I guess I will
confess that I’ve been suffering/ The old devils are at it again … Who knows
what they’ll do?” Who knows, indeed.

 

 

 

 

In Theaters Now: Wretches & Jabberers

Both film and soundtrack demands an uncommon level of
attention throughout its viewing and listening. Documentary by director
Gerardine Wurzburg; soundtrack produced and co-written by J. Ralph. View the trailer and listen to the Antony cut, below.

 

By A.D. Amorosi

 

The isolation of autism – that
there is little intelligence or artistic drive amongst the stricken, that they
can not live outside their head and disability – is exploded by Larry Bissonnette
and Tracy Thresher in road trip documentary Wretches
& Jabberers
.

 

Listen to the artistic voice
and not the autistic voice
becomes the
mantra as the pair travels the world of universities, conferences and private
homes with their aides Pascal Cheng and Harvey F. Lavoy to find like-minded
lost soul and advocate for greater understand of the autistic as well as for
the autistic to better use the world of technology that opened up life for
Thresher, 42, and Bissonnette, 52.

 

Computers become their means of
greater communication and the joy given to them courtesy their accomplishments
is palpable and visible. “Autism is not abnormality of the brain as much as
abnormality of experience,” says Bissonnette. Though the two show off
proudly their abilities to express their social, political and poetic needs and
wants, Wurzburg never shirks from the truth – that it is “killingly hard, a
rough road to hoe for the autistic to be considered, in their words, “more like
you.”

 

 

Their words, like the one in
aforementioned quotes, become the basis through which Ralph pens lyrics for
nearly two dozen vocalists to sing. To a score of folksy ambient tunes, Ralph
provokes genuine energy and innovation. Watching the film as the autistic duo
stroll the streets of Sri Lanka
and hearing Antony’s
warble through the tenderly operatic melody of “Killingly Hard” is a joy to
hear, particularly after you’ve viewed a previous scene that explains its
title. A smoky “One Whole Hour” (sung duskily by Scarlett Johansson) a prickly “Low
Barefoot Tolerance” (thanks Stephen Stills) and dramatic turns by Carly Simon
and Bob Weir make this soundtrack a better place to live than most soundtracks
are at present.

 

No one phoned in a performance,
found a left-over song, or dabbled in dull remxes. The artists here certainly
saw the film and felt moved by Ralph’s words and melodies. In particular
Devendra Banhart, Vashti Bunyan, and Vincent Gallo – now-folk’s gentle oddities
– along with Ben Harper execute the film’s finest, rawest musical moments.
“I can’t speak but I need you to listen,” sings Harper on “More Like
You.”  Wretches & Jabberers demands that level of attention throughout
its viewing and listening.

 


Download Live PJ Harvey at NPR

 

From the Let England
Shake tour, recorded two weeks ago in SF.

 

By Fred Mills

 

British songstress PJ Harvey – currently featured on the
cover of the latest issue of BLURT – performed April 14 in San Francisco at the
Warfield Theater as part of her promotion for her latest album Let England Shake. (In the band: John
Parish and Mick Harvey – the latter the subject of an upcoming BLURT profile,
incidentally.)

 

Over at NPR Music they are streaming an edited version of
the concert, and it’s also available for free download simply by subscribing to
the Live Concerts From All Songs Considered podcast.

 

It was pretty dynamic show that had the audience in Harvey’s camp from the
get go. As NPR puts it, “While Harvey played some crowd favorites (“Down
by the Water” and “C’mon Billy” among them), she stuck largely
to new material, playing every track on Let England Shake. The
majority of the audience seemed to know every word.”

 

Report: English Beat live in Portland

 

Wonder Ballroom, April 8: Dave Wakeling
and friends.

 

By Tim Hinely

It’s hard to
believe that The English Beat are still touring but they are. Well, actually
this line-up is lead singer/main songwriter Dave Wakeling and a
5-piece band behind him. He probably should call it Dave Wakeling and friends or
something but that is up to him and Ranking Roger to work out (apparently Roger
has/hard The New Beat). For this tour Wakeling sang and played guitar and had a
bassist, drummer, keyboardist, sax player and standing right next to him, a
very tall gent doing backup/occasional lead vocals. I think they call that guy
a toaster.

 

They opened up
with “Too Nic to Talk To” and from that point on it was a flurry of old hits
from the early ‘80s.  “Twist and Crawl”?
You bet. “Hands Off…She’s Mine”?  Uh
huh.  “I Confess”? Yup. And plenty more
too: “Trough Rider”, “Save It for Later”, “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”
And  if those tunes weren’t enough to get
the crowd of geriatrics into a dancin’ tizzy (which they were) the encore
included “Mirror in the Bathroom’ and “Ranking Full Stop.”

 

Hazel Dickens 1935-2011 R.I.P.

 

Acclaimed bluegrass
and folk artist performed up until the time of her death.

 

By Fred Mills

 

Bluegrass and folk music
mainstay Hazel Dickens passed away Friday, April 22, at the age of 75. The
cause of death was pneumonia-related complications.

 

The West Virgina native had gotten her start on the Baltimore
and Washington music scenes in the early ‘60s, going on to form the popular bluegrass
duo Hazel & Alice
with fellow singer-songwriter Alice Gerrard (Mike Seeger’s wife). Among her key
influences were Uncle Dave Macon, the Monroe Brothers and the Carter Family.
She also played with a number of prominent bluegrass bands, including the
Greenbriar Boys.

 

Her music also experienced a revival in the late ‘70s
following the release of 1976 Oscar-winning film Harlan County, USA which featured a number of her songs. She
recorded for both the Folkways and the Rounder label and continued to perform
up until the time of her death, including this year’s South By Southwest music
festival.

 

 

In Theaters Now: Wretches & Jabberers

Both film and soundtrack demands an uncommon level of
attention throughout its viewing and listening. Documentary by director
Gerardine Wurzburg; soundtrack produced and co-written by J. Ralph. View the trailer and listen to the Antony cut, below.

 

By A.D. Amorosi

 

The isolation of autism – that
there is little intelligence or artistic drive amongst the stricken, that they
can not live outside their head and disability – is exploded by Larry Bissonnette
and Tracy Thresher in road trip documentary Wretches
& Jabberers
.

 

Listen to the artistic voice
and not the autistic voice
becomes the
mantra as the pair travels the world of universities, conferences and private
homes with their aides Pascal Cheng and Harvey F. Lavoy to find like-minded
lost soul and advocate for greater understand of the autistic as well as for
the autistic to better use the world of technology that opened up life for
Thresher, 42, and Bissonnette, 52.

 

Computers become their means of
greater communication and the joy given to them courtesy their accomplishments
is palpable and visible. “Autism is not abnormality of the brain as much as
abnormality of experience,” says Bissonnette. Though the two show off
proudly their abilities to express their social, political and poetic needs and
wants, Wurzburg never shirks from the truth – that it is “killingly hard, a
rough road to hoe for the autistic to be considered, in their words, “more like
you.”

 

 

Their words, like the one in
aforementioned quotes, become the basis through which Ralph pens lyrics for
nearly two dozen vocalists to sing. To a score of folksy ambient tunes, Ralph
provokes genuine energy and innovation. Watching the film as the autistic duo
stroll the streets of Sri Lanka
and hearing Antony’s
warble through the tenderly operatic melody of “Killingly Hard” is a joy to
hear, particularly after you’ve viewed a previous scene that explains its
title. A smoky “One Whole Hour” (sung duskily by Scarlett Johansson) a prickly “Low
Barefoot Tolerance” (thanks Stephen Stills) and dramatic turns by Carly Simon
and Bob Weir make this soundtrack a better place to live than most soundtracks
are at present.

 

No one phoned in a performance,
found a left-over song, or dabbled in dull remxes. The artists here certainly
saw the film and felt moved by Ralph’s words and melodies. In particular
Devendra Banhart, Vashti Bunyan, and Vincent Gallo – now-folk’s gentle oddities
– along with Ben Harper execute the film’s finest, rawest musical moments.
“I can’t speak but I need you to listen,” sings Harper on “More Like
You.”  Wretches & Jabberers demands that level of attention throughout
its viewing and listening.

 


MP3: New Jessica 6 w/Antony

Track from forthcoming
album features guest vocalist Antony.

 

By Blurt Staff

 

New York City’s
Jessica 6, we are told, “creates soul music in its purest form, no matter the
tempo.” That’s no hype: their debut album, See
The Light
, moves from pulsating electronic sheen to uncompromisingly rugged
R&B, and back again. It’s due June 7 from the Peacefrog label. Keep your
eyes peeled for more details…

 

Meanwhile, on new track “Prisoner Of Love” the band bridges
electro and freestyle – it features a soaring vocal melody that finds frontwoman
Nomi Ruiz and guest vocalist Antony
weaving their voices around each other to a stunning effect.

 


  

 

 

Read: The Indie Cred Test

Published by Chunklet Industries and compiled by such
Chunkleters as Guion Bentley,
Chad Baker,
Shane Gillis and Henry H. Owings, it’s a pretty lively, and funny – though mixed
– bag.

 

By Mary Leary

Something laugh-out-loud
funny pops up nearly every four or five sentences… or nine, or ten. And one
hopes that 196 pages of socio-cultural opinions, jibes, and data will whet the
appetites of sociologists, culture mavens, and the book’s apparent target
audience: new crops of “hipsters” anxious to see where and if they fit into the
world of coolness (along with aging hipsters who still need assurance). Note
that I chose the words, “may be of
interest.” For, despite the paragraphs and paragraphs of labor and love that
were apparently devoted to this tome by the team at Chunklet, The Indie Cred Test is a bit of a
clusterfuck. It may not even be sure what it wants to be when it grows up.

 

The first problem: The Indie Cred Test is too in love with
itself. Does anyone really want to read seven pages that are thick with
“preliminary missive”? Sure, it’s a chance for Chunkleters like Chad Baker to
get off some good lines, as in: “The struggle for acceptance while conveying
the idea that you have no desire whatsoever to be accepted can be quite the
tricky venture.” But the project’s overblown aspects may be related to the next
problem: Too many cooks without a butt-kicking, executive chef. A “preliminary
missive” that had been pared into half its size/the real meat would make folks
more likely to stick around for (and perhaps even get stoked about) the “test”
pages. And, while I’m on that “editor” thing, typos are a problem. While
squinting at some of the tiniest type I’ve ever strained to see, in the midst
of some really dense paragraphs, the last thing I want is to read, re-read,
then re-re-read a sentence.

 

How about the ideas around
which The Indie Cred Test was formed?
The news here isn’t that great, either. The dilemmas repeatedly advanced by the
editors – no “cool” left now that everything’s accessible via the Internet
(and, before that, MTV, VHI, and other outlets); no joy in Mudville now that
Converse sneakers are available in a rainbow of choices at Delias (and
“punk/heavy metal/rocker” clothes have been available even longer, at every
mall with a Hot Topic) – these are, at least in this corner, dead issues. Sure,
these shifts have wreaked some havoc, or at least confusion, on the self-images
of scores of hipsters.

 

The thing is, the more
mature, self-realized, or just plain real (something TICT rarely considers) of us have moved on. For it’s the essence of
a thing (the rhythms, inspirations, and sentiments driving sonic art from Delta
Blues through The Obits’ latest) that really matter, eh? And once you know who
you are, and that you love Delta Blues as much as, say, some dork-ass thing
like Doris Day singing “Que Sera, Sera” or Lesley Gore wailing “It’s My Party” (everyone
has a few guilty pleasures), it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks
about it. As far as I understand it, these are processes which have usually
resolved themselves by the time a “hipster” hits his or her mid-late thirties. They’ll
almost certainly have resolved themselves by the time a “hipster” reaches the
forties, when the realization that everyone dies – some sooner than later –
puts things in even clearer perspective, and it becomes apparent that what we do, along with the health of our hearts,
is essentially important – not that I’d
know anything about being over 40
.

 

Also, I get the sense that the
seeds of this project were germinated at some pretty good parties that probably
happened some time within the last 3-10 years, when the issues mentioned above
felt more fresh, bothersome, and in need of discussion.

 

But there really does need to
be some Indie-Cred advocating here. And that’s ‘cause, as with Mad Magazine and National Lampoon, I sometimes enjoy the sound of Chunklet Industry
writers’ voices as much as they do – the ratio’s not as high as with Mad or the Lampoon, but those were different, less insecure times –
ironically, this book’s point, or a major one. So while these writers are far
too often at pains to show it’s a joke, it’s not a joke, it’s sort of a joke,
it’s a laugh riot, it matters, and/or it doesn’t, they still seem to have gotten-and
generated-lots of jollies while coming up with endless possible answers to a
boatload of questions. In the “general profile” test section, for instance,
under the question, “How Many Pets Do You Have?” these are some of the choices:
“None (allergies),” “None (court order),” “1 to 3 (a few),” “3 to 5 (a
gaggle),” and “I have no human friends (a shitload).” Not only did those
choices feel pretty accurate, but I found one to be a major crack-up — okay,
it was “None (court order).”  Not funny
at all if that’s your next-door neighbor, or you, before you hit a Pet Collectors’
Anonymous meeting. But funny as hell if you’re just sitting there reading it.

 

While the book attempts to
include women, the choices (or guesses) about female hipsters are often so lame
that it’s pretty clear this book was mostly written for male hipsters, about
(and directed toward) male hipsters. Not
that there’s anything wrong with that.
I did mention Mad Magazine, and the Lampoon,
after all. No, there’s nothing to say this doesn’t belong at the top of the
heap of current bathroom reading material, not to mention a fabulous
conversation-starter for interminable subway and bus rides. Those are likely to
happen in the types of cities where people still argue about this sort of
thing… I guess. And you did know I was kidding when I mentioned Doris Day and
Lesley Gore, right? Of course you know those references were thrown out ironically… um, right?