With 1/1/15 mere days away, it’s time for Musoscribe’s annual best-of lists. These are – of course — wholly subjective, and reflect my tastes and interests. I viewed quite a few music-related DVDs this year, and while quite a few were excellent (and none truly awful), four stood out. As it happens, all four concern music of the past, but remain sturdily tooted in the present.
Ian Anderson – Thick as a Brick Live in Iceland
I’ve written a fair amount about Anderson and Jethro Tull on this blog, and have interacted with the man in two (#1 and #2) wide-ranging interviews. This DVD documents a night on his celebrated and successful 2012 tour. I’ve written about Anderson’s strengths and limitations; this tour (and by extension, this DVD/Blu-Ray) makes the best of the former and deal creatively with the latter. Recommended. (Watch for my review of the four-disc WarChild set, coming soon.)
Money for Nothing
This fast-past documentary is tailor-made for the ADD generation: thought it’s packed with images, ideas and information, nothing stays on the screen for more than a few seconds. As such, it suits its subject matter: the rise and fall of the music video as an artistic and commercial medium – exceedingly well.
I Dream of Wires
Speaking or rise and fall, this documentary – presented in a “hardcore edition” that appends the original film with hours of fascinating bonus material – charts the history of the analog modular synthesizer. The film had a premier at a recent Moogfest here in my hometown of Asheville; it received a warm welcome. If you’re at all interested in the electronic side of music where technology and creativity meet, you’ll enjoy this. Note that because of the breadth and depth of its subject, the DVD is best digested in small portions.
The Doors – R-Evolution
These Los Angeles-based legends might not be the first 60s rock act one thinks of when considering intelligent use of the visual medium, but since both Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek had backgrounds in film, it makes sense. A passel of rare video clips show the group wriggling free of convention and creating enduring audiovisual works of their own. The quality of the clips here is nothing short of amazing.
Stay tuned for best-of lists covering 2014′s music-related books; concerts; archival and compilation releases; and new music.
The New Trocaderos – Kick Your Ass EP
This EP is three songs, one featuring each member of this trio (joined by a keyboard player and drummer). “Real Gone Kitty” is rootsy rock (a la Jerry Lee Lewis) crossed with the Sex Pistols at their most tuneful (no, really). “Dream Girl” is sixties janglepop, sort of Jackie DeShannon meets Smithereens, with a delightfully Al Kooperish organ solo. “Brain Gone Dead” is Clash-style speedy punkpop, though the guitar and electric piano solos come from other places in rock history. Overall, it’s as varied as can be in only three tunes. That begs the question: musically, who are these guys?
Customarily, I take Thanksgiving Day off from posting to the blog (it’s one of very few days in which I do that). In fact I generally write the pieces days in advance, so trust me: I am taking today off with family. But for anyone who tunes in today or after, I present a few short-form album reviews. The theme here is new music that seeks to pay tribute to music and/or artists from the past. My (as always, wholly arbitrary) word limit for each of these is 150 words.
The Call – A Tribute to Michael Been
Santa Cruz, CA-based straight-ahead rock band The Call was one of those curious bands who got some critical cred, despite other styles having taken over as the rock du jour (See also: Grant Lee Buffalo.) No less a light than Todd Rundgren regularly covered “And the Walls Came Down” – The Call’s signature tune – in live shows, for whatever reason (he also did Red Rider‘s “Lunatic Fringe,” so, I dunno.) Leader Michael Been died of a heart attack in 2010; his son Robert (of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) collaborated with the surviving band members. This album (CD+DVD) is a live concert document of that one-off performance. The set is expertly played and sung, but the mix is lifeless: as a direct result, the whole affair fails to excite as it should. In this role, Been sounds unlike his BRMC material, favoring a vocal style closer to that of Bono.
Here Comes the Reign Again: The Second British Invasion
I’ve always held that a good song is a good song, and stands up to reinterpretation in many styles. Clearly those involved in this album agree: a collection of 27 songs – from what we could rightly call the MTV music era – recasts pop songs in a modern-rock/pop format. There are lots of winners here; Chris (Fountains of Wayne) Collingwood‘s cover of The Dream Academy‘s “Life in a Northern Town” opens the set in delightful fashion. Several of the artists manage to add heft to what otherwise might be thought of as lightweight piffle (“Relax”). A few covers hew too close to the originals to make the exercise worthwhile (“West End Girls,” “True”), but overall this is an excellent set from the same high-concept folks who brought you Drink a Toast to Innocence. People on Vacations‘ shimmering rethink of Bananarama‘s “Cruel Summer” is delightful. A few missteps, nonetheless essential.
Light My Fire: A Classic Rock Salute to The Doors
Overstuffing a project with talent – the kitchen sink approach – is no surefire recipe for success. So bringing together 45 male rock stars for a Doors tribute doesn’t mean the results will be any good. As with many of these things, it’s a Billy Sherwood project; Sherwood (who plays bass on nearly all tracks) likely laid down reference demos for everybody to follow for their flown-in parts. Lesser lights (the late Jimi Jamison) share the spotlight with some big names. Larry Coryell reminds us that he can rock. Lou Gramm shows us why he’s not fronting Foreigner any more. Leslie West solos all over “Roadhouse Blues,” wasting Brian Auger‘s presence. Yes‘ Tony Kaye and Steve Cropper? Okay: that’s an interesting pairing. Robert Gordon‘s vocals on “Touch Me” are positively gruesome. “Light My Fire” reunites Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman. The Jim Morrison-as-a-winged-Jesus cover art is good for a laugh.
Garden Music Project: Inspyred by Syd Barrett’s Artwork
This project differs significantly from the three discussed above. All of the sounds here are original music, inspired by the work of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett. But not by his music: no, the songs are a product of synesthesia (simply put: hearing colors) experienced viewing the paintings Barrett did in his cloistered, post-Floyd days. True, that concept reads a bit gimmicky, but the results are quite interesting. The four piece group that produced this work are European musicians following the lead of artist Adriana Rubio, who spearheaded and produced the session. The vocals (by guitarist Alexander Ditzend) are reminiscent of “Baby’s On Fire” era Brian Eno, and Stefan Ditzend‘s sax work recalls Psychedelic Furs circa Forever Now. Musically, the style does favor Syd-era Floyd, but then it would, wouldn’t it? It’s appealing, retro-minded modern psych, like Robyn Hitchcock used to do. Enjoyable even without knowing (or appreciating) the backstory.
Today’s set of five 100-word capsule reviews looks at recently-reissued, previously-unreleased, and/or compilation albums.
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini: Original Stereo Soundtrack
What we have here, in my estimation, is a fascinating and extremely well-written essay that happens to include a CD. How to Stuff a Wild Bikini is not anyone’s idea of great cinema, but the 1965 American International Pictures release has its period charms. This record – originally released on The Kingsmen‘s Wand label – is the only soundtrack LP from the string of Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello vehicles. Tom Pickles‘ liner notes put the soundtrack into perspective and context, explaining the musical contributions of The Kingsmen, Lu Ann Sims, Harvey Lembeck(!) and Mickey Rooney(!!). Skip the film, dig the soundtrack.
Spanky and Our Gang – The Complete Mercury Singles
Often thought of in the same category as The Mama’s and The Papa’s, this group, fronted by vocalist Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane, had deeper roots in a sort of Tin Pan Alley style. This collection presents 21 songs in their original punchier-than-stereo monaural mixes. The group’s hit “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” – a tune that rivals any single of the era for its transcendent mix of melodrama and shimmering vocal arrangement – is here, but many of the other tunes are nearly as good. Of special note is the group’s cover of The Beatles‘ “And Your Bird Can Sing.”
Billy Thermal – Billy Thermal
This band, led by Billy Steinberg, cut an LP in 1980 full of uptempo, nominally new-wave tunes. For various reasons, the disc went unreleased at the time, but the tapes served their purposes as songwriter’s demos: Steinberg’s “How Do I Make You” would be a hit for Pat BenatarLinda Ronstadt, and brought the man’s talents to the attention of The Bangles, Cyndi Lauper, Whitney Houston, Madonna, etc., all of whom would score hits with his songs. This collection includes bonus tracks, but the whole package – now rescued from obscurity by Omnivore Recordings – can be thought of as a bonus.
Stick Against Stone – Live: The Oregon Bootleg Tapes
At first hearing, this Pittsburgh group sounds like they’re from a provincial city (perhaps Leeds?) in working class, Thatcher-era England. Truth is, the era is the only detail that’s correct: this 1985 live set – long thought lost but recently discovered – sounds like a cross between Gang of Four, the two-tone ska movement, and Living Colour. Any written description of their complex sound will fall short, but I hear angular funk with plenty of assured polyrhythmic percussion, rubbery bass, and saxophone backing the Lene Lovich-sounding vocals of Sari Morninghawk. A modified lineup of the band (SASO) still performs today.
Buddy Rich – The Solos
The idea of a compilation of live concert drum solos might strike some as a surefire way to a headache, or at least folly. But when the drummer in question is the legendary Buddy Rich, the idea makes some kind of sense. Endlessly inventive and always swinging, the man with a bad haircut and a worse temper may have been sixty years old when these tapes were made, but what you’ll hear sounds like a man half his age. Power, finesse and humor can all be found in Rich’s solos. Background music for a cocktail party? Perhaps not. Essential? Indeed.
Those CDs continue to pile up here at Musoscribe World Headquarters. And even after I cull the unsolicited or semi-solicited ones that don’t make the cut for coverage, I still end up with more music than I can possibly cover in the depth of detail I’d like (and that they deserve). So occasionally – and more often of late – I schedule a group of hundred-word capsule reviews in which I endeavor to hit the high points. All of these are worth your time. Toady’s batch are all reissues of older releases, several of which are somewhat rare.
Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys – Albion Doo-Wah This little-known outfit was initially championed by no less a luminary than Jimi Hendrix, who produced their debut album. This, their second, was no more successful in the marketplace, but it remains an interesting listen. From the opening track, “Riff Raff” onward, the band leans in a city-headed-country rock direction, with the results sounding like some cross between The New York Rock and Roll Ensemble and The Band. Some of the truly deep-fried tracks like “Turkish Taffy” are only partially successful, but the genre hybridization of “Boonville Massacre” still sounds delightfully fresh and appealing forty years later.
Mason Williams – The Mason Williams Ear Show
Like the above title, this is the second of two Real Gone Music reissues by a mostly (and unjustly) forgotten artist. Released a mere nine months after The Mason Williams Phonograph Record, this album very much continues in a similar musical vein (how could it not?). For many artists, such a rush-release schedule wold result in an album full of half-baked, tossed-off tunes, but it would appear that Williams was a prolific composer of quality material. Like the last record, this one is full of eclectic mainstream pop Americana (though in its formal sense rather than its 21st century one).
Surf Punks – Locals Only
Neither the best nor the worst of its kind, this album is a reasonably successful amalgam of comedy rock and surf music. The titles tell you the story: “No Fat Chicks,” “Born to Surf,” “Spoiled Brats from Malibu.” It’s fun enough, and with the principals’ connection to Captain and Tennille (drummer/composer/producer) Dennis Dragon is the brother of “Captain” Daryl Dragon) one can be all but certain that there’s a commercial appeal to these bratty tracks. And there is; it’s more revved-up garage rock (with party trappings) than anything approaching punk. A welcome dose of 80s nostalgia.
The Alabama Stare Troupers – Road Show
A curio from the anything-goes early 1970s. An all-star (sic) lineup takes to the road – presaging Bob Dylan‘s Rolling Thunder Revue – and one show is documented as a tour souvenir. Don Nix (his Living by the Days was also reissued) rounded up country bluesman Furry Lewis and vocalist Jeanie Green plus assorted musicians and a choir. The result 2LP didn’t sell like hotcakes. But Furry Lewis – who gets half of the first CD – is in fine form, and the full-band tracks – sounding very much like The Band with a choir – are soulful and enjoyable.
The Lords of the New Church – Is Nothing Sacred?
Give this CD five seconds of your time, and you’ll say “1983.” But “Dance With Me” – the most well-known track from the Gothic rock band led by former Dead Boys singer/guitarist Stiv Bators – still sounds great. Sure, it’s more than a little reminiscent of Duran Duran, The Church and Billy Idol, but this foursome – with punk veterans from The Damned, Sham 69 and The Barracudas – earned their punk/new wave cred honestly. Two other Lords studio albums – their 1982 debut (their best) and 1984′s The Method to Our Madness – have also gotten reissue.
While I choose to believe that – on some exceedingly modest level – I have reasonably good critical sense of measure where music is concerned, I have no illusions about my skills on the commercial side of things: my commercial instincts are close to nil. Were it up to me, we’d all live in a world in which Marshall Crenshaw would sell a million records each time out. Alas, such a world does not exist. So while I am pretty good at pegging the inverse – a sort of, “That’s so terrible it’ll probably be a hit,” – few would ever look to me to predict the success of an up-and-coming recording artist.
A case in point is kiwi pop. As exemplified by the output of New Zealand-based Flying Nun Records, that subgenre was, I was all but certain, destined to be the Next Big Thing in the 1980s. With excellent acts on their roster – a list that included The Clean, The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, and Tall Dwarfs, the tiny label from the tiny country was responsible for some of the era’s most engaging examples of what we then called New Wave.
You know how things turned out. True, Split Enz (and later Crowded House) would enjoy major and well-deserved success across the globe (though decidedly less success in the USA), but as far as New Zealand-based pop culture, well, let’s just say that a bunch of hairy little Hobbits pretty well cornered the market.
Still, that music was pretty fine. And many artists from that classic era remain active to this day. Chris Knox (formerly of Tall Dwarfs) has remained quite busy, even after suffering a stroke in 2009. But perhaps the finest of all the bands of the era – right up there with my beloved Enz – were and are The Chills. Their ironically-yet-aptly-titled 1990 single “Heavenly Pop Hit” (#2 NZ, #92 UK, non-charting in the USA) captures the spirit of the era, all chiming and shimmering guitars and catchy choruses. A timeless tune, it’s the one song that people in the northern hemisphere know by the band, if they know one at all.
The Chills remain very much active. Since 1980 and with precious few breaks, Martin Phillipps and his rotating lineup of band mates have turned out pop of the finest order. And on their latest, the live Somewhere Beautiful, The Chills serve up a sort of greatest hits live set for the ages.
Released on CD and in a 3LP vinyl configuration, Somewhere Beautiful charts the band’s history in a non-chronological fashion. The band surveys music from their four albums, delivering the tunes in muscular yet tuneful fashion.
The editing on the album – at least on the promotional CD which I had for review – is a bit odd. While the songs were all cut live at a recent gig, the applause is mostly cut out, and each track fades at its end, like on a traditional studio album. But the performances remain first-rate. There’s a certain life breathed into the live readings of tunes like “I Love My Leather Jacket” that makes them essential companions to their studio counterparts.
The career overview nature of Somewhere Beautiful makes the album a good entry point for newcomers to The Chills catalog, and the immediacy and newness of it all makes it an essential purchase for the long since converted. In short, a winner.
On Saturday — the second of the festival’s three nights — I took in two shows of note. I had tentative plans to check out some other sets, but these two were so compelling, I stayed for the entirety of the performances.
Music fans of a certain age – and perhaps other, younger ones – will recall the left-field Top 40 hit of 1980, Gary Numan’s “Cars.” With its gurgling and keening synths, its stiff beat, and its cold, dispassionate lead vocal, the tune (from his second LP, 1979′s The Pleasure Principle) was quite unlike most of what was played on pop radio, then as now. And while Numan had a back catalog even at that point (as member of the even lesser-known Tubeway Army), the unlikely success of “Cars” would yield the dubious dividend of labeling Numan as that most dreaded of all things, the one-hit wonder.
Clearly Numan himself never got a memo to that effect. Likely he never had major commercial breakthroughs as part of his plan anyway; his musical approach was too unique for such a thing. Instead, he soldiered on, and unlike other lesser-talented denizens of the new wave era, he never went away. Between 1980 and 2013, he’s released no fewer than thirty(!) albums.
And while – as is to be expected with a catalog so deep – those albums vary in quality, and none were major chart smashes, Numan has charted his singular musical path, proving that while “Cars” may have been a fluke, he’s no such thing.
Numan’s latest album is 2013′s Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind), and it’s among his finest efforts. While detractors in the old days compared him to “Heroes”-era David Bowie, Gary Numan has never been about aping the style of others. And to those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, those who might have expected him to glide onto a stage filled with synthesizers and drum machines, Numan provided a welcome shock to the system.
Ably backed by a standard – yet industrial(!) strength – rock lineup (two guitars, bass, drums, and two keyboardists), Numan held the audience at Asheville’s Civic Center transfixed. Rocking much harder than anyone could have expected, he moved about the stage ominously yet without artifice; though he occasionally played bits of keyboard (and did a thing or two with an electric guitar), his role was largely to sing the songs and draw all of the attention. This he did well, performing several songs from the new album, plus a scattering of older material, stylistically updated just enough to blow away any nostalgia.
That said, the room came even more alive when the band launched into “Cars.” A group of concertgoers dressed as garden gnomes initiated a conga line through the crowd; their internally-lit pointy caps danced through the packed floor. This was perhaps the only time during which Numan and band commanded less than full attention, and they seemed pleased enough to continue.
Numan didn’t speak to the audience once during his set, preferring to let his music be the medium, and after a quick bow and wave he was gone. But those who witnessed the set – a rarity in the southeastern USA – won’t soon forget it.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
If Gary Numan wasn’t thrillingly downbeat enough for you, all you needed to do was stick around while the stage crews set up for the next act. Unlike nearly anything else in rock – and they’re not really rock at all, come to think of it – Canadian collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor can best be described as detached.
It’s not fair to judge them by the standards generally applied to rock acts; they don’t speak to the audience. There weren’t even microphones placed onstage in case one of the nine or so players wished to toss out a spontaneous “Hello, Asheville!” But then that wasn’t likely to have happened anyway. With a semicircle configuration of amplifiers – lots of ‘em – and chairs and stools for the players, it was clear from the outset that this would not be a set filled with visual pyrotechnics from the musicians.
No, as they began their set – initially just a violinist and upright bassist – their slowly-building compositions groaned into being, like an ocean liner being launched into the sea for its maiden voyage. The men and women of GY!BE use volume and dynamics as their tools rather than beat and melody. You won’t come away from a GY!BE show humming their tunes, nor is that the band’s goal. Instead they conjure a set of emotions (perhaps unique to each audience member) that includes horror, dread, joy, exhilaration.
Some players were seated on the floor, working pedals. Some were in chairs. They occasionally seemed to communicate among themselves via nods (or rare whispers) but for the most part, they wordlessly delivered their compositions, shrouded in darkness. Above them, a large screen depicted strange, disorienting and lo-fi images, but these were clearly carefully chosen to match the sounds that GY!BE were making onstage.
When they finished, they left the stage as they had entered it – one by one – and left their instruments droning and groaning behind them. As modern chamber music with more than a hint of influence from no-wave composer Glenn Branca, it was thrilling in its own way, and the audience’s reaction was appreciative yet muted. Anything else would have been incongruous.
When endeavoring to judge the merits of a soundtrack album, there’s always the quandary of what measure to use. Should one judge it on the merits, strictly as a thematic collection of songs? Or measure it as an audio companion to the film?
With regard to CBGB: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, I’m going with the former. There are two reasons for this. The first is practical: I haven’t seen the film yet (it premieres in New York City tonight). The second is more subjective: I like the disc a lot, but suspect it works far better viewed as a collection than as an adjunct to the film.
Twenty songs on a single disc means that CBGB gives good value for the money. And the selections are – almost without fail – uniformly excellent, both thematically and just-plain musically. Now, some of the artists on this set never got anywhere near the famed Bowery club, and if they did, it wouldn’t have been called CBGB then, anyway. Since the club opened in 1973, The Count Five (responsible ofr the classic nugget “Psychotic Reaction”), the (original) Stooges (1969′s sonic barbed wire of “I Wanna Be Your Dog”), and The Velvet Underground (“I Can’t Stand It”) all folded too soon to experience the glories of the club’s notoriously filthy restroom. But the aesthetic of all thee bands – in turns, garagepunkpsych, dark proto-alternarock and anarchic punk – is wholly in line with the outsider sensibilities the club engendered.
CBGB plays much like the various entries in Rhino’s 1990s DIY series, most notably Blank Generation: The New York Scene (1975-78). Surveying as it does a host of NYC bands (and/or bands associated with the city’s nascent punk/new wave scene), CBGB serves as a tidy sampler of the various styles of music showcased at the club. And drawing from the original versions means that listeners aren’t subject to something odd and potentially displeasing, like, say Stana Katic (who’s otherwise quite lovely) singing in Genya Ravan‘s stead. (Apologies to Val Kilmer).
There are, natually some serious omissions. No New York Dolls? How did that happen? (It’s probably own to licensing.) No Suicide? That one’s a little tougher to figure. And what exactly The Police (“Roxanne”) are doing here besides adding some non-punk hit value is also a tough question to answer (Joan Jett might have made a bit more sense).
But such arguments are mere quibbling. Taken as a bunch of songs, CBGB is a fun, nostalgic listen. No, MC5 don’t really fit in here – they rocked way too hard; only Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer” comes close to that level of intensity here – but there’s rarely a time when “Kick Out the Jams” isn’t welcome. Also welcome is Johnny Thunder and the Heartbreakers‘ reading of “California Sun,” one of the lesser-heard tracks on this set. At just a shade over an hour, you’ll likely be surprised how quickly it blows by.
A pair of modern-day tracks are admittedly relevant yet odd. The production values on a 2013 re-recording of Blondie‘s “Sunday Girl” feel a little too modern to fit seamlessly, though Debbie Harry‘s voice seems more intact that you might’ve guessed. And CBGB club owner Hilly Kristal gets the last word with a ditty called “Birds and the Bees,” recorded way back in…2005. As far as his singing and songwriting abilities, let’s just say that Kristal was an important club owner. On the upside, weighing Kristal’s presence reminds us that Joey Ramone (“I Get Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Back Up)”) was a better singer than he often got credit for.
With those DIY discs long out of print, CBGB: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is a concise sampler of the late 70s NYC musical scene., and for that alone it’s worth picking up.
Doubtless you’ve heard the old saying, “If you remember the 60s, you weren’t there.” Well, for whatever reason – perhaps because it didn’t host the ascendancy of the baby boom during its decade – nobody says anything similar about the 1980s. I blame it on the fact that in the 60s, there were so many baby boomers that they (okay, we) were the majority in those days, so to some degree boomers got to write the history. By the 80s, the American population was starting to age, and the country was led (after a fashion) by an old, out-of-touch Hollywood actor whose idea of pop culture was Bob Hope and Yakov Smirnoff.
Anyway, plenty of influential pop culture stuff took place in the 80s. Some of it has worn well (though as I write this I’m hard-pressed to think of an example) and some of it – poofy hair, shoulder pads – not so much.
As far as music, “new wave” took hold over punk (which never really had a chance in the marketplace, and commercial success was antithetical to its very concept), and the Age of Synthesizers was upon us. True, synths had been around and in practical use for more than a decade, but the modular Moogs and ARPs were pretty well the domain of fusion acts and/or those with especially impressive chops or forward-looking technological approaches. Edgar Winter, Gary Wright, George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Jan Hammer, Keith Emerson…all artists most closely associated with the 1970s and the relatively bulky synthesizers of that decade.
But by the dawn of the 1980s, technology had developed to the point at which these machines were hacked down to a manageable size. Moreover, they were built using more stable circuitry, meaning that they did fancy things like stay in tune through a whole song. And with the advent of presets, a musician didn’t always have to have fifteen keyboards onstage; s/he could change the settings between numbers.
Some artists took full advantage of these innovations, and crafted music built around the synthetic textures. The best of these did something even more impressive: they introduced emotion and expression into the playing of these cold, unforgiving beasts; the results could be icily distant, melancholy, exciting, foreboding…the full range of human emotion could be expressed through them. If, that is, the artists had the capacity to write and arrange such music. But synths cut both ways: in the hands of lesser talents, the results could be bloodless, robotic. The ascendancy of the dreaded sequencer meant that a performer onstage could pre-program a melody, and when the song started, press a button and walk offstage (trust me: I did this in 1982).
Still, Gary Numan, The Human League, Depeche Mode…all of these and others were successful to varying measure at achieving the goal of bridging the gap between technology and emotion.
Like all trends, the Age of the Synthesizer gave way to other fashions, but as a component of rock and pop, the synthesizer never went away. Sampled sounds meant that now keyboard players could reproduce the sounds of other instruments onstage: now complicated arrangements that were previously studio-only could be played live. Yet as sampling took hold, the more “synthy” sounds fell out of favor; when they were sparingly used, it was often as a cursory nod to the past.
Which – with a few leaps convenient to this narrative – brings us to 2013. Superhumanoids are decidedly not old enough to remember the 80s, except perhaps as youngsters. The Los Angeles based group combines an unabashed fondness for those early-to-mid 80s synth tones with a focus on trance-y, dance-y pop. They combine the best of those two styles into something that’s clearly indebted to the past, yet firmly footed in the present.
Now, finding out much about this trio (plus a live drummer onstage) requires a measure of effort; their web site tells you nothing about them other than offering tour dates, video clips and links to Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud and such. Their Facebook page only tells you their first names. The point, I think, is to let the music do the talking. Onstage Max St. John handles keyboards, Cameron Parkins plays electric guitar, and Sarah Chernoff takes most of the lead vocals plus more synthesizers. Occasional lead vocalist (and frequent harmony vocalist) Parkins cuts an unlikely figure for a band so steeped in 80s synth culture; his close-cropped hair and longish beard give him a look more common to current indie and/or Americana bands. But his Fender Telecaster (with whammy) and arsenal of pedals plant him firmly in rock territory. That said, Parkins’ guitar work is more often given to providing texture – something that the two synth players are simultaneously delivering in spades – rather than laying down blistering lead solos.
The sound coming form the trio-plus drummer (and said drummer adds a lot in the way of moving Superhumanoids away from the cold end of the 80s synth spectrum) feels more like one big electronic organism (so to speak) than a collective of musicians; thanks in part to the dark draperies hiding the keyboards (and the elevated stage) the audience at Asheville’s Orange Peel didn’t see anything along the lines of fleet-fingered keyboard soloing. Combined with Parson’s atmospheric approach, it was near impossible to tell who onstage was making what sound.
And, one suspects, that’s just how Superhumanoids like it. While they performed songs from their debut album Exhibitionists, they didn’t overtly interact with the audience in any over way, beyond a few pleasantries and heartfelt thanks. They were there to play their songs. Chernoff’s clear vocals were slightly lost among the high-volume bass bombs (for which she may or may not have been responsible; see above); listeners unfamiliar with the lyrics of ear candy like “Too Young For Love” would have to be content to enjoy her lead vocal as another textural element along with the even-more-80sish-than-usual 80s synth sounds. Whether or not the crowd was familiar with “So Strange” will remain unknown; what’s clear is that they dug its infectious, upbeat melody as delivered this night.
And the audience – in attendance to see the night’s headliner, the always reliable Mayer Hawthorne – reacted enthusiastically. Asheville audiences have a well-deserved reputation for giving love to opening acts, but the reaction this night went well beyond any polite applause. Should Superhumanoids follow up with another album and a headlining tour, they will likely be well received in Asheville.
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