Tuesday, October 16, 2007

KQED Music: Tokyo Police Club

Meet the Geek Squad.

Tokyo Police Club, who play San Francisco on October 25, 2007 are not only awesome live, they are also wonderfully breathless on stage, like a bunch of hopelessly gawky teenagers. Songs burst out like short rushes of adrenaline, as if to cover up the band's shy-eyed embarrassment.

Such awkwardness seems to be a hugely undervalued quality these days. Most new acts, even those at the supposedly indie end of the music machine, seem to emerge pumped with confidence, already groomed by video stylists and brand consultants to become spotless, chart-conquering gods.

But I just don't buy it. I certainly don't consider myself to be anything other than a geek, after all. So, watching Toronto's Tokyo Police Club at The Independent back in July, I realized that it wasn't just their spikey, clever power pop that I loved (although, obviously, I did); I had also fallen for their scratchy-edged dorkiness.

They're like the band I always wanted The Strokes to be. Sure, I loved The Strokes' early singles, but I never really consummated my relationship with them. Why? Because they were just too slick and knowing, all rich parents, Swiss finishing schools, cool cliques, and uber-hip New York fashion labels. Ugh. Give me a bunch of awkward losers with wan skin and bottle-bottom glasses any day: ie, Tokyo Police Club.

And I don't mean that they have adopted a hipster-style token nerdiness like so many other indie bands. They have a genuine, impossible-to-hide discomfort with being in the spotlight and, in the shape of Graham Wright (keyboards/screaming), a spit in your face, sinew-straining misfit of the finest kind.

Because, while the others try to hide their social discomforts behind their fringes, Wright wears his on his sleeve. He writhes, hunched, with his nose just an inch from his keyboard (which he may or may not have built himself from a kit), before periodically lunging forward to bellow into his microphone with a rasping yell that would make throat doctors weep. He even wears thick-rimmed glasses, which has been the proud badge of musical losers made good from Graham Coxon all the way back to Buddy Holly.

Needless to say, they sound spectacular. Masters of the short-sharp-shock school of rock, their songs mostly sprint along for just two minutes each, and never, ever stray past the three-minute mark. Their only album release to date, A Lesson In Crime, is clipped to the point of abruptness, measuring just 17 minutes long by seven songs wide.

Tokyo Police Club speak to the geek in me, and in all of us. When Wright holds up his camera to take a picture of the crowd at the start and end of every gig they play, I suddenly feel prouder of my drawer filled with old gig ticket stubs, and less ashamed about dancing along to his band's songs like an over-excited dog with three legs. Which can only be a good thing.

Tokyo Police Club play Popscene at 330 Ritch Street on October 25, 2007. Doors open at 9pm, and there are no advance sales. Their EP "Smith" is due out November 6 on Paper Bag Records, and a new album is expected to follow early in 2008.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

KQED Music: Adele's Cute Accent

What is it about a voice? I've long since lost count of the otherwise talented bands I've hated, or mediocre acts I've loved, based solely on their singers. And it's the one aspect of musical taste that seems least universal or easy to predict in others. How often have you recommended a CD to someone, only for it to be returned with a comment like "the music's fine, but I can't stand that goddamn yowling/yodelling/yelping"?

Occasionally, however, we'll hear a voice that grabs us by the tender parts and just won't let go. This is what happened to me when I first heard the song "Hometown Glory" by Adele Adkins, a 19-year-old singer from south London, a few weeks ago. I was probably in a slightly maudlin mood that day anyway, but I swear her voice crept up on me like some emotional ninja, laying me out with a single swift punch that I never even saw coming.

Already being tipped to "do an Amy Winehouse" -- presumably in the pop charts rather than in pub toilets -- she really isn't the sort of mainstream-success-bound singer I normally go for, so I've been trying to work out why I like her so much ever since. The answer may lie in the fact that a healthy liver isn't the only thing Adele has that her fellow-Londoner Amy doesn't: she also has her own accent.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the vast majority of singers who sing in English do so with an American accent, regardless of where they are from. I'm not even sure how many people in the States are aware of this, partly because my informal polls have proved inconclusive, but mostly because it isn't something that's often commented on, either here or in the rest of the world. It's like some huge, multinational open fly everyone is aware of but nobody wants to be the first to mention.

Of course, the reason for this uniformity of enunciation is crystal clear. From jazz, through rock'n'roll, to hip-hop, almost every seismic shift in popular music felt around the globe has had its epicenter in America. Sure, the rest of the world has had its moments, but even the Beatles started out wanting to sound like Chuck Berry and Little Richard.

Which is why Amy Winehouse's put-on transatlantic drawl is barely noticed. But Adele, who coincidentally attended the same school for performing arts as the redoubtable Ms. Winehouse, has a singing voice that's unmistakably south London. Her inflections give a rather wonderful twang to what may otherwise have been just another pretty voice.

Sure, she isn't the first to sing a bit Cockney: The Streets, Lily Allen and even Blur spring to mind. But none of them can sing like Adele can, so perhaps you should prepare to lose your heart to a little bit of England.

Adele's debut single "Hometown Glory" will be released in the UK on October 22 as a limited-edition 7-inch single on Jamie T's Pacemaker Recordings label. You can hear it now on her MySpace page, and her debut album is due early in 2008.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

KQED Music: Don't Look Back

A friend of mine once told me his theory that everyone's favorite album is one released in the same year they start college. It's a flawed proposition, not least because we don't necessarily hear albums for the first time in the same year they are released (nor does everyone go to college, obviously), but the guiding principle behind it is surprisingly accurate.

For example, most of my all-time favorite bands are ones I was listening to when I was around 18 years old: Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Pavement. So it's probably no coincidence that now they are all hitting the nostalgia market at around the same time too.

While the emotional scars caused by seeing one of the Velvet Underground's unfortunate European dates in 1993 have largely healed for me, I still have mixed feelings about reunion tours. One constant is that my levels of enthusiasm seem to depend largely on whether or not I saw the band in question the first time round.

For example, I was thrilled to finally get the chance to see the Pixies in 2004, as I had missed my one previous chance way back in 1991 (although in the end I didn't miss much in Glasgow that night as part of the stage collapsed just a few minutes into the gig: you can read more here).

In contrast, I'm much less enthusiastic about seeing The Jesus and Mary Chain when they play San Francisco next month (they appear at the Fillmore on October 26 and 27, 2007), or about the rumors that My Bloody Valentine might reform for next year's Coachella. I saw both bands play on the same bill of the Lollapallooza-inspired "Rollercoaster" tour in 1992, and it was almost certainly the greatest concert I've ever been to.

JAMC had almost finished their opening song before I even realized which one they were playing through the dense torrent of feedback (it was "Sidewalking," for the record). And I can't think of anything as brutal, beautiful or astonishing as hearing My Bloody Valentine play "You Made Me Realise" live, complete with its earth-shaking "apocalypse" interlude (Mike McGonigal devotes a whole chapter to this experience in his book on the band's defining album Loveless).

Also appearing were fellow feedback fans Dinosaur Jr. whose albums Bug and Fossils backed JAMC's Barbed Wire Kisses on a 90-minute cassette that changed my life (and of course they've also recently reformed their classic line-up and played San Francisco's Mezzanine on September 9), plus some perky young indie pop upstarts called Blur, whose music career I confidently predicted would soon disappear without a trace. Oops.

To what extent my memory of that night has been colored by 15 years of sepia-tinted reminiscing is kind of beside the point. What's important is that there is little chance now either the Mary Chain or MBV could live up to what I remember.

One sentimental exercise I am a fan of is bands playing one of their old albums in its entirety, as yet another act I was heavily into as a teenager, Sonic Youth, did in Berkeley this year to promote the "deluxe" reissue of Daydream Nation. The organizers of that gig curate a series of similar concerts every year, mostly in London but also here in the States, called Don't Look Back. The results are unashamedly nostalgic but also a little new; few bands ever play a whole album live and in order, after all.

It's also fun to speculate on which albums you would or wouldn't want to be included, which brings me to the subject that inspired this whole post: the fact that just a few days after I left my old home in the U.K. earlier this year, it was announced that this year's Don't Look Back program includes the Cowboy Junkies playing their 1987 album The Trinity Session at London's Royal Albert Hall on October 10, 2007.

This is the one album I have listened to more than any other in my life, and it has become the musical equivalent of comfort food or a favorite sweater for me: soft, warm and inviting. And it's the one album I'd love to see performed live more than any other.

Ah well, maybe they'll get together to do it again in another 20 years' time.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.