Thursday, February 28, 2008

KQED Music: British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?

Listening to British Sea Power's new album Do You Like Rock Music? is a frustrating experience. Not because it's rubbish (it's actually very good, and the band's best yet) but because it gives the impression it would sound even better live.

For all the great technological advances, leaps, and bounds currently shaking the music industry, the live experience has remained important and popular. Because, no matter how clever widgets such as MP3s and internet streaming are, the best way to really rate an artist is still to see them in the flesh.

For example, I'm much more likely to feel favourably towards a band I've seen rearrange the essential matter of the universe on stage, but who can't quite bottle that alchemy on record, than one who produces a breathtaking album they can't reproduce live.

This isn't an absolute rule, of course, particularly as some types of music are much easier to play live than others. However, seeing a band live is also important as it allows me to gauge one of the essential measures of whether I truly love any particular act: how seriously they take themselves.

Consider the example of my brief, starcrossed love affair with the British dance act Faithless. When I first heard them, I thought they were AWESOME. They took all the cheesiest, silliest, most overblown bits of modern dance music, and combined them into a fantastic festival of fromage-flavored fun. It was hands-in-the-air silly, and I loved it.

That was, until I saw them live. As soon as they started playing, I came to a horrifying realization: This wasn't a knowing, clever pastiche. They actually meant it. Not only that, but they were incredibly, deadly serious. Rarely have I seen a more joyless band on stage, before or since.

English eccentrics British Sea Power could so easily have fallen into a similar pothole. Many of their anthemic indie peers certainly seem to have (consider the dreary dirges of Embrace, Snow Patrol, and so on). Instead, BSP produce rousing music that comes armed with a much-needed injection of levity.

Famous for playing on stages festooned with foliage and dressing like the paramilitary wing of the Boy Scout movement circa 1940, their new album contains many signs that they are fully aware of life's absurdities. For example, "Waving Flags" is a song about immigration with an unlikely focus: "You are astronomical / fans of alcohol / so welcome in." Meanwhile, "Atom" doesn't just mention the phrase "caveat emptor" but makes it the wickedly catchy chorus of a song about, er, nuclear physics. And the chant of "easy, easy" in "No Lucifer" is in homage to a hero of British Wrestling.

The paradox in this case is that, with such firmly frivolous credentials on record, the onus is going to be on BSP to prove they can seriously rock live. And there's only one way to find THAT out...

British Sea Power play Bottom of the Hill as part of Noise Pop on March 1, 2008. Tickets are available at the door only. 'Do You Like Rock Music?' is out now on Rough Trade/World's Fair.

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

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

KQED Music: American Music Club - The Golden Age

If everything was right with the world, then the new American Music Club album would be an absolute stinker.

Consider the evidence: The band only recently reformed after a decade-long break. And, as if having the "reunion" tag hanging over them wasn't bad enough, three members of the band have since left, leaving only singer Mark Eitzel and guitarist Vudi to record and tour a new album with a replacement rhythm section. Not only that, but the record they have finally come up with has a song about the World Trade Center on it. Uh-oh.

Perhaps most troubling of all is the apparent change in Mark Eitzel's mental state over the past few years. He has always been the band's artistic focal point and, after many years of being a reluctant, awkward, and famously depressed poster boy for wretchedly miserable music fans the world over, these days Eitzel seems much happier and more comfortable in himself: almost cheerful, in fact. Could things get any worse?

Let's face it: if there's one thing -- ONE thing -- we all know to be absolutely true about the world of modern music, it's that artists make better records when they are battling the demons of depression and dependancy. As Marvin Gaye said "great artists suffer for the people" and, as Eitzel's back catalog proves, he has suffered more than most.

Amazingly, despite all of this, and perhaps even because of a lot of it, The Golden Age is a genuine triumph. Eitzel's new-found contentment may rob the new album of some of the blacker, bleaker extremes of AMC records past, but this is no bad thing. It means instead that the songs are now better balanced, with more space for hope, humor, and redemption.

The album's sound is also more mellow, making full use of excellent back-up harmonies from new recruits Sean Hoffman on bass and drummer Steve Didelot. The opening and closing songs "All My Love" and "The Grand Duchess of San Francisco" have a beautifully muted delicacy, and there are moments in between that could almost be described as easy listening. Just like Nick Cave could make a credible metamorphosis from hardcore punk to crooning lounge lizard precisely because of, rather than in spite of, his Birthday Party past, so Eitzel has made his move towards the middle of the road with authority after a turbulent life spent on the fringes. This is the cathartic sound of the calm after the storm.

Not that it is all light and grace. Even in the album's mellowest moments, Vudi's guitar carries the threat of something darker, always hinting at distortion and feedback despite (mostly) holding it in check. And the demons of Eitzel's past are rarely far away either, as lines such as the repeating "no one here is going to save you" chorus from "The Decibels and the Little Pills" remind us.

And, yes, there really is a song about the World Trade Center. "The Windows on the World" is about a party in the restaurant that once topped the North Tower, which Eitzel was taken to by a friend. But gone are the overt politics and righteous anger of 2004's comeback album Love Songs For Patriots when, for example, Uncle Sam was recast as a desperate male stripper in "Patriot's Heart." Instead, this song is not only quietly poignant, but also funny: "I said to Kit, look at me, look at me, I'm on top of the First World with a free beer / He said, don't worry my dear, they'll let any trash in here."

In yet another apparent contradiction, the album also contains two songs about San Francisco, despite the fact that the band, if not Eitzel himself, is now based in Los Angeles. But the band's roots will always lie in the Bay Area and, in particular, "All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco" captures the city's charms in a way that ought to banish all mention of lost hearts and hair-based flora forever.

The fact that it probably won't, shouldn't distract us from how much this album achieves, and how many important lessons it teaches in the process. Reunions are OK. Change is good. Happy and sad aren't mutually exclusive. And, everything being right with the world isn't necessarily a good thing.

'The Golden Age' is released February 19, 2008 on Merge Records. American Music Club begin their US tour at The Independent in San Francisco on April 2, 2008.

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