Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Fab Five Live

Duran Duran
Thanks to a very lucky break at work last week (a regular customer of ours just strolled on in to the store and dropped off a pair of concert tickets, saying that he couldn't make it to the show and he didn't want anything for them) , Sarah and I headed downtown last night and took in the Duran Duran concert at the The Bert L. and Iris Wolstein (formerly CSU) Convocation Center. It was our first show in nearly two and a half years (the last being none other than Peter Gabriel), and it turned into a pretty enjoyable night out, all things considered.

Since I've seen Duran Duran in their Medazzaland incarnation back in 1997, and I was less-than-thrilled with their reunion album Astronaut, I was actually more psyched to take in the night's opening band, VHS Or Beta. As openers, they were a lot of fun to listen to, but not the most exciting live act in the world to watch. Happily, VHS Or Beta made up for their lack of stage presence with a half hour of snappy, Cure-by-way-of-Daft Punk disco-rock, which seemed to catch the fancy of quite a few in the audience. It also didn't hurt that Duran Duran were kind enough to allow their guests the use of their Vari-Lite rig, so at least a shifting palette of greens, purples and yellows kept the eyes busy while VHS Or Beta laid down the robogrooves.

You'd have thought that The Beatles themselves were in the house judging by the deafening level of screams that greeted the "classic lineup" of Duran Duran when they took to the stage and kicked into "Sunrise" (their comeback single and hands down the best track on Astronaut). Following that quickly with "Hungry Like The Wolf" and assorted other classic hits and new songs, Duran Duran put on a pretty damn good show - even better than when I'd seen them before ... though I suppose for a face value of $56 a (decent, but not amazing) seat, the crowd wouldn't have been very happy with anything less. They boys have certainly been taking care of themselves as well as most of them looked to be in dependably pretty fighting form, save perhaps for Andy Taylor's cowboy/Keith Richards getup. Hell, even Simon LeBon's famously-limited voice sounded pretty strong.

About four or five songs in, once my ears accustomed to the frankly rotten sound mix (keyboardist Nick Rhodes was almost completely drowned out whenever the others were playing), the show really started to wear my defenses down. The set list was well paced, with some rather surprising selections performed ("Hold Back The Rain" and "Careless Memories") in lieu of some of the expected bigger hits ("The Reflex" "I Don't Want Your Love" and "Come Undone"). I even have to admit that the band flogged Astronaut pretty effectively onstage, and the new songs certainly seemed to pick up some kick from the live setting (looks like I'll have to give the album a second shot and see what sticks this time).

Hands down, the high point of the show was the midsection at which time the boys started knocking 'em out of the park one after the other. Following the surprise of hearing Rhodes play the Eastern-flavored instrumental "Tiger Tiger" while the rest of the band slinked offstage for a quick breather, I was knocked sideways by a strong rendition of "The Chauffeur" (my favorite song to this day from Rio). From there it was onto an always-lovely "Ordinary World" and then a beautiful rendition of "Save A Prayer" while digital snow fell on the screens suspended behind the stage. Ah, bliss.

From there on, it was nearly all the tried and true crowd pleasers, as the band dragged out "Is There Something I Should Know," "Girls On Film," the traditional show-closer "Rio," "Notorious" and "The Wild Boys" (the last two are almost wincingly silly songs, granted, but the crowd absolutely ate them up).

So, a surprisingly entertaining show overall (if nothing else it made me drag out some old Duran faves from the CD shelf - what more can you ask of a show than that anymore?) and a nice night out on what almost felt like the first real spring day of the year. Here's hoping that this same regular stops by the store again if he can't make the U2 show in December...

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Heaven 17

Heaven 17
When keyboardists Ian Craig-Marsh and Martyn Ware departed from The Human League in 1980, the success of vocalist (and sole remaining member) Philip Oakey's reconsitutued lineup a year later with the international smash Dare made many people wonder if the two ex-computer operators had just made a terribly wrong-headed career move. However, Marsh and Ware wouldn't stay out of the spotlight for long.

The pair's first move was the creation of faceless ongoing production concept a la Alan Parsons under the name British Electric Foundation. A couple of heavily synthesizer-based instrumental works consisting largely of cover songs were released by BEF over the next year or so (including the exceptional Music For Listening EP and the full-length Music Of Quality And Distinction). While some of BEF's tracks were intriguing, busily-programmed instrumental workouts, others featured guest artists handling the vocal chores, including Tina Turner, who would soon find her career revitalized as a result of BEF's assistance on her remake of "Ball Of Confusion" (the success of which set up her monster comeback in 1984 with Private Dancer). Another track featured the vocals of Glenn Gregory, who soon after joined Marsh and Ware on a permanent basis under the name Heaven 17.

Over the course of their first two albums (Penthouse And Pavement and The Luxury Gap, which were then smashed together into a self-titled release stateside), Heaven 17 may not have equalled the level of massive global success that the The Human League had reached, yet they managed to create some of the most strikingly original and downright funky electropop of the era. Examples of their expertise include "Play To Win," "Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry," "(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thing," "Come Live With Me," and their best-known UK hit "Temptation" (which was featured briefly in the movie Trainspotting). While none of the above songs made much of an impact on the U.S., there were a few that did, largely thanks to (once again) MTV -- these included the exhilirating, relentless drive of "We Live So Fast," the bleak gothic grandeur of "Let Me Go" and the fleet-footed electro R&B of "Penthouse & Pavement."

Like so many other acts in their genre, however, Heaven 17 burned brightly and fizzled fast. By the release of their third album How Men Are in late 1984, the bloom was already off the rose, and subsequent releases failed to make much of a splash anywhere, triggering the the band's dissolution in 1988. By that point, the production expertise of Martyn Ware was already resulting in notable albums by the likes of Erasure, ex-Soft Cell singer Marc Almond, and the one-and-only international smash by Terence Trent D'Arby.

Nearly a decade later, Heaven 17 reformed and surprised many with the release (and tour) of 1996's Bigger Than America, which found the trio creatively revitalized and still capable of cranking out dancefloor-friendly statements like "Designing Heaven," "Freak!" and "Resurrection Man" alongside more reflective works like "An Electronic Prayer" and "Dive," which may well be the most beautiful track the trio have ever recorded.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: 'The Man Machine'

Kraftwerk - they are the robots, you know Being one of the most influential bands in all of music over the last three decades, so much has already been written about Kraftwerk that I'd considered just skipping them altogether in favor of writing about the usual more obscure electro-pop fare. Some further thought on the matter changed my mind, since I realized it's a toss up between these guys, The Human League, and Gary Numan as to who had more of a hand in pushing me so heavily into electronic music as a teenager.

I won't bother with bios, behind-the-music stories or career overviews on this edition of the Sunday Synthpop Brunch, since so many have already been written about this iconic act (including a very interesting memoir by an ex-band member). Instead, we're simply going to zero in on what I feel is Kraftwerk's finest moment: their 1978 album The Man Machine.

Over the course of their three high-profile offerings (Autobahn, Radio-Activity, and Trans-Europe Express) pre-1978, Kraftwerk already earned a reputation for sounding rather bloodless on record, and even by that standard The Man Machine seems particularly sleek and refined -- a rather ironic quality given that the album represented a step towards more straight-ahead pop song structures. Perhaps the ultimate sonic demonstration of fabled German efficiency, The Man Machine is a masterpiece of tonal economy -- there is not a wasted note or beat to be found anywhere on this album. Making even Autobahn sound warmly inviting in comparison, The Man Machine is the most perfectly airless work Kraftwerk ever released -- even the occasional lyrics (when they're not sung through a vocoder) are delivered seemingly without intake of breath and are nearly free of any variance in tone.

Die Mensch Maschine! All of this detached perfection would probably be unlistenable if it weren't for the songs themselves, which are among the most striking and memorable in the Kraftwerk catalog. Sandwiched between the forbidding, lockstep precision of the "The Robots" and the title track, The Man Machine offers up a handful of simple, yet elegant electronic works like "Spacelab" and the weirdly timeless single "The Model," which manage to get your feet tapping along to the rhythm while the songs seemingly do nothing more strenuous than gleam silently like distant stars on a clear winter's night. The real prize, though, is the lengthy, hypnotic synth ballad "Neon Lights" which for me is the definitive Kraftwerk track: arid, dry, ultraclean, almost standoffishly robotic in execution, yet possessed of a shimmery, innocent beauty that has yet to wear out its welcome after all these years.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Pete Shelley

Pete Shelley Following the abrupt dissolution of The Buzzcocks in 1981, songwriter/guitarist/lead singer Pete Shelley set to work crafting a solo album called Homosapien from a batch of songs initially intended for the band's next album.

Working again with frequent Buzzcocks producer Martin Rushent (who was then coming off of a worldwide smash hit with the Human League's Dare), Shelley's work would retain the pop sensibilities of his old band but with a drastically different production ethic: as was the case with many then-modern synth albums from the likes of the League, Steve Winwood, and F.R. David, Homosapien was a weirdly stripped-down sounding work -- many of the tracks having a sparse, almost demo-like quality due to a near-total reliance on synthesizers and drum machines with hardly any human accoutrements of any kind to flesh out the sonic picture.

Stylistically, Shelley seemed to bounce all over the map on Homosapien, deploying ridiculously twee dance-pop confections like "Qu'est-Ce Que C'est Que Ca?" alongside more funk-derived rhythmic pieces like "Witness The Change." Alongside these period-pieces, if you will, was the more immediately striking (and catchy) title track, a relentless, stomping dance number possessed of a weirdly dense and unforgiving production sound for it's time (and almost certainly an influence on the music of a young Trent Reznor years later: listen to the nasally vocals and the way the synths seem to snarl malevolently in the mix). The same was true of "Telephone Operator" from the following year's EP XL-1, which was noticeably harder-edged and "bigger" in sound, with some caustic guitar textures buried beneath the synths that give this already-menacing single a real kick in the ass.

While Homosapien is what gave Shelley's career a spark in the States (thanks to MTV, the album actually surfed the bottom half of the Billboard Top 200 album chart over the summer of 1982), XL-1 is what finally attracted a smattering of attention back home in the U.K. as "Telephone Operator" blipped and and off the Top 75 in the spring of 1983, followed by the EP's monthlong residency in the lower reaches of the Top 50 over the summertime. Sadly, what little momentum Shelley managed to build up at home and in America by the middle of 1983 was quickly lost, perhaps largely due to inactivity: it would be another three full years before he returned again with the comparatively lackluster Heaven & The Sea ... and by that time, the world had ceased to care.