Saturday, 29 May 2010

Yo Gabba Gabba!

No, it's not an anthem from the Ramones ("Gabba Gabba Hey," anyone?). It is, however, one of the most original and interesting (and, for want of another adjective, trippy) children's television shows, like, ever. Created by Scott Schultz and Christian Jacobs (the lead singer of The Aquabats), Yo Gabba Gabba! (is that fun to say, or what?) is currently in its third season on Nick Jr. Why am I writing it up in this blog, you might ask? I'm happy to give you the answer: It's the music. Yo Gabba Gabba!, while staying true to its missive of treating children with respect (something so very few children's programming does these days) with powerful messages of respect, self-esteem, health, and strong familial relations and friendships, features incredibly colorful characters and musical guests who might have come straight from a Coachella line-up (which is appropriate, seeing as the cast members of Yo Gabba Gabba! made appearance at the last Coachella Festival in Indio, California). MGMT? Check. Ting Tings? Check. CHROMEO, Jack Black, Elijah Wood, Of Montreal, Ladytron? Check, check, check, check, and CHECK. Throw in some crazy puppets designed by KidRobot (one of which, a giant red cyclops named Muno, resembles a crazy *ahem* sex toy) and a cheerfully insane MC with a giant ghetto blaster named DJ Lance Rock, and you have something that, if I had children, I would rabidly watch with my little rug-rat. But what's cool is you don't have to have kids to enjoy what Yo Gabba Gabba! is all about, you really don't. Frankly, give me a glass of California Zinfandel and a magic cigarette, and I'll happily watch for hours.

But don't take my word for it. Watch the zaniness for yourself and let the barely-controlled kiddy-crazy wash over you like a Kool Aid acid bath.

For instance, here's CHROMEO extolling the virtues of clean hands. A VCB, indeed, good sirs!

... And, here's Ladytron, telling children that "mysteries can be very fun ... for everyone," and how it's cool to "use your mind." Good advice!

Monday, 24 May 2010

Fun With Organs: Apparat Organ Quartet.

In case anybody out there read my May 16th gig review of Jóhann Jóhannsson's show at the Great American Music Hall and came away from it thinking, "Man, that avant-garde shit sounds boring," then do I have something to share with you today.

Yessir, it's true - Jóhann Jóhannsson has a fun, lighter side to his musical persona. It's a nifty project he founded in 1999 called Apparat Organ Quartet, and it's a delightful thing, indeed. You may notice in the album cover above that there are actually five members in the band (JJ is represented by the top-right Lego-man with the light-brown fuzz-cut), making them essentially a quintet - but one is a drummer, natch, and he supplies the beats!

So what we have here is four musical virtuosos having a field day noodling with various organs, vocoders, and voice manipulators whilst a steady rock and roll drumbeat backs the sounds up with aplomb and vigor. And it's all good. As I've said before, I've become a big fan of the Icelandic music scene, for I feel it aptly reflects the island's personality - a fair amount of quirkiness, unpredictability, and a sense of magic that can only come from living on one of the most fascinating and beautiful chunks of land on the planet.

And it was in this construct that Apparat Organ Quartet was originally founded. Kitchen Motors, a Reykjavík-based think tank, music label, and art collective (of which JJ is one of the founders) set about in the late 1990's to curate a series of collaborative efforts utilizing musicians and artists from disparate backgrounds in order to create new and exciting variations of the Icelandic artistic spectrum. Other members of the consortium include musicians from bands such as Sigur Rós and Múm.

Apparat Organ Quartet grew from this musical soup, made a fantastic record, toured Europe extensively, and got wildly popular. 'Twould be nice if they came to the United States on tour sometime, but who knows. For now, at least, we have their eponymous debut, Apparat Organ Quartet, and a collection of songs that are both clever and rocking. Who knew an organ in the right hands could sound so heavy metal? The evidence:

Here is a song entitled "Konami". Does it not remind you somewhat of Kraftwerk?

And here is my favorite track from the album, "Stereo Rock & Roll". Do yourself a favor and turn it up loud!

Saturday, 22 May 2010

The Presets: Girl And The Sea.

From Sydney, Australia here are The Presets with their bewitching single, "Girl And The Sea." Released in 2004 on their second EP, cunningly entitled Girl And The Sea, I have reason to believe that this is my favorite song created by Mssrs Hamilton and Moyes. So it's fitting, then, for the video for the song to be so damn gorgeous! This one has it all: Brooding animation, woodland critters, spooky visuals, a cute mermaid, a morose wolf who's sacrificed his tail, and owls. All these things (and many more!) come together perfectly in accompaniment to a tune that practically revels in grandiose lushness. Enjoy, my good friends. I do hope you're having a nice weekend. I would like to think that watching this video will be a nice addition to it!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Are You Gonna Leave Me Now? Can't You Be Believing Now?

A long time ago (2006), in a galaxy far, far away (to pinpoint it, look toward the cities of Perth and Sydney, Australia), two musical spaceships collided and combined their genre-stretching powers for a brief and magical moment - creating a veritable powerhouse of psychedelic awesomeness.

Luke Steele from Perth, West Australia-based The Sleepy Jackson and Nick Littlemore of PNAU from across the continent in Sydney, New South Wales had been introduced to each other by mutual A&R peeps in a Sydney bar in 2000. After having exchanged ideas back and forth for a while, they decided to join forces and create something that was larger (in this writer's humble opinion) than themselves.

Thus, Empire of the Sun. (Though it was generally assumed that they named themselves after the novel by the one and only JG Ballard, Mr Littlemore explained to RTE (out of Ireland) that the name comes from "... all the empires of the civilisation where the sun has been a theme of worship.")

Empire of the Sun. In late 2008, they released their debut (and, to date, only) album, Walking On A Dream, and I gotta tell you - it's a corker! It's safe to say that as far as debuts go, this has just about everything one could require in a must-listen experience: Adventure, romance, loss, science fiction, tigers, swordfish, lush electronica, fascinating beats, emotive lyrics, and "Emperor" Steele's dulcet voice, which frankly must be heard to be believed. (Littlemore, who is unfortunately not with the band anymore after heading back to his PNAU camp, was referred to as "Lord" Littlemore.)

It's no secret that "We Are The People" stands as not only my favorite song on the album, but pretty much my favorite song, period. Full stop. Not only does this track exhibit an unrelenting freshness and beauty that fully engages and immerses the listener in its myriad charms, but the video filmed for it relays those attributes and creates what is, for me, a genuine multi-media piece of fine art.

Directed by Josh Logue, who has worked with Empire of the Sun on their other singles "Walking On A Dream," "Standing On The Shore," and "Without You," "We Are The People" takes the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) as its inspiration. Filmed entirely in Mexico (locations include Monterrey, García, and the incredibly lush and surreal Sir Edward James Gardens in Las Pazas), the video follows our heroes as they search for ... well, God, it seems. "Es este el camino a la diosa?" they ask a fellow on a bicycle in the desert toward the beginning of the film. Then they come across a man digging a hole. "Es para usted," he says to them. "It's to stop you." Enough of the transcribing! Here's the video for your own viewing pleasure. Enjoy! It really is a fresh and exciting work. And, I have to say, I'm a huge fan of Luke Steele's fashion sense. The headdress itself is just plain awesome.

And, as a bonus, I thought I'd throw this number at you. On the 22nd of July, 2009, the world experienced the longest total eclipse of the sun (six minutes and thirty-nine seconds to be exact). Empire of the Sun decided to do a broadcast that lasted as long as the eclipse did, and I gotta say, it's pretty bonkers (in a good way). Featuring characters from the "Standing on the Shore" video (Swordfish Girls! Black and Shiny Box Men!) and mixing together re-worked bits of the rest of Walking on A Dream, it really is a sight to behold. Once again, enjoy!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Gig Review: Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Jóhann Jóhannsson
14 MAY 2010
Great American Music Hall
San Francisco, California

Reykjavík, Iceland-based composer and musician Jóhann Jóhannsson touched down on San Francisco's Great American Music Hall Friday evening with a mission: To perform select pieces from his newest project, And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees and, in the process, showcase a pristine minimalist approach to creating music that sounds as if it was made by the Earth itself, from some underground locale deep beneath the vast glaciers of Vatnajökull. Spellbinding!

As I write this, wearing my favourite red robe and sipping a cup of English Breakfast tea, I am listening to what is, for me, the ultimate Jóhann Jóhannsson experience: 2006's IBM 1401, A User's Manual. This stands as a most curious work, seeing as it is, essentially, a love letter to the first affordable, mass-produced digital business computer available in Iceland - imported for the first time in 1964. It's heyday lasted for seven years, until it was put out to pasture in 1971, the year of my birth.

I'll take this moment to let Mr Jóhannsson explain this project in his own words. From the liner notes of IBM 1401:
"The chief maintenance officer for this machine was Jóhann Gunnarsson, my father. [...]he learned of an obscure method of making music with this computer - a purpose for which this business machine was not at all designed. The method was simple. The computer's memory emitted strong electromagnetic waves and by programming the memory in a certain way and placing a radio receiver next to it, melodies could be coaxed out - captured by the receiver as a delicate, melancholy sine-wave tone."
I don't know what's cooler - the fact that his father was the chief maintenance officer for the "Model T" of computers, or that he figured out how to make music with it. Needless to say, Iceland (always a quirky and eccentric place) mourned the machine's passing in 1971, when it was discontinued. They held a funeral for it, playing the notes from it for one last time, and capturing the ghostly sounds on tape, alongside the noises it made during operation.

And what a cool thing for Jóhannsson to do - take these sounds from nearly four decades ago and create a five-part symphony with a string quartet! Every so often during the piece, a disembodied British voice intones over the ominous and earthy music, instructing the listener on the basics of computer operation, and on the art of simple maintenance. I'm getting goosebumps right about now!

I'd first heard of Jóhann Jóhannsson when I was in Reykjavík for Christmas of 2007. I'd entered the record store 12 Tónar early one afternoon and asked the friendly clerk if he could turn me on to any Icelandic electronica that I (most assuredly) hadn't heard before. He plunked me down on a black leather couch, poured me a cup of coffee, gave me a CD Walkman along with a nifty little pile of CDs, and told me to listen to my heart's content. And so I did. And ...

Enough digression, already! So, how was the show?

I'm glad you asked.

There was a slow-building intensity, gaining momentum in the Great American Music Hall's intimate womb as Jóhannsson and his colleagues took the stage bathed in dark blue light. There was Jóhannsson, perched behind a couple of Apple MacBooks and an electric piano; a string quartet assembled from three violins and a cello; and a bespectacled man off to the right, who performed the evening's percussion on an array of buttons, knobs, laptops, and keyboards.

It's hard to describe the music - but I'll try. Imagine a flurry of percussion washing over you: the gravelly crackle of pebbles tumbling down a field of ice and rock - increasing in volume and intensity until it is a veritable avalanche of boulders coming loose from their summit and raining down on the entire audience, accompanied by the soaring crescendos and notes of the highly skilled and emotive string quartet. Jóhannsson's bald pate shines in the violet and indigo lights as he massages his computers and elicits forth a dynamic spectrum of sound that seems almost as if it were recorded underwater.

A pebble falls down a mountainous glacier and falls into a pool of water - the ripples emanate outwards in concentric rings, splashing imperceptibly on a distant shore, whilst the strings occupying the wake left in mythical angels' wings streak overhead like the airstream from a ridiculously fast aircraft.

In the liner notes for IBM 1401, A User's Manual, Jóhannsson stated the encapsulation of what he was looking for: "man-machine interaction; obsolete, discarded technology; nostalgia for old computers; ... the relationships between human and artificial intelligence ..."

That was back in 2006. There I was, seated at a small table with a faux-marble finish, and drinking champagne out of a can (Sofia, by Francis Ford Coppola), watching this musical magician conjure these elemental dreams with his cohorts on an intimate stage on the fringe of the Tenderloin in downtown San Francisco; what I heard and experienced was a step beyond what he'd stated only four years ago. I think he's delved into a close and beautiful examination of the relationships between human and nature itself.


tu non me perderai
flight from the city
rocket builder
corpus camera
drömme i københavn
ibm 1401 part one: processing unit
englabörn - variations
melodia (guidelines for a space propulsion device)
odi et amo

Let me close on this: I'm sure it's hard to get a gist of what I'm talking about in regards to the music. Don't worry! I'd like to share a sample of his music with you -- and who knows? If you'd like, you can look up some of his art; frankly, I think it makes fantastic afternoon music. Check it out, by all means. In the meantime, here is "IBM 1401: Processing Unit" off of ... well, I think you know that by now. Enjoy!

Monday, 10 May 2010

It's Always Cold Inside The Icehouse...

... though the rivers never freeze."

Thus begins the first track off Sydney, Australia-based band Flowers' debut 1980 album, Icehouse. The track, also called "Icehouse," turned out to be quite the blessing in disguise - after Iva Davies and company released the album, they found out that there was already a Scottish band called The Flowers (don't you hate it when that happens?). So they renamed themselves Icehouse (named after a particularly drafty flat Iva had lived in that seemed to always be freezing), and the album is now known as Flowers. Got all that?

Formed in 1977, Flowers - wait, sorry, Icehouse - consisted of Iva Davies (a talented multi-instrumentalist, he was (and still is, I reckon) fluid with guitar, bass, keyboards and - get this - the oboe), Keith Welsh (bass), Michael Hoste (keyboards), and Don Brown (drums). They played the pub circuit in Sydney zealously, performing covers of their musical heroes, such as Bowie, T-Rex, and Roxy Music. After having amassed a rather large following, Brown was replaced on the drums by John Lloyd, the drummer for Paul Kelly and his band at the time, the Dots. Flowers got themselves signed to a record label, released a corker of a first album, changed their name to Icehouse, and proceeded to become one of the most popular Australian bands of their time.

After their tour promoting the new album, Icehouse unfortunately split up, relegating Iva Davies to recording the follow-up album, Primitive Man, largely on his own.

But I'm not going to talk about Icehouse post-Flowers (though I will probably do so sometime in the not so distant future). Instead, I'd like to focus on a couple of songs off of that legendary debut recording that, to this day, I still find to be absolute masterpieces.

Whoosh. Masterpieces. That's not necessarily a word that should just be thrown about like so much confetti. But I'd like to share with you, dear reader, two songs off of Icehouse - oops, I meant Flowers - that are stunning in their rousing melding of moody atmospherics, introspective lyrics, and general rocking-out-edness. (And yes, I know that is not a word. But I like it.)

First off, the song known as "Icehouse." It's always nice, I think, to hear a song that delivers on the promise of its title. Sure enough, the song itself is just so damn chilly and desolate, it almost makes me shiver when I listen to it. Beginning with just the faintest of cymbals tchk-tchk-tchking over a sinister synth loop, it grows in volume and stature as Davies' voice, mildly filtered through some sort of distorting mechanism, joins in and begins to tell the rather spooky tale of a young woman waiting and waiting and waiting for her true love to come to her - though it's bound to be quite a long wait indeed. Davies sings:
"And now she's dreaming of a new love
And she hopes he'll be there soon
She says she's got no time for winter nights
She doesn't notice as the days grow colder
She can't remember getting any older
There's no love inside the icehouse..."
It's a powerful song from start to finish - multi-layered and menacing, with just the right ratio of cold electronics and amped up guitar toward the end. Does our heroine find her new love? I don't think she does, and one thing "Icehouse" does perfectly is to convey her hopelessness through the music. We feel what she feels, and frankly it feels quite cold indeed. Longtime 80's video director Russell Mulcahy (whose bizarre 1980's monster flick Razorback was scored by Mr Davies) directed the video for "Icehouse," with his trademark slapdash imagery - and it rather works, I think. This is the director who also filmed Duran Duran's "Wild Boys" - see if you can spot any resemblance!

Second up is the rousing and rollicking track "Sister." Gosh, this is such a fun song to listen to! Imagine, if you will, a cyborg pieced together from the best bits of Icehouse's heroes that they used to cover in Sydney pubs back when they first started playing. You've got some Roxy Music in there; along with T. Rex, Bowie, and Ian Durie. There are a lot of influences coming through in "Sister," and the fact that the song itself reads as something of a science-fiction story doesn't hurt matters, either. Based around the conceit of a robot woman programmed to love and be loved, "Sister" is a blast, with its mixture of lyrics concerning flesh-and-blood relations and the clinical examples of the circuitry of a humanoid replicant. I find myself thinking of Darryl Hannah's "basic pleasure model" character from Blade Runner, Pris.
"Behind the scanners and tapes
She's programmed for perfection
But sometimes simple mistakes
Get by without detection
Her figures need correction!"
I wonder if the model Iva Davies is singing about is as dangerous as Pris! The music is fast, the keyboards are flawless and exciting, and it's probably the closest to punk that Icehouse ever got. Awesome track. Here is Davies and company performing it live in 1981. Enjoy, friends!