Monthly Archives: February 2008

Basia Bulat at Jammin’ Java

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The Canadian musical invaston continues! Maybe!

London, Ontario singer/songwriter Basia Bulat went on at Jammin’ Java unannounced and alone Wednesday night, beginning her first local appearance with an acapella ballad. Stamping her feet and clapping her hands to accompany her husky warble, she conjured an otherworldly atmosphere right out of the box. The audience, which numbered only in the dozens, seemed not to notice, going on with their conversations and drink orders as if they weren’t meeting a gifted and maybe even important new singer-songerwriter then and there.

The cool reception didn’t faze her. On her first U.S. tour, Bulat seemed grateful just to sing, eventually winning the crowd with an hour of haunted waltzes and oblique love songs (plus one hit-in-waiting, the snare-driven “In the Night”) from “Oh, My Darling,” her full-length debut. The album, which Bulat spent her student loans to record in 2006, got a stateside release Super Tuesday, she pointed out, getting a few laughs at her bemusement over the phrase.

Bulat’s supple voce recalls that of 90s divas like Natalie Merchant or Paula Cole, but her already-mature songcraft could gain traction with Joni Mitchell fans or the cult of Regina Spektor. Her multi-generational appeal and onstage poise seem beyond her years. (She was born in 1983, the year the last Police album came out.) Like recent Oscar-winner Marketa Irglova, Bulat was prone to the giggles when introducing songs, but the anxiety vanished when she sang.

Fronting a five-piece ensemble, Bulat alternated between the autoharp and an acoustic guitar that looked huge in her diminutive arms. Songs like “December” and “Snakes and Ladders” had a baroque, Tom Waits-y quality that helped them transcend the danger of sounding twee. And her choice of artists to cover — Daniel Johnston and Sam Cooke — reinforced her broad genre interest and sense of soul.

Talent and charm aren’t always enough. But it’s a fair bet all those folks who barely looked up from their cell phones when Bulat took the stage might soon be bragging that they saw her way back when.

A slightly shorter version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.

Scrolling the BrucePod!

brucex-large.jpgElysa Gardner has a nice feature on Bruce in USA Today, er, today. But what’s really cool about it is the interactive graphic that lets you scroll through Bruce’s iPod.

The opportunities for analysis here are endless (The only Johnny Cash track is a freaking Sting cover!? The only Steve Earle song is a Johnny Cash cover? The lone Sleater-Kinney tune is a Bruce cover; did you even know S-K did “The Promised Land”? From Lucinda Williams, he’s got her gorgeous tribute to my former address, “Ventura.” And only one from Patti Scialfa?), but come on: iPods are the 21st century closets; we’ve all got some skeletons in there.

Actually, there are only one or a handful of tracks for most artists, suggesting that either the Boss has the blue-collar model iPod, with a capacity of maybe one gig, or else this was a carefully edited list pulled off his is iTunes library by his personal assistant for redlining by the Man Hisself. I’ve done stuff like this in my checkered professional past.

I spotted Elysa Gardner (saw her nametag, I mean) at the press preview for the Edward Hopper show at the National Gallery last fall. I really wanted to walk up to her and say, “You wrote the introduction to U2: The Rolling Stone Files!” But since I was there in a semi-professional capacity, it seemed important that I not appear insane.

Wilco at the 9:30 Club: The Sixth Time’s the Charm

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Sometimes even reluctant rock stars have to work for it: Not until “Heavy Metal Drummer,” the penultimate number of Wilco’s ragged-but-right set at the 9:30 Club Tuesday night, did a woman (we assume) to throw her bra at frontman Jeff Tweedy. The gesture was probably more an endorsement of the tune — a wistful evocation of the hair-band-scored summers of Tweedy’s 1980s adolescence — than a sincere come-on. (Tweedy tried to return the lacy, black thing, observing “these things are deceptively hard to throw.”) But still. Who knew that women even liked Wilco?

Actually, Tweedy appeared for once not be working so hard, and the result was warmer, funnier, and more satisfying than any local Wilco gig in years. Though the oft-shifting lineup includes virtuosos like axe-man Nels Cline and percussionist Glenn Kotche, the band, despite his denials, is still All About Tweedy. His default performance mode seems to be furrowed-brow studiousness, which sometimes gives Wilco shows an austere, prickly vibe; all head, no heart, and as for the hips, fuggedaboutit. But after a terse opening salvo that began with the gentle sway of “Was I In Your Dreams,” Tweedy, sporting a wide-brimmed fedora, was downright friendly, even taking requests. Maybe it’s because somebody in the audience gave him a very convincing-looking Grammy.

Or maybe its because he’s allowing himself to take some pride in his band’s intermittently brilliant catalogue: Earlier this month, Wilco played five nights in their hometown of Chicago, revisiting their complete studio-album songbook (less B-sides, collaborations, etc.). Thus Tuesday’s career-spanning 28-song, 135-minute set was agreeably loose, serving up giddy takes of pre-Y2K classics from Being There and Summerteeth and rarities like “Too Far Apart” and “Just a Kid. The latter was from “The Spongebob Squarepants Movie,” though you could be forgiven for thinking it was a Ramones B-side, or maybe an old Uncle Tupelo number. Either way, it rocked. Before that, they played “The Thanks I Get,” Tweedy inviting the sold-out crowd to sing along with the “we can make it better” refrain. “That’s also known as the Obama fight song,” Tweedy said, referring to some of his recent adventures on the campaign trail.

The crowd reacted with surprising warmth to five tunes from last year’s sleepy Sky Blue Sky album. Written in the midst of Tweedy’s post-rehab domestic tranquility, it’s Wilco’s least-intoxicating record. The biggest surprise of the night might have been the balls-ou four-fer from Being There that closed the main set — “Red-Eyed and Blue,” “I Got You (At the End of the Century,” “Monday,” and an audible of “Outtamind(outtasite)” — probably the only Wilco tunes you might ever have heard at a frat party — in, you know, 1999.

Setlist:

01 Was I in Your Dreams

02 Blood of the Lamb

03 You Are My Face

04 Pot Kettle Black

05 A Shot in the Arm

06 Side with the Seeds

07 Pieholden Suite

08 Impossible Germany

09 Handshake Drugs

10 Too Far Apart

11 Summerteeth

12 Jesus, Etc.

13 Walken

14 I’m the Man Who Loves You

15 Hummingbird

16 A Magazine Called Sunset

17 Red-Eyed and Blue

18 I Got You (At the End of the Century)

19 Monday

20 Outtamind(outtasite)

ENCORE #1

21 Hate It Here

22 Can’t Stand It

23 The Thanks I Get

24 Just a Kid

ENCORE #2

25 Shoulda Been in Love

26 War on War

27 Heavy Metal Drummer

28 The Late Greats

A shorter version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.

UPDATE: NPR has a streamcast of the second of Wilco’s two nights at the 9:30 (and John Doe’s opening set, too, which I missed on Tuesday) here. Wilco played another 28-song set the second night, repeating only 10 tunes from night one. Pretty cool.

Media, Mix’d, Red’x

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Reviewed in today’s Paper of Record: China Forbes-of-Pink Martini’s Sheryl Crow album and Ghostland Observatory’s soundtrack for the Rise of the Machines. (Though I actually gave Ghostland a C, not the B+ it showed up with in the paper.)

Tomorrow (or Tuesday): Violence! Gender-role confusion! On Wheels!

This Is More Difficult than It Looks.

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Tougher on your hands, too. The photo above is from Hudson Beach, New York City, last weekend. The one below is from Santa Monica, Sept. 2003. Getting older, just so you know, does not make this any easier.

Still, I wish there were more of these things around.  There are only two in the country, apparently.  The ones I used to play on in Santa Monica are known locally as the “traveling rings,” while they’re “swing-a-rings” in NYC.

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I guess Spinal Tap will have to reissue Smell the Glove now.

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Because as Rick Weiss reveals in today’s Washington Post reported today, black is now about 30 times blacker than it used to be.

“The material, made of hollow fibers, is a Roach Motel for photons — light checks in, but it never checks out,” he reports.

Awesome. There are all kinds of mind-bending potential applications for this light-bending technology.  (Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloaks get a fair amount of play in Weiss’s front-page story).  But of course all I thought about was the scene from This Is Spinal Tap where Nigel Tufnel (I think) is trying to convince his bandmates that the censored cover to their album Smell the Glove — a pure black field of inky nothingness — is better than original, blatantly misogynistic cover:

“It’s like, ‘How much blacker can it get?’ The answer is, ‘none. None more blacker!'”

(Forgive my para-quoting. Somebody borrowed my DVD a few years ago and I haven’t seen it since.)

Media, Mix’d

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With the new year came a new job reviewing CDs for the “Media Mix” section of the Sunday Paper of Record, a sort of report card of new-release books, movies, games and such. Click on the cover of any of the fine musical albums above to read my pithy assessment thereof.

I  know.  But hearing Thriller again was pretty great.  And topical, given all the good press RhymeFest’s Man in the Mirror Jacko “dedication album” has been getting.