Category Archives: mystery

Live the Night Before Last: Neko Case

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Neko Case’s anachronistic beauty might seem ordinary only measured against her elemental, once-in-a-generation set of pipes. At her enjoyable if slightly schizophrenic gig at the 9:30 club last night, That Voice had the capacity crowd on its best behavior. The only people doing much goofing around for the majority of the spectral 85-minute set were 1) Neko Case, campfire noir knockout, and 2) Kelly Hogan, backing vocalist/emcee/hype woman/song introducer. The duo sounds sublime when their banter eventually turns to singing, but there’s still something a little spell-breaking about the fact that Case essentially has her own heckler on the payroll.

“The next song is a spooky song,” she announced before the as-advertised “Prison Girls.”

“Spookier,” Hogan corrected her.
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Because Christmas Is a Dish Best Served Weird…

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Santa Claus and Popcorn, the third in my annual (so far) series of radio Christmas cards featuring yule-tunes eclectic and inexplicable (TM), is now sliding its merry way down chimneys around the globe.

Momofuku’d!


So today the postman brought me my long-awaited copy of Momofuku, the late-breaking, just-released-yesterday new album from Elvis Costello and The Imposters. I’ve been badgering Elvis’s People to send me a review copy ever since I head it was coming out, which was not very long ago. Elvis addresses the record’s quick genesis (“The record was made so quickly that I didn’t even tell myself about it for a couple weeks”) and novel release strategy — vinyl yesterday; MP3 as a courtesy to those who bought the vinyl next week; CD on May 6 (which is how I’m justifying reviewing it in the May 4 edition of “Media Mix” in the Paper of Record) — in a post on his refurbished official website:

” . . . The real version [emphasis mine] is pressed on two pieces of black plastic with a hole in the middle. You may prefer other, more portable, less scratchable, editions that will soon become available for your convenience but this is how it sounds the best: with a needle in a groove, the way the Supreme Being intended it to be . . . “

This is maybe not the wisest thing for a semi-professional music writer to confess, but I do not own the requisite equipment to play those two pieces of pierced black plastic. The record player I used to play my complete music library on vinyl circa 1987 (Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the soundtrack album to Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Vietnam movie Platoon, and a copy of George Michael’s Faith I got as a radio station giveway — B106, I think it was) might still be resting beneath a shroud of dust in my folks’ basement. I may have to go find out sooner than later, since my review is due Monday, and the Best Buy that just opened up around the corner a couple of weeks ago does not stock turntables.

Weirdly enough, the first phone call I got after first opening Momofuku ‘s gatefold sleeve (so much more inviting than a CD, though that die-cut cut sleeve for the Flight of the Conchords CD is pretty nice) was from Noted Actor Steve Beall, which was propitious and surprising for three reasons:

1) Steve is an unreformed vinyl advocate;

2 ) Steve was actually at that great 9:30 show I reviewed last May where Elvis performed “American Gangster Time,” the only song on this thing that I’ve actually heard; and

3) Steve never calls me. Ever. Today was only the second time.

Since Steve is always going on about “180-gram” vinyl (grams are like horsepower, apparently, or the bit rate of a compressed audio file; more = better), I asked him how I could tell if the 12-inch grooved black plastic disc in my hand was “180 gram.”

“If you hold it in your hand, and you whip it back and forth, you can tell,” said Steve. “If it’s stiff, then it’s probably 180-gram.”

“Okay,” I said. “Whipping.”

“You really have to whip it kind of hard.”

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “No one will ever know we had this conversation.”

This would be why Jill Scott recorded a live album at Constitution Hall in 2001, I’m guessing.

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Most R&B divas equate sexual confidence with self-empowerment; few do it as persuasively as Philadelphia’s Jill Scott. The Grammy winner’s sultry, synth-tinged grooves tell of endurance in life and exuberance in the boudoir. Or is it the other way ‘round?

Tuesday evening, at the dizzying opener of a four-night stand at Constitution Hall, it was hard to tell. Scott spoke repeatedly of her divorce, but tunes like “Crown Royal” and “Come See Me” from 2007’s The Real Thing album suggest singledom isn’t treating her too badly. In the hands of her airtight 10-piece band, both became epics of prurience. Note to the abstinence-only crowd: Never, ever go to a Jill Scott gig.

The 2.5-hour show offered multiple, er, climaxes. The defiant “Hate on Me” got the last of the crowd out of their seats, waving their hands overhead. Then local legend Chuck Brown dropped by, prompting Scott’s two drummers to launch into a go-go beat while he riffed on the Ellington/Mills standard “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” Scott grooved along, smiling like she was just a lucky fan pulled from the crowd to dance on his stage.

In fact, she’s as natural and authoritative a soul songstress as any of her generation. Perhaps because Scott performed poetry before venturing into music, she has an approachable, conversational quality (patter: abundant, hilarious, largely unprintable in a family newspaper) that gives her mighty pipes all the more impact when she decides to let loose.
The show featured that rarest of treasures, the Truly Spontaneous Encore. As the spent crowd pulled on their coats, Scott reappeared to share a piece she’d said she scribbled on a hotel notepad only that day. “You seem to have a mystery of me,” she began, “And I am here to broach it.” But Scott’s mystique remained, despite the candor with which she sang, and spoke, of past jobs, relationships, and struggles. And despite the mid-show “pinky toe” rap that summoned two stagehands to replace Scott’s gold spike heels with gold flip-flops.

That’s one down-to Earth-diva, even if her show was out of this world.

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

The K of D

thekofd-kimberlygilbert-heron-by-stanbarouh-6036-1.jpgMy review of Woolly’s debut production of Laura Schellhardt’s  prismatic spook-story, brought vividly to life by Kimberly Gilbert (pictured) and director John Vreeke, is on DCist today.  Read it, then go see it.  I know what’s good for you.

Merry Christmas, Friends! Time to kick it weird-school.

santas-got-a-big-olde-bag-front.jpgHo ho ho, music lovers! Santa’s Got a Big Olde Bag, my 2007 Christmas compilation, is now yours for the asking.   And you need these sounds in your yule-life.

But don’t take my word for it! J. Freedom du Lac, esteemed Washington Post pop music critic, had this to say in the Dec. 18 edition of his wildly popular and influential “Freedom Rock” webchat:

Richmond, Va.: Hey, J. Free — what is your favorite Christmas record? One of my friends made me a mix CD this year, and I can’t get enough of Ben Folds’ “Bizarre Christmas Incident.” That song doesn’t get played on 24/7 Xmas radio.

J. Freedom du Lac: My new favorite? “Santa’s Got a Big Olde Bag: Yuletide Times Eclectic and Inexplicable,” compiled/curated by our very own Chris Klimek. He gave me a copy last night, at the Aimee Mann show. (You know, the one Michael Chertoff also attended. Who knew he was a Nelly McKay fan?!)The album is a wild, wild ride: It opens with audio from “Die Hard” (you know, where the limo driver is listening to “Christmas in Hollis”), then goes to the Bellrays/”Santa’s Got a Big Old Bag,” then Sufjan’s “Ding Dong! Death! (May Be Your Santa Claus),” then Marah’s “New York Is A Christmas Kind of Town” and (this is ripe) Arnold Schwarzenegger doing a workout video over “Warming Up” by Gladys and the Pips! LOL. And on and on it goes. Great stuff. You should sign up for Klimek’s CD-of-the-Year club.

There you have it, Friends — a ringing endorsement from a bona-fide expert.

Liner notes below!

VERILY, a manifesto.We all have our favorite versions of the traditional Christmas warhorses. Actually, recent research suggests that many listeners hate, hate these fucking things. I yield to no man in my abiding affection for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s 1975 performance of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” recorded live at C. W. Post College, and I only just came across a marvelous 1978 version of Keith Richards doing Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph” – it was released as single back then, Keef’s first. Then it went out of print.

No matter; you’ll find neither of them here. Tracks like that aren’t what this compilation is about. No, gentle listener! Here we turn our rapacious gaze mainly, albeit not exclusively, to seasonal melodies, films and ephemera that have not stood the proverbial test of time. Some of them haven’t been around long enough to take the test; some are too obscure even to have been summoned to the testing site; a few may have taken the test and flunked. All are glorious and honorable. Even Jingle All the Way, which puzzingly is remembered as an epic, cautionary failure, but which I submit to you is not even among the five worst films released in 1996. Freed from its distracting visuals, the film’s audio, tastefully excerpted here, reveals a surprising profundity and even grace.

2.5 TRACKS FOR EACH OF THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS! YOU CAN’T AFFORD NOT TO LISTEN!

Four Words About Sound Quality: All over the map. Much of this material I took from CD, manipulated in Apple Lossless Audio Format, and compressed only once, so it ought to sound stellar. Then there’s the stuff that was digitized from an ancient vinyl saucer and probably compressed two or three times before I got my hands on it. And plenty of stuff in between. I trust you will share my judgment that the content of the muddy-sounding tracks fairly demands their inclusion here, and forgive the pops, tics, crackle, and hiss. That’s the sound of authenticity you hear, Kids. – Mgmt.

A(nother) Night of Music and Passion with the Boss

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Just back from Night Two of the Boss’s two-night stand here in Our Nation’s Capitol. I was in a better position tonight, on the floor instead of Section 116 behind the stage, which wasn’t bad either — I actually like seeing the performers’ perspective, that sea of hands and smiling faces. But the sound was much better from in front of the stage, and the band’s overall energy was higher tonight. I thought Night One’s setlist was more interesting, however, featuring the rarely-performed title track from the single most underrated album in the cannon, Tunnel of Love, the still-not-appearing-regularly Magic tune “I’ll Work for Your Love,” and of course the extended encore featuring the uber-rare two-fer of “Growin’ Up” and “Kitty’s Back.”

Tonight’s set was one song shorter than last night’s, and featured five songs not performed the first night: “The Ties that Bind,” “Jackson Cage,” Patti’s “A Town Called Heartbreak,” “Backstreets,” and — it’s hard to believe this one is an alternate tune instead of an every-nighter, though I like that Bruce is giving one of the standards a rest — “Thunder Road,” dedicated “to Jann [Wenner, sez my associate J. Freedom du Luc, whose review of Night One appears in tomorrow’s Paper of Record; though I saw him at tonight’s show, too] and Pat.”

I have no idea who Pat is.

Five out of 24 set-changes ain’t bad, but I thought there might be a few more: “Lonesome Day,” “Workin’ on the Highway” and even, though it pains me to say it, “The Promised Land” all felt like the could be candidates for rotation. Some of the other tunes I know have already been performed this tour that I was hoping to hear tonight are “Brilliant Disguise” (again from the unfairly shunned Tunnel of Love) and “Be True,” a Tunnel B-side. Yeah, I love me some Tunnel, even if the production does sound quite dated now.

“Last to Die” was dedicated “to John” tonight. Yeah, that John, whose testimony before Congress in the 70s inspired the title.

My overall take on the Magic tour as I’ve experienced it these last two nights is that it isn’t as thematically cohesive as either of the E Street Band tours I’ve witnessed firsthand. The 1999-2000 tour was about reintroducing the band and was possibly the least nostalgia-reliant reunion tour ever. The 2002-3 The Rising tour was about reaffirming America’s benevolent strength after the trauma of 9/11. In the years since then, the “benevolent” part of that phrase has become seriously questionable, and even the “strength” part has been eroded by a series of . . . well, you don’t need me to tell you.

Magic reflects the darker times we’re living in, and Bruce has been playing a big chunk of the album this fall: nine songs of its 11 last night and eight tonight. The balance of the set is about exposing some worthy classics that haven’t been played to death since the E Streets got back together in 1999 (“She’s the One”), rearranging and reconsidering other tunes (“Reason to Believe,” now a bluesy stomp), and reprising the worthy new song from the Seeger Sessions tour, “American Land.”

So if the Magic setlists feel like a bit more of a grab-bag than the prior two tours’ programmes, well, it may be because they kind of are. Bruce continues to wrestle with how to serve both his muse and his loyal fan base, who are there mostly to hear old tunes. (I was one of the youngest people on the floor at tonight’s show, and I am, um, not young.) That said, Bruce is more courageous in this regard than any other artist at his level of popularity. Even U2 don’t have the balls to play nine songs from their newest album anymore. And the crowd at the Phone Booth the last two nights have responded to the new songs more enthusiastically than I would have expected, singing along to “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” and “Long Walk Home” and listening in quiet reverence to “Devil’s Arcade” and “Magic.”

On a more specific note about the music, I wish there were more singing. Patti and Steve sang backup throughout both shows, and Soozie Tyrell sang, too, but “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” particularly, and “Kitty’s Back” both suffered from a distinct lack of harmony. Maybe it’s because I just saw the New Pornographers two weeks ago, but I wanted more of that. There are plenty of decent singers among the E Street Band, so let’s hear ’em!

Also, I miss the lengthy, funny band introductions from the prior tours. Bruce just ran through everyone’s name quickly near the end of “American Land” this time. No “star of late-night television” for Max or Little Stevie, no “professor at the university of musical peversity” for Roy Bittan, no “come on up for the rising” for Patti. It’s a chance to inject a little more humor and warmth into the show. Bring it back, Boss!