Sympathetic Stupid

Monday, February 27, 2006

Laneway Festival

Broken Social Scene. Broken Social Scene. Broken Social Scene.

That's all I've got. I'm still buzzing (and my ears are, in fact, still ringing) after seeing these guys yesterday. They played the best festival set I've seen, hands down, bar none. Not that there's a heap of contenders as festivals are regularly disappointing.

But this was objectively great. They're touring with just the bare ten members - one or two drummers, bass, two to four guitars, four wind (cornet, trumpet, trombone, sax), one violin, one to four vocalists, one knob-twiddler. Which adds up to much more than ten because, de rigueur, they regularly swap instruments. People appear and disappear in the middle of songs, wandering off for a beer or smoke then wandering back to hit the backing vocals or, especially, those huge, ecstatic brass lines.

It was obvious from KC Accidental, the opener, that their live sound completely kills anything you've heard on record. To start, they squashed seven people onto the tiny stage; drums, bass, three guitars, violin and knobs. Amid a sea of intense concentration, solid musicianship and flamboyant showmanship they started hitting those big stop-start chords - competing to see who could hit the biggest cock-rock guitar move without destroying the equipment strewn around. And then, as would become customary, towards the end the brass wandered out and (when they found a mike) blew the song through the sound barrier.

It's a simple formula, brilliantly executed. They all look like they're having such fun up there - well, except Kevin Drew hiding behind aviator sunnies, and Justin Peroff looking kinda sweaty on the drums. They're having fun, hitting most of the right notes with such infectious rock energy. Fast forward to the end of the concert - closing with It's All Gonna Break and the same dynamic's going on. We've just had the quiet bit and then the brass are massing at the side of the stage, and coming on and it's the enormous semi-classical end and the goosebumps are everywhere.

Once it's over, there's only the consolation of waiting for Tuesday night... Because they couldn't play Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl, and they didn't play Lover's Spit or Superconnected or even Major Label Debut. So there's much more where that came from. If you aren't going, yeah you, with the lukewarm coffee and slippers, get a ticket for Wednesday however you can.


The rest of the day? Yeah, pretty good, thanks for asking. Got there halfway through Pretty Girls Make Graves and heard a little while exploring the venue. Sounded fine, quite fun, your standard bass, drums, two guitar, piano accordion lineup. But it was obvious already that more than about twenty metres from the stage was too far.

Next up Wolf and Cub who I haven't heard before, and who didn't impress me in that setting. Very metal, with decent sense of groove, but not what I was up for. So that was Pho Mekong lunch time. (Incidentally, their back door led right out into side stage - I wonder if I can get a job there for next year?) Then back for some Faker. These guys are the quintessential festival act; no prior knowledge necessary for full enjoyment. Hooky riffs, solid tunes and ridiculous lead singer antics (though hold that thought until Les Savy Fav) involving climbing the jury-rigged stage scaffolding make for fun times.

Then squeezing forward in anticipation of Augie March. If they were at the top of their powers when I saw them Wednesday, then they'd done a pretty quick u-turn in the intervening days. As Glenn said, they'd only had a couple of hours sleep after returning from Perth and it showed. The sound, especially, was awful - muddy, bottom-heavy and unbalanced; a shame after the crystal-clear sounds of last week. And the playing lacked spark. We got the current A-set: This Train Will Not Be Taking Any Passengers, One Crowded Hour, The Cold Acre, The Baron Of Sentiment, The Keepa, The Night Is A Blackbird, Song In The Key Of Chance and finally Just Passing Through. But this wasn't a vintage performance - in fact, this bottle may have been corked.

But, conveniently, this left us right up the front for Broken Social Scene. Did I talk about them already? Highlights: Ibi, Shoreline, KC, It's All Gonna Break... Most of the set. The only lowlight was the feedback problems which caused Anthems to be pulled halfway through.

Then inside, and while waiting, caught Les Savy Fav on the screen. The fat guy with the beard is seriously deranged, and leaves you with the sneaking suspicion that the band is little more musically than a backdrop for his antics. Thanks to the wonders of radio mikes, he quickly became embedded in the crowd, wearing a cape, spraying water and spittle over a large fraction of the audience.

The Hold Steady also have a slightly mad lead singer, but Craig Finn is nuts in a good way. He smiles constantly and infectiously; dancing in an endearingly geeky, hyperactive fashion while rattling out his rapid-fire lyrics. It's true that they're not substantially more than a pub band, but they do it with such unself-conscious enjoyment that it's hard not to get sucked into their agricultural riffs and straightforward rocking.

And that was it. I'm sure The Avalanches were good, as always, but at that time in the evening you have to be either well out of it or, well, out of it. Since I wasn't sufficiently drunk, and the crush was only increasing, it was home time.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Augie March @ POW

The Prince is a great venue despite being on the wrong side of the river; lighting is consistently the best in Melbourne, it sounds pretty decent and despite being sold out, there was no shortage of great vantage points. (Unlike at the partially seated Joanna Newsom gig last year. Damn tall people.)

This gig was supposed to be a media launch/single launch which, as Glenn said, means they play for 45 minutes then go away then come back a bit later and play some more. (Also means they start at the work-friendly time of 8:45! In bed by 11pm! Rock!) So we got two sets, one of new stuff then one of old stuff.

The new stuff was all from the album:

Bottle Baby
One Crowded Hour
The Cold Acre
The Baron Of Sentiment
Mother Greer
Stranger Strange
Victoria's Secrets
Just Passing Through

Mostly Glenn on Bottle Baby, with Adam doing the vocal highlights in the chorus. Then everyone troops on and we get One Crowded Hour, to the delight of much of the crowd. I think I might have dulled the impact of this by listening to the single so much, but it's still a great track. The Baron Of Sentiment is a little bit country (it was written near where I grew up, at Nagambie!), plenty of slide and a keyboard riff stolen from Neil Young's Harvest Moon, according to Glenn. The newest ones were Stranger Strange and Victoria's Secrets, both having just the first or second run-out. Victoria's Secrets is, as Glenn said, a "metal ballad"; plenty of big crash drum fills and driving guitar chords. The whole set (after Bottle Baby) was quite uptempo and rocky, culminating of course in the utterly unsubtle Just Passing Through. Of course, there are six other tracks on the album so that shouldn't necessarily be taken as a guide to the whole thing.

Then a ten minute break, and into some old stuff:

The Keepa
Addle Brains
Rich Girl
Song In The Key Of Chance
This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers
No Such Place

Song in the Key of Chance was faster than usual, thanks to Dave - Glenn said "Dave, nice creative idea, but give us some warning". Nothing amazing about any of the tracks but played well, as always (with only a couple of mistakes in Rich Girl) and Glenn's usual dry banter between tracks. About an hour and a half all up, so very satisfying.

Sunday at the Laneway Festival will be a, um, different show, I'm betting. I'm unsure about the venue, but bring it on!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Useful Invention!

Australians probably only remember the Segway from those funny-for-five-seconds Friday Night Games on Big Brother last year. It's the ultimate nerd product, effectively a self-balancing two-wheel scooter. Apple billionaire Steve Jobs said that "cities will be built with these in mind". Probably important to note that he had some skin in the game.

The inventor is genius/nutbox Dean Kamen. He's got a record full of impressive inventions, his own island and a lot of important phone numbers. And he fits the geek archetype to a T - you just know he dances like Napoleon Dynamite.

Whether the Segway ever really catches on or not, he's got cred no-one can touch. So that's why it's so good that his new thing is power and clean drinking water for developing countries, especially in small rural villages. This could provide a great example of leapfrogging.

(Thanks to Dave at Gristmill for the link.)

There's two machines. The Stirling uses anything burnable to produce about one kilowatt of power - cow dung is the obvious one. The Slingshot takes dirty water and separates it into clean water and sludge. Simple as that. Good especially because this allows developing countries to skip the monolithic infrastructure we take for granted, and go with a more failure-tolerant decentralised system. (The power requirements of the Slingshot aren't documented here. Hopefully these are modest, or the purpose is defeated.)

The more interesting part, though, is the proposed funding model. Cause these machines, in an absolute best case, will cost thousands of dollars. It's based on the way Grameen Phone sells mobiles in Bangladesh: "(V)illage entrepreneurs (mostly women) are given micro-loans to purchase a cell phone and service. The women, in turn, charge other villagers to make calls." This creates small-scale rural entrepreneurs (with possibly the added benefit of empowering women in traditionally repressive developing countries). The same method is planned for these machines, though broken up into smaller portions.

There are plenty of risks before this becomes reality - manufacturing and cash most notably - but it sounds like it could be a transforming idea.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Handsomeboy Technique: Adelie Land

Drowning in a sea of indie-rock, swallowing great gulps of pointy guitar distortion, rough drum sounds and buried vocals; Broken Social Scene this, Sigur Ros this, Tool here, Augie March there, Arctic Monkeys everywhere.

It's Friday of a beautiful summer weekend - maybe the last of the season. Not really the time to be listening to psych-folk or prog or the strangely underwhelming tastes of At War With The Mystics. I didn't realise how little my mp3 player knew me until today.

But then the master plan kicked in. First it hit me with the tinny brass and chaotic rap of Bottle Rocket by The Go! Team. For the first time today, I'm tapping my foot.

And then the beat-boxing pulled into Interstellar Discodrive, and staring out the window at the blue sky I realised I'd meant to write about this ages ago. An apposite transition by the player, because Handsomeboy Technique share certain flavours with The Go! Team. But despite the light, sugar-hit impression they give, for mine they're actually more satisfying.

The Go! Team are aggressively lo-fi. It's happy and not a little nuts, but ultimately I have to be in a particular mood to pump the fuzzy, messy sounds through my cans. (That's radio-speak, by the way. For cred.) Conversely, Handsomeboy Technique have diamond-sharp production which reminds me of The Avalanches; everyone's touchstone in this genre. Sharp, and yet sunny like a summer's day in Melbourne.

Adelie Land has big beats galore, and plenty of hooks to top it off. Best track remains Season Of Young Mouss despite its flaws. One of those is the cheesily embarassing vocal at the start; a rare misplaced sample on a polished album. The other is that it hangs around too long; a common if forgivable failure on this release. The last two minutes of the track, after the middle-eight, is a reprise of the first (nominal) verse and then the chorus, over and over again. The jazz flute sample may be hooky in the extreme, and the hyperactive bass line and light beat may be infectious, but it's stretched a little too far.

This criticism also applies to Quiet Place despite the wonderful piano sample, and to the slower 8000 Laurels despite the funky beat-boxing - but these three are such good tracks that it's hard to hold that against the band.

The album has two distinct moods. There's the dancefloor anthem mode notable in Season Of Young Mouss, as well as Interstellar Discodrive, A Walk Across The Rooftops and most of the album. Then there's the quieter, slower, more melodic Since I Left You mood of, especially, Quiet Place, Adelie Coast Waltz and Affections. Both work like a charm in lifting the darkest of moods - they're just so relentlessly bright and summery.

Adelie Land just makes me dance and smile.

Unfortunately it's only available import from Japan; here it is on Amazon and Tower Records. Both in Japanese. Hey, you might get something else good! That said, I have a copy, so maybe we can come to some arrangement...

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Deerhoof @ Northcote Social Club

My Disco, the support, were really quite good. Three-piece, guitar, bass and drums, with more energy than their stage gear could stand up to. The kit fell apart multiple times - not surprising with the way the drummer was hitting it. He's basically a human drum machine, but more flexible, playing really interesting rock-disco beats at breakneck pace. Interesting because there's very little 4, some 3, some 5, even a couple of bars of 11, I think, without faltering. While I'm not a huge fan of the monotonal, shouted vocal thing, it works when you've got the vitality of these guys.

Then, the Canadians. Well, let me get the disappointment out of the way first - they didn't play O'Reilly, Former Underdog.

That said, however, it was a pretty amazing show. Deerhoof don't so much play their songs as play near their songs. It feels something like driving with an expert rally driver around a snowy, narrow track. At first it's scary and new, always threatening to careen out-of-control headlong into a tree, as Greg's drums disappear over the hill with no sign of coming back, or John takes his guitar into dark places you don't recognise and can't see a way out of.

But, after a while, the scary feeling becomes exhilarating. You learn to trust that they know what they're doing and that everything's going to be fine, and settle in to enjoy the rush.

They played bits of the last three albums, as far as I could tell, possibly with some new stuff. It was all different to the recorded versions, but not unrecognisably so, and in fact gives a better idea of what they're going for. There's always someone keeping the train on the tracks, whether it's Greg's down-the-line drumming, Chris or Satomi on bass or rhythm, or John playing an uncharacteristically steady guitar part. And most of all, it always stays musical (something the support missed on a couple of occasions).

And, wow, Satomi's tiny!

Belle and Sebastian: The Life Pursuit

This is a great album.

Dear Catastophe Waitress was old-school narratives mixed with big pop arrangements - yes, B&S were happy now, and playing on the big stages, but they'd lost none of their charm. In hindsight, though, the mix wasn't entirely comfortable. The pop gems were there - Step Into My Office, Baby, Dear Catastophe Waitress - but with lyrics verging on the punny simplicity of Legal Man. On the other hand, the literate narratives of Piazza New York Catcher and, especially, Lord Anthony evoked a strong sense of nostalgia for the old stuff without hitting the pop notes. It made for a fun album, but the fusion wasn't quite cooked.

I say this with the perspective you get from a higher peak.

The Life Pursuit is the album DCW wanted to be. They obviously know their 70s pop far better than I ever will, so I'm going to jettison the de rigueur T-Rex and Sly and the Family Stone references. But the songs are strong even without context. The first one which got me was the ridiculously catchy White Collar Boy - a big funky bassline, Stuart's exuberant vocals with the best call-and-response they've done yet. "You were chained to a girl that would kill you with a look"; reply "It's a nice way to die she's so easy on the eye". This is the witty, self-deprecating feel that I love about B&S - "She said 'You ain't ugly, you can kiss me if you like'".

In fact, this track leads off the irresistible seven-track soul of the album. The puntastic, catchy Blues Are Still Blue follows with, stomping along with another killer bassline, synthy highlights and a great heavily syncopated chorus. Then Nice Day For A Sulk, sorry, I'll read that again, it's Dress Up In You. This feels like a Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant outtake, but with the vocals and trumpet closer to the front of the mix and generally more interesting production. And I do love the line "If I could have a second skin/I'd probably dress up in you".

Sukie In The Graveyard is the big one. Sukie is a typical B&S character from as far back as She's Losing It, but the track itself is a long way from Tigermilk. The funky bass makes another appearance, joining Richard's foot-tapping groove in the solid rhythm section which drives the whole thing. But Chris dancing around the organ behind Stuart's fast-paced, acerbic vocals - "Sukie was the kid, she liked to hang out at the art school/She didn't enrol, but she wiped the floor with all the arseholes" - is what turns the track into a masterpiece. When the organ rolls jubilantly into that last verse, the roof comes off the building.

We Are The Sleepyheads is Stuart in an upper register with Sarah right there, fast-paced and with a bit of Bible study for good measure. Song For Sunshine contrasts a brazen organ line with a cheesy synth chorus; though "Sunshine, we all see the same sky" is a little saccharine for me. Then the putative single Funny Little Frog, which is probably the most Dear Catastrophe Waitress of anything on this album, the spiritual successor to Stay Loose - it's fun but doesn't hit the catchy heights of other tracks.

And there's plenty more besides. Old-school jangle on Another Sunny Day; variations on the classic simple narrative plus muted accompaniment on Act Of The Apostle II and Mornington Crescent. Isolated bits are less than convincing, but overall the record really gets to that toe-tapping place inside, without losing Stuart's smart lyrics - the essence of the band.

I don't know exactly where B&S are going but I'm more than happy to be riding with them.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Are You?

Ever complained about how your politicians don't represent your views? Who votes for them anyway? They're all duplicitous, power-hungry, incompetent dropkicks?

Well, on the rare occasion that a conscience vote comes up, you kinda owe the country some participation.

And this is an important issue - that of RU486, a drug which amongst other things can be used to perform a non-surgical abortion. (Which is only a slightly less unpleasant process, as detailed by Sean.) The bill, which just passed the Senate, removes the "special" status of RU486, so that the TGA can approve it like any other drug, instead of allowing our Health Minister, the Mad Monk, to block it.

But now it's down to the House Of Reps to consider the bill; and in order for it to be truly a Representative House, they need to know your views on the issue. GetUp has made it as easy as boiling water, just fill in this form with your postcode and email message and it'll be delivered straight to your MP. Whatever your view, you should really help these pollies make their decision. (Thanks to Amy for the link.)

Just don't get bogged down in left-right crap; the bill's sponsored by Lyn Allison (Democrat), Judith Troeth (Liberal), Fiona Nash (National) and Claire Moore (Labor). So there's a poster-girl there for any of us. (Well, when you include another supporter, Kerry Nettle from the Greens.)

And maybe consider that no other drug has this "special" status. And that abortion is actually legal in Australia. It's simply a matter of logic. If you don't believe abortion should be legal, fair enough, but that's a different debate.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Bubble Bobble

More clean energy!

Sonofusion (or Bubble fusion) promises "almost limitless cheap energy" from "table-top fusion". Yeah, it reads like Hans Christian Andersen, but one of these will turn out to be feasible. Although this currently "produces energy about seven orders of magnitude lower than that which went into it", which is almost as wasteful as a Hummer. But there are reasons to be optimistic.

So what's the deal? Let's start with the dogmatic, enthusiastic proponent, Rusi Taleyarkhan. He grew up in India before moving to the US, establishing his semi-crackpot credentials by inventing "variable velocity bullets" for use in a futuristic stun gun - that's right, it's "set phasers to stun"! But despite this wacky sci-fi innovation, he has impressive titles from Purdue and Oak Ridge Labs and appears competent and respected.

That is, until the subject of sonofusion comes up. Here's how it works. You can use sound to pop bubbles in liquid - and this can give you temperatures and pressures similar to the inside of the sun! This load of energy causes visible flashes of light through sonoluminescence, and, just occasionally, it apparently causes nuclear fusion. Which is a good thing. Fusion is the ultimate goal; it throws neutrons which give us energy without the nasty radiation problems of nuclear fission (like in A-bombs and nuke power plants). This is where the "table-top fusion" catchphrase comes in.

The argument is about whether fusion actually occurs. Taleyarkhan's method uses a burst of neutrons to create bubbles, ripe for the bursting. Critics say that the neutrons he's detecting on the way out are the same ones he sent in. Changes in the experiment haven't proved conclusive in either direction, but there's a distinct lack of success when other teams attempt the experiment. But despite this, and a big gaggle of detractors in the physics community, reputable peer-reviewed journals like Science and Physical Review E have published pro-sonofusion articles.

It's not yet the holy grail, but add it to the long list of potential innovations to change the world. And, just in case, also to the list of potential ridiculous hoaxes.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Die! Die! Die!: Die! Die! Die!

Die! Die! Die! have got a lot of street cred for three kids from New Zealand. This album, following and expanding upon last year's EP, was recorded with Steve Albini in Chicago. Yeah, the guy who recorded the second-best albums of both The Pixies and Nirvana, as well as great albums by Low (Things We Lost In The Fire), McLusky (The Difference Between You And Me Is That I'm Not On Fire) and The Breeders (Title TK). He's been to all the best parties.

The EP was fuzzy lo-fi, an energetic, pissed-off six songs packed into about 14 minutes. The LP, post-Albini, is little longer at 22 minutes, with ten tracks including the best three from the EP. The real differences, unsurprisingly, are in recording quality, extra clarity in the guitar crunch and drum sounds, but most of all in the angry, half-shouted vocals.

The tradeoff is that it lacks some of the appealing crudity of the EP - noticeable in the direct comparisons. The big "I don't trust you" in Shyness Will Get You Nowhere, for instance, was a cracked-voice scream, and is now just a controlled shout. And then there's the bouncy Franz-esque disco breakdown at the end of Auckland Is Burning. The tom-driven rocker is still a highlight, but this outro does seem a bit incongruous.

But it's all their great anger-driven speed rock; more than a touch of punk sentiment without setting foot near the emo cliff.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Big Day Hot

A very funky BDO (possibly the 112 percent humidity contributed to that...). Not-so-brief rundown of the day:

Saw the very end of Airbourne and they were everything I'd expected - lots of energy for the opening slot ("Melbourne Rock 'N' Roll!"). They won't be playing that early next time. A little bit of The Greenhornes; kinda mediocre, nothing special about their standard three-piece rock. Plenty of local bands with a fraction of the profile could wipe the floor with them. Introduced to the - mercifully under cover - RRR stage where I'd be spending most of the day.

But first to the pit at the main stage, where I caught the end of Faker, good energy, JJJ-friendly guitar pop-rock, not bad. (And incidentally felt very, very old, as is the standard refrain.) Straight into festival regulars Gerling, who I still like though they haven't come close to the the brilliant melodic post-punk/dance-rock of Children Of Telepathic Experiences. I shouted for Ghost Patrol but to no avail; still, a good high-energy show which got my exercise out of the way early.

Back to the RRR stage to listen to Cut Copy (tres funk as always) while jostling right up the front for the day's highlight: Sleater-Kinney. Kicking a very, very large amount of backside, they launched straight into the crunch of The Fox played pretty much everything off The Woods. Most impressive was Janet's high-energy, rock-solid drumming (when she slumped over her drums during Modern Girl I thought she was down for the count). Notable also was the watching Jack White at side stage - fully outfitted six hours before his show. Everything flawless. (Except Corin stomping on the end of Janet's solo in, I think, Let's Call It Love.)

Onwards and ever upwards. The Go! Team do a pretty great live show and you've gotta love Ninja, but ultimately left me a little cold - it just sounds a bit empty on stage when compared to the many-layered sounds of the album. Then out into the sun for my other highlight, Augie March on the tiny local stage. One Crowded Hour, the new single, is a corker (Tim still has it up at O Song! if you're interested) and they played Song In The Key Of Chance which is another of my favourites. A good show from the guys despite the small stage and hair-metal drifting across from the main stage - especially during The Night Is A Blackbird. Can't wait for the album in March.

And then to that time when it starts getting really crowded and slightly less pleasant. Caught the end of Hank Rollins, doing some populist gear about how Howard and Bush suck, and how good the Melbourne music scene is, and how nuts Iggy is, and how good the Ramones were. Someone said last night "that's not spoken word" and I have to agree. But he's still Mr Charisma. A bit of Living End (turns out they haven't got any new material), a bit of Franz (from eight kilometres away they seemed OK). A lot of The Mars Volta - it's quite amazing what they can do with metal, playing most (all?) of the epics from Frances The Mute. A bit of Iggy And The Stooges who are all old and grey except Iggy, who's just nuts. But again, Mr Charisma. And finally a bit of The White Stripes, though not much, before pulling up stumps and trudging wearily back through Carlton.

Good venue, and not just cause it's close to my house. Plenty of grass makes for a much more forgiving environment, and it's a huge area. Let's hope they're making sufficient cash to keep it there. But the take-home message: Sleater-Kinney = WOW.