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Thursday, Jun 4, 2009
Words and Pictures by Sachyn Mital

Though unable to attend the event as a member of the press, I was lucky enough to win two contests (from 101.9 RXP and Moby’s Twitter) to get me into the Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium for a listening party for Moby’s new album Wait For Me (out on Mute on June 30th). I missed out on the free booze and the schmoozing unfortunately, and as Moby was there, a chance to speak to him. But for the 250 people, press and contest winners alike, gathered within the gorgeous Rose Center, the listening party was an utterly unique event; the entire album played with accompanying visuals from our solar system selected by the resident astrophysicist for the evening.


The venue could not have been more fitting given Moby’s fascination with space. He titles songs “We Are All Made of Stars” and his ‘Little Idiot’ alien is often a lonely space oddity across many music videos. Snippets of “Pale Horses” playing in the lobby show the alien crafting imaginary friends on the moon or in the older “Why Does my Heart Feel so Bad” he feels excluded after he floats to Earth in a wheelbarrow. And Moby has another direct connection to the Planetarium; it is home on weekends to SonicVision, a mix tape he selected accompanied by visual effects of an abstract universe and giants robot dancing.


Moby humbly introduced the event, noting that the sound system was not operating at 100 percent but thanking everyone for coming. Wait For Me, a more ambient electronic album than his most recent works, has a very cohesive sound though the dynamic changes quite a bit. Some tracks featured the distinctive gospel vocal samples in rotation since Play, at least two tracks had contemporary vocals from Moby and a female friend, and surprisingly one song in the middle had a danceable four-to-the-floor beat. But the majority of the record is rich and lush instrumentals, similar to Little Idiot, the bonus disc to Moby’s 1996 album Animal Rights. And to experience all of this while traveling through the universe, pulling back via the Milky Way, plunging close to the mountaintops of Earth and amidst the rings of Saturn was a grand experience. What a way to introduce a great album to the terrestrial world.


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Wednesday, Jun 3, 2009
Words by Kevin Pearson / Photos by Kate Legere

A Hawk and a Hacksaw are the kind of band I wouldn’t mind playing my wedding or my wake. They alternate between upbeat, oom-pah led numbers, and mournful dirges with the switch of an accordion key. That they do so in such an idiosyncratic way makes whatever musical track they take always sound like them. Of course, this might be due to the fact that no other band in the indie realm—except Beirut of course—utilizes the same variety of musical sources. But while the Balkans and that area’s folk music is a jumping off point for A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Moroccan bazaars, Mariachi bands, and other Eastern influences also seep through into their sound.


Initially a one-man band consisting of former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer, Jeremy Barnes, A Hawk and a Hacksaw doubled in size several years ago with the addition of violinist, Heather Trost, as a permanent member. Over several albums and EPs, the duo’s sound—Trost’s violin and Barnes’ accordion—has been fleshed out by a revolving array of auxiliary musicians, most notably renowned gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia and the Hun Hangár Ensemble. While neither of these groups back Barnes and Trost on this current European tour, the duo are instead augmented by three additional musicians playing tuba, bouzouki, and trumpet.


At first, it’s fascinating. Each musician is thoroughly engaging. It’s not your typical instrumental set up either. All of tonight’s percussion comes via Barnes’ foot, which stomps out a minimalist beat upon the skin of a solitary kick drum that is also attached to a couple of tambourines. That he does this whilst simultaneously playing the accordion is cool. The fact that he’s always on beat and on key is impressive. Trost’s violin playing is rousing in that it seemingly spirals out of control like a wild steed only to be lassoed at the last moment. “Nimble” is an understatement when describing the bouzouki player, whose fingers dance across the fret board faster than a stenographer covering a front-page court case. The only musician whose playing seems un-chaotic and methodical is the tuba player. But while this might not be as exciting to watch, his deep notes, in lieu of a bass or proper rhythm, ties everything together, allowing Barnes and Co. to cavort in their gypsy instrumentation.


If there’s any complaint to be made it’s that, aside from an encore that found the band playing unplugged amongst the audience, crowd interaction was kept to a minimum. Instead of being encouraged to move and to dance, it seemed, at times, as though we were watching a museum piece. There was a gap between performer and audience that was never gulfed. I am sure that this has a lot to do with the band’s need to concentrate on their dexterous playing, but such joyous music, especially music of an instrumental nature, needs interaction and both band and audience failed to adhere to this. Sure, there were a few handclaps and some nodding of heads, but unfortunately the overall the atmosphere was one of reverence over reaction.



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Tuesday, Jun 2, 2009
Words by Alice Singleton / Images by Michael Brosilow

In 1970, poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron declared that, “the revolution will not be televised.” Playwright Tom Stoppard reminds us, however, that just because the revolution might not be televised, that doesn’t negate the need for a groovy soundtrack as tanks roll in, bullets whiz, and dissidents get beaten senseless into hopelessness, submission, and enemy collaboration. The final and fatal assault in Stoppard’s play comes when those that fought the hardest transmogrify into plain ol’ political progressives, settling for the serenity of a gentler and kinder body politic that they once put their love and lives at stake for.


The year is 1968 and Professor Max Morrow (Stephen Yoakam), is a loyalist to the Communism ideal, yet resides in a decidedly un-Communist abode in Cambridge, England, where he tutors students in the ways of classical philosophy and Socialist order. His wife Eleanor (Mary Beth Fisher) is also an academic and shares Max’s passion to open their home to further tutoring students, all while battling the chronic effects of breast cancer. Max’s pupil and protégé, Jan (Timothy Edward Kane), wants only to lose himself in the rock music that fills up the milk crates on his apartment floor, including the music of Plastic People of the Universe, a dissident Czech rock band. Max teaches and preaches to Jan why they all must remain true to the Communist cause, ignoring the Czech government, as it turns menacing and violent against protesters. In turn, Max ignores Eleanor’s desperate need for her husband’s erotic validation, which is now possessed by her student Lenka (Amy J. Carle). Eleanor also loses her sixteen-year-old daughter Esme (Mattie Hawkinson) to the embrace of London hippie culture and her barely hidden sexual desire for Jan.


Unable to contain his boredom of the socialist ideal as academic argument, Jan returns to Prague to get up close and personal with his love of all things rock ‘n’ roll. He positions himself a disciple of the Plastic People, who have become an enemy of the state for their refusal to discontinue playing music not sanctioned by the government, which has banned all Western-influenced commodities. August 1968, and Soviet tanks roll through Prague. Czech dissidents and idealistic college students valiantly but unsuccessfully fight back; the Plastic People go further underground and Jan recommits himself as a disciple to rock ‘n’ roll, following the Plastic People, and purchasing the music of the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed & the Velvet Underground, and Pink Floyd.


Jan builds his rock ‘n’ roll monument even as government agents stand sentry outside his rundown Prague flat until the damn breaks. By the mid-‘70s the government, losing patience with those ideologues who challenge them, order the destruction of all things anti-government, including Jan’s precious record collection, an act that culminates with his interrogation, beating, and imprisonment. Jan stays behind bars until Max, lonely via widowhood, speaks with the higher-ups during a return visit to Prague, and arranges his release.


The years pass. Glasnost arrives. The Berlin Wall falls. The ‘90s bring a new name, government, and political philosophy to the Czech people, while Max’s heart breaks in double time to the fall of Communism in the East and the rise of political Conservatism in his adopted West. Max is now an old man, still professing in Cambridge, taking up British citizenship and living with the now-divorced daughter, Esme. His former son-in-law Nigel has gone to the Czech Republic to document the rise and fall of old and new, and meets a dejected and disillusioned Jan, using him as a “guide”. When Nigel confirms that he and Esme are no longer married, Jan makes the journey to Cambridge to visit Max and thank him for his kindness at arranging his release from prison.


Esme greets her old crush Jan as if she’s sixteen again, her spirit and sexuality renewed. About to lose her daughter Alice to university, and with her father becoming more embittered by romantic regret both human and political, Esme wants more than the occasional sighting of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett cycling through Cambridge to quench her desire. She plans a dinner party to include Lenka, Nigel, and Nigel’s new wife Candida (Susie McMonagle). The dinner table passes around shared histories and the evening ends with regrets, reshaping of lives, and the absolution that love never dies… and neither will rock ‘n’ roll.


Rock ‘N’ Roll makes its Chicago debut after critical and commercial success on Broadway and London’s West End. A revolution may or may not be televised, but Stoppard does a most excellent job of writing the revolution as a powerful presence on stage. Director Charles Newell shapes the music to deftly ebb and flow with the characters’ emotional rise and fall, failures and triumphs, and all the actors live up to their places on stage, with Mary Beth Fisher literally consuming the theater as Eleanor and the adult Esme, absorbing the moisture from the stage rafters to give her characters their very life’s blood and dimension. So convincing and scene-chewing was Ms. Fischer’s presence, it was not until the end when the actors took their requisite bows that I realized only one actress played two decidedly different generations.


Rock ‘N’ Roll is a force of cultural nature, and a lyrical reminder that no matter where we stand, with a revolt before us, there’s a soundtrack for it, and we pick the selections from an ethereal jukebox.


Runs through June 7th


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Monday, Jun 1, 2009
Words and Pictures by Kirstie Shanley

Ah, Norway: Land of free health care, fjords, and a bustling creative art and music scene. From the psychedelic rock of fellow Norwegians Serena Maneesh to the complex lullabies of Hanne Hukkelberg, it seems like Norway is chock full of amazing bands. Though four piece I Was A King is part of this community, they also have a unique sound all onto their own. Using guitar pedal effects to create just enough fuzz, the sugary pop songs recall something akin to a fuzzier, feminine Beulah. Without the effects, it could have easily been considered twee-pop but it was also less silly and more focused. Still, one couldn’t help smiling while listening to the tunes, which came off as super happy and very catchy. 


Visiting Chicago as part of their very first American tour, I Was A King were energetic and fun but did not talk too much in between songs, attempting, instead, to play as many songs as possible. Lead singer Frode Strømstads even announced that they were minimizing their banter with the purpose of doing just that. The chemistry within the band seemed understated as well between songs, but it seemed as though they were perhaps saving it for the melodious songs instead. The lovely intertwining female/male vocals from Strømstads and Anne Lise Frøkedal created a certain sense of lushness that was interesting and reassuring at the same time, like a sweet dream.


 


In some ways, it was fitting that Strømstads wore an Elephant 6 shirt because it would be easy to picture him listening to many of the bands in the collective (their self titled record even has a guest appearance by Gary Olson of Ladybug Transistor). However, I Was A King came off as a little more accessible than most of those bands and not caught up in a sense of idiosyncrasy. Though they treated Chicagoans to nearly an hour of songs that, if edible, would surely be delicious, it felt as if a mere fifteen minutes has passed by the time they finished. Those are the type of songs one could easily listen to all night, relishing in the glorious texture and hooks.



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Monday, May 25, 2009
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

Ahmad Jamal presented a tight, affable early set at the Blue Note, playing through a repertoire spanning both genres and decades. After sitting down to the piano and launching into “Wild is the Wind / Sing”—from 2008’s impressive It’s Magic—Jamal quickly stood back up and, going from stage right to left, introduced his supporting cast: Percussionist Manolo Badrena, drummer Jake Johnson, and his trusty bassist James Cammack. He then impishly added, “…and me!” As if there was any doubt.


As a stalwart bop pianist in earlier times Jamal’s playing flaunted timing and urbane impulse, all without resorting to innocuousness. His rhythm always attacked and then defused in interesting ways. Thus his work with Badrena has been a welcome marriage, blending dynamic rhythms and feel with eclectic textures. A new composition, “Love Is Lost”, showcased some of Badrena’s bells and “It’s Magic”, a slow ballad, was made even more tender with gingerly conga flourishes.


Cammack also showed-off his tenure with Jamal, effortlessly playing with and under Jamal’s strong lines. A new tune, “Flight to Russia”, was grounded by a swinging bass line that carried the piece. At another point Cammack played a brilliant solo of modulating octaves, all while fighting over a waiter’s steak order in the background.


Jamal was still, however, very much the focus of the set. Vocally, he would chide his aging hands when they failed him during a virtuosic run or compliment Cammack or Badrena after invigorating turn-arounds. It gave the intimate club an even more intimate feel, like we were picking his brain in real-time. Musically, Jamal was engaging as ever. Though he sometimes stumbled on his most difficult passages, his classics, like “Poinciana”, were ethereal in their resolving harmonies and syncopated cadences.



Closing with “Baalbeck”—written after a 2004 performance in the town of the same name in Lebanon—proved a disappointing choice. Its militant, and prominent, snare-drum rhythm smothered Jamal’s playing suffocating the piece. It was simply unrepresentative of the night’s warm performance as a whole.



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