Reviews

Cracker + Camper Van Beethoven: 17 January 2010 - Cambridge, MA

Chad Berndtson

The two hour set was a strong and generously apportioned mix from both of the band's decades, even if the strength of old school crowd-stokers like "Eurotrash Girl" and "Low" meant exposing some of the weakness of Cracker's more recent material.

Camper Van Beethoven

Cracker + Camper Van Beethoven

City: Cambridge, MA
Venue: Middle East
Date: 2010-01-17

I've read a lot about Cracker over the years, and one thing I've never understood is why they're often referred to as a "straight-ahead alternative rock band". Maybe because David Lowery's earlier band, Camper Van Beethoven, was such a nonpareil, and Cracker does indeed traffic in a more agreeably mainstream type of alternative rock. But the term makes them sound so ... I don't know, generic? Do we so quickly forget this was the same band with a yen for Grateful Dead covers, a bluegrass album called O Cracker, Where Art Thou that paired Lowery and Johnny Hickman with Leftover Salmon, and a version of "When the Levee Breaks" which was rejected from a Led Zeppelin covers album (Encomium) because it was deemed a little "too weird"?

Let's call them what they were, and are: a country-rock powerhouse with enough soul, crispy R&B, grungy alt-rock, psychedelia and torrid guitar jams to blow past any individual pigeonhole. At a recent headlining show in the packed, toasty downstairs room of Cambridge's famed Middle East, they stretched out with fullness and vigor, focused as much on more recent songs as hits as if to remind people they did, in fact, survive the '90s and didn't go the way of former contemporaries like Stone Temple Pilots.

The two hour set was a strong and generously apportioned mix from both of the band's decades, even if the strength of old school crowd-stokers like "Eurotrash Girl" and "Low" meant exposing some of the flaws of Cracker's more recent material. Lowery's songwriting is more disjointed and displaced than it used to be; 2009's Sunrise in the Land of Milk & Honey doesn't want for strong hooks but there's something that separates "Low" and, say, "Get Off This", from the newer "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me" or "Show Me How This Thing Works". Maybe it's smart versus smart-assed? Doesn't matter, necessarily. Whatever's changed about the way Lowery and his bandmates assemble a tune these days is forgotten when they turn up a gem like "Friends". On the album it's a duet with the Drive By Truckers' Patterson Hood, and at the Middle East, it's one of the night's best-received numbers and for a moment it's like the wonderfully sardonic, hard rocking Cracker of old. If there are lumps in the shows these days, they can still careen, too. "Lonesome Johnny Blues" was the highlight: still gnarly and full of that Cracker sneer, with lots of pulsing guitar and roadhouse abandon.

That the reconstituted Camper Van Beethoven often tours with Cracker these days makes the shows even fuller: a yin and yang, maybe, or at least a two-part revue with plenty of common threads. I'll maintain that Camper's gotten progressively better since its 2004 return, as if the band has learned how to have fun again and be reverent, but not too reverent as to become static. Camper played first at the Middle East, and their set went everywhere, from the necessary Camper touchpoints ("Pictures of Matchstick Men" and "Take the Skinheads Bowling" came back to back, both twisted and delightful) to the snatches of ska, klezmer, jazz and country blues that seem to roar out of nowhere, cook for a few minutes and then dissolve into ... well, whatever comes next. You have no idea, really, but the driver seems to know the way.

Lead guitarist Greg Lisher is a cooler, more subversive axeman than Johnny Hickman; he vests Camper songs with much of their personality, even if it's multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel's violin that's often more pronounced. Taken together, the two lead players -- plus Lowery and guest steel player/mandolinist David Immergluck --run the gamut between pointed and frothy, their songs sometimes furious country or punk and sometimes a slippery, less definite acid-rock. They're passionately eclectic and the end of their 80-minute set brought a head-rushing run of songs that hit "Club Med Sucks", The Clash's "White Riot", Black Flag's "Wasted", "Shut Us Down" and "RnR Uzbekistan".

A word on Immergluck; a well-traveled sideman, he augmented both Cracker and Camper as he's wont to do from time to time, and his liquid pedal steel runs and piquant mandolin made him the night's MVP, stealing much of Lowery's limelight. If there's something that both bands share, beyond being immensely professional musicians doing their best to confound expectations of what a country rock concert should be, it's a strength in operating as a collective personality, rather than a collection of players given sturdy songs to play with. Immergluck, a guest, had that, too: he was an ace at anticipating what everyone else was doing, and whether soloing or as colorist, his contributions were tasteful, but insistent. A great addition.

At the end of the night came the customary "Cracker Van Beethoven" showcase, where, during Cracker's encore, members of both bands took the stage together to flex some jamband muscles on Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive". Like the show itself, it felt full, protracted, maybe a little excessive and plenty loaded, but suffered for none of those things.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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