Reviews

Stellastarr* + Giant Drag + Cedars

Dave Brecheisen

Rock 'n' roll and stolen cars: those were the night's bookends. But first, the rock 'n' roll...

Stellastarr* + Giant Drag + Cedars

Stellastarr* + Giant Drag + Cedars

City: Washington, DC
Venue: 9:30 Club
Date: 2005-10-05

It's always a treat to find a bill shared by three unique and as talented acts. It's even more of a treat when the show's intensity builds. There was an arc to this show that, if I were given to hyperbole, could be described as sublime. Because I am not, I will just say that I saw one heck of a show that was at different times (in no particular order): meandering, impressive, exciting, comedic, disappointing, dark, exhilarating, and ultimately really freaking good.


Cedars
The first band to perform were the DC-based Cedars. Formerly performing and recording under the moniker Cartel, Cedars have been generating a little buzz (not only locally) garnering praise from the likes of Under the Radar. "This is our first time at the 9:30 Club... on the Stage anyway" quipped lead singer/guitarist Brian Leatherman at the beginning of the show. You wouldn't have known it. From the opening notes, melodic, atmospheric guitars filled the 9:30 Club, engulfing all who were lucky enough to arrive early. The second song, "Fleets", was spellbinding. As Cedars moved fluidly through their set, it was hard not to be taken in by their performance. Following Cedars was Giant Drag, a band that has, to say the least, a penchant for dark humor. After some cryptic, mildly disturbing jokes about terminal subcutaneous something or other (later clarified as subcutaneous emphysema), Giant Drag launched into "YFLMD" -- that's a shortened, more printable version of the song's actual title: "You Fuck like My Dad". The band's sense of humor can be a little disturbing. Even more noteworthy was the music. Annie Hardy's chunky guitar powered its way through the crowd, despite their best efforts to drown the band out (more on that later). Drummer/keyboardist Micah Calabrese skillfully played both drums and keyboards at the same time. Giant Drag sounds more like an archetypal '90s band than most of the two piece acts floating around these days. Their distorted cover of "Wicked Game" sounded a whole lot like I imagine the Breeders would if they covered Chris Isaak.

Giant Drag
Unfortunately, it was also during Giant Drag's set that I had my fist complaint. Now, this may come across all wrong, but bear with me. Stellastarr* are, in my opinion, welcome in Washington, DC whenever they would like to return. But next time I hope they leave the Brooklyn cool kids behind. A more detached and indifferent crowd I have never seen. I know it isn't Stellastarr*'s fault that the crowd seemed determined to talk over a band as loud as Giant Drag. This is me venting. Someone (probably the label) gave Stellastarr* money for this tour, and it was well spent. The stage show was impressive and intense (sometimes too much so). Strobe lights flashed and blue and white light flooded over the crowd, creating an ethereal effect. At times the band seemed to disappear completely behind a wall of light. My second gripe is actually within Stellastarr*'s ability to reconcile. The new album Harmonies for the Haunted lacks the energy of their debut. This remains true when its songs are played live. "Damn this Foolish Heart" and "Sweet Troubled Soul" have all the potential to be first-rate concert high points, but somewhere during the recording and performing these songs, the energy was dropped out. Bassist Amanda Tannen said in a PopMatters interview that the songs on Harmonies for the Haunted are more calculated, "We didn't let any loose ends go this time, we really went over it with a fine-tooth comb." It could be that the fine-tooth comb picked some of the best parts out of the music. Of course, this wasn't entirely the case, "Lost in Time", was dramatic and filled the club with the same intensity as anything from the old record. By contrast, songs from the debut exploded from the speakers. "Jenny" was fantastic, as was "In the Walls." The vocal harmony had been slightly reworked, breathing new life into the song. "Moongirl" was definitely a highlight. Shawn Christensen charged around the stage, while the lights were raging behind the band. The guitars were sailing and the drums pounding. It was really good. I found myself spending a lot of time watching stage left where bassist Amanda Tannen, stood anchored. And anchor she did. Having seen Stellastarr* perform three times, I have to believe that the wheels would come off without her. I don't mean to imply that the other members are superfluous; I'm only pointing it out because the bass player rarely gets the credit they deserve. The show continued to wind, the new songs providing the more subdued moments, the old songs providing the energy. The balance worked well despite a couple of flat moments. The three-song encore began with "Somewhere Across Forever" and wrapped up with the expected, but always enjoyable, "My Coco". As my fellow concert goers and I filed out of the 9:30 Club the energy was high. Stellastarr*, along with Cedars and Giant Drag, had all been wildly entertaining and there was still an after hours party at DC9 that was to feature the members of Stellstarr* spinning their favorite obscure, danceable hits. We were pumped. But I would never make it. "Where's your car?" "You've got to be kidding. Was it towed? Maybe?" "No way. There's only one empty space on the entire street... where your car was." "Goddamnit." (Followed by a bunch of pacing and staring at the pavement while waiting on hold to file a police report). Hours pass on the phone and resignation replaces disbelief. I mumble one last "goddamnit" before dragging myself from the curb and into a cab. Oh well, cars are overrated. Besides, I may have lost a car, but I can say that it wasn't any more of a loss than if I hadn't made this show. Okay, maybe I am slightly given to hyperbole.

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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