Reviews

The Wonder Stuff

Patrick Schabe

It's hard enough to be a has-been in your own country, let alone one where you were never very big. Thank God, Miles Hunt won't settle for that mantle.

The Wonder Stuff

The Wonder Stuff

City: Boulder, CO
Venue: The Boulder Theater
Date: 2005-03-15

The Wonder Stuff
Before I say anything else, I must apologize to As Far As. I missed your performance. Entirely. By the time I finally waltzed through the doors of the Boulder Theater, the sound techs were already tuning guitars for the Wonder Stuff. I do like to see how opening acts handle indifferent audiences, and I would have been fair. I realize that it's my fault, but I'm tempted to let Friday night Boulder share the blame. It is technically possible to rush the 20 miles home from work in Denver, pick up the wife, drive to Boulder, and find something to eat on a Friday night, all before 9 PM. Yes, it can be done -- technically. Given the turn out for the Wonder Stuff, however, I can't imagine As Far As fared too well. And while I may be trying a little too hard to justify my tardiness, the fact that the chosen venue was in Boulder at all raises questions. Was the Boulder Theater selected because of its proximity to the University of Colorado, in the hopes that some college students might stumble into the show? Or was it because the House of Blues decided that the two radio stations with close ties to Boulder -- the school's excellent student-run Radio 1190 and the mega-corporate KBCO -- were the most likely to maybe ever play a Wonder Stuff song on air? Regardless of the reasoning (and I suspect it had more to do with HOB-contracted venues than anything else), anyone familiar with the Denver-Boulder scene knows how unlikely either of those scenarios truly are. Especially those few of us who are Wonder Stuff fans. No, what's really amazing is that the Wonder Stuff played here at all. Despite their now decade-old history as a major chart act in the UK, they were never big in the States. There's no radio station in Colorado that keeps their name alive on air, and the last time the band's name was mentioned in connection with this area was when they opened for Siouxsie and the Banshees back in '91 or '92. As it was, only the odd assortment of Wonder Stuff faithful would show up at the Boulder Theater on Tax Day. The 100 or so of us in attendance were dwarfed by a theater whose capacity is many times that number. It's hard enough to be a has-been in your own country, let alone one where you were never really that big to begin with. Thank God, singer/guitarist Miles Hunt wasn't ready to settle for that mantle. While I'm stuck in the confessional, I'll admit that I'd worked to keep my expectations low. I was nagged by the questions of what Wonder Stuff we'd get. As I detailed a bit in my review of the band's new disc, Escape from Rubbish Island, this wasn't the same band that captured my heart in the early '90s. Sure, I'd never seen them perform then, but you always wonder (hurr hurr) when you're faced with partially reformed acts. Could Hunt and Malc Treece capture the old sound with new players? Would they bring something new? What we got was the revived Eight Legged Groove Machine, the same Stuff critics and fans back in the UK are touting. When the lights finally went down, a burst of pre-recorded radio static faded into a collage of typically "British" music, a sarcastic reference to Hunt's recent desire to expatriate himself from his homeland. The band took the stage and immediately launched into the title track from Escape from Rubbish Island. They came out tight and strong, bringing a rich sound that was wholly underserved by the thirty-some people who actually got out of their seats to stand in front of the stage. When Hunt finally took the mic and started chatting with us, he was both mocking and friendly, teasing the small crowd for staying in their seats and asking us to hold up little Olympic-style scorecards for each song. He was well-aware of the crowd's small size, the challenge of cracking an indifferent US market, the pratfalls of being a reunion band, but he handled all these concerns well. Later in the set, before introducing a great run through new song "Better Get Ready for a Fist Fight", he quipped that the Wonder Stuff had "already done singles with the little numbers -- like, one, two, four, and so on", but now they were really starting to make it into the "big numbers -- triple digits!" Watching the crowd throughout the set, it was obvious that we were all of a kind: 30-ish, still reveling in the songs of our high school and college days, unwilling to let go of our songwriting heroes. Certainly some of the folks in attendance listened to newer, hipper music, but the Wonder Stuff certainly hasn't captured the hearts of today's college crowd (in Denver at least). Yeah, there was the one guy who came running down the aisles a quarter of the way through the set, intent on dancing hard and singing along to every song, but his exuberance was almost embarrassing (though who was embarrassed for whom remains an open question). For his part, Hunt didn't disappoint. His voice is as strong and clear as ever. The band ripped through a mixed set list that included a lot of old material, tellingly heavy on the Groove Machine and Hup!-era in response to the absence of a fiddle player, and a nice smattering of the stronger tracks from Rubbish Island. Songs like "Radio Ass Kiss" and "Unbearable" brought pleasant smiles and old memories, and the evening had a mild, yet energetic, stride to it that seemed to fit the crowd. But Hunt and company weren't exactly content to play to the crowd's age and numbers. Halfway through the set, Hunt stopped to introduce the crowd to bassist Mark McCarthy -- who looked for all the world like an ex-con Alan Cumming fitted with an Interpol suit -- and solid, intense drummer Andres Karu. They then launched into a loud, pulsing rendition of "Donation", showing that these old guard musicians could still rip through a blisteringly intense rock set. Amazingly, Hunt's voice held out in the high altitude and thin air through some vocal workouts -- in spite of the fact that he and the rest of the band were true to their old form and guzzling bottles of wine (ostensibly high-end Penfolds, but I can't be sure). A great drinker, indeed. All said and done, with a solid set that included "Ruby Horse", "Red Berry Joy Town", "On the Ropes", and a grinning version of "Piece of Sky" offered up as tribute to Joe Strummer, the lost Ramones, and Rob Jones (the original bassist for the Wonder Stuff, who died of an overdose in 1993), it was hard to say that it wasn't a good Wonder Stuff show. Sure, I could point out the songs that I wanted to hear and didn't (I hope I someday live to see "Circlesquare" performed live, and then I will be that overenthusiastic dancing guy), but with the stripped-down, guitar rock-heavy version of the band that's currently on the road, they still managed to touch a fair amount of their catalogue. The only real disappointment was the short set. Maybe only an hour and fifteen minutes long, it seemed like a brief stint for a band that had been invisible for a decade. To give the guys their due, though, mustering a great (and long) performance depends, in no small part, on audience energy. To get fired up and play for two hours to a crowd of 100 people, most of whom sat at their table and cheered politely, is probably asking too much. But if Hunt was bitter or embarrassed about the poor turn-out and non-existent chart success of the new Wonder Stuff, he didn't let it show. In the end, we all got a really good show from someone who seemed to know he was playing to some old school, maybe even diehard fans -- the ones who'd still go out of their way to catch an old favorite on a Friday night. We had real fun. And, if anything, the lack of youthful, hipster posturing was refreshing. So the Wonder Stuff is starting over and more or less from scratch (though with the benefit of a solid back-catalogue of tunes). It's hard to say whether they'll be successful in their new bid to remain active, but if you cared once upon a time, or have had your curiosity piqued by post-break-up discovery, then Hunt and company will put on enough of a show to make you care once more. As their new song says it's, "One Step at a Time".

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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