Monday, November 13, 2006

Hot Chip, Cool Bar

Remember the time when people said "synthesizer" instead of keyboards? Incidentally, it was also when fashionable gals were wearing like, tights under skirts, and um, leg-warmers. Well, my nostalgia-prone friend, for better or for worse, that time is back.

When Hot Chip (nay "Hawt Chip") took the stage at The Metro earlier this month, four-fifths of them took their stations behind a wall-o-synths. Shaking the venue's collective booty as much as 5 pasty Brits can shake an equally pasty crowd, they started the set with the throbbing dance-funk of "Boy From School" and carried the energy through the set. Mind you, Hot Chip is NOT a poke-around-behind-a-laptop band. The emphasized live element makes for a terrific show -- for every electric drone and bass beat there's dreamy pop harmonies, guitar hooks, and yes, even the beloved cowbell that's all the rage these days. Can't wait for the triangle to make it's homecoming.

For the encore they banged out a riotous version of "Over and Over" and a few days later someone reminded me I screamed "SYNTH GODDDS!" at some point. Probably when the song segued perfectly into a cover of New Order's "Temptation" -- a well-deserved nod to the Kings of Pasty Dance-Pop.

While my friend was busy slurring tequila infused come-ons downstairs at Smartbar, the remainder of our group took two quick lefts out the door and ducked into arguably the most tolerable bar in Wrigleyville: The Gingerman Tavern. An oddly shaped spot that occupies the wedge between N. Clark and Racine. It's no coincidence this bar is stumbling-distance from The Metro. The mix-matched chairs, tables and billiard balls complement it's equally eclectic clientele. That said, if anyone knows of a better Wrigleyville bar, I'd like to hear it, drink there, and then tell you why you're wrong.

photos by Pegs. Thanks Pegs.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Day Downers Grove Was Awesome.

In what some would consider to be an unfortunate event in itself, I rolled out of bed at 6:30am on a Saturday to head to the western suburbs and catch a children’s book celebration. Ouch.

Why would someone do this? Well, the book was the 13th and final installment of A Series of Unfortunate Events by reclusive author Lemony Snickett, along with the musical accompaniment of The Gothic Archies.


But enough with the pseudonyms. Snickett (who’s never been seen) is the penname of the mordantly funny and slightly effeminate Daniel Handler. The Gothic Archies is the most recent nom-de-plum of Stephin Merritt. The prolific singer/ songwriter/ producer/ collaborator that has made fantastic albums under the names Future Bible Heroes, The 6ths, and most recognizably The Magnetic Fields.

I had no knowledge of the Unfortunate Events series (except for the some semblance of a Jim Carrey film) until Anderson's Bookshop hooked me up with a copy of the book. Despite being utterly clueless, the opportunity to see (and ideally meet) the seldom-touring Merritt was too much of an opportunity to pass up.

It was obvious, as we waited in a line that curved around the block, that Merritt was an obscure footnote in this J.K.Rowling-esque obsession. The cue was mostly made up, as I assumed, of youth -- all clutching their new Snickett book. Well… youth, their parents, a smattering of hipsters and Carol Marin. Some of the kids were dressed as characters from the novel... mostly Violet: the eldest of the polite, book-loving orphan protagonist Baudelaire children.

At 9:30 the doors opened and people started heading into The Tivoli Theatre -- a gorgeous restored movie house. Merritt and Handler simultaneously took the stage, but it was definitely Handler’s show. He strode to centerstage and gleefully introduced Mr. Lemony Snickett with a sweeping gesture and a swell of applause. As the clapping subsided and no one emerged from the curtains the elders in the crowd who were “in” on the joke let out a little snicker. The kids were less jovial about the ordeal and disappointed that the Tivoli marquee, “Welcome Lemony Snickett”, was an out-and-out lie.

Handler then suggested the crowd should do the “Peter Pan thing” and applaud SO loud that Snicket should magically appear. The kids put in an honest second-effort but would quickly learn that Handler takes delight in disappointing children for the sake of entertainment –- a hobby shared by the author’s delightfully evil antagonist, Count Olaf.

“HONESTLY! Why would he [Snickett] lie to children!!!?,” Handler mused loudly, grabbing one of his books from the hands of an aisle-seated youth. “…Aside from the fact that it's easy. And fun." The kids, at some point, were also in on the joke and took delight in Handler’s antics and boisterous delivery -- even when the content of his quips were well over their heads.

Really bad photo of Merritt (right) and Snickett's untouched drumkit (left).

Amidst this highly-animated meanness, Merritt plucked the ukelee to the tune of his new Gothic Archies songs (an album which dedicates a song to each of Snickett’s thirteen books.) Between Handler’s silliness, the author would pick up his accordion to join Merritt in their songs. Merritt, who played the straightman to all of Handler’s hi-jinks, played very little and sang even less.

The Gothic Archies album, The Tragic Treasury: Songs from A Series of Unfortunate Events was TECHNICALLY co-written by Merritt and Snickett. But truth be told, Handler plays the accordion pretty well. In fact, Handler played keyboard and accordion on Merritt’s biggest success to date -- The Magnetic Fields’ massive pop genre-hopper 69 Love Songs.

Live, the diminutive Merritt’s voice is striking, a most unnatural baritone that resonated throughout the cinema. His foreboding (and sometimes nearly comical) delivery fits perfectly in Snickett’s playfully gloomy world. Sometimes buried in studio wizzardy or lo-fi recordings, Merritt’s vocals in-person were powerful -- most remarkably on their song “This Abyss”.

Merritt exited mid-show in a staged fit of embarrassment, as Handler complained aloud about the musician’s “incessant one-chord strumming”. The author then dragged two volunteers out of the crowd to use percussive instruments. Handler thrust a noise-maker at the older volunteer saying, “Here. Hold this. And when I give the signal, throttle it like a baby.”

At this point, with Merritt definitely not coming back, my entourage began to sneak back to the lobby in the hopes of talking to the reclusive artist. Not that I had anything logical to say to him. After blinking at eachother for a second, Merritt dead-panned "It's too early." It was. It wasn't even noon in rainy Downers Grove. And when I realized how burned-out I was, I imagined Stephin, with the tour not half over, travelling and playing second fiddle (read: ukelee) every morning at 10, he must be flat-out exhausted. In the spirit of the celebration, Merritt told me to frown for a picture. He then signed my pal's CD, writing "Beware of Brian. Brian is a spy." He's on to me.

Stephin It's-Too-Early Merritt: "Frown. Frown. Frown. Frown."

Elsewhere in the Tivoli, famed author & graphic novelist Neil Gaiman was shaking hands and signing autographs too. An unexpected but exciting addition to the days events. I personally didn’t know who Gaiman was, but the level of “freaked-outedness” that my friend displayed told me that the guy was kind of a big deal.

That said, the trip out to Da Burbs was well worth it. Though Merritt’s stage time was minimal, Handler was able to keep the attention of people with a near-zero attention span – that being me, my friends, and a crowd of 10 year olds.

Scaring Small Children

November: Bored People Are Boring – Brian's Stuff To Do

Fri 11/10
Metro 10pm
Hot Chip
London’s Hot Chip is a frontrunner in the dancing-crazy-is-the-new-standing-still rock category. Equal parts digital and organic, the most immediate comparison is with DFA labelmates LCD Soundsystem but while the latter can come off disaffectedly NYC, Hot Chip’s modus operandi is definitely “Get Those Asses Moving”. It’s pop, it’s funk, it’s electronic and it’s just plain fun. Shy Child and Born Ruffians open. (Song Streaming here)

Sat 11/11 12pm to 5pm
Do you feel holiday mall shopping sucks the “cool” right out of you. Well, my crafty, “indie”, closet Gilmore Girls fans – I have a solution. Check out the hipper-than-thou S.U.A. Market, which, although still pre-Thanksgiving, is spinning this as a Holiday sales event. Grrrrr. Local vendors will sell a variety of handmade items: clothing, journals, photography, poster art, paper goods and more. Plus some ‘lil sweets sold by TipsyCake. Musical accompaniment by Heligoats, Octagon Island, WE/OR/ME.

Wed 11/15 – 9pm
Norfolk & Western, the pseudonym of singer/songwriter Adam Selzer, has roped in his amour, Rachel Blumberg (former Decemberists’ drummer), and a handful of other musicians in order to craft intricate, literate arrangements that may rival that of Blumberg’s previous Portland-based “collective”. Chicago-based Darling open.
FREE N&W MP3 here.

Sun 11/19
Beat Kitchen
Bishop Allen
Former Bostonites now Brooklynites, Bishop Allen knows their way around a pop song. Lyrics are clever and sincere, and their sound incorporates early Talking Heads, catchy hooks, sing-songy vocals, Brit-invasion guitar and even a bit of urban twang. 2003’s under-the-radar pop gem Charm School put them on the map, and in the meantime they’ve stayed busy releasing an EP each month this year with what seems like a sure-fire hit on each one. Lots of free tunes on their homepage.

Tue 11/21, 5pm
Val’s Halla Records, Oak Park (239 Harrison St)
Val’s Halla Records Movie Night
This Tuesday, like every Tuesday, is Val’s Halla movie night. The renowned record shop has recently relocated elsewhere in Oak Park to a place that can fit like… more than eight people. Crate dive for some discount vinyl, grab some free promo stickers, and enjoy some music videos and music-themed films. Crank it up to 11.

Fri 11/24, Sat 11/25
Logan Square Auditorium
Andrew Bird
A homecoming of sorts for this original Chicago-bred talent. Logan Square Auditorium hosts a two-night stint for Andrew Bird, known for putting on enthralling and inventive concert performances. Bird’s sets are lush with layered sounds of percussion, orchestral flourishes, his talents on multiple instruments especially the violin, and yes, even his hypnotic whistling skills. All this is complimented by Bird’s penchant for quirky endearing lyricism. His whimsical sound draws easy comparisons to Sufjan Stevens, Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley. There won’t be snacks.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Live Music Review: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Architecture in Helsinki, Takka Takka

They could’ve named this show “The Bands With Unnecessary Names” Tour ’06. New York-cum-Philly "indie" success story Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Australia’s Architecture in Helsinki, with Brooklyn-based Takka Takka opening took Chicago by storm early this October before actual weather took Chicago by, well, storm.

Venue? One of my faves.
Ticket price? A bit exorbitant.
Playing a two-night stint? Er, probably not a brilliant business plan.

Tickets were a-plentiful at the box office as the show was going on. Small, apologetic girls were selling their tickets for under face value on Sheffield. “I just don’t want to go anymore,” she explained. Fair enough. Maybe she had a Yom Kippur hangover. Does that exist? Well, if not, it was a crappy Tuesday in general.

Takka Takka got things going off to a… start, I guess. Simple, sweet-sounding tunes, pleasing, catchy, but not incredibly anything. Their studio tracks sound tight, but the pop charm that they exude on-record didn’t come off so well live. Nevertheless, a band to keep your eye on when they come through town again next month, playing at one of my fav venues in the city.

The headliner of the show, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, returned fairly recently from their sold-out show at The Metro earlier this year, ennui intact and ever-growing. The stage lighting creeped me out, but I’m always pleasantly surprised that lead singer Alec Ounsworth’s nasally voice isn’t nearly as obnoxious live as it is on the album. Let’s get this out of the way: A.O.’s voice sounds like David Byrne. I’m sorry if this angers people. There’s nothing wrong with sounding like David Byrne. Ounsworth insists otherwise. That’s okay, I’ve heard my voice on tape and it sounds weird too -- all hoarse and occasionally lispy.

Annnnycrap, the hits were played. Oh, were they ever played. The highlight being an extended loopy keyboard and guitar jangle intro that jumped excitedly into "Is This Love?" with drummer Sean Greenhalgh tight on the beat. CYHSY speckled their show with some new material that keeps their "sound" but stretches the band's legs a bit. I made a mental note to call a song "Krautrock Satan", but I've since learned the song is called "Satan Said Dance." A pretty catchy tune with one exception: The band's pre-planned crowd-participation in which we were expected to chant "SATAN! SATAN!" back at them during the chorus. Neh. Problem is, 1.) not everyone (me) had heard this song before and 2.) I'd rather not chant "Satan" in general... that's just me.

Elsewhere in the set, between-song downtime seemed a bit excessive, and I also took issue with a torturously long applause for an encore, in which most had given up and started talking to other concert goers while patting their hands together. (I learned that the man with the hoodie-inside-sportcoat combo next to me "knows you girls from somewhere... maybe Bank of America?"). Regardless, 'twas a good set. You can't deny CLYSY propensity for catchy hooks, their tireless work-ethic and self-promotional savvy. The young band sounded fresh and confident--a great sign for a group that's been touring incessantly.

Sandwiched between the two NY rock bands were the delightful Architecture in Helsinki. The eclectic group dressed the part--six members (an abridged touring lineup) took the stage looking like a mishmash of high school sterotypes... spaz, jock, hippie, Cure fan, etc, etc. Shirking the deliberately childish sounds of their first release, Fingers Crossed, AiH’s entire set was blissful, endearing and downright danceable (fittingly, as an In Case We Die LP "remix" album is in the works).

Swapping vocal duties and instruments between nearly every song, the band bounced through newer material and brand-new material, smooshing genres and song structures as they went. The abrupt endings and mid-song tempo changes which make their albums a peculiar experience created an exhilarating live experience--keeping the audience guessing… and clapping… and jumping around a bit.

The extended segue into a funk-friendly “Do the Whirlwind” got people bouncing, while the delightfully quirky Jamie Mildren (right) stole the show belting out her vocals on “Wishbone” – the hap-hap-happiest pop gem you may ever hear.
Clad in a well-loved Ryne Sandberg jersey (a move Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch has pulled in Chicago before), singer Cameron Bird delivered his so-called “love ballad from the Outback,” “Maybe You Can Owe Me” with the equal parts whimsy and sincerity.

But before it could get too cute Bird got back to groovin'--hitting the drum machine and rocking out with such abandon that the instrument was knocked hard to the floor. Overall, the new stuff sounds great, one sounding an awful lot like Rusted Root (ha, in a good way) and the whole set giving off a exuberant twee-meets-Stop Making Sense rumpus.

Free Mp3's:

Takka Takka - "Coco On The Corner"

Architecture in Helsinki - "Do The Whirlwind (Metronomy Mix)"

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - "Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood"

(Photos by Pegs. Thanks Pegs.)