Sunday, January 28, 2007

Rodrigo y Gabriela @ The Hideout

Another random weekend night landed me in a hilariously long line outside one of my favorite spots: The Hideout. The bar is aptly named; hidden in an industrial area of town near North Ave and Elston and it’s not an easy find if you don’t know where you’re heading. Then again, judging by the queue, the place isn’t exactly “hush-hush”. Hideout has a stellar entertainment reputation (comedy, poetry, music, etc), a great low-key vibe and a line that stretched out the door and down the block.

(Images taken From

My pal Kate had tipped me off to a free early show hosted by WXRT. It’d be fair to say that XRT is “slipping” a bit as far as being a relevant Chicago music resource goes (XRT listener pole, the loss of Sound Opinions), but they’re still an authority if they highlight fabulous musicians like Mexico-via-Dublin’s Rodrigo y Gabriela. Hell, before I even saw them I relished saying their names in a thick, fake, latin accent: “Rrrodureeego Eeee Gabreeeeyayla.”

While we're trying to keep warm out on Wabansia, there's terrific music floating out the windows of The H/O... more slackers (myself included) begin to line up outside, annoyed that we’re not being let in. While we’re standing, and shivering, and smoking, snippets of gorgeous guitar work emanated though the open window facing the front patio. Intrigued outsiders started taking turns peeking into front window in hopes of catching a glimpse.

Within 10 or so minutes the crowd thinned out and the kindly Hideout staff let us in, so long as we promised to stay at the front bar. All of us promised and about half of us complied. Being a good kid I took a seat at the front bar, ordered a round of Old Styles, and took it all in: The bar aglow with homemade paper snowflakes and Christmas lights, the mixed-bag crowd, and the gorgeous acoustic onslaught that was filtering in from the crowded room behind us.

Eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I joined the dozen or so that opted to just stand on chairs and tables in the bar in hopes of seeing the stage. The backroom was packed with the exact type of people I picture listening to XRT and some terrible world music CDs. (Also, side note: RodGab would politely punch you in the gullet for saying they were “world music”). Peering over the adult-contempo crowd, I spotted two mild-mannered guitarists laying out beautiful, seemingly effortless classical guitar picking with a flair that married Latin and Led Zepplin.

When Rodrigo Sanchez would occasionally drop into complicated fretwork, the capacity crowd remained absolutely silent. At other times the sound assault was so dynamic you’d think there were more than a pair of acoustic guitars on stage. Part of that sound is Gabriela Quintero’s percussive style--occasionally punishing her guitar strings to create jagged rhythms and using the hollow body of her guitar in substitution of a proper drum kit. The combined effect of the duo was overwhelming--a full sound that belied the two dexterous and mild-mannered performers on stage.

The show ended (after a superb rendition of Stairway... NOT joking), and Gabriela graciously thanked the crowd in charming, broken English. A few minutes later, (and after a much-appreciated appearance by those Nomadic Tamale Guys) the pair waived goodbye to the handful of onlookers and hopped into a waiting cab.

2006 Albums of the Year, Late As Usual

Top Albums 2006

Ahhhh! It’s the obligatory “end of year list,” and obligatorily posted late, by moi. Okay. I would like to mention that I can only rank albums that I’ve actually listened to. Here’s 10 (+5) albums from 2006 I’ve listened to a lot and have actual insight on:

Preface: In keeping with the concept of the Arctic Monkeys’ debut "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I Am Not" I will say that The Arctic Monkeys are good, and that they deserve to make any and every “top 10” list.

1. Hot Chip, Hot Chip - The Warning

Oh Man. You can’t hate on this CD. This is the kind of record that changes people opinion on a “sort” of music. I.E., my friend Jimmy’s 30-something pseudomentor Chad (that’s his real name). Chad said something like... “I really like that ‘Hot. Chip’ song. Even though it’s kind of, ‘dancey’.” Join the club Chadly! The LP is just too catchy, too poppy, too funky, too damn fun to categorically deny because of dudes with keyboards and silly mustaches.

Free mp3: "And I Was A Boy From School"

2. The Hold Steady - Boys And Girls In America

Everyone’s afraid to put this album at number 1. It SHOULD be. (Hypocrite warning). This is an album I would recommend, without hesitation, to anyone. It’s a straight-ahead rock n roll album… which I thought didn’t exist anymore. I thought every band needed some sort of concept, prepackaged backstory, or clever nod to whatever retro-trend in the band is aping. The Hold Steady has straight-up rock swagger that reminds me most immediately of Guided By Voices. But the content… oh my… the tales Craig Finn talk/sings are wonderful. They’re the kind of personal/universal “‘member when?” youth stories everyone relates to even if you’ve done nothing of the sort: Betting on ponies, drinking, smoking, troubled kids, raging parties, first loves. All of them done in this anthemic, Glory Days-meets-Chuck Klosterman type storytelling. Indifferent to cliché, Finn’s immediate literature reference, “...There are times when I think Sal Paradise was right,” sets a tone for a terrific and shambling LP.

Free mp3: "Killer Parties"

3. Junior Boys - So This Is Goodbye

This is a sexin’ album. It’s an album by and for th’ sexin. I didn’t think Junior Boys would be able to top their previous release, Junior Boys - Last Exit, but they did… well… he did… as one half of The J.B. left before this album got made. Yet another reason why the band can’t be mentioned without a casual name-drop of their frères’ M83. This stuff blows m83 out of the water. Transcendental, groovy, electronic but deeply soulful, the understated crooning (and sometimes just cool breathing) of hit single Junior Boys - In The Morning would have to be my favorite single of the year.

Free mp3: "In The Morning"

4. Headlights - Kill Them With Kindness

“Kind of a new record slipped into a list old safe ones… verrry PUSSY!”. Ha. Guilty. I got this record very late in the year, but, as Last.FM would testify, I’m enjoying very very much. Nothing exciting has come out of champaign, IL since, ohhhh… Braid, until now. I’m a sucker for girl/boy vocals, and this was THE album for me in the last few months. Think Stars (especially Amy Milian-like vocals, minus all the fatalistic/melancholic/depressive lovesickness, then sprinkle with a few exciting influences… occasional Mates of State keyboard fun, some navelgaze dabbling, a track that reminds me a bit of Broken Social Scene, and that standard “We’re twee But We’ll Include One Adorable Techno Track To Show We Can Do It” song. (Ahem, Belle and Sebastian – Electronic Renaissance, Scotland Yard Gospel Choir – Topsy Turvy). Check ‘em out.

Free mp3: "Owl Eyes"

5. The Radio Dept. - Pet Grief

Tim (The Muttering Retreats) turned me on to these guys. What a fabulous album. It’s this kind of new wave revivalism that makes me despise legwarmers and oversized belts a little less. It’s tough not to “influence pick” on the album, but it wonderfully re-creates a poppy The Jesus and Mary Chain thang in a haze of keyboards and drones and looooooooove.

Free mp3: "Against The Tide"

6. Decemberists - The Crane Wife

Mad props for jumping to a major label and putting out an uncompromised LP, especially 10+ minute song sagas. Though, Castaways & Cutouts and Her Majesty… are still my personal favorites, Colin Meloy & Co went from your libraries favorite chamber pop band to a synth-soloing Genesis-nodding pop/progrock hybrid -- quite a feat. And a little unsettling.

Free mp3: "Sons & Daughters"

7. The Pipettes - We Are the Pipettes

I think, technically, this album hasn’t been released in the U.S. yet. I don’t care. Good music travels fast. Records labels can’t control product if the fanbase or buzz is large enough. The Pipettes bring back that girl group era to modern-times, a-lah Camera Obscura, but where C.O. delivers wispy lovelorn tunes with some occasional twang, The Pipettes have style, sass, swagger (and handclaps) to spare. The Pipettes – Your Kisses are Wasted on Meis a gem among an album filled with…well… other gems. The only downside is that the “we all have slightly different personalities and dress in polka-dots” seems suspiciously like a marketing ploy, you really can’t hate on these girls. 1 year from now, the re-united The White Stripes will have the Pipettes open for them. I predict it… it will come true.

8. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Ballad of the Broken Seas

When Isobel left Belle and Sebastian I was 95% sure her success would nearly match that of Looper. I picture, mid-Storytelling tour, Stuart Murdoch turns to Isobel on the tour bus and “Oi, Ah quite like your voice eeen that, buh eeets a bit wyrd, ya know, that one song you du (Belle and Sebastian - Beyond The Sunrise Song), eh?” Isobel promptly gives Stu’ the finger, jumps off the bus with a small, adorable, Scottish-looking suitcase, meets Mark Lanegan in a faux-country bar in near the airport, and after a ravenous weekend in a motel, they decide to record an album. Isobel then flutters her eyes, forgets Mark for 3+ years and gives him a ring when she gets board spooning her cello.

Free mp3: "(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me"

9. TV on the Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain

Good, solid album, and a welcome return after a disappointing debut LP. I feel this one was a bit over buzzed, but it’s still incredible. A good listen, all the way through, the standout being the rollicking, driving assualt of “Wolf Like Me”. It’s SO hard to tell people there’s an indie band who combines, art-punk, trip-hop and Peter Gabriel and have them still pay attention to you. But, the word’s out on them, there will have to be no convincing.

Free mp3: "Wolf Like Me"

10. Islands - Return to the Sea

Who woulda thunk it??? Especially now that all The Unicorns are dead. Turn the weirdness level down about two-notches, and what appears but yet another fabulous pop band out of Canadia. But to be honest, I kind of miss the previous weirdness levels, but their beginnings of silly instrumentation, deliberately incomplete songs structures, and childish deliveries allowed the .666Unicorns to flank the standard pop-rock formula and conquer all. Now... about Th' Corn Gang.

Free mp3: "Jogging Gorgeous Summer"

Honorable Mentions:
11. Belle and Sebastian - The Life Pursuit
Free mp3: "White Collar Boy"

12. Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche: Outtakes & Extras from Illinois Album

13. Jenny Lewis With The Watson Twins - Rabbit Fur Coat
Free mp3: "Rise Up With Fists"

14. José González - Stay In The Shade

15. Camera Obscura - Let's Get out of This Country
Free mp3: "Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken"

Mad shoutouts to an indie kids' savior: The Hype Machine.

And the blogs I stole mp3's from: (not making this one up, promise) Mike Went West Timedoor Red Blondehead La Blagotheque

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Office - Live at The Double Door

“If you don’t know by now... ask somebody else!” frontman Scott Masson exultantly sings to a home-team crowd. The line seems like a rallying chorus for his band, Office, and rightly so. For well over a year now the talented and peppy rock outfit was the worst-kept secret in Chicago. A group that, apparently, was only a mystery to A&R types.

Apologies for the lame cell-phone camera pics. Hey. They're better than nothing.

Yeah, everyone at The Double Door on this mild Friday in December knew by now -- including James Iha, Smashing Pumpkins' guitarist and Office’s new best friend. The bash thrown at the Wicker Park club Ohm after the set was heralded as a label-signing party, as Iha nabbed Office for his own Scratchie record label. (The signing itself is old news as Office’s website let word slip in October.)

Thank god the show was fabulous. Pre-show, the night was looking pretty dismal for me. Our plan to stake out the paradoxical "hi-concept dive" Empire Liquors failed when they were having a private party. Instead, our group set up camp at Debonair Social Club just down the street. The place was vacant -- a hollow space which I immediately realized was the former (and equally uncrowded) Tre Via.

From what I read, I liked the concept behind Debonair, but the high ceilings and non-intimate setting made the place feel more like a cavernous gallery than an enjoyable social setting. That said, my impression might not be a solid one as we were there at 8ish --well before the W.P. crowd started filtering in.

But there was definitely one dude that stood out from the crowd. Prettymuch looking like Fat Joe (give or take some bling) he decided to stand up on one of the booth seats near us and take a biiiiiiiig stretch. Those of us with ADHD who’d been watching film projections of balloons and androgynous twenty-somethings were instead distracted by this guy's ill-fitting hoodie creeping up his torso to reveal his weird, pale, PBR-belly. I tried not to think much of it and considered him merely an effective confrontational installation piece.

So, yeah, post-tubby’s striptease we hightailed it to the Double Door, missing Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, and walking in just as Mannequin Men took the stage and efficiently rocked the place. I concurred with my two pals that they were not too shabby, but the set was more spot-the-influence than we’d hoped -- not that MC5, Jet-like AC/DC, 60s Mod, and New Wave are bad influences to work with. All-in-all, a good band to check out, but it was clear the crowd was there to see the other hometown group on the bill.

The collective venue had high expectations, and Office delivered, projecting the kind of confidence and enthusiasm that creates a magnetic live experience. With sharp guitars and punchy delivery, the fivesome keys off each other’s energy -- all seemed so excited to be on stage they could probably make a desolate rehearsal space the most exciting place to be in the city.

Regaled in a Santa cap and a god-awful sweater, Scott Masson delivered snide commentary and sing-along choruses, while guitarist Tom Smith switched between jerky Cars-like chords and playful Guitar Hero posturing. Meanwhile bassist Alissa Noonan battled illness to pump out bouncy basslines and bop around shoeless. Team cheerleader and universal rock-crush Jessica Gonyea switched from keyboard to tambourine to cowbell and played most of the show jumping up and down to the beat played solidly and exuberantly by drummer Erica Corniel.

Office called Mannequin Men and SSLYBY back on stage for a joyously amateur rendition of John Lennon’s Happy Christmas before crowds emptied out onto North Ave. The night for me ended with some cheap drinks at Estelle's (a fairly unremarkable bar which manages to get LINES outside it), and a half-serious razzing at Western & Armitage’s Green Eye for rocking a tie on a Friday night. Pshaw.