Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » April
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Over the past decade, Jonathan Pfeffer’s band has evolved through a variety of different sounds and line-ups. For Capsized, the Capillary Action front-man traded in his electric guitar for one with nylon strings, synths for accordions, and added a brass section and just about every Brazilian percussion instrument imaginable – even vibraslap.  Joined by Dan Sutherland (drums), Doug Stuart (bass), John De Haven (trumpet), and Julian Chin (accordion), Capsized was recorded in a makeshift studio the band built from scratch on a friend’s private resort in Squirrel Lake, Wisconsin. Once ensconced in nature, Pfeffer challenged himself to out-do his previous effort, last year’s So Embarrassing (Natural Selection/Discorporate). This time ‘round, the songwriter created an album by purposely avoiding habitual means.

“I noticed when I first started writing the record, my hands were going to the same places whenever I picked up the guitar or sat down at the piano,” Pfeffer says. “To rectify this issue, I decided to write the record using an instrument I considered extremely counter-intuitive: the computer. I ended up writing a sizable chunk of the record on my laptop’s keyboard using GarageBand’s musical typing setting. I found by composing on the laptop and applying those ideas to real life acoustic instruments, I was able to circumvent my annoying habits and conjure up ideas I would never in a million years dreamed of on the guitar.”

Though Capsized is the band’s first acoustic album, they’ve harnessed the same absurd energy, keeping the atonal edge and dissonance while remaining poppy. Like So Embarrassing, some songs have blast beats and screaming; only this time they’re accompanied by whistles, classical guitar, service bells, and a long list of whimsical instruments rarely found on a track with the aforementioned trappings. “My initial goal was to write for a purely acoustic ensemble similar to a traditional samba or choro group. I wanted to expand the aesthetic I established with So Embarrassing, but zero in on elements that were still interesting to me,” Pfeffer recalls. “The Brazilian influence has been a part of Capillary Action’s sound since day one and while I can’t deny it’s not a conscious aesthetic choice, I have to clarify that it’s not one I ever make arbitrarily,” he concludes.

Vocal-centric opener “Meth Heads and Mormons” rehashes bossa nova standards blended with contemporary classical atonality. It’s a fucked up pop song with Ruins-esque stop/start punctuation, sections of accapella and crooning lead vocals mapping out the unpredictable formula for this genre-collage of an album. “Brackish Love” is laced with wonderful string arrangements, the verse jumpy with a trip-hop kick-drum ‘n clap beat, plucked strings, and Pfeffer’s aggressive voice building into a tsunami of controlled discord. It’s an album perfectly demonstrating the chaos, pleasure, confusion, and amazement inherent in life.

The first comparison that came to mind while I was reading This Is Where We Live was Nick Hornby. I consider this a good thing. As I’ve said before (inside my head mostly, but also to one or two real life people), and to use an outmoded slogan, Nick Hornby is the Bud Lite of literature. He’s got readability. Someone in a review that I read once referred to him as “shamelessly readable.”

But there are different kinds of readability. You can have readability from someone like Hornby, Vonnegut, Hemingway, et cetera, where though the text is easy to digest, it’s still thoughtful writing. Or you can have readability like Dan Brown, Michael Crichton, or John Grisham, where their easily digestible writing is actually just a shitty plot with preposterous dialogue and one-dimensional characters told at a fourth grade reading level. I would put Janelle Brown in the first of these two categories. I don’t know that I could comfortably put her on the same level with the writers mentioned in the first category, but the bar is set pretty high, so….

Anyway, I think what I enjoyed most about This Is Where We Live were the themes that it dealt with, which resonated greatly with me, maybe more because of my personal situation than the themes being universal truths. Although I think that no matter what people’s place in life, most of the struggles the characters endure speak to the human condition, except maybe the ridiculously wealthy.

Briefly, the plot revolves around the reality checks of two married artists, Claudia the filmmaker and Jeremy the musician. Both of them seem to consistently get built up with respect to their respective art forms, and then their hopes get dashed right as things seem as though they’re about to break (in the good way, like “break out”). Mix those damaged dreams with a difficult mortgage and a famous painter ex-girlfriend who starts coming ’round again and you’ve got This Is Where We Live.

In looking around at how other people are reacting, I’ve seen a few comments about how this is a letdown from Brown’s (Janelle, not Dan) first novel, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything. Now, I haven’t read her debut, so I didn’t have any expectations going into this one. But in general, I feel that if artists find success with a debut there will always be people who are disappointed by the follow-up.

If there’s one thing with which I felt a disconnect in This Is Where We Live it’s that it seemed to be told with a third-person sentiment, like the events had been researched instead of experienced, or a mixture of the two. The closest thing that I can think of that would represent this feeling on a regular basis is when a journalist writes about an event that they were never at, but reconstruct it as if they were, based on an interview with someone who was present at said event. The result is something that may be factually correct (or close to it) while at the same time missing the tone. At times this thought could be applied to Where We Live, but Brown also seems to blend these researched events with personal ones so that there are moments of true feeling paired with more distant story-telling.

Bringing it back to Hornby for a second, after reading Brown’s book a few months ago, I happened to read Hornby’s most recent, Juliet, Naked, which focuses on a lot of the same themes as Where We Live in terms of artistic success. In Hornby’s case, though, I couldn’t help but feel that the characters were merely created as a way to express different facets of the author’s own life, which is kind of the exact opposite of how Brown’s novel came off to me.

In any case, although it didn’t blow me away, I would definitely recommend This Is Where We Live as a good read about the trials of struggling artistically and financially in a society that progressively commodifies such endeavors.

Drive-By Truckers are a touring juggernaut. The past decade has found the Athens, GA, band playing larger and larger venues with every tour cycle. The 2009 Rock and Roll Means Well co-headlining tour with The Hold Steady was a huge success that is still the stuff of bartender legend. Recent months have found the band playing larger opening slots with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as well as current label boss Dave Matthews’ eponymous horror show. DBT has worked hard to attain their station, and their fan base has grown dramatically as a result. The subsequent combination of old and new DBT fans means New York City shows have been set at the cavernous Terminal 5 of late. And while I am happy for the band’s success, seeing them in such a large venue has meant scaling my fanboy attendance back to seeing them, at best, every other time they make it through town.

As luck would have it, the New York record release show for the new ATO Records release Go-Go Boots was at Bowery Ballroom, site of many earlier, great DBT shows. Tickets evaporated with usual expediency, but I managed to get in and post up stage left. DBT went without an opener for the show, which worked well for a school night, especially when the average DBT set easily stretches to the three hour mark. This one was no exception, featuring most of the new Go-Go Boots record in addition to a fair part of its sister release, The Big To-Do (ATO, 2010). Live stalwarts like “Zip City” and “Tails Facing Up” popped up. The Eddie Hinton love was represented on  “Sandwiches For the Road” and both covers from Go-Go Boots. Patterson Hood proved to be his usual convivial self, aided by the ample wet bar set up on Jay Gonzalez’s keyboard rig and abetted by Mike Cooley’s eminent coolness. Shonna Tucker was her usual demure self, rarely venturing into the spotlight but stealing it whenever she stepped to the mic.

The Bowery crowd started off a little reserved, perhaps owing to the large industry presence, but it soon warmed up nicely, no doubt lubricated by the ample amount of libations the DBT fanbase is known to consume. The combo did alright themselves, although old age has seen the crew scale back their consumption to mortal proportions. The sextet blazed through a brisk 25 songs before coming back for their half-hour encore. No one can ever say you don’t get your money’s worth with DBT. With two records of great material in a year’s time and a rare small show to commemorate the release of Go-Go Boots, DBT continue to assert themselves as one of America’s finest bands.

Set List:
I Do Believe
Go-Go Boots
Marry Me
Puttin’ People on the Moon
Cartoon Gold
The Purgatory Line
The Thanksgiving Filter
3 Dimes Down
Tails Facing Up
Dancin’ Ricky
The Weakest Man
The Deeper In
Sandwiches for the Road
Women Without Whiskey
Santa Fe
A Ghost To Most
Where’s Eddie?
Everybody Needs Love
Birthday Boy
Sink Hole
Gravity’s Gone
Ray’s Automatic Weapon
Zip City
Lookout Mountain

Used To Be A Cop
Get Downtown
(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So
Mercy Buckets
Shut Up And Get On The Plane

Photo: Ryan Dombal

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

Founded 23 years ago from the ashes of Bay Area favorites Isocracy and Sweet Baby, Samiam continue to be a much-loved product of the Gilman scene that spawned contemporaries like Jawbreaker and Green Day. Samiam made the same run Jawbreaker made for the big time during the post-Dookie East Bay boom, sadly achieving lukewarm major label crossover success despite stronger material. The fallout of said dalliance with the big time resulted in the same untimely break-up around the turn of last century. While Jawbreaker stayed dead, Samiam enjoyed a curious period of Frankensteinian undead activity, eschewing Stateside shows but consistently undertaking yearly tours of South America, Australia, and Germany, where Samiam are looked upon not only as contemporaries of Green Day but equals.

The year 2007 found Samiam recording a new release called Whatever’s Got You Down for Hopeless Records. Recruiting ex-Split Lip drummer Charlie Walker to man the drum stool, the band undertook their largest tour in years. Appearances at The Fest and various one-off shows followed, allowing the old school to bask nostalgia while affording younger fans who had never seen the band an opportunity to get their live fix. On the heels of that renewed activity and with a new studio album in the works, Samiam has released a collection of rarities and live recordings called Orphan Works. Arriving courtesy of the lovable nerds at No Idea, the compilation collects nine tracks from Clumsy-era radio shows and two covers circa You Are Freaking Me Out (for those who long to hear our heroes cover The Stooges and The Pixies in Billie Joe Armstrong’s basement). Things wrap up with a six-track 1996 set recorded in front of a rabid German crowd.

That adds up to 18 tracks of ace Samiam for your ear-hole. “Stepson” makes two appearances, as do crowd favorites “Mr. Walker” and “Capsized.” Personally, there are a number of tracks from the Astray era I would have liked to have heard, but as Orphan Works seems catered to either undercut or just make readily available their (out of print?) Atlantic and Ignition era material, I can see keeping this within the realm of their late-1990s output. The band is negotiating currently to regain control of those recordings, and hope is high amongst the collector nerd set for an expanded Astray reissue.

The live radio recordings contained on Orphan Works are pretty top-shelf, capturing a tighter Samiam than I’ve ever encountered. There seems little in the way of re-recording or editing, capturing some pretty concise performances alongside snippets of the Beebout live banter, which keeps bandmates and more sensitive audience members wincing. The opening “Ain’t No Size That Small” is particularly strong, as is the romp through “Full On” from Weisbaden in 1996.

Orphan Works seems best acquired by Samiam die-hards and lovers of gatefold vinyl, but there is little here to scare off anyone who still carries a torch for the late-1990s Bay Area sound.

Damon Locks engages with Chicago’s music scene in a way not many others have. Working in just about every sector of the business – performer, designer, publicist – lends The Eternals’ frontman a seemingly unrivaled view of music’s creative ambition. The recently issued Approaching the Energy Field (Addenda, 2011) is yet another sonic leap for the always-experimenting band – the core lineup of which consists of Locks and multi-instrumentalist Wayne Montana [pictured above]; percussionist Tim Mulvenna recently left the band as a full-time member. This fourth Eternals full-length marks 20 years on from Locks’ first long-player with his previous no wave punk band, Trenchmouth.

Skyscraper caught up with the singer for a phone interview just as spring was beginning to grant open windows to the Midwest, a fact which accounts for the variety of wildlife discussed herein.

Skyscraper: The Eternals, obviously, aren’t one thing, but still indebted to hip-hop. What do you think about some of the newer hip-hop acts coming up?

Damon Locks: I’ve been listening to hip-hop since it was rap. I bought “Rapper’s Delight” when it came out [in 1979]. But the last newly released album I bought was probably Fishscale (Def Jam, 2006) by Ghostface Killah. I’m just not interested in hip-hop’s trajectory as it stands, in general. I remember years ago when the playing field was filled with interesting artists, I didn’t pay much attention to Jay-Z. Now, I feel he’s one of the few people doing music that resembles hip-hop, to me. I’ll check out Tyler, the Creator or whoever comes across my computer screen. For the most part, though, I’m not in touch with hip-hop these days.

When I got really interested in sampling it was because of Public Enemy. I didn’t do it back then, but I still thought it was interesting – the work of the Dust Brothers and the Bomb Squad. The way The Eternals approach that, we’re not thinking about it from a hip-hop perspective. It’s more a sound collage. Maybe “War’s Blazing Disciples” uses a traditional hip-hop way of including samples. Some of the them, though, are just interesting loops we want.

Skyscraper: What’s the sample on “The Flood.” It sounds like it could be Phil Cohran.

DL: You know, Wayne made that sample. I think there’s some Ethiopian music in there. It’s not Cohran, though.

Skyscraper: Are you from Chicago? Do you feel connected with that era of AACM players? [Ed. note: AACM stands for the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a nonprofit organization that Cohran helped found in Chicago in 1965.]

DL: I’ve been here for about 23 years. I do feel connected to the city. Strangely enough, last fall, I performed with Cohran at the MCA [Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago].

Skyscraper: For AACM’s fortieth anniversary?

DL: Yeah. So, that helps me feel connected to that lineage. I’m a huge Cohran fan. Plus, Sun Ra. I admire music from the 1960s and was really honored to perform with Cohran. But I feel more connected to players around Chicago right now. I perform in a group called the Exploding Star Orchestra with Rob Mazurek, Jeff Parker, and Nicole Mitchell, in addition to The Eternals.

Skyscraper: In reading up on your work, I was surprised to see how involved in the art community you have been. What do you think about the MCA’s relationship with musicians, and how different is it traveling in those two circles?

DL: In terms of navigating different scenes, it’s all the same. I think it’s great that the MCA has that sort of relationship with the community. It’s essential to feel like you’re a part of the city. I feel like they do a good job extending that arm, but also that message. Creativity or artistic expression, you just pick your medium. You’re communicating with intelligent people and you just have to engage and feel comfortable.

Skyscraper: Do people automatically tell you that your work [pictured left] resembles Kerry James Marshall’s?

DL: They don’t, actually. I really do like his work. I like Douglas Emory, who was the artist from the Black Panther’s newspaper. Those are people who I turn to and look at their work regularly – as well as Jack Kirby from Marvel Comics. Endlessly inspiring. Yeah, Kerry James Marshall’s a fantastic Chicago artist. I like his perspective and I like where he’s coming from. I look to him for that.

Skyscraper: Do you mean the political aspect he brings to what might otherwise be mundane images or on the canvas?

DL: I mean where he’s coming from. His trajectory or his political stance, how he addresses the canon. He’s definitely driven and focused on what he wants to accomplish.

Skyscraper: Whoa, a doe just ran across my front yard.

DL: Where do you live?

Skyscraper: I’m in Cleveland right now.

DL: Nature’s awesome. Where I live right now, when I’m walking home I’ll see bunny rabbits. And that makes me so happy [laughs].

Skyscraper: We were kind of talking about the confluence of creative endeavors and you already mentioned Tyler, the Creator. What do you think about Odd Future and the recent publicity they’ve received?

DL: I’m disconnected. In my mind, almost everything is horrible. Most of the music coming out now is regurgitating ideas or angles to catch someone’s eye. I feel like the creative spark has been taken over by people with an idea about how to market something. I watched Tyler, the Creator on Jimmy Fallon’s show and I’ve seen the video he made, the black and white one (“Yonkers”). I thought it was potentially interesting. I’ve seen shock value before and I’ve heard crazy rappers before. I have to wait and see what I think, because even if the video was well done, you have to give me something more, a different approach for me to sign on. People have been crazy rappers for awhile now.

Skyscraper: I’m taken with how talented they are considering their age. What’s more interesting about Odd Future, though, is that they’re clearly coming out of skate culture. So, in some ways, they’re an inversion of Trenchmouth’s and The Eternals’ understanding of punk and hip-hop. For them, it’s hip-hop and punk.

DL: I can understand that way of thinking.  I’m not sure what I think, yet. Dr. Octagonecologyst (Universal, 1996 ), that’s the one for me. That’s crazy and interesting. And the Wu-Tang stuff. You’re really going to have to up the ante for me.

Skyscraper: Instead of Wu-Tang, let’s just say 36 Chambers (Loud, 1993). So, between that and Dr. Octagonecologyst, we’re talking about cornerstones of the genre. It’s hard for me to compare 20-year-olds from Los Angeles to those works.

DL: I disagree. I don’t give a shit about how old you are. I just want something that’s really interesting. There’re tons of phenomenal records that have come out – I’m not dissin’ them because they’re 20 and I’m not cutting them slack. Minor Threat, Bad Brains, all these people put out records when they were that age. I don’t even know how old Wu-Tang was when they put out 36 Chambers.

Skyscraper: It seems like The Eternals don’t release music as frequently as Trenchmouth did. Is that as a result of life and age interceding or do you just work differently now?

DL: It’s just life and the way things operate. Trenchmouth was around at a time when there was a system for underground music. Some things worked when that band started that didn’t by the time it was over. We were doing records, Jawbox was doing records. You did two albums and in between was a 45, then you went on tour. You were touring a lot and practicing all the time, having your life work around that. There seemed to be a natural cycle. By the end of Trenchmouth, alternative was mainstream, independent labels were transitioning, either becoming part of a major label or just failing.

When The Eternals started, we weren’t entirely sure how we were going to put out records or what label was going to put out our stuff. We’ve always focused on making the music good and interesting. Then we’ll figure out how to get it to the public. However long the album takes is how long the album takes. We’ve also had four drummers over the course of existence. While working on Approaching The Energy Field our drummer left.

Skyscraper: I’ve seen recent footage of just you and Wayne playing. Do you have to compose differently given the new setting?

DL: Tim Mulvenna, who was our drummer when we started working on the new record, he had a good tenure. But there was a period before he left when he just wouldn’t be available. We’d written some of the new album and last Record Store Day, Reckless asked us to play an in-store. Tim couldn’t do it. I suggested to Wayne that we go ahead and play it anyway. He was like, “Well, what are we gonna do? Are we just gonna do versions of our songs without drums?” I said, “No, we’re gonna write all new material around samples, keyboards, bass and guitar.” So, we wrote a set in some ridiculously short amount of time. We practiced constantly. I remember, the day before we played, I was still changing lyrics.

After the Reckless show, people came up to us and said, “If that was stuff off your new album, I’ll buy it right now.” We went back to our home-studio and recorded all those songs, then picked from songs we’d written without Tim, songs we’d recorded with Tim and this whole new set of songs. We played a bunch of shows as a duo, it was liberating and a lot of fun, a whole different kind of performing energy. It was exciting and a boon to us, because we always try to challenge ourselves and make things happen. We finally decided, Wayne and I are The Eternals. We’ve gone through all these drummers, but we remain and we should be able to perform as a duo.

We’ve been doing trio shows and duo shows. Areif Sleiss-Kitan, from Reds and Blue, has been playing with us. He’s phenomenal to work with. Sometimes it just feels like a duo show and sometimes it doesn’t. It keeps playing exciting; it’s a challenge and a lot of fun. For example, we’re playing at The Hideout with a Ken Vandermark group and instantly knew it was a duo show. We also got asked to play with Disappears, trio show. When we’re playing in a rock forum, we’re going to want the drums there, but we have the sonic leeway to do a duo set.

Skyscraper: Are there other bands in Chicago capable of playing in those two wildly different settings? There’s bound to be some crowd overlap between Vandermark and Disappears, but not too much.

DL: I don’t know. That might be something unique to The Eternals, because we are genre-less. We’ve been around and kind of straddle a bunch of different communities. We can compliment a jazz setting as well as a rock show.

Skyscraper: Since we’ve been talking about Chicago, I feel obliged to ask you about Ben Weasel flipping out.

DL: I’ve never been a Screeching Weasel fan, necessarily. I think it was unfortunate and kind of a drag. I was more impressed with the band stepping down afterwards. I thought that was really interesting, not so much the thing that happened, but the way people responded to it. From what I’ve read, the band said they didn’t feel comfortable performing. They’re not dissin’ Ben Weasel, they probably just felt, “This isn’t what we signed up for.” I don’t know too much about the scenario, but I thought, “Oh, wow.” They were just like, “If you want to continue and have someone else play, you can totally do that, but right now, we can’t.” I don’t know if I’ve seen that before, a band just saying, “We’re not doing this right now.” What was your take on it?

Skyscraper: None of those guys were original members. Dan Vapids’ recorded with Ben Weasel before. I do feel that if you have dates scheduled, it’s kinda unprofessional to cop out. Then again, they’re a punk band, so they’re supposed to be unprofessional. In keeping with that, though, if you go to see a punk band play and are then dismayed by how punk bands act, why are you going to shows?

DL: No, see this is where we disagree. Just because you’re a punk band, that doesn’t give you the right to do whatever the fuck you want. Signing up to hear punk music doesn’t mean you’re signing up to be ignorant.

Skyscraper: True, but if you went to see G.G. Allin play and were dismayed he shoved a bottle up his ass…

DL: Screeching Weasel isn’t G.G. Allin. They’re a snotty pop-punk band. We can agree that you don’t go to shows and expect to get punched in the face.

Skyscraper: When you agree to do a show, you don’t bank on being verbally abused by the audience. Sometimes, it just happens.

DL: Here’s another thing, right? No one’s really talked about this, but as a band, you kind of create your own audience. The way you perform and what you put out dictates how that audience is going to respond to you. So, Ben Weasel created his audience with his own attitude. If that goes bad, then you’re going to have to take some of the blame for it. I think your point about professionalism’s interesting, because the band itself pulled back the curtain and said, “We’re opting to be human instead of just going along with it.”

This isn’t analogous, but when Colin Powell was like, “I can’t do this shit anymore. I’m going to vote for Obama, because this is my chance to not be a complete fucking asshole…” I enjoy when someone says, even on a small scale, “I know we have shows booked, but you just punched a girl.”

Skyscraper: I assume there were no assaults when the Eternals toured Brazil recently.

DL: We actually have a really good fan base there. We’ve gone to Brazil four times. Many years ago, we did an EP called The Black Museum (Aesthetics, 2003), to date the strangest Eternals’ release. I really love it, but it’s close to being sound collage instead of songs. After we put that out, a Brazilian label contacted us and said, “We’d like to re-release this as a split with another band.” I did the art work, they released it and wrote us about coming down there to support the release. We were like, “For a five song EP, you want us to come to Brazil?” No one we knew had toured there and we were going on the strength of an EP no one bought in the United States.

Every time we go, we have a phenomenal time and feel more connected to Brazil. The country’s also changed over the time we’ve been going. Most people didn’t have bands when we first went. We were playing great shows, people were talking about us. They just have a totally different mindset about The Eternals. In the United States, we’re a weird band. In Brazil, we’re just a band people like a lot.

Skyscraper: Did you tour with reggae or ska bands? They love Jamaican music down there.

DL: We didn’t. We did do a couple shows with this guy, Victor. I can’t remember his last name.

Skyscraper: Victor Rice?

DL: He mixes recorded reggae. Yeah, we did a couple tours with him. That was a lot of fun.

Skyscraper: Last one, ready? Does your mom call you Dey-Dey?

DL: She does not. A couple friends do, jokingly [laughs]. I used to catch the bus home from work. There was a piece of graffiti on this door right next to the bus stop that said something like, “Dey-Dey was here.” I saw those words everyday and thought I needed to bring that character to life, somehow.

Photos: courtesy Addenda Records. Artwork: courtesy Damon Locks.

There is a moment during Bird on a Wire, director Tony Palmer’s documentary of Leonard Cohen’s 1972 European/Mideast tour that went from Dublin to Jerusalem, when the singer is asked to define success. He tells a journalist that “success is survival.”

That’s a key component to Cohen’s life, work, and the message underlying Palmer’s 106-minute film. Songs can come and go; relationships can start and stop; albums can be in and out of print; books can progress from publication to dustbin. But simply surviving through a day, a tour, or more than four decades as a singer/songwriter is an impressive accomplishment in itself. The longevity of creativity is important – not the record sales, tour receipts, or hit singles. Those achievements which transcend the times in which they are written have a lifelong impact, influence, or gravitas.

In 1972, when Bird on a Wire was produced, Cohen’s musical career was steadily climbing. His acclaimed debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (Columbia), had come out in 1968; other musicians spread his name and recorded his compositions; and critics and audiences responded to his doom-laden, often dour lyrics. He wasn’t as big as Dylan or Paul Simon, but he wasn’t far behind. In fact, Bird on a Wire resembles Dylan’s groundbreaking cinéma vérité movie, Dont Look Back (dir. D.A. Pennebaker), which memorably observes Dylan’s 1965 English tour. As a comparison, in both projects the filmmakers do not deliberately engage the main musicians in front of the camera – they intrude into personal space but do not intentionally become involved in the proceedings. And in both documentaries, the songwriter’s life, personality, and character are presented in an relatively objective viewpoint which appears neutral.

Bird on a Wire captures Cohen’s tour, from on-stage performances to backstage incidents, from media events to temporary moments of leisure, including candid occasions where Cohen bathes, showers, or swims nude in a pool. There are revealing intervals when Cohen loses his prominent stoicism. This happens when amplifier feedback ruins some concerts – during one scene he ad-libs a tune about the faulty speaker system – and when Cohen, while talking with a beautiful woman, turns to the camera to comment on how difficult it is to have an intimate conversation while a film crew is present.

Cohen’s lyrical distinction, which has a confidentiality sometimes bordering on the uncomfortably personal, is strengthened by the film. Palmer’s striking concert visuals use many close-ups to enrich Cohen’s delivery of his poetic lines, but Palmer also utilizes other footage – such as then-current and still disturbingly harsh Vietnam War news coverage – to enhance lyrical details. One notable digital improvement absent from the original theatrical film version is French or English subtitles, so viewers can read Cohen’s lyrics as he sings, which helps spotlight the lyrical intricacy. One caveat, though: some pieces which are not copyright controlled by Cohen do not have subtitles, such as “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy” and “Nancy.” There are also several brief hotel interludes where Cohen reads excerpted poems from his 1972 collection, The Energy of Slaves, which are a mix of romantic confession (“I perceived the outline of your breasts through your Halloween costume, I knew you were falling in love with me”) and political discourse (“Any system you contrive without us will be brought down.  We warned you before and nothing that you built has stood”). Cohen’s blending of body and soul, of a spiritual vigor and his sensuality/sexuality, are also displayed during his renditions of “Sisters of Mercy” and “Avalanche,” but his religious undertones are most clearly heard on “Passing Through,” which includes his conversation with Christ, as well as “Story of Issac,” centering on the Biblical figure.

Another significant Cohen trait highlighted throughout the film is his dry wit, which shines through in a live setting, but is a quality typically downplayed on Cohen’s studio work. Besides the aforementioned episodes about trying to chat to a woman as cameras roll and the hardship of singing over feedback, Cohen humorously discloses what it feels like to sing the same material from one venue to the next, which he describes as being “like a parrot chained to his stand night after night.” The DVD does not have any extras other than the subtitles, but the packaging comes with archival pieces, including a booklet with early 1970s press clippings and photos; a full-color concert poster reproduction; and a full-color promotional postcard reproduction. While those items add to the DVD’s collectability, the film is the real treasure and a must-have for Cohen fans or anyone interested in a closer examination of the artist, his music, and his life.

A number of critics have compared Edinburgh, Scotland’s Broken Records to Brooklyn’s The National, but upon hearing lead singer Jamie Sutherland’s vocals on “A Leaving Song,” the opening track of their sophomore effort, I’m reminded more of Brandon Flowers’ somewhat histrionic yelping. Or, on “You Know You’re Not Dead,” of Flowers attempting to channel Bruce Springsteen in “When You Were Young.” The same vocal acrobatics, which suited The Killers so well on their first album – probably because Flowers’ tongue seemed firmly dug into his cheek – skated into earnestness within subsequent efforts. (Remember Flowers singing, “Are we human? Or are we dancer?” to puzzled fans?) So, have no doubt, Let Me Come Home is an earnest effort. By the third track, “Dia ads Nomodoros,” however, you can account for why some critics might draw their comparisons to Berninger and the brothers Dessner, since the song does sound like an exaggerated version of The National’s more delicately orchestrated dirges.

Or, imagine another band also easily mistaken for Springsteen, The Hold Steady, but with less grit, performing on a sugar rush. And speaking of The Boss, if “A Darkness Rises Up” isn’t a stab at Bosshood, I don’t know what is. You could be forgiven for mistaking it for Bruce in a crowded bar. So it is that after listening to the tender ballad “Ailene,” I realized that the Broken Records really are in pursuit, not of their contemporaries, but of songwriting in that grand balladeer tradition that Springsteen nailed so effortlessly. Thing is, for the Broken Records, it comes a little harder.

It’s not that there aren’t some charming moments here. “I Used to Dream” proves restrained, tender, lovely even. “A Darkness Rises Up” (even the title sounds like a Springsteen mashup) is a suitably rousing effort amid slamming keys and committed orchestration.

It’s probably their lyrics where Broken Records could benefit from the most improvement: they elide your attention. There’s not a lot of grit here, see; not much sticks. They lack the idiosyncratic, often surreal phrasing of The National, the simple, devastating grandeur of Springsteen, or the crisp snark of The Killers at their best. “Modern Work Song” proves the best example. While Sutherland sings, literally, “Give me a job to keep / Give me a place to sleep,” Springsteen would have conjured a sharply-drawn, heart-rending story around a guy needing a job. So the Broken Records break the cardinal rule of storytelling: show don’t tell.

Let Me Come Home feels like an album begging to be liked. It’s an adorable puppy nipping at your heels that wants to be the sage old hound sitting dutifully by your side on the porch.

Episode number two of The Punch Line here. It’s been a pretty good couple months for the yuks. Lots of quality stuff from the British Isles this time around, plus a couple decent forays from Stateside purveyors as well. Let’s wade in, shall we?

Like I said, comedy from the other side of the pond has been pretty top-notch. First up, the new double JIMMY CARR DVD called Making People Laugh (4DVD). Shot in front of a rowdy Glasgow crowd and marking his sixth DVD release, Carr might be the best smart-ass comedian we have today, with a Cleese-ian delivery that should have anyone with comedic taste laughing out loud. Much of the material has a British Isles’ spin that may alienate/confound the average Yankee chuckle aficionado, but I loved every second of it.

Carr has been known to do a fair amount of comedy writing for a bunch of UK comedy heavyweights, including RICKY GERVAIS [pictured above], who also happens to have a new DVD out called Science (Universal Pictures UK). You can probably guess the loose thematic concept. Gervais covers a litany of topics falling under that broad umbrella, including the bombing of Hiroshima and obesity. He also tips his hand as to what one might receive as a Christmas gift once he perceives an inequity. Those of you scoring at home should be advised: it would be unwise to ask him for a puppy. I always enjoy Gervais’ standup; the new People tour and inevitable DVD seem to bode well for more enjoyment down the line.

Flying somewhat under the radar for American audiences is ANDREW MAXWELL, whose One Inch Punch (2entertain) is perhaps way too Irish for those without a cultural touchstone. He’ll need a little more buzz before he makes his Carr/Gervais turn. Barring that, he has a good shot at the Billy Connelly crown down the line.

While you should be thinking globally, don’t shy away from acting locally, as Stateside comedy video has had a bit of an upswing during the first part of the new year with a new set from PATRICE O’NEAL [pictured left]. It’s been five years or so since Patrice released anything and it’s great to see new material. Elephant In the Room (Comedy Central) is definitely top-notch, although ladies and those with more delicate sensibilities might do well to approach with caution. Fans of Patrice and the Opie and Anthony/Tough Crowd camp are probably in the know already, but if not, be advised.

JIM NORTON has a new record called Despicable (Eat A Bullet). Save for the fact that the album seems like 65-percent old material, it’s pretty solid. Jimmy fans are probably tearing him a new one on O&A for the recycled bits, but more casual fans would do well to check out his most recent ruminations on tranny sex, bowel movements, and relationships. It’s more high brow than that list comes off in print, but not much. If you enjoy your lowbrow humor coming from a little more of a high-minded perspective, Despicable is a decent go-to.

Veteran comedy fans are probably aware BRIAN REGAN has a new DVD. It’s called All By Myself, after one of the better bits on the disc. I go back and forth about Regan. He never really out and out won me over, but the great Norm Macdonald perceptually extolls his virtues, so it seemed prudent to listen from The Great One’s perspective. Regan’s a little more family-driven than I normally go for, but definitely funny. I think the fact that he doesn’t do a lot of cursing also works against him, but recognize that’s both personal and admittedly short-sighted. What can I say? I like profanity.

In other not especially profane notes, those who look for a middle ground between Mike Birbiglia and Mitch Hedberg would do well to check out DAN CUMMINS and his new Crazy With a Capital F (WEA/Reprise). He’s pretty edgy and doesn’t work blue; a rare (but in this anomalous case, funny) combination. Enjoy it while/if you can.

On the profane tip, I had high hopes for the most recent DENIS LEARY special Douchebags and Doughnuts (Comedy Central), as I enjoy both eventualities, but much like the aforementioned duo, I’ve grown more and more disenchanted with the modern versions thereof. Leary’s a loyal guy, and as such has old crony Lenny Clarke on the bill. Clarke is pretty funny, even if a lot of his material gets middle of the road for my taste. Still, he gets more props than fellow Leary co-star Adam Ferrara, who weighs in with a pretty lukewarm set making his boss’ performance seem good by comparison. Leary has a couple decent bits, but unwisely tries to work in some sub-par graph/statistical humor that is best left to insufferable crutch comics like Demitri Martin. Meh.

If anything positive is to be taken from Douchebags and Doughnuts, it is probably WHITNEY CUMMINGS. I hadn’t been familiar with her prior to seeing the recent David Hasselhoff roast, but she got my attention there and won me over with her D&D set. Cummings has a new special called Money Shot (Image Entertainment), continuing her crass (not a negative) observations on sex, relationships, and Twilight. It’s good stuff, as is LISA LAMPINELLI‘s new Tough Love special (Warner Bros.). She married an Italian guy since we’ve heard from her last, so while you can’t expect the usual ethnic humor, know that much of the new material revolves around her current man’s enormous nut sack, rather than her usual commentary on dating the urban set. Any and all are skewered, so insult comedy aficionados should check LL out.

Lovers of more mediocre comedy would do well to dig up the new ORNY ADAMS. It’s called Path Of Most Resistance and is the one stop-shop for people who miss Seinfeld and Ray Romano. I can’t dispute the previous duo’s prodigious talent, but jokes about getting fat and things shrinking in the drier aren’t my normal go-to. Maybe you and your Mom feel differently. AL DEL BENE is in a similar camp. While he does work a more indigo path than Adams, it strays a little too far into Dane Cook territory. He hits every eight or ten jokes, which was sadly more than enough time to for me to pursue other options. For the record, he’s better than both Cook and Adams.

That’s my time for now, but next time look forward to coverage of new Chris Elliott and Norm Macdonald TV features the comedy gods have bestowed unto us. Unfortunately, they’re not together, but one can always hope. The Punch Line has also hooked up with the good folk of Rooftop Comedy, so look forward to coverage of their tidal wave of yuks. See you soon. And don’t forget to tip the staff.

Ricky Gervais photo: Rich Hardcastle

Saxophonist Colin Stetson’s sophomore effort, New History Warfare Vol.2: Judges, is replete with a thundering sadness, a boisterous silence, and noises that come from the outer reaches and from deep inside. Over the course of 44 minutes and 14 tracks, Stetson reimagines and exploits the language and techniques of jazz to create his own one-man improvisational grammar that includes concentrated tiers of multiphonic reverberations, percussive tones, mournful moans, and spinning, cyclic lines.

Some listeners might know Stetson through his association with alternative groups. He has toured with The National and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, worked with Belle Orchestre, and recorded with Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, and Bon Iver. But it is Stetson’s solo performances which are the stuff legends are made of. Think of combining Arvo Pärt’s spiritual polyphony with Peter Brötzmann’s sonic aggressiveness, and Mogwai’s dramatic dynamics alongside Anthony Braxton’s jazz futurism. It is all here on pieces that move from dissonance to beauty and from dread to ambient approachability.

Although most of the compositions stand apart from each other, over the album’s length it often sounds as if Stetson never stops playing as he pours out soft, loud, and overlapping notes. And that is because he doesn’t take a break. Stetson uses circular breathing and deploys various instruments – alto, tenor, and bass sax, as well as French horn – to make continual music that may appear to be looped and/or performed by a group of musicians but is not. He also employs deep breaths and adds clacks, whacks and percussive effects with his horn reeds, which aid Stetson’s conceptual momentum.

While this approach may seem like an avant-garde experiment, Stetson’s material is progressively accessible. Each track has a story, mood, or personality. Stetson admits he learned from Waits how to throw out the ego and spotlight a song’s character and setting, and how to harness the essentials to create a scene and bring personae into existence. Stetson does this largely without lyrics or text. The narrative sense is frequently driven by instrumental qualities, not vocals. Yet voices are key components to specific pieces.

Likeminded auditory explorer Laurie Anderson provides terse, poetical dialogue to the Philip Glass-esque, post-apocalyptic “A Dream of Water,” which might have been inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. Anderson appends a much briefer notation at the conclusion of the otherworldly “Judges.” During “All the Colors Bleached to White (ILAIJ II)” Anderson recites enigmatic lines. “Red is a fast color only zooming away,” she intones,” this was something everyone knew.” On the medley “Fear of the Unknown and the Blazing Sun,” Stetson applies post-production editing to shape a duet between Anderson and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden. Worden is prominently featured on a reconstituted version of the gospel hymn “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep from Crying Sometimes,” a dirge-like cut which embodies suffering and the search for salvation and focuses on the difficult balance between faith and doubt. It is easily the most moving presentation.

The core material, though, is Stetson’s instrumentals. One notable song is “The Stars in His Head (Dark Lights Remix),” a re-interpretation of a Bell Orchestre cut. Listeners might recognize it since it was included on a 2009 Bell Orchestre remix project. Stetson enhances his honking sax solo and a repeating motif with vocalizations produced by actually singing through his sax. The result is like a phantomed chorus. The sepulchral “Clothed in the Skin of the Dead” uses a recurrent theme where Stetson subtly shifts timbres to generate arpeggiated lines which intersect and interrelate. While many tracks have a cinematic correlation, the closing work, “In Love and in Justice,” is the most filmic item. The ephemeral arrangement has a sensitive sympathy akin to one of the final sections in Terrence Malick’s World War II motion picture, The Thin Red Line (1998), when a soldier meets death with calm detachment and blissful inevitability.

New History Warfare Vol.2: Judges is more than a snapshot of an artist in the studio. During the recording Stetson organized 20 microphones around him. Afterward he mixed and manipulated the taped music to construct an alternate edition of the studio experience and, in the process, evolved the album into something built on improvisations but formulated into a design which is different than what exists in reality. It is too soon to tell just how far Stetson’s imagination and theoretical framework will take him but one thing is clear, his forthcoming activity will be fascinating to hear.

Book writing’s a herculean task and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly, even as volumes based on Twitter accounts are spiraling our culture into a rubbish bin no one seems to have noticed yet.

With that in mind, the wealth of non-fiction books over the last few years detailing specific 1980s bands or scenes hasn’t been the most troublesome development in underground culture’s broadening. Volumes on gunk punk (whatever that is), Cheetah Chrome, and Hüsker Dü have all been well received. They should be. Even if some of that prose gets called into question – and rightly so – the stories and attendant perspectives remain unique enough to get those tomes over. Jim Miller, as well meaning as he surely is, doesn’t write a mean sentence and, unfortunately, was far enough over on music’s periphery that his memoir, Niceness in the ‘90s, reads like a short pamphlet typed up for the benefit of friends and relatives. It’s 288 pages, but that’s with some decent sized typeface and a wealth of blank pages interspersed among the three or four page chapters. Yup, three or four page chapters.

Not to rail against the guy without reason – and surely, whoever marketed this thing is more to blame than its author – but if a book’s billed as having some inside track on Nirvana, Hole, and whoever else was set to make it big during the late 1980s and early 1990s indie music scene, there should actually be a few good stories. Instead, there are repeated qualifications about not really knowing Kurt Cobain personally, just meeting him, and a few wind sucking Dave Grohl asides. The latter, at least, come correct with self-effacing critique to close out the book.

Before Miller’s life whizzes by, there are a few engaging moments – his friendship with L7 and West Coast tours he went on. Punctuation aside, feeling like this thing was dashed off at a moment’s notice is almost an inevitability. Similar attempts at personalizing history generally serve to investigate the ins and outs of a time or the maturation of a movement. Miller, a musician living in Los Angeles, had plenty of opportunity to do that, whether it was through his affiliation with Sympathy for the Record Industry or a fuller view of Jane’s Addiction. Something. Briefly, the author retells getting drunk for a few days and dicking around with his guitar during the last set of LA Riots concurrent with Rodney King’s assault. While reading this particular chapter, we should all be asking for more detail and for Miller to draw out his observations. That’s what books are for. At times, Niceness in the ‘90s feels like an assortment of (really) short recollections. It’s not going to satisfy most voracious readers. But if an afternoon with a few free hours is ahead of you, there are surely worse ways to spend it than reading about this guy’s life.