Saturday, December 27, 2008

Free Local Music

I just wanted to write a quick note about a few friends who have their music available for free download. First is Falsetto Boy, whose recent live performance I just wrote about. He's a solo mostly-acoustic act based out of St. Louis. If you go to his website and click on the links on the right, you can download a bunch of his EPs, totally for free. Enjoy. He also has a punkier album out with Muscle Brain that you still might be able to get a copy of (if you pay).

Second is Savant Trigger, who just released a new EP after spending four months in Vienna. If you go to his really crazy website and click on Free Downloads, you can get the EP and the Terminal album from earlier this year, again totally for free. He's an electronic artist that makes a sort of experimental dance pop thing. He's also based out of St. Louis and occasionally has dance parties that totally rock. I recommend spending some time playing around on his extended website maze.

I'd also like to mention Ian Fisher, who is currently touring Europe and probably won't come back to his semi-native St. Louis for a while. He's an acoustic folk artist that often plays with a cellist and/or some other friends. His two albums aren't free, but you can download them from iTunes. According to his website, he's got another full-band album in the works, too. He's a great songwriter and his recordings sounds fantastic.

Someday I'll get some more of my own music up for download online, but currently you can only stream a few songs off my Myspace page and download some old tracks at my old download.com site that I haven't updated in years. Of course, if you want a physical copy of my latest album, just let me know.

Support local music! (And if you don't live in St. Louis... support independent music!)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Falsetto Boy / Luc Michalski / Jordan Knecht / You, Crumbling - Live 2008.12.21

I've written about the Lemp before, and I'd like to do it again. Last time I attended part of a noise festival, but last night was described by the musicians themselves as "a nice night of friends and acoustic music." It's a somewhat different scene, but it's interesting that the audience isn't all that different. Certainly, they weren't all the same people, but I'm sure there were plenty of people at both shows.

Artists: Falsetto Boy / Luc Michalski / Jordan Knecht / You, Crumbling
Venue: Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: December 21, 2008

Review:
The Lemp is such a fascinating place. Almost every show is $5, the audience is young (certainly plenty under 21 if not under 18), and their mantra-of-sorts is "no booze, no drugs, no jerks." It also helps that the people that run it and frequent it are just so damn friendly! There's such a community atmosphere there that something like the Pageant (let alone Riverport/Verizon Wireless Amphitheater) could never dream of. That's probably in no small part due to the smaller audience sizes and lack of real stage, but still. It's hard to go there and not have a good time.

So, anyway, this was an acoustic show featuring four different acts. I'll write a little bit about all four. I have to apologize for not being able to be as descriptive as I'd like – I accidentally left my notebook at home, so I'm going off of my fairly poor memory.

Falsetto Boy came first. The act is actually just one man, Jim Fitzpatrick, and his acoustic guitar. He played four or five songs, and I would say that of the four performers, he was probably my favorite. (I'm not just saying that because he's my friend. I swear.) His songs often feature some slightly odd tunings and strangely shaped chords, but it gives them a great sound. Nothing sounded dissonant, but Jim takes advantage of the chordal possibilities of a guitar to create voicings that are just a little bit out there. This was combined with his melodies that didn't always follow predictable patterns – several parts provided some nice counterpoint with the guitar riffs. The best song was a longer piece about death, inspired by the passing away of his grandfather. The lyrics were intelligent and there were several distinct segments that together built a cool song.
Score: B+

Luc Michalski was second. This was his first show (although an audience member shouted something to the effect that he has played in a band before), which is cool, but it kind of showed. I'm sure he did better than I did at my first show, but his guitar was consistently out of tune and he was visibly nervous, meaning that he was just a bit shaky and warbly. Regardless, I thought his melodies were good, and he certainly didn't perform poorly. This is definitely someone who has potential. With more experience (and a better guitar), he could become a really good act. He didn't do bad for his first show, and I suspect he'll do better in the future.
Score: C

Jordan Knecht performed next. He forms half of the sort-of-broken-up Muscle Brain with Jim, but in that band, he plays/played drums, whereas here he was sporting an acoustic guitar. Like the other performers, he also played only maybe five songs. His guitarwork was decent on the first few songs, but then for one song, he plugged in to a looping pedal and a small amp and preceded to make a pleasant sonic landscape for himself to sing over. His vocals were probably the best of the night; he sounded the most trained and the most accurate. For his last song, he had a friend (I think the name was Michelle) come up and play one of her own songs, to which Jordan added baritone harmony and lead guitar parts. It was a good set.
Score: B

You, Crumbling came last, and sadly, at least a third of the audience left before he started playing. This is the solo act of Curtis Tinsley, who played on a steel-stringed classical guitar with a rope for a shoulder strap. I wish I could remember more about his set, but what sticks out in my memory is that his guitar-playing was perhaps the best of the night. I was quite impressed by his ability to whip out great little riffs and melody lines on his guitar. I don't think his vocals were anything special, but I specifically recall a few guitar parts that were just really cool.
Score: B-

On the whole, this was a nice evening. As advertised, it was a pleasant night of friends and acoustic music (and free cider and hot chocolate!). I love the environment, and the music was good. Check out the links to each artist's webpages if you want to hear some of their recordings.

Overall score: B

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Statement of Intent: An Introduction of Sorts

[Edit 2014.04.21: Please note this post is very old and no longer accurately represents the content of this blog. You should instead read the About page. This post remains available for reference (and possibly humor). After all, I suppose there is some value in knowing how things started here.]

I'd like to do something a little different for once. I'd like to provide a sort of statement of intent, or an explanation of where I'm coming from when I write reviews. This will be a bit biographical, but I hope that you will bear with me as I attempt to clarify why I hold the opinions that I have. I barely ever introduced myself on this blog, so I'd like to do that in a more organized fashion now. (My previous attempts can be found in the opening paragraphs of my first and fifth posts.)

Hello! My name is Patrick Vacek, and if you can't tell based on a quick statistical analysis of where my live reviews come from, I currently live in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. I am a student, and although I don't study music, I have been playing music as a hobby for about eight years. I have played in a few different bands of various degrees of seriousness, but my solo act (The Nowhere Man) is the only one currently active. Because of my background in music, I evaluate other people's music with a modest understanding of music theory and a degree of experiential knowledge. [Edit 2014.01.05: It should hopefully be obvious that I no longer live in St. Louis. I also haven't been a student in a very long time, and my own musical adventures continue to grow and evolve.]

Perhaps I owe it to my father for more or less introducing me to good music, but it wasn't until years later that I began to appreciate many of his favorite bands (the Beatles, Neil Young, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, etc.). My interest in music began with what was on the radio (bland modern rock), then went through industrial music (Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, Einstürzende Neubauten, etc.), and has now taken me primarily in two different directions. The first path is the best of contemporary "alternative" bands, like Radiohead, the Faint, Belle & Sebastian, and in particular, the Smashing Pumpkins. The second path correlates moderately to the favorite bands of those bands on the first path, such as the Cure, the Smiths, Bauhaus, Joy Division, et cetera. All of these bands fall under the heading of post-punk, and I remember that when I first learned about these and other similar bands, I devoured every album I could find. To this day, finding "new" post-punk music is often more exciting for me than learning about new releases. [Edit 2014.01.05: I certainly wouldn't describe my tastes in such a sweeping binary anymore, even though the bands mentioned by name remain some of my favorites.]

Post-punk is arguably a very broad title, and I think that's fine. After the rebellious torch of punk music exploded on itself in 1977, the next ten years or so brought out some very creative music, and the most common thread is simply that it was born out of the energy of punk rockers that grew tired of the constraints of punk. Somehow, much of this music was largely overlooked at the time, especially in America. For me, post-punk brings together many aspects of modern music that appeal to me greatly. Of course, every genre has the possibility of doing this, and occasionally, each genre does. There are merits to be found in nearly every corner of the musical spectrum, but I find that certain corners tend to yield better results than others. This could be attributed to my own inherent prejudices. You decide.

For the second half of this post, I would like to spend some time explaining my opinions on various aspects of music. Hopefully, this will help make sense out of my reviews. Everybody notices different things about music and is attracted or bored by certain aspects of songs. I would like to explain what catches my ear and appeals to me, since these are the things that guide me in writing reviews.

The first thing that usually grabs me when I hear a piece of music is simply how it sounds; that is, what instrumentation was used and how it was played and processed to end up sounding how it does. I absolutely love songs that just sound different. I like guitars, but I often like them best when they are used in unconventional ways or when they hardly sound like guitars. Using unusual instruments or performance techniques or recording methods or processing tools really attracts me.

The opposite to this is a band that continually uses the same instruments and tones with little or no change in total sound. This happens to be one of my biggest problems with a lot of metal music – the continual sonic attack of distorted guitars means that the notes and texture get lost and muddled in the mix. This can be desirable, but overuse leads to a generally uninteresting sound with no auditory depth. This is similar to how I feel about screaming. I usually can't understand what screamers are screaming about, and it is rather alienating for someone to expend so much energy into something that is largely ununderstandable. I prefer texture and melody over a harsh, vocal cord-destroying scream.

The next thing I'll probably notice about a song is its structure. This takes a bit more effort to analyze, but it's usually not too hard to figure out if a song is fairly static or has several different parts with different rhythms or textures. I'll take a dynamic song with several diverse parts over a verse-chorus-verse-chorus song any day. Everyone can write songs using the 12-bar blues or just three chords borrowed from the folk or punk back catalog – I'm far more interested in complex chord structures, tricky contrapuntal solos, a variety of multivariate segments, or completely avant-garde or nontraditional song structures. In particular, highly repetitious music can really bore me. Rarely is a chorus worth repeating more than three times in a song. I fault a lot of dance and hip-hop music for their repetition, but at the same time, these genres often excel at making really cool rhythms and beats, which can make an otherwise bland song quite interesting.

After general sound and structure, the main thing left to observe is the lyrics. Simply because of the devotion necessary to focus on all the words and make sense of them, this is usually the last thing I notice in a song, but that certainly does not mean I don't think lyrics are important. To the contrary, a song with little else to its credit can be extremely meritous if its lyrics are top-notch. However, inane or prejudiced lyrics, even in an otherwise cool-sounding song, nearly instantly turn me off. I love listening to a song and learning something new or seeing something from an angle I'd never thought of before. Therefore, I'm incredibly tired of hearing songs about nothing more than trying to sleep with members the opposite sex of the singer. Music about love/romance/sex is so incredibly dominant that it becomes a serious bore to listen to a new song that rehashes the same idea already sung about hundreds of times. Some bands, though, have realized that even these topics can be approached from new or alternative angles and made more interesting (for example, the Faint's "Casual Sex" or "Worked Up So Sexual"). Of course, a songwriter could simply pick a different topic and come up with something creative.

Generally speaking, I like it when bands try something out of the usual status quo. I love a healthy dose of experimentation, and I adore songs that just sound "out there" and cool and different. When I review, I tend to disapprove of bowing to mainstream interests and thus to appreciate the nontraditional.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think.

[Edit 4.4.09: I'd like to clarify my grading scale here, too. I use letter grades. That means a "C" is average, "B" is fairly good, "A" is great, "D" is disappointing, and "F" is outright horrible. I use pluses and minuses as appropriate. I rarely give an "A+", since that implies that the work was quite nearly perfect, but I also don't give many "F" and "D" scores since I don't really like bad music and I usually avoid it.]

Sunday, December 14, 2008

(Free) Ticket to Ride

Remember when I saw the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra for free a few weeks back? Well, thanks to SLSO Publications Manager Eddie Silva and fellow blogger Chris Maue, you can do the same (albeit through slightly different means). Skip to the end of Chris' latest SLSO post at Highway 61 and read a quote from Eddie on how to get your free tickets.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Faint / The Pragmatic / The Show Is the Rainbow - Live 2008.12.12


I know, I know, I just saw and reviewed the Faint in Columbia. And it's also true that every single one of my friends that had wanted to go with me to see them in St. Louis dropped out, but still. How can you pass up $20 tickets for a great band on a boring Friday night when you're trying to avoid the reality of a massive amount of homework? So, yeah, now the Faint are not only the only large-scale band I've seen twice, but they're also the only band I've seen three times.

Artist: The Faint
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: December 12, 2008
Opening Acts: The Pragmatic; The Show Is the Rainbow

Setlist:
01. Agenda Suicide
02. Drop Kick the Punks
03. Take Me to the Hospital
04. Forever Growing Centipedes
05. Psycho
06. In Concert
07. Posed to Death
08. Desperate Guys
09. Get Seduced
10. The Conductor
11. Worked Up So Sexual
12. Machine in the Ghost
13. Mirror Error
14. Paranoiattack
15. I Disappear

Encore:
16. Birth
17. The Geeks Were Right
18. Glass Danse

Review:
So whatever, I went alone, just like I did to the Columbia show. This time, though, instead of sitting in the balcony, I decided to hit the pit and dance for once. I made the decision to attend roughly fifteen minutes before the show began, which is also the approximate amount of time it takes me to drive from my apartment to the Pageant. Again, whatever.

The first opening act was the Pragmatic, a local quintet (whose Myspace claims they have a second hometown in Porto, Portugal) that does pretty great nearly-pure synthpop. I say "nearly" because they use a live drummer, but I actually generally prefer that anyway. The other four members all danced around their keyboards and synthesizers, with a lead singer that looks, sounds, and acts eerily like one of my friends who had to work during the concert and therefore couldn't attend. He mostly just sang and only did a little bit of keyboard work, but their only female member contributed the occasional vocal part, too. I have to admit, I think I missed the first few minutes of their set, but from what I did hear, I like them. They might not be absolute standouts, but they had some good hooks and rhythms and all that. I'm currently downloading their latest digital single from their website. Free music rocks.

The second opener was The Show Is the Rainbow, again on tour with the Faint. Frontman/only member Darren was just as wild and active as when I saw him last, but this time he didn't have a drummer and he had a larger venue to run around, which he made full use of. Even if I think he's immature in his lyrical topicality, I love his self-deprecating but simultaneously self-aggrandizing sense of humor and attitude, and his energy is just so intense. Every song finds him running around stage, and usually he ended up jumping into the crowd and then either dancing with audience members, running around the bar, or climbing on top of tables. It was great. He ran past me several times, so I gave him a solid high-five. So much energy.

Finally, after at least a half-hour of waiting after The Show Is the Rainbow left, the Faint hit the stage. And then.... they played the exact same setlist as when I saw them two months ago in a city just two hours away from this venue. On one level, it doesn't matter, but on another... it was pretty much a nearly identical concert; a total repeat. The same songs rocked just as hard and got the same crowd response. (To be specific, the songs that rocked and got the best response were just about all the songs they played off of Black-Wave Arcade and Danse Macabre, specifically "In Concert", "The Conductor", and "Glass Danse". "Take Me to the Hospital" was again fairly unexpected (relatively speaking) and fairly cool.) They played the same video projections and said just about as little as they did at the Columbia show.

The mix was a beat weak because the extreme lows were too loud and the normal bass guitar range was too quiet, as were the guitars during most songs. It's a shame, considering that I like their guitar and bass parts just as much as their synth parts. At a couple different points, though, we were treated to little noise solos by Todd on his special sampler/synth thing. I'm pretty sure he did one between "The Conductor" and "Worked Up So Sexual" at the Columbia show, too, but this time he did one as an introduction to "Mirror Error", too. Also unique to this performance was Todd's mic failing during the last verse of "Birth". His voice went unheard until he grabbed Jacob's mic halfway through "The Geeks Were Right". After that song, they spent a few minutes sorting out the issue, and during that, Dapose did a nice sampler/synth solo of his own.

Other than that... I don't know what else to say. The show was 90% the same as the Columbia show, so read my review of that night if you want more details about their general live performance. It was fun, but it was kind of a drag to realize a few songs in that they were using the same setlist. I was expecting some different songs or a longer setlist or just something different, but alas, only the first opening act was different.

Scores:
If I don't take into account the fact that the show was basically identical to when I saw them two months ago: B+
If I do: D+
[Retrospective Score for The Pragmatic: B
Retrospective Score for The Show Is the Rainbow: C+]

Final Comments:
Honestly, I was disappointed that I didn't get almost anything new. At the same time, though, if I hadn't been to the previous show, I probably would have thought this one was as good as that one, because, by and large, it was. However, I do I have to say, I just listened to The Pragmatic's "Circles" single, and although it is good, I like Haii Usagi's album better.

Why couldn't the Faint have pulled a total surprise akin to covering the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" like they did when I saw them in 2004?