Thursday, July 31, 2014

Peter Murphy / My Jerusalem / The Boxing Lesson - Live 2014.07.29

I almost didn't buy the brand new Peter Murphy album, Lion. Murphy is a little past his prime and I'm tired of his occasionally ridiculous arrogance ("I just think I'm out of place, really. I'm like Bowie, Iggy, Frank Sinatra, Elvis all rolled into one"; quoted from here). It doesn't help that his increasingly esoteric interests make him a tough figure to follow, although his continual willingness to follow unexpected paths does mean that you never know when he'll surprise you with an amazing song. Since tickets for the show were surprisingly reasonable ($25), I decided to give the album and the show a chance.

Artist: Peter Murphy
Venue: The Belmont
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 29 July 2014
Opening Act: The Boxing Lesson, My Jerusalem

Setlist:
01. Hang Up
02. Low Room
03. Low Tar Sands
04. Memory Go
05. Peace to Each
06. Deep Ocean Vast Sea
07. Gaslit
08. Eliza
09. Holy Clown
10. A Strange Kind of Love
11. Silent Hedges (originally performed by Bauhaus)
12. She's in Parties (originally performed by Bauhaus)
13. Velocity Bird
14. The Prince & Old Lady Shade

Encore:
15. Cuts You Up
16. Uneven & Brittle

Review:
The show started early (7pm) but featured two opening acts that I was curious about, so I decided it would be worth it to be timely. I assume the fact that the Belmont is an outdoor venue downtown was the reason that the show was scheduled to be done by 10:30pm, although I can hardly complain, since I had to get up early for work the next morning regardless of set times. My punctuality was rewarded with a good spot on a balcony overlooking the side of the stage. I may have suffered some sound quality loss, but the clear and close-up view was worth it.

The Boxing Lesson opened the show; they are a local group that are not appearing on other dates of Peter Murphy's tour. The band is a rock trio of guitarist/singer Paul Waclawsky, synthesist Jaylinn Davidson, and drummer Dancing Eagle. Waclawsky was quite good, even if his singing wasn't particularly notable and his guitarwork was a bit indulgent, but the highlight was Davidson, whose keyboard deck produced the primary colors of the soundscapes. She held down the bass parts while also alternating between rhythm and lead parts. The band had a big sound, a little haunted, a little heavy, but never nihilistic or dreary. In fact, it felt somewhat bright and upbeat, despite the dark vibes. I enjoyed the performance quite a bit.

[The Boxing Lesson.]

My Jerusalem came next; they are the regular openers for this tour, although they are also based out of Austin. Their sound was fairly conventional rock, in the direction of the generic, pseudo-"alternative" bands of the late 90s and early 00s. Some of the musicianship was good, particularly from the lead guitarist/keyboardist, but I found the style to be unconvincing. The music was monotonous and their lyrics mundane. At least they could rock with some energy.

[My Jerusalem.]

When Peter Murphy came on stage, he was accompanied by new guitarist Andee Blacksugar, bassist/violinist Emilio DiZefalo-China, and drummer Nick Lucero. They unsurprisingly started with the opening track of the new album, but this was followed by the relatively obscure "Low Room" from 1992's Holy Smoke. The core of the setlist came from Lion and its predecessor, Ninth (2011) – this is hardly a nostalgia trip or a run-through of the greatest hits. Murphy played a mere two Bauhaus songs and just three other songs from his career before Ninth, all from Deep (1989), his most popular album.

[Peter Murphy.]

Actually, I was quite surprised by how little time Murphy spent looking back. When I saw him in Hannover in 2009, he was amidst his Secret Covers tour, but spent most of the setlist either previewing material eventually to be released on Ninth or reaching around the corners of his back catalog. I liked the variety, even if some of the choices were misfires. This time, though, I found myself wondering if he'd ever do a favor for fans of Cascade (1995). I suppose a nod to the 2012 In Glad Aloneness EP by Dali's Car was totally out of the question.

I think both of the most recent albums are decidedly okay; they are far from bad, but also aren't exactly top-notch, either. They are decent works from an aging alternative artist that isn't ready to fade from view. Thankfully, the live band does a great job bringing these songs to the stage, where they are able to keep most of the strengths of the studio versions and add a bit more live energy, even if some nuance is lost. Murphy did rely on some backing tracks, but fewer than I remembered him using the last time I saw him.

It was hard not to wonder why Murphy was skipping most of his hits and singalongs. Obviously, "A Strange Kind of Love" and "Cuts You Up" were quite welcome inclusions, but other than those and the Bauhaus songs, he was aiming for the dedicated fan. He even played a b-side from The Secret Bees of Ninth EP (2011), "Gaslit", which conveniently happens to be the best track from the EP. But Murphy has a history reaching back to the title track of the debut album by Bauhaus, In the Flat Field, in which he tends to write songs with short, simple choruses but long, wordy verses. It's his normal style of songwriting, and it usually works fine, but it does make the songs very hard to sing along to!

The highlights of the show were basically any time that the band broke out of the normal electric guitar-based rock mode. Hence, the rather atmospheric "Gaslit" stood out, as did both "A Strange Kind of Love" and "Cuts You Up", both of which featured Murphy on an acoustic 12-string guitar. The former also gave DiZefalo-China a chance to use his violin for the lead parts. Both Bauhaus cuts were excellent choices, but "She's in Parties" was particularly strong. Murphy's melodica parts may have been a little off, but at the conclusion of the song, he started bashing around on a drum pad and the song transformed into a wonderful dub-styled jam.

[12-string guitar and violin for "A Strange Kind of Love".]

The most disappointing part was that Murphy exited the stage at the end of "Uneven & Brittle" and called the show. They were scheduled to play another ten or fifteen minutes, and the set did seem short. When I was leaving the venue, I happened to see one of the written setlists that another fan procured. It included the song "Lion" before "Uneven & Brittle", and apparently either "Subway" or "Ziggy [Stardust]" was listed as the closer, but was scratched out. Either would have made for a much better closer than what we got!

I doubt I'll ever know why the band cut the show short, but I felt like I had missed out on part of the deal. At least the performances were good and the band ventured outside of the straightforward alt-rock sound for several songs. I won't complain that Murphy played a very forward-looking set, but then again, his last tour was a 35th anniversary tour of Bauhaus material, so maybe he was ready for a change.

Scores:
The Boxing Lesson: B+
My Jerusalem: C-
Peter Murphy: B-

Monday, July 28, 2014

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds / Nicole Atkins - Live 2014.07.19

Artist: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Venue: Moody Theater (Austin City Limits Live)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 19 July 2014
Opening Act: Nicole Atkins

Setlist:
01. We Real Cool
02. Jubilee Street
03. Tupelo
04. Red Right Hand
05. Mermaids
06. From Her to Eternity
07. West Country Girl
08. Into My Arms
09. The Ship Song
10. God Is in the House
11. The Weeping Song
12. Higgs Boson Blues
13. The Mercy Seat
14. Stagger Lee
15. Push the Sky Away

Encore:
16. Deanna
17. Do You Love Me?
18. Papa Won't Leave You, Henry
19. The Lyre of Orpheus

Review:
Nicole Atkins came out with just a guitarist and a drummer; she carried no instrument herself. Despite only playing for about half an hour, her set packed some power and variety. At first I was picking up a sort of folk vibe, but then it shifted to something more like blues (or even hard rock!), and as the set progressed, I also heard bits of indie rock, such as guitar phrasings from the Radiohead playbook. The highlight was clearly Atkins' own voice, as she was always able to maintain strength, volume, and range. Her guitarist was solid and did a great job making a bedrock for Atkins. He must have been using a loop pedal for the more intense sections, as at times he would play leads or solos that seemed fuller than what one guitar is capable of. The drummer wasn't showy or flashy but skillfully punctuated the rhythm of the songs. It was the type of skillful playing that you wouldn't notice without looking for it, although the small number of musicians on stage made it easier. The only weak spot was that the songwriting was inauspicious and the lyrics merely par for the course.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, despite their thirty-one-year history, are still a growing and changing band. Their most recent studio album, Push the Sky Away, released in early 2013, mostly features keyboard- and loop-heavy songs with mysterious shapes and extended, meandering trajectories. It's a subtle, slightly unnerving record, leaning on the edge of predicting a strange technopocalypse. It's borderline ambient at times. This comes after the band made Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! in 2008, a raucous and loose album seemingly influenced by the garage blues punk side project Grinderman. A more extreme about-face is hard to imagine, but this is the band that followed the rocking Tender Prey with the piano-based The Good Son and the violent Murder Ballads with the serene The Boatman's Call. When I saw the Cave & Co. on tour in 2008, Cave picked up a guitar for about half the set and played in a loose, noisy, almost cavalier style. Before the debut of Grinderman in 2006, Cave rarely played guitar, preferring piano or nothing. This time around, Cave returned to his previous form: he never touched a guitar, and only played piano on less than half of the songs.

[A calmer moment.]

The other source of growth and change in the band is the revolving door of musicians that accompany Cave. Founding member and guitarist Blixa Bargeld left in 2003, long before I saw them the first time, but in the meantime, founding member/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Mick Harvey left the band in 2009. Ed Kuepper joined on guitar to temporarily fill the void, but only on stage. By the time recording commenced on Push the Sky Away, it seemed as if the band couldn't handle being left with Nick Cave as the only original member. Quite unexpectedly, Barry Adamson (bassist on the band's first four albums) was suddenly found playing bass on two tracks, despite that longtime bassist Martyn P. Casey is still a regular member. Additionally, without any guitarists left in the band, a new name cropped up, playing twelve-string on two tracks: George Vjestica.

As the tour for the album commenced, regular drummer Thomas Wydler was not present, supposedly due to illness. Despite that the band has another full-time drummer (Jim Sclavunos), Adamson moved to drums – and filled in some keyboard work. Kuepper was again found on guitar. (This can be seen in the Live at L.A. Fonda Theatre video available on the official website, recorded in February 2013.) Although the band traded Kuepper for Vjestica on stage in May, by the time the band recorded Live from KCRW in November 2013, the band was trimmed to a five-piece without a guitarist or regular keyboardist Conway Savage. Adamson accordingly focused more on keyboards. Now that Savage and Vjestica are back, Adamson is splitting his duties between drums, keyboards, and xylophone. Wylder still remains inexplicably absent.

Despite all the shake-ups, one thing remains clear: violinist/noisemaker/tenor guitarist Warren Ellis is the band's undisputed second-in-command after Cave. Just as when I saw the band in 2008, Ellis dominated the sound spectrum and seemed to call the shots of how mellow or intense the sound levels would be. While Cave's wild guitarwork in 2008 seemed to render Harvey redundant, in Harvey's absence and without Cave's guitar, Ellis' tenor guitar and general noise construction still managed to make Vjestica an almost unnecessary addition. Vjestica mostly played acoustic and/or twelve-string parts, but even when he picked up an electric, he was decidedly in the background.

Adamson, too, was oddly obfuscated. His drumming usually merely doubled Sclavunos' parts, and his keyboards were often lost behind Savage and Cave's parts. His only opportunities to stand out were on a few songs where he played distinctive keyboard parts or moved to the marimba. I like Adamson, and he's had a long and distinctive career, but he seemed relegated to the shadows.

Nick Cave was in top form, slinking around the stage and staring down audience members right in the eyes, but the band felt loose. They wield power and they still make a good sound, but they weren't always quite on target. Much like on the last tour, they don't come off as a very tight band, despite their years of experience.

[Note Cave at the edge of stage, in front of the monitors, pointing right at an enthusiastic audience member.]

To be fair, these complaints hardly matter. The songs still rock or roll just as well as you could hope, and Cave always remains keen and sharp. The song selection was good, comprising about half of the new album and a varied run-through of the band's long back-catalog. The setlist does bear remarkable similarity to the show I saw in 2008, but with the Lazarus songs replaced by new songs. I wish they'd throw more curveballs and reveal some more tricks up their sleeve, but how could I complain about "The Ship Song", "Do You Love Me?", "The Mercy Seat", and so on? I will complain that "The Lyre of Orpheus" is one of my least favorites from the otherwise quite good Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, but that was the only selection they played from the double album. In fact, nothing else was played from their oeuvre between 2001's No More Shall We Part and the new album. Also, as time goes on, I have a harder and harder time appreciating "Stagger Lee", which is just too crass and harsh for my tastes anymore. I know it's supposed to be a cathartic, dark, fabled storytelling event, but it loses me.

It was hard not to feel like the band was going by the numbers at times. Cave and Ellis put in a lot of energy, and the band is still good, but there is an element missing. Maybe it's just Harvey or Bargeld. (Certainly "The Weeping Song" is worse off without Bargeld's vocal part.) I like Barry Adamson, but I feel like he was just filling in holes in the space of the other members. I like Push the Sky Away and I like how the songs are done live, where they sprawl and grow even more, but some of the old songs feel stale, like the well overdone "God Is in the House". Maybe it would help if Ellis would share his sonic space a little more.

Scores:
Nicole Atkins: B+
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: B-

Thursday, July 3, 2014

"Blaue Augen": A Brief History

In the continued spirit of trying something different, today I'm going to provide a brief history of one of my favorite songs, one usually overlooked by English-speaking audiences. The song "Blaue Augen" ("Blue Eyes") is an odd blend of English pop, German punk, and international new wave, a combination usually labeled Neue Deutsche Welle ("German New Wave"). There are a variety of bands associated with the classification, but this song, with its unusually complicated history, involves two of the best.

The story starts with Neonbabies, a West Berlin-based band started in 1979 by two sisters, Annette and Inga Humpe. After quickly rising in the live circuit, they recorded their debut EP, self-released in March 1980. This was the first appearance of the song "Blaue Augen", but not the last. Annette, the writer of the song in question, founded a second band, Ideal, in early 1980, and by summer she had left Neonbabies to focus on the new group. Annette brought the song with her, and a new arrangement appeared on Ideal's eponymous debut album in November 1980. "Blaue Augen" became the band's second single (after the amazing "Wir stehen auf Berlin"), and it quickly became a hit. Meanwhile, Neonbabies kept active with Inga at the helm, and they recorded another version for inclusion on their own debut eponymous album, released in 1981. Both bands' debut albums were among the best-selling independent albums in German at that time.

[Neonbabies – "I Don't Want to Loose You" (sic) EP]

I first encountered the original EP version on the Verschwende deine Jugend compilation that I heard through my sister. It features Annette on lead vocals, Inga on backing vocals, the punkiest sound of any of the versions, and several bizarre saxophone segments. Ideal's version naturally also features Annette's vocals, but the song was rearranged for a more syncopated reggae rhythm. The lyrics were revised, and the verses were downplayed in favor of a big chorus sound, featuring a bright keyboard accompaniment. The second Neonbabies version is similar to the original, but what it gains in higher production values it loses in raw energy and enthusiasm. Inga takes the lead on this version, but her voice is just a bit thinner than her sister's.

[Neonbabies.]

I still find the first version to be the best. The vocals more consistently display the alternation between the frustration of the verses and the excitement of the chorus without going into excess. The Humpe sisters working together brought their best strengths to the original arrangement, and it rocks in a way the others don't, even if Ideal's version has a good but different groove. I also prefer the weird saxophone over Ideal's guitar solo.

It's worth taking a look at the lyrics. Again, the original features the best variation, but they're all similar. A translation of Ideal's version can be found here (alongside the German text), but I will provide my own translation of the original Neonbabies text:

"Blue Eyes"

Neonbabies on TV
Leaves me cold inside,
And the whole artists' scene
Is just too much for me.
So I stay cool – no emotion.

Garish rags from the 50s, 60s –
All hollow and rotten.
I won't be going anymore
To Skoda or Fiorucci.
So I stay cool – no emotion.

But only your blue eyes
Make me so sentimental.
Those blue eyes!
When you look at me
Nothing else matters at all.
Nothing at all!
Your blue eyes are phenomenal.
Hard to believe –
But what I feel
Is not normal anymore.

This is dangerous, life-threatening!
So much emotion, not cool anymore.
So much emotion, not cool anymore.

The insider parties put me to sleep,
And I don't want to be in London.
I get bored to tears
With sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll.
I stay cool, no emotion, no emotion!

All the hassle for dough
Leaves me deaf and dumb.
I won't bend over backwards
For a meager luxury.
Only the Sheik is really rich.

Diligent readers may know that love songs often bore me. However, I admire a song that can take a common theme and twist it. "Blaue Augen" is a great example – at face value, hearing only the chorus, one would clearly think this is a standard love song. "But only your blue eyes / Make me so sentimental" and "When you look at me / Nothing else matters at all" might be the epitome of cliché, but just consider the bridge! "This is dangerous, life-threatening" – maybe there's more going on here!

In truth, the verses express exhaustion and disaffection with the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. I appreciate the anti-commercial, anti-capitalist sentiment, and I like that she takes it to the extreme of even opposing the artistic or musical scene that the singer is caught up in. She seems genuinely surprised at herself for being so emotional about the titular blue eyes, considering how worn out she sounds in regards to everything else.

Sadly, like most songs sung in any language except English, this song has hardly ever received attention in the English-speaking world. As far as I can tell, the Neonbabies versions were never even pressed in any country except Germany, and while the album has never been reissued or released on CD, the original version was included on the Verschwende deine Jugend compilation in 2002. Ideal's Ideal saw limited international release throughout Europe as the album became more popular in Germany and Austria, but certainly never made it so far as the USA. It was issued on CD in 1987 and reissued in 2005.

[Ideal.]

Lest one think that was the end of the careers of the Humpe sisters, allow me to disprove that idea. After both bands released three albums each, they split up, but the sisters reunited briefly for the weirdo Tauchen-Prokopetz project, also known as DÖF (Deutsch-Österreichisches Feingefühl), then later formed Humpe & Humpe (known as Swimming with Sharks in the UK). Both women have extensive careers as top producers in Germany, and both still keep active with their own creative projects: Annette can be found in Ich + Ich and Inga with 2raumwohnung.

And now that you know more than you ever possibly wanted to know about these bands, how about actually listening to the song? The original Neonbabies version can be heard here (despite the appearance of the debut album cover!) and the Ideal version can be seen and heard here.

Sources: