Friday, February 23, 2007

Camera Obscura Live @ El Rey, 2/17/07

“My, you’re such a polite crowd,” marveled Camera Obscura’s diminutive singer, Tracyanne Campbell, a few songs into their set. “It’s almost like you’re afraid to let go or something.” She must’ve just missed the memo: Quiet is the new loud. Somewhere between the latest DJ mashup and yet another remix on cocaine, a sizable contingent of America’s youth has made a conscious move to turn down the volume and take it easy with lilting melodies and some comfortable nostalgia on the side. This was never more evident than at the extremely sold-out Camera Obscura show, where eager twee neophytes (tweeophytes?) piled into the El Rey armed with sketchbooks and limited-edition vinyl 7-inches in homage to their gentle Scottish heroes.

Openers Portastatic set the subdued tone. Led by Mac McCaughan from ’90s college-rock stalwarts Superchunk, tonight the band stripped down to a duo of McCaughan and violinist Margaret White. Still, their ramshackle spirit shone through well-crafted songs invoking early Springsteen (and maybe a little Pavement without the big words). The cover of Prefab Sprout’s “When Love Breaks Down” was a nice touch.

But tonight belonged to Camera Obscura, who settled into a placid and alt-countrified groove for most of the show. Strumming through older songs like “Suspended From Class” and recent B-side “Lemon Juice and Paper Cuts,” the band primed an enchanted audience for a shot of their more up-tempo tunes. An enamored fan bought the band a round of drinks as encouragement. When they finally delivered, they delivered big. As they charged through “If Looks Could Kill” and fan favorite “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken,” their clever blend of Motown, Burt Bacharach and late ’80s Britpop (think the Smiths and Sundays) was undeniably glorious. Ending with a blissed-out take on “Razzle Dazzle Rose,” Camera Obscura proved that it’s safe to put away those Belle & Sebastian comparisons once and for all. They’ve got their own kind of quiet going on.

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 2/07)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Weird Science: Electric Indie Land

“I'm influenced by a lot of the current European remixers and producers, like Justice and Does It Offend You, Yeah?” says Steve Aoki, one half of L.A. DJ/production duo Weird Science but better known as ubiquitous celebrity DJ Kid Millionaire and owner of the relentlessly cool Dim Mak label. He's going on about the current proliferation of quirky superclub dance tracks coming from overseas, with a particular appeal for the American hipster party scene. “But sometimes the music from Europe is way too out there for most crowds. We always want our sound to be really catchy and simple. There are only a few North American acts that really combine forward sounds with memorable melodies, like Junior Sanchez and MSTRKRFT. I want to produce remixes that anyone can play out.”

Taking a spin through the duo's growing catalog of reworks for the likes of Bloc Party, Peaches and Mindless Self-Indulgence, their simple-but-catchy ethos is readily apparent. “Our sound has an indie-rock sensibility, since that's where we both came from,” reasons Blake Miller, the other half of Weird Science, who's also the singer/guitarist for scrappy L.A. post-punk outfit Moving Units. “Besides the aesthetic, the best thing about indie-rock is just good songs. It's essential that our music have really sick hooks. The other thing is that people's tastes have become so diverse. It's cool to be able to marry indie-rock songs with dirty electro beats.”

“Ultimately, it's all about getting people to just go off at a party,” Aoki surmises. “We want to see people freaking out on the dancefloor.”

Both take pride in their relative lack of experience on the decks and behind the production board but are exceedingly confident in their abilities to churn out bomb tracks, with a full-length album expected in 2007 featuring guest vocals from the likes of French crooner Uffie, Lady Tigra from '80s electro-rappers L'Trimm and Steve Bay from new wave rockers Hot Hot Heat.

“Not to geek out, but my favorite piece of gear is an old Roland W-30 sampling workstation. I've never seen anyone else use one, but I love it,” Miller raves. “The sample memory is really limited, and when you sample at that rate, it has a really trashy, cheap sound to it. We like to take certain vocals, chop them up and repeat them throughout the track. It's become something of a signature. I can't think of any plug-in that could replicate that sound. I like bastardizing technology to get really awesome results. That's kind of our approach in general. We try to rely on our imagination and just force cool things to happen that aren't necessarily conventional.”

(Originally published in Remix, 1/07)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Albert Hammond Jr. at the Troubadour, Feb. 14

It’s like the Strokes with a double shot of sugar on top when their mop-topped six-string slinger Albert Hammond Jr. kicks it on the solo tip. Familiar are his clear-eyed and thematic guitar lines intertwined with rhythmic and jangle-heavy riffing, but his eager, optimistic vocal style and hopeful lyricism are a far cry from Julian Casablanca’s world-weary mutterings. Junior’s solo LP, Yours to Keep, is a giddy collection of feel-good power-pop rock that strikes a charming balance between Is This It? and Get the Knack. Taking a night off from wooing the alterna-teen set by opening for Incubus on their current tour, Hammond hits L.A. right in the heart with this Valentine’s night one-off for hipsters in love (or those who at least still believe in it). Now c’mon and get happy!

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 2/07)

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Nightwatchman at Hotel Café Los Angeles, Tuesday Night Residency

Guitar star Tom Morello is best known for intergalactic riffs and the uncanny ability to make his six-string sound like everything from scratching turntables to charging elephants, first with Rage Against The Machine and now Audioslave. As The Nightwatchman, this fervent political activist shows that there’s more than one way to take the power back. Instead of his customary bombast, Morello makes a folksy acoustic turn, crafting stark, plaintive musings akin to Woody Guthrie and even Johnny Cash. Although with his deep, baritone croon, Morello’s solo vocalizing can sound eerily reminiscent of Leonard Cohen. His past Hotel Café shows have been benefits for such outreach collectives as Food Not Bombs and his own Axis of Justice, while friends like Perry Farrell and Serj Tankian often join him onstage, so anything’s possible.

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 1/07)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Peanut Butter Wolf: Sittin' on Chrome

At a packed Mexican restaurant deep in the hipster Los Angeles neighborhood known as Los Feliz, Peanut Butter Wolf looks down at his plate of steak and beans and lets out a heavy sigh. It’s a sigh that’s equal parts fatigue, frustration and a mind-numbing familiarity. It’s understandable, given that he’s only a couple of days back from a tour of Japan (“with Japan, we can really go all over the place in our DJ sets. They’re not nearly as influenced by the radio or whatever”), only to jump back into the studio to finish up work on a new round of remixes for his Stones Throw label. He’s a man of few words, someone who obviously prefers to let the panoramic array of music put out through his imprint do the talking.

He’s here to promote his new mix CD Chrome Children, an impressive compilation of rare and unreleased tracks to celebrate the label being in existence for an entire decade. In those ten years, he’s gone from the “one weird kid into weird music” in San Jose, CA to starting Stones Throw, relocating to LA, discovering multi-aliased production star-child Madlib and having another legendary producer, the late Jay Dee, come calling to be down with the team.

Given so much pioneering and impeccable tastes, the same question hangs ominously over the table, the bustling eatery humming with laughter and conversation – why isn’t Stones Throw Records a household name?

“It’s funny when we look at pictures of the crowds from our shows. There are maybe two or three girls. It’s all dudes,” he intones between bites. “We were going to call this upcoming shows the ‘Wall to Wall Balls’ tour, but decided against it. We definitely want more girls to listen to our stuff.”

Therein lies the answer. Stones Throw deals in the music of obsessive music maniacs, the crate-digging completists consumed with the rarest of rare breaks and vinyl sides. These people are almost all guys, and the last thing they want is their favorites to become common knowledge. That would ruin all of the fun.

“We played a prank on Egon,” he relates in regards to the label’s prolific funk fanatic, general manager and man behind subsidiary imprints like Now Again. “He had an original copy of The Highlighters’ 45 ‘The Funky 16 Corners,’ and we scanned the label and pasted in over one of our own 45s. We’re in his room and I’m bending it back and forth until it snapped in half right in front of his face. His jaw just dropped and he started screaming like a crazy man. That was hilarious.”

He’s far more serious when talking about the label’s flagship artist Madlib. “I really want to do a documentary on him. That’s my next personal goal. He’s just fascinating as a person. He’s down to earth, yet he’s in his own world. We’re a lot alike, even though he’s a million times more talented than me. He’s definitely my brother from another mother.”

While Stones Throw has become one of America’s premier indie hip-hop labels, it’s hard to overlook the range of sounds they actually produce, from the freaked-out lo-fi new wave of Baron Zen (his cover of Katrina & The Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” is priceless) to the experimental electronic excursions of Koushik. This is much more than just a bunch of boom-bap.

“The common thread is that most of it is really dirty, gutter-sounding shit,” he says finally before tossing me a copy of his notorious “666” heavy metal mix (featuring the likes of Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse) and high-tailing it back to his beloved studio. “Some of my favorite stuff was recorded on four-track.” Long live analog.

(Originally published in BPM Magazine, 1/07)

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Aaron LaCrate: Digging Deeper

For the uninitiated, the definition of “Baltimore club music” can be a hazy one. Hard dance beats underneath equally hard raps peppered with hip-hop and R&B loops, it’s an inner city sound that’s serious about making you dance.

“It goes back, back before Baltimore club records were even being made,” remembers DJ/producer Aaron LaCrate of his hometown’s nightlife history. He’s fresh from supporting UK pop queen Lily Allen on her first American tour and in a reflective mood. “In the early ’80s, Baltimore’s nightclub scene was flourishing. There were a lot of different options. DJs were playing a mix of Chicago house, New York house, Miami bass and a lot of UK breakbeat records. That’s what was big in the ghettos of Baltimore. That’s kind of the genesis of the Baltimore Club scene, that weird blend of crazy hard dance records for a really diverse crowd.”

Having been a part of that scene since the tender age of 13, LaCrate has carved himself an enviable position in the DJ scene. He’s regularly spinning high-profile parties from London to Japan while scoring choice remixing gigs for pals like Allen, but maintaining a fierce allegiance to his hometown, personified in his patented “Gutter Music” sound.

“I’ve always kept in touch with the original guys like Scottie B,” he says of the Baltimore club first wave elite. “I was the one kid much younger than them that was traveling all of the time, while they would stay home. I would report back to them how much people in London loved their music. It started with Scottie and I putting out a record, and then me getting involved with people like Spank Rock, Amanda Blank and DJ Low Budget from Hollertronix. The whole idea was just my way to bridge the gap between the old school and the younger generation.”

On regards to his own productions, LaCrate hooked up with Baltimore club producer Debonair Samir to make his signature single “Blow,” which came together in record time. “From beginning to end, that song took about 15 minutes to make. Samir and I wrote and recorded the track in Reason, and then laid everything out in ProTools. The vocal parts were chopped up in Cool Edit. I ended up signing Samir to be the in-house producer for my label, Milkcrate Records. I’m a DJ, and I know how I want things to sound. He’s got the more technical aspects covered.”

For 2007, LaCrate wants to “take the Baltimore sound even further. I’m not just about looping up breaks. There’s a whole new genre of uptempo dance music happening all over the world, and this city is a large part of that. ”

(Originally published in Remix, 01/07)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Moving Units, Test Your Reflex at the Troubadour, Saturday February 3

It’s time to bust out your best striped finery and freshen up those asymmetrical coifs — L.A.’s favorite misfit kidz are back and bouncier than ever. Not that disco-wave revivalists Moving Units couldn’t get the dirty pretty things all wet and wild before. But now that primary Unit Blake Miller has done ample time searching for the perfect beat as half of so-hip-it-hurts DJ duo Weird Science with Kid Aoki, there’s no telling what kind of body-rocking bass blasts will erupt amid this gang of three’s signature serpentine guitar lines and sizzling high-hat histrionics. Nearly three years have passed since their last record, so this should be a good barometer of what to expect. SoCal teen dream-rockers Test Your Reflex put the emo in Duran Duran. Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1983!

(Originally published in the LA Weekly, 2/07)