Wednesday, October 29, 2008

You Can Vote However You Like

October 29, 2008

You Can Vote However You Like

"Young Barack Obama, I'm all for it," Juelz Santana raps on "Black Republicans", which eventually appeared on Lil Wayne's phenomenal Da Drought 3 mixtape last year. It wasn't the first pop-music recording to mention the junior Senator from Illinois-- Neil Young name-checks Obama on "Lookin' for a Leader", from 2006's scattershot Living With War, for one-- but it was the first that I had on repeat. "Black Republicans" surfaced on the internet in January 2007, a full year before Obama's game-changing Iowa caucus victory over Hillary Clinton. I mainly liked the track for Wayne and Santana's lyrical Lambeau leaps and shameless flouting of more established rappers, but there was also a weird thrill in hearing my personal political-news-junkiedom echoed in pop culture. When the original "Black Republican" (singular-- don't ask me) showed up on Nas's Hip Hop Is Dead in December 2006, it was momentous not because of any (dubious) political content, but because the track was the first-ever collaboration between Nas and longtime rival Jay-Z.
Fast-forward to 2008. Rapping over one of Wayne's most-rapped-over beats, Bangladesh-produced Tha Carter III single "A Milli", Jay-Z joyfully describes himself as "the hood's Barack." Nas samples Obama's idealistic Iowa victory speech and a pessimistic line from 2Pac's "Changes" for his untitled ninth album's "Black President". Of course, there's's celeb-packed "Yes We Can" video, which turns lyrical political rhetoric into music that sounds like political rhetoric. Russell Simmons and mixtape DJ Green Lantern eventually dropped an Obama mixtape, and rappers Kidz in the Hall and Common have paid tribute, as well. Half-Kenyan band Extra Golden recorded "Obama", and an instrumental version of the National's "Fake Empire" appeared in an Obama ad. There have also been hundreds of amateur efforts, from "the Obama girl" and Amigos de Obama's Spanish-language, reggaeton "Obama" on down. It would take more than 55 hours to listen to the 1,000-plus songs about the Democratic nominee uploaded to the YouTube playlist Obama Songs.
By the pop-music metric, John McCain was behind even before his October descent in state and national polls. Despite an endorsement from Daddy Yankee, the biggest music-related headlines from the Arizona senator's campaign were often negative: One by one, artists complained about the use of their songs at campaign events, from Heart to John Mellencamp to the Foo Fighters. Jackson Browne even sued. Toby Keith, who had delighted conservatives with ass-kicking 9/11 anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American)", called Obama the "best Democratic candidate we've had since Bill Clinton." As if twisting the knife, he added, "And that's coming from a Democrat." Kid Rock, who performed at a Republican National Convention-related event in 2004, has been conspicuously noncommital this time around. But the current Republican presidential nominee has his musical tributes, too. John Rich of country music duo Big & Rich wrote and sang a Chuck Berry-style rock'n'roll rave-up called "Raisin' McCain", and Hank Williams, Jr. attacked Obama and all his rowdy "terrorist friends" in the honky-tonk number "McCain-Palin Tradition" (an update of his own 1970s hit "Family Tradition").
In a presidential election year where both candidates claim a mantle of "change," the use of original campaign songs is, to be sure, nothing new. People who took high school U.S. history may remember "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", the slogan from a popular 1840 campaign song praising Whig candidates William Henry Harrison and John Tyler at the expense of Democratic incumbent Martin Van Buren. But what about "Get on the Raft With Taft" for William Taft in 1912? "Happy Days Are Here Again" was Franklin D. Roosevelt's theme song in 1932, Dwight Eisenhower ran to Irving Berlin's "I Like Ike" in 1952, and Frank Sinatra customized James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn's "High Hopes" for John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Although campaigns continued coming up with new songs well into the latter half of the 20th century, what ultimately spelled the campaign song's d-o-o-m was the rise of TV and radio to replace rallies, parades, and boisterous bands, Frederick N. Rasmussen writes in the Baltimore Sun, citing Irwin Silber's 1971 book Songs America Votes By. If a changing media climate is (at least part of) what has consigned 1960 Richard Nixon campaign theme "Click With Dick" to the dustbin of history, though, it's also a big reason why candidates are becoming associated with custom-written songs again today. Nowhere else but on YouTube would's "Yes We Can" video have almost 11 million views; even Mike Huckabee has "Stuck on Huck", and Ron Paul can boast several online tribute songs. In that sense, the "netroots" associated with Howard Dean's failed 2004 campaign have become real even beyond their ability to fill campaign coffers with many small donations, as internet use has gradually gained ground on TV viewing as a media source.
With the presidency of George W. Bush sinking toward its current 25% approval rate, critics and pundits often asked what happened to the political music of previous eras. Where was our equivalent of Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'", Hüsker Dü's "Divide and Conquer", or Heaven 17's "(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang"? Robert Christgau has repped for James McMurtry's seven-minute "We Can't Make It Here", but its Texas Americana-rock doesn't sound much like the present multicultural moment; the fake folksiness of millionaire TV pundits notwithstanding, any extra votes Obama may get from traditionally Democratic demographics like women and African-Americans count just as much as the votes of traditionally Republican-leaning white males like "Joe the Plumber." I initially took John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change" as a derivative wuss-out (when Bob Marley interpolated a Curtis Mayfield song, he at least gave the man a share of royalties), but Christgau argued pretty persuasively at this year's EMP Pop Conference that the 2007 radio hit opens a dialogue with an audience big enough to count on Election Day. Sadly, you can't say that about politically minded records like TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain, Super Furry Animals' Love Kraft, or Josh Ritter's The Animal Years.
2008 has been a year of not just political songs, however, but campaign songs, at a moment when a black man finally has a genuine chance of becoming president. The historic nature of such an accomplishment has informed many of the pro-Obama songs this year in a way that running to be the oldest president ever elected could never have boosted McCain, even if you set aside the youth-leaning bias of pop music. And race perhaps explains why some of the most interesting and most widely disseminated campaign songs this year, from "A Billi" to "Yes We Can", have come from hip-hop, while one-time Obama openers the Decemberists (used by conservatives to explain the huge crowds at one Obama event-- and to imply Obama is communist) are still singing about "Valerie Plame". At the end of two decades during which mainstream rock critics and fans of rap's "golden age" have decried the violence, misogyny, and materialism in hip-hop, it's telling that one of this pop-music genre's most critically and commercially successful artists, Jay-Z, is seeking to link himself with a politician, rather than the other way around. CurrentVibe cover star Obama is, by all appearances, the most popular figure in hip-hop. (Just don't tell that to DMX, who asked XXL magazine, "What the fuck is a Barack?")
The candidates themselves have stuck mostly to the campaign-song model of the TV era, using previously written music at their events. I've already mentioned the complaints McCain has received from some musicians, reminiscent of the debate over Ronald Reagan's use of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." in 1984. However, McCain has often also used Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode", along with Kenny Loggins' Top Gun song "Danger Zone" (amusingly, CNN's Bob Greene recently appeared to miss the "Maverick" connection there; in fairness, most dance-music fans probably missed the connection to disco legend Giorgio Moroder, who co-wrote the tune). McCain and Obama both have used Brooks & Dunn's "Only in America", a song previously claimed by Bush. Obama has also frequently been known to play Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours" after speeches. But none of these songs have been for the candidates what Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" was for Bill Clinton in 1992.
If history is any guide, campaign songs are usually as ephemeral as the worst novelty schlock. Regardless of who wins on election day,'s "Yes We Can" and Rich's "Raisin' McCain" may soon be as hard to stomach as "Macarena" or "Mambo No. 5"-- assuming they aren't already. Or do you still rock "Go With Goldwater" every morning on your iPod? This year's best campaign songs, aesthetically if not politically, are the ones that incorporate their candidates' messages in new, subtle ways, rather than simply reciting the flimsy media narratives that can turn both sides, liberals and conservatives, Olbermann viewers and Limbaugh listeners, TalkingPointsMemo readers and LittleGreenFootballs posters, into unthinking dittoheads. Hell, one song that isn't political at all, T.I.'s No. 1 hit "Whatever You Like", has already become part of the political discussion in three hilariously great ways: as a Joe Biden endorsement; as a Weird Al song about recession; and, as Idolator pointed out, as a group of totally adorable school kids singing "You Can Vote However You Like".
Here's an unscientific sampling of 10 songs mentioning the candidates (plus one relevant outlier) that I think are worth discussing in greater depth. Barring another 2000-style quagmire, we may find out the night of Nov. 4 whether there's any truth to Obama's recent boast on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show": "I'm convinced I'm a better dancer than John McCain." Come to think of it, let's skip the election and decide the presidency with a special evening of "Dancing With the Stars". Makes about as much sense as the Electoral College.
Nas' untitled album this year was a typical post-heyday Nas album: uneven, with a few moments of lyrical brilliance, and questionable beatmaking decisions. This song has its flaws, too-- when Nas is "like, what the fuck?", so am I-- but whether on the official LP or on Nas' The Nigger Tape with Green Lantern, this song's drummer-boy beat and debate between Nas's positivity and 2Pac's weary skepticism has kept me coming back more than any other campaign-related tune. My wife taught it in her 7th grade English class last school year in Brooklyn; her students liked it, too. Key line: "It ain't the '60s again."
Hova may not be a billionaire yet, but in a year when even Danish waterfall artistswere rhyming over "A Milli", Jay's enthusiastic bling-politics rhymes here are rivaled only by Fabolous and Lil Mama among the (too many) "A Milli" versions I've heard.
Speaking of "bling-politics", one-time undecided voter Young Jeezy sounds masterful on arguably the least explicitly political Obama song of all. His president is black, his Lambo is blue-- so what? Same difference. "I'm important, too," Jeezy exhorts, comparing his motivational ability to Obama's. Nas sounds like he got lost and ended up on the wrong track.
The wah-wahing soul funk of recession-scarred "Something's Gotta Give" is perfect for Big Boi's flexible flow and Mary J. Blige's gorgeously smoky vocals. Blige is the one who big-ups B.O., but Boi has a political statement to make to self-styled music connoisseurs, too: "The great debaters debate about who's the greatest MC/ Subject matter don't matter because their verses empty/ No room for thought, nothing for the brain to digest/ So I guess it be about who can jive talk the best."
I liked this one better when it didn't have fiddles or sound like "Monday Night Football" and was called "Johnny B. Goode". Also, what does "Raisin' McCain" mean, exactly? I thought I was supposed to be the media elitist who doesn't know my Bible. "Play that American guitar, son." As for the video, well, I see white people.
Hank Williams, Jr., like most Americans, doesn't believe that ol' "left-wing liberal media" anyway, so I won't explain to him that the financial crisis has nothing to do with bankers not wanting to make loans and Bill Clinton saying, "You got to." When being a Republican means you can't know what a credit default swap is, the recent poll numbers make a lot more sense.
Bethesda, Md.-based lawyer and amateur musician Judd Kessler's earnest, piano-based message of unity is my favorite McCain anthem. "Imagine someone with a real voice singing it," he says. Aw, dude, you're welcome in indie rock anytime.
When former "Ego Trip's (White) Rapper Show" contestant John Brown first released his tribute to Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, I was hesitant to discuss it-- after all, was there any point in reinforcing the idiotic sexual fantasies circulating about her, from Rush Limbaugh calling her a "babe" to the National Review editor Rich Lowry seeing "starbursts"? Sometimes funny is just funny, though.
Obama has spoken highly of Kanye West, and the Chicago rapper has returned the favor in interviews, but West has stayed more circumspect about the election on record, focusing his most recent output on his own Heartbreak. On this track from the official Yes We Can: Voices of a Grassroots Movement soundtrack album, he joins with Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine and previous collaborator Malik Yusef to fuel the GOP's Obama-as-Messiah meme.
Obama has also spoken highly of Ludacris, so this horn-bumping track from Luda's otherwise-forgettable DJ Drama-- aka "Barack O'Drama"-- Presents: The Previewforced the general-election candidate to distance himself from some of the rapper's uglier remarks. As Pitchfork contributor Ian Cohen put it, "Essentially, this is Obama's Sistah Souljah moment, giving him the opportunity to make bold disapprovals of Luda's views of Hillary ('she hated on you so that bitch is irrelevant'), Dubya ('mentally handicapped'), and in the money quote, McCain ('don't belong in ANY chair unless he's paralyzed')." I'm still not sure what that last lyric means.
Many indie- or rock-oriented artists have shown their support for Obama, from Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Arcade Fire, Superchunk, the Breeders, Jeff Tweedy, Conor Oberst, Shudder to Think, the Decemberists, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Joanna Newsom, the National, and M. Ward to Andrew Bird, Les Savy Fav, Fiery Furnaces, No Age, Vampire Weekend, and Lightning Bolt-Foot Village project Noise for Obama-- among others. But few (if any) major indie-rock bands have actually written a song about their candidate. The possible reasons could fill up a whole other feature, whether they're simple cynicism, an aversion to putting art in the service of a specific politician (politicians are, after all, politicians), recognition that such songs rarely stand the test of time, or what. The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle evokes this tension nicely in "Down to the Ark", a piano-driven song he wrote for the Super Tuesday primaries at the behest of public radio's "Weekend America". Darnielle denounces the tax cuts and war matter-of-factly enough, but he portrays the candidates themselves in a darker, more fantastical light. After all, all politicians have pledged their loyalty in blood to a "cloven-hoofed prince," right? Given the enormous challenges facing this country, whoever wins... let's hope not.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

CMJ: Saturday

News Article
October 26, 2008

CMJ: Saturday [Marc Hogan]
Photos by Francis Chung ; Above: David Banner

David Banner is more interested in entertainment than authenticity, which made him an odd man out at last night's stop of the second annual Hip Hop Live! Tour. He has a social conscience, but in a way that blends the sacred and the profane. The first opening act, un-Google-able Atlanta comer B.O.B. , complained about "ringtone rappers", rhymed "rap" with "crap", and picked up the guitar for a sophomoric love ballad even Jack Johnson would've tossed back into the Pacific; the second opener, North Carolina conscious crew Little Brother , mocked the T-Pain voice and playfully rapped a bit of a Young Jeezy track as a matter of course during an otherwise fairly rousing set. Banner made the obligatory (and still hair-raising) speeches about the prospect of a black president, calling ours "the most relevant generation in motherfucking history"-- suck it, Brokaw!-- but Election Day was still a week and a half away. There was more pressing shit to worry about.

Like whether or not Banner was going to fall off the balcony railings. The Mississippi rapper and producer has been touted as the next big star since before he had a label, and what he lacks in commercial appeal he definitely makes up for in star quality and effort to please (an all too rare combination). A few songs showed Banner's love of MTV-style mosh-rock, culminating in a short "Smells Like Teen Spirit" sample/cover; "Suicide Doors", from Banner's disappointing 2008 album The Greatest Story Ever Told , came with the necessary UGK tribute (they appear on the album version) but quickly turned into something that was more "Buzz Bin" than BET. Banner was at his best, though, as he threw his 6' 3", 230-pound frame all around the 2,100-person venue, spouting ridiculously raunchy shit like "A Girl" (sample lyric: "Do you like it when I grab your neck? And squeeze it till your face turn blue?") even as he danced with a totally grown-up woman in the back section. The raw homophobic humor in his version of Lil Wayne's Banner-produced "La La" at least called attention to an actual political issue, which is more than Little Brother accomplished with jokes about how Bush voters probably got 600 on their SAT.

By the time Banner climbed up to that balcony, he'd already tripped backwards once over a monitor, so we knew he was working without a net. Through energetic, ferociously entertaining performances of "Lollipop"-sampling "Shawty Say", a "rock version" of "9MM", and Greatest Story single "Get Like Me", he never fell. Before performing his biggest hit, "Play", from 2005's Certified , Banner asked a woman in front whether he should say "body" or "pussy". New York is "a real cultural city," he said, "[and] I don't want to offend anyone." "Pussy" it was.
Talib Kweli [Nokia Theatre; midnight]

Talib Kweli , in contrast to Banner, was better than Top 40 hip-hop only in the same way late-1990s roots rock was "better" than late-1990s Top 40 pop. "Let's hear it for real hip-hop music," the Brooklyn rapper announced at one point. "I still can't believe he could spit out all those lyrics so fast," I overheard one guy saying afterward. Kweli performed with the same highly proficient big band as the rest of the Hip Hop Live! acts, the Rhythm Roots All Stars, whose multiple percussionists helped give a Latin-flavored funk feel to the evening. On "Give 'Em Hell", from last year's Eardrum , Kweli raised the never-before-asked question of "how they know" where we go when we die; the baseball-capped white guys grinding on their girlfriends seemed to really like it when he did Bob Marley's "Waiting in Vain" before Eardrum slow jam "Hot Thing".

Kweli brought out a host of guests from his Blacksmith label-- unfortunately not including Jean Grae-- but after he had his Idle Worship side project do the awful dance-rap number "Black Snake Moan", so few people cheered that Kweli started practically begging us for some kind of reaction, any reaction. Even a Sarah Palin mention in a freestyle wasn't enough to keep him from having to ask, more than once, whether we were still awake. I was trying, dude! Finally Kweli played his Kanye West-produced near-classic "Get By", from 2002 solo debut Quality , and I could get back to listening to guys who don't necessarily rap fast, but have humor, originality, and showmanship.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

CMJ: Friday

News Article
October 25, 2008

CMJ: Friday [Marc Hogan]
Photos by Francis Chung ; Above: Róisín Murphy

Róisín Murphy [Mansion; 9:30 p.m.]

A costume change is just another well-choreographed dance move for Irish dance-pop chanteuse Róisín Murphy . Making her U.S. solo debut, the former lead singer for trip-hoppy duo Moloko switched fanciful outfits-- a silvery space-knight ensemble, an angelic-shaped furry coat, a crow-like black coat with a hunchback, and, oh yeah, all kinds of great hats-- more times than I could count, often beginning right on stage, in mid-song. Backed by a pair of smartly choreographed female singers plus guitarist, live drummer, bass player, and electronics guru, she commanded the audience at this Chelsea nightclub with her shimmying, expert stage presence. "I'M SOW INTO YOU," screamed one fan's handmade sign. The disco balls on the ceiling were nice, too, and appropriate.

The music, you ask? Murphy's Matthew Herbert-produced solo debut, 2005's Ruby Blue , and the follow-up, last year's Overpowered -- neither has been released in America-- are driven by a similarly intricate sense of style, matching the shiny pulse of early cosmic disco to the r&b sensuality and tech-jazz micro-edit intricacy of contemporary avant-pop. In concert, no amount of energetic dancing could dim Murphy's smoldering vocals, in a set that relied mostly on material from Overpowered and only one song, "Forever More", from Moloko. The sound system at the Mansion was immaculate, a CMJ rarity, delivering every drum hit with clear, granular, body-shaking intensity. Hell, Murphy rocked , headbanging during a heavy metal coda to underscore the point of Overpowered 's hyper-intelligent nothin'-but-mammals come-on "Primitive". There was no "If We're in Love", a staff favorite from Ruby Blue , and a few of the more hypnotic house cuts dragged on a bit long for a pop show rather than a club night, but any admirer of Murphy's records couldn't help but leave impressed. And not just by her fashion sense.

The Dutchess and the Duke [Pianos; 11 p.m.]

Low-key Seattle folk-pop duo the Dutchess and the Duke are the perfect kind of band to stumble onto by accident. After the Longest Manhattan Cab Ride Ever (it's official, we checked), Francis and I weren't sure we were going to make it to Piano's in time to catch Oxford Collapse, scheduled for 10:30 p.m., and when these punk veterans started their set around a half an hour after that time, we weren't even sure at first who we were seeing. With casually well-crafted songs that sound like Rubber Soul done the Vaselines' way-- and a comfortable, super-cool onstage camaraderie-- singer/guitarists Kimberly Morrison and Jesse Lortz quickly made themselves known. A mop-topped tambourine/maraca player accompanied them on tunes about fortune tellers and fucking in phone booths, from their Hardly Art debut, She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke . The occasional flubbed note, like Morrison's slyly barbed banter, only helped to cement a bond with an audience who all felt like the band's friends (for all I know, they were). It was Morrison's birthday; everybody sang.

Oxford Collapse [Pianos; 12 a.m.]

"Don't fondle our bass player's legs while he's trying to play the most intricate bass line he's ever written," Oxford Collapse singer/guitarist Michael Pace quipped at one point during the Brooklyn post-college rockers' set. I don't often find myself listening to these guys when I'm not covering them, but I've always given them the benefit of the doubt: Three dudes armed with youthful enthusiasm, an obvious love for American indie from R.E.M. to the Dismemberment Plan, a few scruffy brainy wistful heart-tugging anthems-- what's not to like, right? On stage, where Pace's shaky bark was harder to decipher, I mostly found myself noticing how overly "intricate" a lot of these songs really can be. Pace on guitar, Dan Fetherston on drums, Adam Rizer on bass: Each obviously knows his instrument, but they're often doing too much, and as impressive as the constant fretboard movement or tricksy drum fills are, they get in the way of the songs. As do Pace's leg-kicking guitar moves (guitarists, please don't do this) and Rizer walking around with guitar face (bass face?). Didn't seem to stop anybody around me from losing their shit over the better songs from solid Sub Pop albums Bits and Remember the Night Parties , including the still-great "Please Visit Your National Parks", and by the final moments, most of the first couple rows seemed to end up on stage, singing along and bro-ing down.

Friday, October 24, 2008

CMJ: Thursday

News Article
October 24, 2008

CMJ: Thursday [Marc Hogan]
Photos by Francis Chung ; Above: Crystal Castles

Bearsuit [Cake Shop; 6:30 p.m.]

If there's any band that embodies the old punk ideal that anybody with ideas and a bit of imagination can make music, it's Bearsuit . On 2005's Cat Spectacular and this year's Oh:Io , they've shown themselves to be among the finest purveyors of explosive, schizoid, kitchen-sink indie pop, sort of like Los Campesinos! with more Deerhoof. And more BIFF! BANG! POW!: They played at Cake Shop wearing capes and face paint.

From plenty of other bands, that sort of costume could come off as a thinly veiled attempt to compensate for lousy tunes, but for Bearsuit, it's just the final step in transforming six mild-mannered English girls and guys into the indie superheroes suggested by their (head-snapping) breakneck tunes, from Cat Spectacular 's "Rodent Disco" and "Chargr" to the new album's "Foxy Boxer" and "Keep It Together, Somehow". Lead vocals are split between Lisa Horton's energetic alto and Iain Ross's matter-of-fact Graham Coxon murmur, backed by plenty of shrieks and shouts, while all manner of synths, samples, reckless drum patterns, and fuzzed-out bass lines careen around them.

Naturally, Bearsuit had no trouble finding the balls to ask for interaction from the very first song, Oh:Io 's "Jupiter Force"-- they say Jupiter, we say Force... or else a baby dies!-- and the decent-sized crowd (especially at this time slot, and for a criminally under-recognized UK band) complied. Forthcoming single "Muscle Belt" commanded us to "dance for my love." Introducing another recent 7" side, the bouncy "More Soul Than Wigan Casino", Ross self-deprecatingly calls his band "the least soulful" in all of humanity. A cape is such a lightweight thing, but that and wearing underwear outside your clothes are pretty much all that separates Superman from Clark Kent.

Fujiya & Miyagi [Webster Hall; 9 p.m.]

At this point, just about a month after the release of latest album Lightbulbs , we know what Fujiya & Miyagi are and aren't. Four people, not two, from England, not Japan, they methodically (de)construct rubbery krautrock grooves and sleek keyboards into sproingy dance-pop songs with whispery vocals about, like, all kinds of random stuff: from shoes and knee bones and not actually being Japanese to their own band name, dishwashers, and Lena Zavaroni. They're at their best when they're at their least straightforward. The new LP doesn't quite have the peaks of 2006's Transparent Things , but Fujiya & Miyagi still put on a fine, if eventually a little samey, performance of songs from both records-- the drummer was particularly impressive-- while speaking little (if at all) between songs. I think that was because they're Japanese.

Crystal Castles [Webster Hall; 10:30 p.m.]

I'd heard Crystal Castles were awesome live, and I knew their ominous lo-fi electro-punk retro-futurist "pummel-throb"-- Tom Breihan's final compound phrase there nails it -- made their remixes and 2008 self-titled debut LP some of my favorite things of the past couple years that I never really thought of as my own personal favorite things. Their live show last night was an experience, and I don't even know if I wanna talk about it because I almost don't want to corrupt it. You know? The Toronto duo of analogue noise-maker Ethan Kath and singer/crowd-surfer/demonic pixie/red-wine-baptismal-pourer-to-her-supplicating-masses Alice Glass have played around the world now, and they've done shows in New York a few times. But usually at smaller-capacity spots like Studio B and the Mercury Lounge. I doubt when they played the medium-ish (1,800?)-size Webster Hall last year opening for Metric they looked out upon such a teeming, frothy ocean of bobbing heads, pumping fists, moving bodies.

So much movement, I'm amazed Francis could catch any of it on camera. Hit the strobes, out comes Glass-- Kath off to the side in his hood, they have a touring drummer too-- and she goes on to spend an agonizingly brief set shouting out fractured, electro-tweaked vocals from on top of the monitors. Or sprawled out in the crowd's upstretched arms. Or writhing on the stage floor. Clearly, nobody in here is an exorcist.

Anyway, she looked terrifyingly fearless, and the audience returned the trust-- crowd-surfers would jump up on stage, then promptly dive back into the mob. I can never even remember most of the words (sometimes they just come out sounding like scary-movie effects), but they played basically the entire record. It was kind of like a dance party that's also a positive, subliminally erotic black mass. Nobody around me had seen anything like it, including the bartender-- who you'll be too busy spazzing out over Crystal Castles to have to visit during one of their killer sets.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

CMJ: Wednesday

News Article
October 23, 2008

CMJ: Wednesday [Marc Hogan]
Photos by Francis Chung ; Above: Beach House

Hello Saferide [The Bowery Electric; 8 p.m.]

Sweden churns out pop singers and songwriters like I blow my nose, but Hello Saferide 's Annika Norlin is one of the best. The Stockholm-based songstress's 2005 debut, Introducing Hello Saferide , was packed with catchy, funny, and tenderly heartfelt story-songs that could appeal to almost anyone. Her Swedish-language album last year under the name Säkert! showed that Norlin's brightly colored guitar-pop had hooks even if you couldn't understand the words. The just-released More Modern Short Stories From Hello Saferide shows Norlin continuing to develop her knack for tuneful, narrative-driven songs that can pack an emotional wallop, even as producer Andreas Mattsson couldn't resist an (understandable) urge to pretty things up a bit.

Even during a free, no-badges-required showcase during happy hour ("$4 drinks!"), Hello Saferide's music and stories carried. The transition from the low-key indie pop of Introducing to the polished rock of More Modern Short Stories makes more sense live, when you realize: Hello Saferide are a band now. Norlin was joined by a four-piece backing band that included multi-instrumentalist Mattsson as well as guitar, backing vocals, and harmonica by Firefox AK, who also played a shy but impressive opening set as a sort of one-woman New Order. (Another opener, Juvelen, was similarly compelling as a one-man Prince, pulling off the difficult task of getting people to dance at 7:30 p.m.; I suspect they were Swedes, though.)

Hello Saferide played a stirring, increasingly confident set of songs from the new album, from heartbreaking first single "Anna" to the theatrical, keyboard-based "Overall", in which a couple try to figure out where they went wrong in raising their neo-Nazi son. A rapt hush fell over all but the buzzily networking crowd back by the bar. Between songs, Norlin offered brief, genial commentary, putting her tunes in context for the unfamiliar. "I'm sorry for talking so much, but I'm going to tell you one more story," she said at one point. For the encore, Introducing 's achingly exposed romantic questionnaire "The Quiz", the whole room clapped along.

A Sunny Day in Glasgow [Knitting Factory Tap Bar; 10:30 p.m.]


For a minute it looked like endless problems with the monitors might put a cloud over A Sunny Day in Glasgow 's set. The Philadelphia four-piece have gotta be a headache for sound guys, with their heavy use of reverb and samplers, but their debut album, Scribble Mural Comic Journal , was one of 2007's most criminally overlooked releases: billowy shoegaze for people who like their Twilight Sad with less U2 and more C86, or with less balls and a little more oceanic femininity. Robin Daniels sent her sing-song vocals echoing around the fluffy feedback clouds like the wraiths of dead children. Eventually, the technical issues-- which weren't a problem from our end, anyway-- somehow got resolved, and a Sunny Day in Glasgow's best songs, like "5:15 Train", and "C'Mon", left me wishing they had more of them. The next band, New York's the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, also overcame monitor problems for a really solid set of screeching, shoegaze-tinted indie-pop with echoes of beloved, largely forgotten 1990s bands like Rocketship or Madison Electric.

Beach House [Le Poisson Rouge; 12:30 a.m.]

Beach House 's Devotion is my favorite 2008 album to fall asleep to. The Baltimore band's set started promptly about 23 minutes past midnight. You do the math. But their organ-shimmering gothic love dirges were no snooze: Victoria Legrand's rich, deep voice toyed with the dreamy refrains of songs from both Devotion and 2006's self-titled album as if she were a lover, a torturer, or some kind of dark magician, while Alex Scally traced out rippling guitar patterns, equal parts ominous and sensuous. A live drummer helped lead Beach House toward morning, particularly on the thumping, folkier "Used to Be", an echoey new single wracked with a long-distance lover's doubts. Finale "Gila"-- introduced as "an old song," or at least old as in "six months ago"-- showed once again that yes, there are hooks amid all those echoey atmospheres. And pleasant dreams.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

CMJ: Tuesday

News Article
October 22, 2008

CMJ: Tuesday [Marc Hogan]
Photos by Francis Chung

Cut Off Your Hands [The Delancey; 8 p.m.] 

New Zealand has 4.2 million people, spread out across two islands and 103,738 square miles. Manhattan has 1.6 million people, spread out across one island of fewer than 23 square miles. During the New Zealand Showcase last night, the Delancey definitely felt like Manhattan. Not only was the small venue sweatily over capacity for Cut Off Your Hands , but the Auckland four-piece played propulsive, new-wavey guitar-pop, with lead vocalist Nick Johnson's voice occasionally taking on some downtown Julian Casablancas gritty elegance. The rhythm section did a lot of the work, anchoring the songs with funky Orange Juice basslines, so when the kick drum broke ahead of "It Doesn't Matter", from the band's 2008 debut You and I , well, it mattered. Cut Off Your Hands, who also played the New Zealand Showcase at the Delancey last year, managed to get the problem fixed pretty quickly, in the meantime keeping the crowd at bay with ringing guitar arpeggios and tambourine.

The Ruby Suns [The Delancey; 8:30 p.m.] 

The contrast between New Zealand and New York made itself more apparent for the Ruby Suns . A dank, crowded Lower East Side rock club was a long way from the sunny, pan-global psych pop of this year's Sea Lion , the Ruby Suns' sophomore album and first for Sub Pop. It seems head Sun Ryan McPhun has pared his live band down to a duo, with McPhun and his bandmate Amee Robinson passing around guitars and sharing in drumming duties. Much of the time, though, McPhun was huddled over his electronics, helping conjure the thick, tropical layers of instrumentation of songs like "Tane Mahuta". These ephemeral song clouds have plenty of details to examine in headphones, and they're a relaxing enough escape wafting across an apartment on a summer night, but last night they didn't quite translate to a rock-performance setting.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

US managers stand by expansion plans

News Article
Financial Times
October 19, 2008

Financial Times

US money managers making a push for European assets acknowledge that the current crisis raises new challenges for their plans, but are not scaling back their international goals just yet.

US asset manager American Century Investments announced its international expansion earlier this month, while Brown Advisory, an independent Baltimore-based investment advisory firm, opened a London office in February in order to build a European fund range and presence.

Groups such as Turner Investment Partners, Delaware Investments, Legg Mason and The Hartford have also ramped up their European businesses.

US fund managers are generally taking a long-term view of the crisis, says Jag Alexeyev, senior managing director and head of global research at consultancy Strategic Insight.

“Most fund managers are reiterating, especially with regards to Asia, the case for long-term growth,” he says.

If US money managers are altering their European strategies, the changes are tending to be of a short-term, tactical nature. Mr Alexeyev says companies are looking harder at how to address their clients’ needs in the next year and how to deal with other immediate issues arising from falling share prices.

Vanguard Group, known in America for its low cost index funds, is one US house that expects its European business to weather the storm.

“We have offered funds to institutional investors across Europe and the Nordics for a decade, and we believe it is a long-term business that can and has withstood shocks to the financial markets,” Vanguard’s Rebecca Cohen says.

”We do not believe this crisis will significantly impact our European business. Our transparent, straightforward funds might be seen as an antidote to less transparent, complex offerings in the marketplace.”

Legg Mason is another US-based asset management business standing firm in its efforts abroad. New chief executive Mark Fetting has previously expressed plans to increase international assets under management to more than half of overall business from about one-third previously.

“Our strategy doesn’t change in a market environment like this,” says Terry Johnson, managing director of international distribution at Legg Mason Investments, the non-US distribution arm of Legg Mason.

The market turmoil could represent an opportunity for Legg Mason’s franchise in European markets, Mr Johnson says, as the assets investors have been taking off the table will eventually create a large pool of capital needing to be reinvested.

Mr Johnson points to Legg Mason’s “multi-boutique” structure, where the parent company oversees 10 independent investment managers that run the funds, as one factor putting the business in a strong position.

James Charrington, managing director and head of international retail at BlackRock, says the market turmoil is going to impact the ability of US houses to parachute their products and services into Europe.

But Mr Charrington does not see US-based BlackRock as such a house, because of its significant presence in Europe. According to Strategic Insight, BlackRock’s BGF Global Allocation Fund is the second-largest Ucits fund as of August, with $18.3bn (£10.6bn, €13.6bn) under management.

“I wouldn’t underestimate the scale of the job in front of us,” says Mr Charrington, who cites investor confidence as the biggest casualty in the ongoing crisis.

Meanwhile, Hartford Financial Services Group announced this month that German insurer Allianz has agreed to make a $2.5bn capital investment in the US-based company. The Hartford unveiled plans earlier this year to sell variable annuities in Germany starting in the first quarter of 2009.

As market volatility continues, the US houses with a fair amount of cash, a vision for the future, and ability to think long-term stand the best chance of riding out the storm, says Ben Poor, director at US-based research firm Cerulli Associates.

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