Saturday, November 26, 2011

Murs plays Club Congress tonight

Murs concludes the Hip Hop and Love Tour with a hometown performance

Instead of a shout-out to his neighborhood or hometown, Murs opens his new record with an intergalactic greeting.

"I use my rocket fuel to travel through the infinite / and this is what I brought to you," raps Murs on "Epic Salutations," a rapid-fire and wildly imaginative lyrical journey into outer space.

It's a song that introduces the themes of Love and Rockets, Vol. 1: The Transformation—travel, love, inspiration and storytelling that touches on both humor and tragedy—while also serving as a statement of career vindication for a rapper whose path has been marked by a long, yet wholly independent, ascendancy.

"I rarely replicate," Murs raps on "Epic Salutations," and it's way more than just a passing statement.

"I feel it's my duty," he explains. "I've always been a unique person, but I also feel that out of respect for the people who came before me. A lot of rap is still doing what they were doing in the 1990s. When N.W.A. did it, it was new and revolutionary, but to come behind and do the same thing is disrespect to the people who blazed the trail before me."

Born in Los Angeles, the relentlessly creative Murs has lived in Oakland, Tucson, Los Angeles and—for the past two years—Tucson again, where the now-married 33-year-old appreciates the pace, weather, creative energy and grounded attitude of the people.

"When I first came to Tucson in 1997, we performed at (Club) Congress, and I met my best friend. I never thought there would be people into hip hop in Tucson. For some reason, when you're in a big city, you can think that's all there is," he says. "The more I travel, the more I see people in Missoula, Mont., are into the same stuff and just as hip as people in New York City. Every town has its unique energy, but as far as the mentality, kids are up on stuff just the same. And people genuinely all want to enjoy themselves."

Bringing his music to cities and towns off the beaten path has been a hallmark of Murs' career, and something he's stuck with on the current Hip Hop and Love Tour, which makes its last of 50 stops in Tucson.

"The way I was brought into the game with independent hip hop was always to make sure we hit the smaller markets, the secondary markets, but also the tertiary markets," he says. "It's always been fun, and the kids there love me. Chicago is dope, but the kids in Omaha love me, too."

The Hip Hop and Love Tour mixes rapping and DJs with a live band.

"I bring it all in. As I grew up, I got more involved in live music and became a fan of Jack White or Vampire Weekend, and I wanted that element in my show," Murs says. "We're going full at it. I love playing with a band, because they bring so much energy."

The tour—with Tabi Bonney, Ski Beatz and the Senseis, McKenzie Eddy, Da$h and Sean O'Connell—is a BluRoc Records showcase that celebrates Murs' return to the independent world after 2008's Murs for President album on Warner Bros.

"I felt like I got to expand and spread my wings a little bit," he says about being on a major label. "It's like getting to make a movie where you can blow up whatever you want. It was a great experience, but I saw how it affects the creative process. There are so many checks and balances when there's so much money at stake."

Murs joined with BluRoc for the tour, a partnership that quickly expanded into the new album—and working with producer Ski Beatz, whose long list of collaborations includes songs with Jay-Z and Mos Def.

"When I'm working with a different guy on every record, it puts me in a position where I have something to prove, and it brings the best performance out of me," Murs says. "I was looking forward to it, because he's worked with so many different people and styles. I knew we'd get something to make it work."

Murs says he usually writes songs by approaching the beat first, rather than beginning the recording process with a lot of lyrics in hand. That responsive style gives the songs an improvisational freshness, and whatever the sounds conjure in his mind is what the song is about.

"I've always been honest, with an open door into my music," he says. "I wanted to talk about different things, because I am traveling and exploring and want to incorporate different things into my work."

Love and Rockets features odes to love and marriage ("I found my love in the 520"), the flourishing era of West Coast hip hop he loved growing up, international travelogues and the independent spirit in hip hop that he sees as stronger than ever. "67 Cutlass" is a what-if inspired by too many run-ins with police, and "Animal Style" is the tale of two gay high school kids fighting discrimination. A more-accepting society would prevent the story's tragic end.

"I have friends and family who are leading quote-unquote alternative lifestyles, and I can't ask them to come out, but I can be an advocate for gay people, gay teens, and give them someone to talk to," Murs says. "I just hope I'm doing my part to create a more-understanding environment in hip hop. Marriage rights or whatever, we can argue, but people have the right to exist and love who they want to love without being persecuted."

It's yet another atypical rap from Murs, who's worked for 15 years to make his name by following his own path. After his early days of hustling tapes in Oakland, Murs earned accolades through prolific collaborations as a member of the Living Legends crew, with Slug (of Atmosphere) and North Carolina producer 9th Wonder.

After racing around the country on the Hip Hop and Love Tour, Murs plans to get back to his Love and Rockets concept, with two more volumes planned. Years of hard work and underground success have brought him artistic freedom as well as fans, and Murs says he appreciates that technology has made it easier than ever to reach out.

"Music is in a good place now. The artists are finally in control of their own destiny. That's exciting to me, because that's what I've been preaching for years."

Published Nov. 24, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Review: Dum Dum Girls - Only In Dreams

The first thing to notice about Dum Dum Girls is the attitude—that audacious, flirtatious cool, with their don't-follow-the-rules posturing. Debut album I Will Be was a musical exploration of that attitude, marking Dum Dum Girls as a fresh and intriguing buzz band.

Only in Dreams takes that attitude and runs with it—in a few different directions. The band still brings a refreshing punk rawness and hazy reverb to melodic retro-pop, but there's a bit more exploration this time out.

Added to the batch of influences found on the debut—chiefly the Shangri-Las and the Ramones—are Mazzy Star and the Pretenders, shoring up what were some weaker areas of the band's sound.

With its blend of bubblegum pop and waves of guitar reverb, "Bedroom Eyes" sounds like it could soundtrack a John Hughes movie—bittersweet music for when words won't quite capture it.

"Just a Creep" has tones of surf rock, while "Heartbeat (Take It Away)" and "Caught in One" especially ring with the bouncy rock 'n' roll of the Pretenders.

Singer Dee Dee (Kristen Gundred) wrote much of the album as a response to the death of her mother, with the sense of loss, pain and confusion especially poignant in "Hold Your Hand," "Teardrops on My Pillow" and "Wasted Away."

Preferences will surely vary between Only in Dreams and I Will Be, but that's missing the point. With a smooth and confident follow-up, Dum Dum Girls have easily passed from buzz band to sophomore-slump conquerors, with plenty more to anticipate.

Published Nov. 24, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Dum Dum Girls - Bedroom Eyes

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tom Russell at Club Congress on Wednesday

The storytelling gifts that Tom Russell has brought to songs for 35 years have reached new peaks on Mesabi, another stunning album of Southwest-borderlands rock.

Russell begins this wide-ranging collection with "Mesabi," a song named for the Minnesota iron range of Bob Dylan's childhood, imagining how strongly those early influences struck young ears. Singing of the "Bethlehem of the troubadour kid," Russell also reflects on the San Joaquin Valley of his own childhood and the urge to leave it all behind.

Two years after Blood and Candle Smoke, produced at Tucson's Wavelab Studio by Craig Schumacher, Russell returns to Tucson for several of Mesabi's songs, reigniting collaboration with Schumacher and Calexico.

But Mesabi is a more-wide-ranging album in sound and lyrical scope, taking on subjects and locations ranging from Cedar Rapids to Juarez, and from James Dean to Disney child star Bobby Driscoll, whose tragic tailspin Russell weaves into the Peter Pan story that made Driscoll famous.

Despite its impeccable production and all-star cast of musicians—guitarist Will Kimbrough, keyboardist Augie Meyers and pianist Van Dyke Parks—Mesabi is definitely an album of words. It's Russell's greatest strength, and he doesn't hold back. The album's chief fault is the embarrassment of riches: As these stories unfold—whether they're dense, vivid, nostalgic, bleak or even hopeful—it's best to take them one or two or three at a time.

Published on Nov. 17, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Centro-Matic - Dual Identities

The versatile Will Johnson finds himself in a hard-driving, Centro-Matic phase these days

Will Johnson is a songwriter who works in bursts. He's also a songwriter who keeps multiple bands and projects alive at the same time.

So what makes a song a Centro-Matic song?

"I will get into certain sounds or certain type of songs for a stretch," he says. "These days, I'm writing more hard-driving music."

Johnson will sort his batches of songs by feel, instead of setting out to focus on a particular band. The songs come easier when he blocks out those other intentions.

"More times than not, I'll kind of binge-write. I'll take two or three weeks and just devote as much time as I can to the act of writing and getting sounds down that appeal to my ideas. Once I'm done with that, I'll start to sort it out," Johnson says. "If I over-think it too much as far as which band or what category a song goes in, I'll take the chance of losing the guts of the song itself. I find it's better to sort it out later."

Circling back to hard-driving rock music was just a matter of time for Johnson after recording with his more-somber band South San Gabriel, drumming for the Monsters of Folk supergroup, and releasing a stark collaborative record with Magnolia Electric Co.'s Jason Molina.

"Last year, I was writing these really stark, more-acoustic narrative storyteller kind of songs. It's just the type of guitar I purchased and the type of place I was recording in. It just inspired that type of song," he says. "Whereas these days, I'm really just getting into a lot of noise and sounds and going for a more-aggressive approach vocally at times. It's funny; the older I get, the more toothy some of the vocals become."

Johnson wrote Centro-Matic's 10th album—and first proper release in five years—on the bass guitar, which gives Candidate Waltz a different sort of feel, energetic but straightforward.

"My wife has this great bass guitar from back when she used to play. I got all the guitars out knowing I was going to spend two weeks on writing. I picked that one up, and I just loved it," he says. "I got attracted to the idea of writing on a different plane. It dictated some different things rhythmically and encouraged some different things vocally in terms of cadence. It inherently changes some decisions that I would have made. It leaves a little more space, a little bit more to the imagination than just strumming a guitar."

Candidate Waltz marks the 15-year point for Centro-Matic—Johnson, Scott Danbom (keyboards, violin, harmonies), Matt Pence (drummer, producer) and Mark Hedman (bass, guitar)—and is in some ways a throwback to the band's earliest days in Denton, Texas.

"Sometimes in the studio, we have kept it loose and loud, with a lot of feedback and hiccups here and there. But with this recording, we worked hard to make it terse, but not cold or unfriendly," says Johnson, "multitasking" with his 10-month-old daughter during a phone interview from his Texas home. "It's a little-bit-different recording process. We economized the overdub world ... on Candidate Waltz.

"From time to time, we've been known to layer things up and put heaps of overdubs, and that's fun sometimes," he says. "But with this one, we definitely wanted to peel things back more and let the instruments we did leave in speak a little louder and maintain a little bit more presence."

With essentially the same lineup as Centro-Matic, South San Gabriel depends on much of the same musical chemistry. But keeping both bands going simultaneously creates a bit of a dual identity, something Johnson references on "Only in My Double Mind."

"There has been a certain musical duality to our efforts over these last 15 years. Sometimes, it does involve shifting identity," he says. "We tend to fall back into it pretty easily, and I'd like to believe it's a testament to the fact that we've maintained the friendships very carefully and very beautifully over all these years."

When the band started, Johnson says, he had no clear vision of where Centro-Matic would find itself in the future—just that the bandmates were committed to playing music together.

"I kind of figured we would be playing music together in some capacity this far down the line. I didn't necessarily think it'd be Centro-Matic, but I figured we'd find some reason, some way, to keep playing music. We've become husbands and fathers, but we've found a way to want to keep making music in our lives.

"I'm proud of the fact that we've continued to not take ourselves too terribly seriously. We've managed to take it all with a bucket of salt as we go," Johnson says. "That's not to say we don't take the art seriously—the recording and the live show, we want that to be as good as it possibly can be. But the inherent want to keep things respectful and loose within our friendships has hopefully added longevity to the band."

After recording Candidate Waltz, Johnson rented a cabin in the Texas hill country for another burst of songwriting. Returning with 26 recently sorted-out songs, Johnson says it's clearly another Centro-Matic batch.

"We'd scattered for a break between albums, and Candidate Waltz brought us back together. I'm looking forward to getting everybody back together in six or eight months. I'm thinking and hoping this will be a faster turnaround."

That should be no trouble for Centro-Matic, which streamlined the recording and release process by going without a record label for Candidate Waltz. Self-releasing for the first time was brought on by the band's tight-knit relationship with fans, a testament to the band's perseverance. A pleasant byproduct was the time it opened for another creative burst from Johnson.

"The fact that I was so inspired to write is hopefully a testament to the energy that the band has received through the encouraging recent tour," he says. "We're all looking forward to getting back to the studio and seeing what comes out of the next record.

"The fact that there's always one more record in us is an encouraging thing, and we might as well get that."

Published Nov. 17, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fall mix: Needle on a Hill

Download my new mix, Needle on a Hill.

1. Sugar - If I Can't Change Your Mind
2. Fiery Furnaces - Here Comes The Summer
3. Built to Spill - Car
4. Alejandro Escovedo - Last To Know
5. Amy Rude And Heartbeast - Can You Hear Me Crying Throught The Walls?
6. Townes Van Zandt - No Lonesome Tune
7. Delta Spirit - People Turn Around
8. Luna - Tiger Lilly
9. The Faces - Stay With Me
10. Busted Hearts - Cold Virginia Mist
11. Vetiver - The Swimming Song
12. Michael Hurley - Blue Driver
13. Van Morrison - Everyone
14. The New Pornographers - Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk
15. Old 97's - Champagne, Illinois
16. The Clash - (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais
17. The Roots - Radio Daze
18. The Meters - Cissy Strut
19. The Flamin' Groovies - Shake Some Action
20. MGMT - Time To Pretend

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Does the U.S. know what to do with these French Bastards?

Plush welcomes The Inspector Cluzo, the self-proclaimed 'original funk 'n' roll duo'

When the bass player quit, The Inspector Cluzo marched onward as a two-piece.

All the advice they received said otherwise, and the precedent said otherwise, but Mathieu Jourdain and Laurent Lacrouts felt they could play funk music as a duo. With no bass.

"We started with a bass player, but he wasn't good enough, and he decided to go and play different stuff. We said, 'Go away. We don't care, and we'll make it work as two-piece,'" says drummer Jourdain. "Groovy funk rock without the bass seems to be not possible, but we did it."

Jourdain and singer-guitarist Lacrouts have been playing together for 17 years, first in the band Wolfunkind, and for the last three years as The Inspector Cluzo. The Frenchmen refer to themselves as the "original funk 'n' roll duo."

"We're used to each other, and this is why it is working. We play really tight, and the energy produced is big," Jourdain says during a phone interview from a tour stop in Atlanta. "We've been listening to funk music for a very long time. We were really into it, and we're very sensitive to the groove from the funk music."

With a style that passes from Fishbone- and Red Hot Chili Peppers-style funk to the groovier side of Rage Against the Machine, The Inspector Cluzo have toured relentlessly since 2008, building a fan base from Europe to Australia, and playing festivals in Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

While growing up in France, Jourdain says, funk music was hardly prevalent. As fans, he and Lacrouts would need to hunt down import releases in small record shops. As funk musicians themselves, a local welcome was slow to come.

"In France, it was hard for us, because they don't have the culture of funk music. They're more mainstream in music. If you hear French radio, you would throw up," he says. "We first started getting abroad, and it worked better there than in France. Because it worked elsewhere, France started waking up, and we could build something."

Fishbone was among the funk bands that were able to break through in France, and the pair opened for the Los Angeles band a number of times with Wolfunkind. They befriended Fishbone, and singer Angelo Moore suggested they name the new project The Pink Panther. Legal concerns brought about the new name, The Inspector Cluzo.

They also borrowed their energetic performance style from Fishbone.

"We don't want to get off the stage without making sure that the audience is on fire. We took that from Fishbone. They're like that, really into making people crazy," Jourdain says. "That's what we're trying to do every night. It's never the same show every night, because depending on how the audience reacts, we try different ways."

The band has released two albums in France, The Inspector Cluzo and French Bastards. Both albums were repackaged into a single release for the band's first full U.S. tour.

"We're having a lot of fun, and we have very good feedback from the shows. We are totally, happily, surprised at the good reactions that the audiences have," Jourdain says.

Despite growing success overseas—530 shows in 28 countries, and selling 50,000 albums in three years—the band had a difficult time breaking into the United States.

"It's a different experience. We made it by doing everything ourselves. We're music craftsmen. We do everything from the recording to publishing to booking shows," Jourdain says. "We were not used to the U.S. market, so it was hard to find a way to enter it, to make promoters answer e-mails, but finally, we could hook up a whole proper tour."

Because high-energy funk music is hardly the norm for French bands, Jourdain says, The Inspector Cluzo have been able to take advantage of the element of surprise, giving audiences way more entertainment than they might have been expecting.

"It's funny. Here, the audience doesn't expect that kind of music and that entertainment. I think they just expect a band playing, but there's a lot of interaction and jokes, and we're pushing a lot."

The band has a third record ready for mixing and mastering once they return to France, but Jourdain says they couldn't refuse a chance to extend the "French Bastards Tour" to the United States.

"The music is full of energy, groovy, so it talks to everybody. You can dance; you can head-bang on some parts; and the energy is shared with the audience. Whatever the language, wherever you are, it seems to work," Jourdain says. "That's why we keep on going and try to visit as many countries as possible."

Published Nov. 10, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

The Inspector Cluzo performs FRIDAY, NOV. 11 at Plush, with Marianne Dissard and Mr. Free and the Satellite Freakout

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Live Review: Mates of State & Generationals

The pairing of Mates of State and Generationals guarantees hooks and harmony galore—an abundant display of how to make pop songs shine.

Both bands are built around a duo and the ever-present interplay between musical counterparts. In Mates of State, it's husband-wife duo Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner, while Generationals offer Grant Widmer and Ted Joyner, a songwriting duo with a friendship that dates back to their early high school days.

The Generationals, from New Orleans, have developed a strong Tucson audience through frequent touring and a connection through Park the Van Records to Golden Boots. The band's throwback pop has grown a bit spacier and fuller as a five-piece.

Opening with "Nobody Could Change Your Mind," the band raced through a set that mixed standouts from 2009 debut Con Law, 2010 EP Trust and this year's Actor-Caster. Highlights included Motown-influenced "When They Fight, They Fight," the lively "You Say It Too" and the bouncy set-closer "Trust."

However, the appreciative Plush crowd clearly turned out for Mates of State, whose nearly 20-song set touched on midcareer favorites like "Get Better" and "The Re-Arranger" (from 2008's Re-Arrange Us), and "For the Actor" (2006's Bring It Back), before moving into more songs from this year's Mountaintops.

With Hammel on drums and Gardner on piano—rounded out by guitar and frequent trumpet—Mates of State has a fine balance staked out between powerful and precise drumming and nimble, playful piano. And those harmonies!

Covers of Jackson Browne's "These Days" and Daniel Johnston's "True Love Will Find You in the End" were both re-envisioned in Mates of State's poppy and adorable style.

The band's final encore was "Palomino," the first song on Mountaintops and one of the year's best singles, a burst of exuberance that had the still-packed house jumping and fist-pumping.

Published Nov. 10, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Damn does this song rule...

I'll have a full review of last night's Mates of State & Generationals show in the Tucson Weekly on Thursday, but today I have to highlight "Palomino," the first song on Mates of State's new album, Mountaintops. "Palomino" is quickly becoming one of my favorite songs of 2011, and it's an amazing video, from director Jimi Patterson:

And as a bonus, Mates of State covering Jackson Browne's "These Days":

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Mates of State with the Generationals at Plush on Monday

Eighteen seconds into "Palomino," what started as a toe-tapping song with an airy synthesizer bursts into a chorus of "oohs," and Mates of State's new album rushes off like a child at play.

"Palomino" is concentrated sweetness, an album and perhaps career highlight for Mates of State, a band that peddles bottled joy and sunshine.

Mates of State has always been a band defined by the marriage/partnership of keyboardist Kori Gardner, drummer Jason Hammel and their shared harmony. Mountaintops has flashes of '80s new wave and synth pop, Motown and shoegaze.

After "Palomino" comes "Maracas" and "Sway," songs that sustain the tempo while drawing out the album's lyrical themes of love, individuality, balance and change.

The album turns somber on "Unless I'm Led," a meditation on mistakes and messes, and those fixes that need both internal and external action. But it's the chorus of "you learn to live without me" that brings about questions of solitude, individuality and how to balance personal needs in a committed partnership. It's decidedly adult subject matter, yet taken up in the adolescent language of pop music.

Even when the band finds clarity—as on "At Least I Have You," when love, life and purpose all align—it's in fleeting moments, a lesson Mates of States deliver in their own sweet way.

Published Nov. 3 in the Tucson Weekly.

Mates of State - Maracas by orchardmktg

Also, I interviewed the Generationals for the Tucson Weekly in 2009.

Generationals - Trust

Friday, November 04, 2011

Review: Tom Waits - Bad As Me

Donning the mask of a fatalistic joker, Tom Waits gives 2011 its defining album, singing, stomping and wheezing in revolt against the bleak lows that mark this doomed age.

A deep study of any of the 13 songs on Bad as Me would serve the same purpose, with nearly the same result: This is the soundtrack to an occupied nation, encapsulating the fear, anger and defiance coursing through a people wronged again and again.

"All the news is bad, is there any other kind?" Waits sings in falsetto on "Talking at the Same Time," a swampy indictment of the dirty profiteers who've left America in tatters. "We bailed out all the millionaires—they got the fruit; we got the rind." It's a country drowning in the miserable wake of its own greed, watching helplessly as desperate chaos extends the hard times.

Dark, preposterous, incensed and confrontational, Bad as Me is mostly "brawlers" in the Waits parlance, but even the tender ballads are haunted by war, futility, autumnal decay and dying embers.

"Pay Me" is about how easy a man can become stuck—"To hold yourself up's not a crime here, you know"—and about how the only optimism for this time is to sing merrily as you sink.

Waits ends with "New Year's Eve," a hard-luck tale that's typical of both his previous work and the Great Recession, turning "auld lang syne" into the only hope he can muster: Even a shitty year must come to an end.

Published Nov. 3, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Mr. Gnome at Plush tonight!

Cleveland's Mr. Gnome is band that strips down to the basics, without ever sounding stripped down. Forget the convention of the power trio, this is a power duo.

Nicole Barille on vocals and guitar and Sam Meister on drums, occasional piano and back-up vocals - that's it. Just as bombastic as the White Stripes, just as enigmatic as Wye Oak and just as crafty as the Black Keys, Mr. Gnome plays music that makes the most of tension, dipping into tender moments as well as glorious noise.

Madness in Miniature, out on Oct. 25, is ferocious, calculating, edgy and ethereal. Songs like "House of Circles" even manage to blend all those elements together at once. It's a distinctly modern type of psychedelic rock, bluesy at the edges, but pulsating with a sort of burned-out energy.

Madness in Miniature draws strength from its shifts in tone and style. "Run For Cover" presents its spookiness with a twisted reverence, while "Bit of Tongue" is 90s style alternative that explodes in an ending burst of punk. "Wolf Girls" is wild guitar riffing in a pit of paranoia, the soundtrack to dark dreams.

Staying strong across its 12 songs, Madness in Miniature could very well be a sleeper pick for one of 2011's best records.

Mr. Gnome (for fans of Wye Oak, The Black Keys and Yeah Yeah Yeahs) plays Plush tonight, with Stareater and Some of Them Are Old. $7.