I am not going to the SXSW music festival this year. I cannot tell you how relieved I am not to be going. The pressure to be hip, to be in five places at once, and to drink free beer before it runs out is not something I’m going to miss. Austin is not equipped to accommodate the drunken clusterfuck that the SXSW music festival has become. So I’ll gladly be skipping town after SXSW Interactive.
To all you folks who will descend on Austin the day I’ll be leaving, I can only say…good luck, suckas. Wouldn’t wanna be ya, but if I were ya, here’s who I’d go see.
The Black Angels
Corrosion of Conformity*
Girl in a Coma
High on Fire
Justin Townes Earle
Shiny Toy Guns
The Ting Tings
*If you see no other show, see this one: Zoroaster, A Storm of Light, Rwake, Saviours, Black Cobra, Corrosion of Conformity, Wednesday 3/14 7:30 p.m. Dirty Dog Bar. Do not miss Zoroaster.
This review is way, way, way overdue. Back in March, Dreaming in Stereo invited me to cover their show at SXSW. I missed the show, unfortunately, but they were kind enough to send me their new album, Dreaming in Stereo 2, to review. Lo these many months later, I can say that, having listened to the album, if I ever get another chance to see this band live, I will go without hesitation. I certainly regret missing that show in Austin.
The album is gorgeous from start to finish. Truly a delight. The progressive pop music is cinematic, deliciously layered vocals floating over dreamy string arrangements. The songs have an unhurried quality, capturing what one might imagine a sunny Saturday in the band’s hometown of Miami Beach, Florida, would feel like. It’s tempting to escape into the rich sonic landscape of the record, to indulge in a mini-vacation with every listen.
The man at the helm is Fernando Perdomo, an accomplished musician whose credits include playing lead guitar on a platinum-selling album (Amar Es) and international tour for Grammy-nominated Mexican pop singer Christian Castro. Perdomo writes and sings most of the songs on Dreaming in Stereo 2, with the exceptions of “Saturday Song” and “Without You”, by Marisol Garcia. Garcia’s vocals are stunning; her range extends from quiet intimations to soaring climactic power.
One thing the band seems to collectively understand is the significance of the musical dramatic arc. “Enough’s Enough” is but one example in which a pop melody swells into full orchestral glory and then returns to the original theme. This prog tactic owes much to Pink Floyd, who seem consciously referenced in songs like “Open the Door 2”, with its Syd Barrett-psychedelic lyrics and Dark Side of the Moon acid guitar solo with female vocals underneath. The Beatles also seem to be an influence, as in the vocal harmonies of “Part of Your Life”. Like the Beatles, Dreaming in Stereo writes songs that have an undercurrent of longing, a delicate sadness made beautiful by music. In effect, the experience of the album as a whole is a sort of journey, both inward into secret emotions and outward in an exploration of just how picturesque sound can be.
At the end of SXSW, Charlene Kaye, along with band member Megan Cox on violin, are playing El Mercado, an Austin Tex-Mex restaurant—and an appropriately ironic venue for Kaye to finish out the week. “I don’t think I can eat anymore Mexican food after this trip,” she laughs. “If I never see a taco again, it will be too soon.”
A 24-year-old Hawaii native with Singaporean parents, Kaye grew up in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Arizona before attending college as an English major at the University of Michigan. She moved to New York about a year and a half ago, immediately after college, with a number of musician friends from school, no money, and no place to live. Since then, she says she’s been “single-mindedly” pursuing a career in music.
“I really can’t see myself doing anything else. I almost don’t really feel like I have a choice.”
A few minutes of listening to Kaye’s jazzy vocals, poetic lyrics, and strong song arrangements will convince anyone that she’s chosen exactly the right profession. Her exotic beauty and effortless confidence onstage present a singer/songwriter who seems primed for success.
In fact, Kaye’s recent single “Dress and Tie” has already earned her an impressive amount of recognition for someone so relatively new to the music business. Recorded with fellow U. of M. alum and Glee cast member Darren Criss, the song made the top 150 downloaded songs the day it was released on iTunes. Not surprisingly, Kaye says this has significantly expanded her fan base. “I have a lot of all-ages fans, as in, under-21 fans, because the Glee demographic tends to be a younger crowd,” she explains. “Everywhere we’ve gone, I’ve gotten at least ten little girls who are like, ‘I love Darren, and I love you! I love you because Darren loves you!’”
While the Midas touch of the Glee association has increased Kaye’s popularity, the attention certainly isn’t undeserved. Keep an eye on this talented lady. She is going places.
OH: Where did your band name, Charlene Kaye & the Brilliant Eyes, come from?
CK: It came from a dream that I had. The more I thought about it, the more I started to conceive it as the people around me, my bandmates and others that inspire me, who help me realize the musical ideas I have and flesh out my vision. It was also kind of inspired by the feeling of looking out into the crowd the second right before I start to sing and seeing all these eyes looking back in anticipation.
I feel like performing is kind of like having a conversation with somebody. If you feel like they’re giving something back, then you want to give more back.
OH: How long have you been playing music?
CK: I was trained in classical piano since the age of five, and I took piano lessons until I was sixteen. And then when I got into middle school and high school, I kind of dropped the piano and got really into Elliot Smith and Blink-182 and Good Charlotte and Goldfinger. I went through a big punk stage and learned like every song in drop-D possible. The first guitar I ever played was my mom’s classical, nylon strings, and I was playing Blink-182 on that. I just got frustrated with the formal training because it was nothing that I was listening to at the time, and once I discovered how to play songs I actually liked, I got really excited. And that was sort of the portal into discovering how much I loved music, when it didn’t feel like a homework assignment.
OH: I noticed Megan, your violinist, was playing and singing at the same time. I’ve never seen anyone do that before.
CK: Megan was a prodigy classical pianist. By age ten she was playing these really advanced sonatas, winning regional competitions and beating her older brothers. And then she was like, actually, I want to learn how to play violin. And so she became a badass at violin, and then she was like, actually, I think I want to be a classical voice major! So she majored in that in college, and now she’s a monster. The perfect triple threat.
OH: Did you take any voice lessons?
CK: Here and there. I took one class in college with this huge opera singer that was amazing in his own way, but I don’t really feel like I took anything from it because I’m more like a soul/rock vocalist, or at least I aspire to be. And he wanted me to sing in a traditional style. It didn’t really resonate. So I just sing however it feels good. I’ve been known to take Mariah Carey karaoke tracks and just practice with that because she’s so all over the place that anything you sing after that feels so easy—especially my stuff that has very defined melodies. I don’t riff that much. So, if I have to warm up, I’ll run through a Mariah Carey song! (laughs)
CK: My first album [Things I Will Need in the Past] I would describe as indie-folk-pop. All the instruments on the album are real acoustic instruments—cellos, lots of strings, real drums, lots of ambient percussion like woodwinds and chimes and glockenspiel and stuff like that. My EP [Charlene Kaye & the Brilliant Eyes] I would describe as more alternative rock. There’s one song that’s inspired by old soul songs…I’m so blatantly influenced by everything that I hear.
The new album is going to be much more personal and more intense. I’ve had a lot of life experiences since the release of my first album, and I think that though the voice that emerges is still me, it’s a more mature one, one that’s moved past writing about her first heartbreak or imaginary fictional scenarios. Musically, I want to say it’s stranger and more ambitious than the easy-listening pop stuff that’s characterized my sound in the past, but I hesitate because in some ways it actually does lean towards a more pop sound – a good handful of the songs from the new batch sound like singles to me, which I guess is a good thing. My inspirations are all over the place, from Blondie to M. Ward to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to of Montreal.
OH: Is this your first time at SXSW?
OH: What’s your experience been so far?
CK: Oh, man. I’ve had a blast. I cannot wait for next year. It’s been like margaritas nonstop!
Charlene Kaye & the Brilliant Eyes play Don Hill’s in NYC with Shoot the Freak and Hank & the Cupcakes on April 24 at 7:00 p.m.
Yes, it’s that time of year again. Your presents have been opened. Your waistline has been expanded. Your Christmas has been thoroughly celebrated. Unless you’re me, in which case your presents remain unopened, halfway across the country; your waistline is shrinking as you prove the effectiveness of The Poverty Diet; your Christmas was celebrated with two Jewish guys at a bar. And now you’re snowed in.
What better time to commence that all-important year-end activity — the listing of the Top 10 Best Albums of the year? In fact, there is no better time. The time is now.
Please join me in toasting with a half-drunk mug of this morning’s coffee the following albums:
10. The Black Keys — Brothers (notwithstanding the T. Rex ripoff that is the opening riff)
9. Massive Attack — Heligoland
8. Gorillaz — Plastic Beach
7. Robyn — Body Talk (Pt. 1, 2, and 3)
6. The Dead Weather — Sea of Cowards
5. Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
4. Big Boi — Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
3. Kylesa — Spiral Shadow
2. The Ruby Suns — Flight Softly
1. M.I.A. — MAYA
On the tenth anniversary of the fateful Halloween party in Boston where Amanda Palmer met Brian Viglione, The Dresden Dolls reunited after a two-year hiatus for a sold out show at Irving Plaza. The significance of their first meeting ten years ago was clearer than ever: these two belong together.
Having seen them perform one of their last pre-breakup shows in 2008 and having seen them play separately since (Amanda at the Spiegeltent in NYC in ’08 and Brian with World/Inferno at Hallowmas that same year), and seeing them now together again, I can say with certainty that each are strong musicians and great performers but that something indefinable happens when they take the stage together. Their musical chemistry is electric; the crowd feeds off it, gives it back; the Dolls bounce it right back to the crowd. And what happens is bigger than two people onstage, bigger even than a jam-packed venue of loving fans. For lack of a better word, it’s magic.
As with so many bands whose live show is superior to their (already great) records, you have to see the Dolls perform to fully appreciate what all the fuss is about. Take my word for it. There’s something genius in the simplicity of two percussionists (the piano is a percussion instrument, after all) playing off of each other’s musical cues and body language in a sort of rhythmic dialogue. Brian and Amanda are like twins who anticipate what the other is going to say. And they’re even more in sync now than they were two years ago — it seems the break has left them supercharged.
The Legendary Pink Dots, who Amanda has always cited as her favorite band and number one musical influence, kicked off the show. After their set, a giant screen hid the stage and showed a Halloween-themed movie clip montage while an equally appropriate soundtrack played over the P.A. When “Sweet Transvestite” came on, the audience sang along, complete with Rocky Horror inside-joke callouts (“Say it!!”). It foreshadowed the singing to come.
Girl: I wonder if a lot of Rocky Horror fans are Dolls fans?
Guy: I’m pretty sure there’s some overlap.
When the Dolls appeared, the house erupted. Brian appeared sans Halloween costume (but later revived the Dolls’ trademark bowler hat); Amanda wore something resembling a caped Checkpoint Charlie uniform, the jacket of which was of course eventually ditched in favor of a black lace bra. The duo kissed, the message obvious to those who knew the high tension that split up the band two years ago.
They opened with “Sex Changes” and played for — are you ready for this? — two hours and thirty-five minutes, almost non-stop. The crowd knew every. single. word. of the set, comprising twenty-one songs (by my count), that included five covers:
– “Pirate Jenny” – by Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill (fromThe Threepenny Opera) – Amanda sang it in English
– “Pierre” – by Carole King – with Brian doing the “I don’t care”s
– “Double Rainbow” – from the YouTube phenomenon; it ended with a rainbow of balloons falling from the ceiling
– “Mein Herr” – from Cabaret – with Brian on acoustic guitar and Amanda, in a gold sequined bra, writhing on a platform, stage-right
– “War Pigs” – by Black Sabbath – and it sounded massive with Amanda on piano and Brian’s metal-influenced drumming at its best
They hit all the big Dolls tunes, most of them from the self-titled album and from Yes, Virginia, and they touched on “Glass Slipper” from A is for Accident and two from No, Virginia (“Ultima Esperanza”, “The Kill”). They kept up the theatrics that make watching them so much fun: Brian clowned as the perfect foil for Amanda’s slightly straighter-(wo)man (we use that word “straight” very loosely here). They recruited fans from the audience to sing backup on “The Jeep Song”. They paid tribute to their mutual friend Sean, who was in the audience and who brought Brian to Amanda’s Halloween party ten years ago. (The audience sent up cries of “Thank you, Sean!” to him on the balcony.) They received “boo”s when Amanda mentioned wrapping up the show. (“Don’t be idiotic,” she said. “We’re obviously going to do an encore.”)
And they played a five-song encore.
Only then was the audience reluctantly willing to let them go — and only because we know that, this time, it won’t be two years before we see them together again.
Lucky 13 Saloon is always a sure bet for a great time. The jukebox and occasional DJ play the best of metal, both old and new. The walls and ceilings are plastered with band posters. The beer is $2. And the dancers never disappoint.
Last night was no exception — and even exceeded my expectations. The reason: Japanese pole dancer and horror film star Cay Izumi. Go-go-ers Kayce GoGo and Remy Viscious (of Coney Island fame) were terrific, too (I was particularly envious of Kayce’s absolutely perfect derriere). But Izumi, who says she’s been dancing for ten years, took the cake.
Cay’s work on the pole is so intense that she can only sustain it for one or two songs at a time. We’re talking Olympic-strength athleticism, here. For the first third or so of her performances, she seduces the crowd with some provocative moves close to the ground — er, bar. Then she shimmies up the pole and stays there for the rest of the song. Executing trick after impossible trick, upside-down, sideways, and everything in between, she whips around so fast that people back away from the range of her heels. She actually gets very few tips while dancing because she’s at the ceiling and out of reach most of the time, and people seem either afraid to risk getting impaled by a stiletto or reluctant to interrupt her electrifying routine.
Erstwhile, on the TV screens in the corners of the bar, Japanese slasher flicks featured Izumi and other actresses covered in blood, dying ridiculously unfortunate deaths. (See Izumi’s film history here.) The plots are absurd, but the photography has some gorgeous moments even amongst the gore. And the borderline soft-core, girl-on-girl scenes have a sort of cheesy appeal, if you’re into that sort of thing. Most of the guys in the crowd seemed to be.
The funny thing about Izumi is that when she climbs down off the bar after her fierce routines, she’s cute as can be and a total sweetheart. Completely the opposite of the lethal sexpot who moments ago looked about as dangerous as the female killers in the films playing in the background. With the people who are only now able to get close enough to shower her with cash, she chats, sometimes with the help of a translator, and explains that she’s new to New York. She’s on a sort of tour with the gothic lolita performance troupe Tokyo Dolores, and she’s got some solo gigs coming up, too. Here’s the schedule. I highly recommend checking out the shows.