Steam Dream 

Thursday, Jul 24 2003

THE HISS at Spaceland, July 10

It happens every once in a while: an incredible, hotly tipped American band, already feted overseas, slips into Los Angeles and plays a gig almost unnoticed. In March 2001, it was the Strokes playing to a few random people at the Dragonfly, a club that’s usually host to those terrible, delusional Hollywood bands with big-label deals in their eyes, desperately mimicking whatever sound’s been logging playtime at KROQ or Clear Channel recently. So, without airplay or U.S. media interest, the Strokes played to an oblivious crowd in an L.A. club. And a year and a half later, they’re playing two nights at the Greek.

This is not to suggest that Spaceland was an inappropriate venue for the Hiss, although the smallish crowd certainly didn’t seem prepared for what they were gonna hear: a full-on melodic rock & roll four-piece from Atlanta, Georgia, with enough chuggling riffs, lyrics and attitude to have already received dual thumbs-up from both Oasis’ Noel Gallagher and the White Stripes’ Jack White. By the opening, ascending notes of the set’s fifth song — the massive-sprawling-defiant “Not for Hire” — it was dawning on those of us who’d stuck around that all of the fuss ’n’ Brit-hype (the NME: “They’re better than, well, everything”) might just be entirely justified. Think (yes) Oasis plus the Saints plus Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers plus some Southern spitfire and hoo-ha.

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    @ The Troubadour

So why is this band without a record deal in the U.S., while its debut album, The Panic Movement, is already slated for August release in England? Why is the only music available at their merch table a three-song CD manufactured by the band themselves? Perhaps it’s just more confirmation, as if it were needed, that the American music industry, American rock radio and the American press have all become so closed — and lazy — that deserving, accessible American bands are now routinely heading to England in order to get a break in America. That a band as good — actually, possibly great — as the Hiss can play in Los Angeles to a crowd numbering in the low dozens is yet another sign that the American music “system” is flawed in a fundamental way. You’ll see what I mean . . . in 2004, probably.

SMOG, JOANNA NEWSOM at the Troubadour, July 18

Anyone who hits the Troubadour’s stage on a Friday night armed with nothing but a harp should get a Grammy nod for sheer balls. But Nevada City, CA, resident and recent Drag City signee Joanna Newsom doesn’t ply the gigantic antique-gilt instrument with the histrionic self-importance a philharmonic harpist might. Looking rather 19th century in her ol’ Clementine dress and girlish bangs, Newsom plucked as vigorously as a bluegrasser while emoting in a crystalline alto that moseyed along before hitting a high-lonesome register that prickled the hairs on the back of your neck.

But the crowd was here to see Drag City vet Bill Callahan, a.k.a. Smog, work his left-of-center roots-rock charms. At first, his band chafed the parameters of rural-prog as the three backing members (including regular tour guitarist Rich Germer, part-timer Jason Dezember on drums, and keyboardist-for-hire Jiha Lee from Bright Eyes and the Good Life) bent over their instruments in an almost self-annihilating service to the music. Ask any Smog fan and they’ll probably tell you that of the band’s nine or so albums, ’99’s Knock Knock is their best because it balances the lo-fi noisiness of the early stuff with the lush orchestrations of more recent material. In a deliberate attempt to wean the alt-country/No Depression types from the familiar, Smog made the new release Supper the showcase, and its dreamy stretches of strumm-a-lumma pop made the two-hour set fly like a Great Plains guster.

For the third act, Smog settled back into avant-Appalachiana, but not before the reticent Callahan did a little flamenco-ish trill on his guitar, cryptically adding, “All the ladies should be doing the tango — whoops, sorry, that’s Robert Duvall.” Then — poof! — they vanished. Not getting off that easy, they came back down for an encore of “Cold-Blooded Old Times” and “Dress Sexy at My Funeral,” with hoots, whoopees and much foot-stompin’ ensuing. It’s always best to leave folks with what they came for. (Andrew Lentz)

DURAN DURAN at the Roxy, July 17

Many don’t recall it now, but 22 years ago, when Duran Duran first breached American shores, they came billed as the new Beatles. The press dubbed them the Fab Five, and girls swooned. They weren’t quite new wave and they weren’t quite pop, but were some new hybrid, a synth-heavy boy band who made men in eyeliner acceptable to the general public.

Last week, in what might just be the first major reunion tour for the almost-balding set, Duran Duran revisited the Roxy, the site of their initial L.A. debut. It was also the first time the original lineup of Simon LeBon (vocalist), Andy Taylor (guitars), John Taylor (bass), Roger Taylor (drums) and Nick Rhodes (keyboards) had played together in 18 years, and, well, they looked older. Gone was the makeup and the clothes; the band instead settled for a button-down attempt to look a lot like Bryan Ferry, the fallback position of aging Brit rockers everywhere. The crowd, as only aging die-hards can, were with them from go. It was the band themselves who took a little while to warm to the notion. Maybe they were rusty or maybe they were scared, but LeBon came out looking a bit self-conscious about the fact that he still can’t dance and that they haven’t had a hit since the Reagan era. It wasn’t until midshow, during the “Wild Boys” thumping drum solo, that the band suddenly remembered that they really were, and somehow still are, Duran Duran.

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