Are 'Friends' Electro?
Photos by Gregory Bojorquez
LADYTRON, SIMIAN, MOUNT SIMS at the Henry Fonda Theater, March 8
It's 1980 all over again: scary nukes; Middle Eastern strife; a crazy Republican in the Oval Office. All I could see for miles at this show were leg warmers and fishnets, hot pink tops and black hair dye, faux hawks and bleach-blond disasters. I'm not an expert in international diplomacy, so I'll just tell you the latter fact is an outgrowth of electroclash, the most manufactured faux movement since Malcolm McLaren's Sex Pistols. Though the trendlet's official Web site includes the qualification that it was "a term never intended for genre usage," I attended promoter Larry Tee's October 2001 festival in New York where the name was minted and the smell of hype at that ground zero was as thick as the smell of dust and death at the one downtown. The line for the guest list was longer than that for paid attendees.
Whatever its origins, delivered with a mixture of perversity, humor and decent choruses, electroclash is defensible (see Fischerspooner or Peaches). In times like these, it feels good to revel in thoughts of technology and detached fucking. Then again, such genre-centric hype allows acts like opener Mount Sims to slip in under the radar. Mastermind Matt Sims sang along to backing tracks and in front of two erotic dancers. I wish he'd ditched the music. Simian don't deserve the genre tag that a place on this bill invited. Neither cold nor stridently electronic, the quartet's music is reminiscent of John Lennon's most soulful Beatles songs filtered through Brian Eno's toolshed sonically rich, well thought out and funky, albeit in an overdetermined, white-guy kind of way. Though Simian's confidence and enthusiasm were infectious, they were limited by the fact that, besides the singer-guitarist, the members were tethered to their instruments two guys on synths, a drummer playing to a click track.
The most notable thing about Ladytron is that no one's dismissed them as a highbrow version of t.A.T.u. Their best song was the semi-creepy "Seventeen," whose lyrics go, "They only want you when you're 17/When you're 21, you're no fun." Matching vocalists Helena Marnie and Mira Aroyo (Bulgarian, natch) played the part of zonked new wave divas, while Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu operated keyboards and rhythm boxes, abetted by utilitymen on bass and drums. As with any group of musicians who drag out synthesizers and wear all black, it's inevitable that some will claim they represent the future, but I have visions of what the future looks like, and it's not a Depeche Mode video.
EL CHIVO EXPIATORIO, ALMALAFA, INSPECTOR, VIERNES 13 at the Roxy, March 9
Something about ska piques the Mexican soul but let Carlos Monsiváis ponder that one. Who else but the intellectual giant could explain Sunday's sold-out Mexican skanker showcase at the Roxy? El Chivo Expiatorio started the slamfest with 1950s hot-rod revs, inappropriate facial histrionics and on-purpose stilted delivery that alternately provoked laughter and pogoing and reminded of Tenacious D. Then again, doubt Jack Black and Co. would ever bash Bush, call for an illegal immigrant amnesty or chirp "Don't bomb Iraq!" on the catchiest jingle ever uttered outside a soap commercial. Slowing things down but inciting the pit further was Almalafa. Sure, the Ensenada dectet's moody, tropical-laced scratches got repetitive quickly. And, yes, they sang a bit too much about marijuana's joys. But Almalafa produced when fans forgo the Roxy's stage-dive ban, wrap themselves around lead singers and quiver like Pentecostals, a band has produced.
Then some unpleasant capitalism. Seemed many music moguls were in attendance to hear headliner Inspector, so Universal (Inspector's label) pressured the concert's promoter to have Southgate skankeros Viernes 13 bumped until after midnight. Viernes vehemently protested, arguing that there'd be no fans left for them. Didn't matter label honchos trump the locals any day. Inspector is the same band that had a Thursday-night appearance at Anaheim's JC Fandango raided after fire inspectors found 500 people too many inside the club, and the prime reason the Roxy nearly encountered that problem also. This fan obsession is puzzling, however; their so-so ska was nothing Orange County didn't spit out about six years ago.
And Viernes 13? Maybe 75 faithful lingered when lanky singer Jay P. appeared onstage around the witching hour. "I want to thank those who're staying," he told the audience. "Those who left fuck them!" May their furious ska/punk bravura one day receive the respect it deserves. (Gustavo Arellano)
DEAD MOON, MR. AIRPLANE MAN, 20 MILES at Spaceland, March 1
While it's unclear how L.A.'s ubiquitous fire marshals are going to bring back the dead in Rhode Island or solve the mystery behind Great White's bizarre midlife metamorphosis into Kiss there was one consolation prize when the fire brigade recently shut down the Smell: the last-minute addition of Smell refugees Mr. Airplane Man and 20 Miles to the Spaceland bill. Hitting the stage past 1 a.m., 20 Miles, with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion singer-guitarist Judah Bauer, must have thought they were still on Manhattan club time, rambling through an unhurried set of keyboard-and-slide-driven blues rock. 20 Miles' best moments evoked the swaggering grooves of the Stones' 1969 Trident demos; a nagging drawback was that everything came off second-hand even the blues covers were based on the Stones' versions, not the originals.
Mr. Airplane Man's take on the blues felt more personal, more haunted. Prodded by Tara McManus' drum swells, singer-guitarist Margaret Garrett literally marched through six quick songs, stomping with thick black boots in time to her morbidly resolute John Lee Hooker upstrokes throbbing, impatient. As the rusty riffs of "Up in the Room" and "Somebody's Baby" multiplied, scratching into the reverb gloom, Garrett's schoolgirlish-innocent vocals turned wraithlike and feverish, contagiously hypnotic.
This might've been the best Dead Moon show yet in L.A.: drummer Andrew Loomis hammering down railroad ties with a fierce, dance-floor-splitting exactitude; Fred Cole's sugary, Velvety guitar spangle on "Spectacle," more glittery than ever; an eerie, baleful run through the Stones' "Play With Fire"; the prophetic "Fire in the Western World." Without mentioning Bush or Iraq, the lyrics of "Johnny's Got a Gun" took on newfound power as Toody keened with a Patti Smith urgency, "You've anchored your warships, cleared all the airstrips, readied the seeds of decay . . . you better watch out." (Falling James)
KING CLANCY at the Garage, March 3
Okay, you're George Panagopoulos. You've got a set of pipes that'd make Robert Plant jealous. You front a band of groove masters called Mash that's already conquered the Toronto music scene, so you head down to L.A. armed with a CD of catchy tunes. Things happen fast: MC5 legend Wayne Kramer wants to jam with you; Daniel Lanois is postponing U2 sessions to see you; Robbie Robertson signs you to DreamWorks. Now, fast-forward three soul-screwing years sitting on the corporate backburner. You've written more than 120 songs that just weren't quite what A&R was looking for. You've been dropped from the label . . . no album . . . no money. And your movie-star girlfriend has left you for Robertson. What would you do?
Panagopoulos and his bandmates now known as King Clancy dug in, recorded a new LP at their downtown loft, and made their first live appearance in over a year on the first Monday of their March residency at the Garage to debut it. And though the performance had the air of a band shaking the dust off their live persona, the new songs gave irrefutable proof that these guys have got the goods. Their set opener "Way Down" was the straight-up stuff rock & roll is made of: a good man wronged, wailing over blues riffs that sounded like they'd been written in blood. And every song that followed, from the cathartic-chorused "Subliminal" to the hard-driving "Organism," sounded like a blockbuster.
The tie-dyed vocals on the chorus of "Stash" were so hysterically catchy, they helped answer the King Clancy conundrum what to do with a band whose songs have such universal appeal that they don't cater to any particular trend. Drop 'em, apparently. Well, you know, "Guitar-oriented music is on the way out, Mr. Epstein." (Liam Gowing)
ORSON at the Hollywood Ramada Inn, March 8
Orson are among this town's most accomplished popsmiths, masters not only of progression, melody and harmony, but gifted in groove and wordcraft to boot. So it's odd that they're all but unknown though restricting themselves almost exclusively to preaching to the choir at the Viper Room has done little to shift the shroud. Tonight, then, Orson are branching out a little, albeit only as far as the kitschy cellar bar of this faded '60s hostelry.
Amid a DIY ethic, and with only a practice-room P.A. for encouragement, Orson's twin-guitar interplay and white-boy soul nonetheless raise much of the Ramada's thrift-store hipster crowd to their feet. Newboy drummer Chris Cano's eyes-clenched passion, locking with Johnny Lonely's agile bass lines, ensure that Orson are both hummable and humpable, quotable and quivering. "Happiness" enters with a swaggering T-Rex riff, only to supplely shape-shift as Motown-once-removed vocals blur the cartoon.
Orson offer all of Jellyfish's tuneful tenacity, only without the pomp and overcooked arrangements; all of Elvis Costello's last-call nostalgia, elevated by a uniquely epic optimism. Yet all this would count for little without shaven-headed frontman Jason Pebworth, a vocalist who can simultaneously conjure Morrissey and Freddie Mercury while delivering with the demeanor of a gentrified John Lydon. Pebworth's note choices grasp for stars, his enunciated, tremulous sustain only amplifying the already ecstatic gasp of his expression. Few have captured first-night-together, only-couple-on-Earth bliss, lyrically and musically, as Pebworth does through "No Tomorrow." It'll take just one brave industry player to grace the airwaves with Orson's uncompromising craft. Here's hoping. (Paul Rogers)
TIGA at the Echo, March 8
Electroclash has come to Los Angeles more than two years after it was conceived by New York trendmeister Larry Tee, who tired of house music's four-on-the-floor drive-train. This sound of crunchy, arpeggiated new wave has drawn massive interest, but the movement's artists, save for house veteran Felix Da Housecat and techno veteran Tiga, have done little to propel it beyond '80s nostalgia. The result is a flurry of shoe-gazing cover tracks and a legion of dispossessed punks, goths and industrial fans flocking back to dance floors. The genre's worst impact, in fact, isn't its musical step backward, but its predominance of followers who wouldn't know a breakbeat if James Brown himself demonstrated one on the good foot. Electro, after all, is breakbeat-based, but electroclash is, ironically, a clever marketing term based largely on 4/4 beats.
We'll hand it to the "Electro at the Echo" crew, however, for at least priming its audience in true electro including DJ spins of the L.A. Dream Team, Egyptian Lover and Kraftwerk, not to mention more than a few "Planet Rock" derivatives. And DJ Tiga's no Larry Tee puppet. The pretty boy from Montreal started with a mash-up of "Trans-Europe Express" vs. Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," then worked the floor into a frenzy more worthy of a rave than an '80s cover-tune festival. As a 10-year veteran club DJ, Tiga is a jock who lets the '80s flavor his tech-house rather than another electro-crap poseur who happens to have turntables in her art gallery. As such, he turned up the beats per minute and ironed out his transitions in slick-but-serious fashion. By 1 a.m. the Echo was raging to 133 b.p.m. analog techno that had little to do with faux '80s-ism but certainly moved much ass. (Dennis Romero)
JODY WATLEY, KIM HILL at Temple Bar, March 8
Everybody wants a piece of Jody. And with good reason; she's still a thrill. Taking the Temple Bar stage wearing a sleek black designer dress and a poufy, precariously perched wig (cumulative effect: a mocha Sophia Loren), the 40-something dance-floor goddess looked ridiculously beautiful glamorous, sexy, cool. But it was her unbridled energy that made the most powerful impression. Armed with a voice that's just as sultry but even stronger than when she was the darling of the pop charts, Watley was obviously moved by the sold-out crowd's enthusiasm, which she returned tenfold. Vogueing, tangoing with her backing dancers and bounding from one end of the stage to the other, she was anything but a haughty diva. The bulk of the show was devoted to tracks off her fantastic new album, Midnight Lounge, and her small band (drummer, bassist, percussionist, guitarist) easily replicated the house/drum & bass/Chic-inflected soul grooves that make up the disc. Clearly, her retreat into Europe's dance music underground, where she's carved out a second career, has rekindled her creative juices. The funky title track and hands-in-the-air "I Love To Love" (produced by Masters at Work) worked the crowd into a frenzy, which was upped a notch during a jazzy overhaul of "Looking for a New Love." Still, it was the encore (with Watley changed into fitted jeans and a white t-shirt that read "Peace" on the front) that drove folks crazy. Pulling audience members onstage to sing and dance along to "Friends" and "Real Love," she looked like she would burst with happiness, and the effect was contagious.
After Watley left the stage, another hometown girl, Kim Hill, worked her charms from a hip-hop angle and in the words of the blunted Negro who stood behind me "Damn, she dope!" Bringing a genuine skill at freestyling to her songs and between-song banter, Hill was playful, earthy and, on "The Real Hip-hop," a cool castrator, handing former homies Black Eyed Peas their balls on a platter. "I'm more than just a bitter black girl," quipped Kim while introducing the number. Her devotees sang along to every song, including such rarities as "Summertime in Aspen." And when British cult soul artist Julie Dexter briefly took the stage to improvise a sung shout-out to Kim, it was a moment sublime. (Ernest Hardy)
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.