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Drones and Dreams

Illustration by Tony Mostrom

WORLD OUT OF TUNE FESTIVAL at Highland Grounds, May 4

Most of the lineup here promised sure-fire microtonal goodness, including two of L.A.'s best exponents of the kind of Eastern-tinged drones and repetitive, trickling mallet-and-string minimalism one associates with microtonal composers like Lou Harrison, Harry Partch and Terry Riley. Then there was the wild card: the ominously unknown Microtonal Rock & Roll Act . . .

Arriving just before showtime, I find the place pleasingly noisy and packed; loud espresso noises hiss from behind the counter, while some cornball Pretenders-ish pop plays over the PA. First on the bill is the acoustic drone trio Voice of the Bowed Guitar, and I see San Franciscan Doug Williford (thereof) sitting cross-legged amid piles of gear, his violin bow in hand; attentive. Three shiny acoustic guitars lay on the stage.

Joseph Hammer walks in and crouches down, and once Rod Poole announces the "band" above the din of people talking, all is quiet.

Then it commences.

The drone: a huge, dark, buzzing-edged chord rises up from the three slowly bowed instruments, lush and tense, violin bows crawling back and forth without a break, scree-ing high overtones tinny in our ears, above the one dark note. It's a loud, densely layered forest of harmonies; buzzes and high squeals hover above, then get lost again in the resulting distilled chord that plows consistently on.

Some people sit with eyes closed, letting the gigantic, overlapping sighs envelop their faces and the room: ssshhhhiiiisshh . . . It's menacing and satisfying. (Later:) What time is it? Who knows? But suddenly the sawing becomes insistently louder (and I cup my ears, and it becomes even sharper and more powerful). Standing up to sketch the crouched-over trio, I see they're sawing the guitars faster now, but who would've known? Then, one by one, it ends. Audience pleased, ravished.

Following some overwrought and out-of-place '70s rock by Swallow (of New York) that goes too long and empties the place, the 10 or 12 of us who stay are rewarded with the incredibly beautiful, dreamy, wind-chiming, abstract, bell-like flutters and swirling patterns of a gorgeous Kraig Grady piece for two vibraphones. Bong . . . It 's the only piece that gives me hallucinations: bursting magenta flowers, dreams inside a Japanese children's book. It feels like water.

Last up: David Beardsley (of New York) plays a short piece of humming, layered tones on his densely fretted electric guitar, bravely competing with the cashieress, who, oblivious, loudly closes down the register. Pissed at her, but we like Beardsley.

THE VINES at the Troubadour, May 7 The VinesPhoto by Gregory Bojorquez

The Vines deserved better, they really did. A mere 30 seconds after their high-adrenaline set at the sold-out Troubadour, the claps and "woo-hoos" faded to nothing. The band's ad hoc MC, Rodney "On the ROQ" Bingenheimer, scolded over the PA: "Come on, you record-company weasels! Let's make a little noise!" It was true; the crowd reeked of industry types, all crossing "See superhot new Aussie garage-rock talent" off their TO DO lists.

Considering the Sydney-born band's Who-worthy rock & roll theatrics, the polite head bobbing seemed especially unkind. Singer and guitarist Craig Nicholls worked extrahard to sex up the set, thrashing and leaping with his guitar, his baby face contorting, his elastic mouth and serpentine tongue fellating the microphone as the band belted out tune after irresistible tune. Except the damn audience resisted. Still, not all the blame should land squarely on the catatonic crowd's fashionable shoulders; the Vines' music refused to settle into any solid groove. After an initial trio of frenetic rock songs, the band launched into a cover of OutKast's "Ms. Jackson." While this may have earned them urban cred (and a few cheers from the crowd), Nicholls' crooning completely killed any garage vibe the Vines had been cooking up. From then on, the band played musical chairs, morphing into any number of seminal rock acts from the last few decades: Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana (when the Vines were formed, they played only Nirvana covers), Radiohead and yes, of course, the Strokes.

It's almost as if Australia were a sponge, soaking up the best rock of recent years and spewing it back out as the Vines. Which is not to say the group are dingo shit -- they're explosively, spine-tinglingly good. They're just good at too many things. (Nathan Ihara)

NUSPIRIT HELSINKI (DJ ENDER) at Club Sugar, May 5

So rare is it to hear such a completely fluid and perfectly balanced serving of nu-soul, broken-beat, house, two-step, trip-hop and stretched-out jazz. Nuspirit Helsinki is a collective of at least 15 players, vocalists, DJs and producers; founding member and ambassador for the group DJ Ender (or Hannu Niemine) brought some records to Sugar's Bossa:Nova, where he spun a set that both tested the waters with new material and served up some old-school house.

Since various Nuspiriters have already contributed trax and remixes for the Jazzanova-Compost, Ubiquity and Guidance labels (the last is putting out the collective's debut), you can imagine the choice material we'll soon hear from Nicole Willis, Chicago spoken-word artist Chuck Perkins and a host of European jazz musicians. They'll probably come back with a larger-scale live show this summer, but in the meantime, we got to hear some Nuspirit dubs -- grooves laden with driving percussion, rich horns and cosmic keys, always fucking with time signatures and genre structures. DJ Ender casually helped himself to beers while fusing his abstract new music with the simplistic yet sublime house staple "Good Life." He had the crowd all the way, as the floor never thinned no matter how far he delved into artcore.

Bossa:Nova (brought to you by Jason Bentley) started off right with Jun, a local guy who has performed some fantastic sets and always seems to drop one or two disco-funk bombs from the likes of Cameo or the Dazz Band. (Daniel Siwek)

COAL CHAMBER at the Key Club, May 7

It's a sign of the times that -- with tonight being the release bash for just their third album -- Coal Chamber are already considered veterans of the nu-metal genre. Veterans rather than godfathers: That title's reserved for Korn, the Deftones, et al., acts C.C. are oft accused of "emulating." Depending on whom you ask, their sound is either a clone of the true down-tuned deities or a fan-friendly barometer of adolescent demand, but above all, these notoriously volatile stokers pride themselves on road-honed live chops, and this under-the-microscope showcase was a chance to bare their tour-dog teeth.

Strolling onto their haunted-house stage set to a throbbing intro tape and a rapturous hometown reception, the fearsome foursome plunged into unison riffage thick enough to chew on, propelled and punctuated by rave-reminiscent triggered kick drums. Affable, dressed-down vocalist Dez Fafara presented a foil to his designer-sulky bandmates' well-worn high-in-high-school garb, weak-at-the-knees shapes and angst-rock-obligatory synchronized squats, while newly returned bassist Nadja Puelen's rag-doll glam flashed welcome femininity within Chamber's chest-beating barrage.

Coal Chamber offer a shrewdly paced, compact combo of oldies and current material, the more familiar ditties launching spontaneous sing-alongs with Fafara's throaty, Korn-fed chants. Tunes from their make-or-break new disc, Dark Days, display an attractively lean, to-the-jugular approach, yet incongruous refrains like "Get out of my rowboat" become unintentionally comical when delivered in Fafara's poltergeist-in-the-waste-disposal gurgle. His phrasing now closely resembles that of Pantera growler Phil Anselmo: less rap, more rawk.

Coal Chamber are neither pioneers nor plagiarists, neither geniuses nor totally generic -- they're sincere entertainers who've worked themselves into the ground to become an effortlessly convincing live outfit. While their stylistic signature remains blurry, this dysfunctional Addams family nonetheless delivers textbook contemporary metal that shames the legions of Whisky a GoGo wannabes. (Paul Rogers)

BRIAN WILSON at the Roxy, May 11

It's no small satisfaction to see homeboy Brian Wilson back on a stage, looking tanned, fit and semirelaxed amid his sea of great tunes and colossal wall of sound. Not too long ago we might've worried about whether the notoriously brittle genius could hold up under the strain. But he's back, apparently, and enjoying himself, doubtless because his audiences shower him with love and because at last he's got a skilled and sympathetic band to play his songs right.

Clad in a hokey white-star-flecked sweater and supported by the 10 multi- instrumentalists (banjo, keyboards, vibes, horns, two percussionists, backup vocalists) originally assembled for the Pet Sounds shows at the Hollywood Bowl a year and a half ago, Wilson sat erect stage-front and marshaled his troops for a zippy trip through his bejeweled songbook, and not just the obvious ones. "Sail on Sailor" and "Warmth of the Sun" breezed by with crisp, refined band work and full-bodied, accurate vocal harmonies; "California Girls" didn't miss Mike Love's nasal gurruls for a moment, and it thumped right along into "Dance Dance Dance," where the guitarist ripped a faithful 12-string solo in tribute to brother Carl. Crowd-pleasers such as "Good Vibrations," "Surfin' USA" and "I Get Around" were similarly yanked out and spit-shined, as were comparatively obscure numbers such as Carl and Brian's "Good Timing" and Dennis Wilson's "Forever," all benefiting from the ensemble's willingness to put some real drive and wit into their performance. Within a greatest-hits context like this, the Pet Sounds tunes, as they did at the Hollywood Bowl, sounded positively avant-garde; nuanced pieces like "God Only Knows," "Waiting for the Day," "Hang On to Your Ego" (a.k.a. "I Know There's an Answer") and "I Wasn't Made for These Times" require a keen ear for the originals' ornate harmonic/melodic interplay, dynamics and phrasing, which Wilson's crew pulled off with amazing consistency.

Meanwhile, Brian Wilson, dropping off-the-wall one-liners and extolling the virtues of his own material, showed off that unique Brian mix of bashful boy and confident old master -- he knows his songs are good, and he knows they need to be handled with sensitivity; while his own onstage voice isn't quite up to smoothly negotiating the leaps and twists of his tricky melodies, his backing ensemble supplied nicely integrated vocal and instrumental embellishments that glued together the songs' orchestrations.

Preaching to the converted, Wilson closed with a touching "Love & Mercy" from his 1988 solo album. I looked around and saw a full house of respectful, smiling faces, people who loved Brian Wilson and would gladly chip in to buy him a different sweater. (John Payne)

SUPER FURRY ANIMALS at El Rey, May 7

Prior to this evening's performance, the closest Welsh quintet Super Furry Animals got to playing in L.A. was a dozy afternoon gig at Coachella I in 1999. But tonight couldn't be more different from that sarcomic afternoon; the temperature is pleasant, the show is indoors and in the dark. More importantly, at El Rey the Furries are augmented by films, as well as a sternum-rattling quadrophonic sound system capable of setting your hair aloft while swirling around the room THX- supersurround style.

The Furries' show opens with an imaginatively selected DJ set, broadcast live to the onstage screen from a digicam gazing down at Super Furry hands working two backstage turntables. "Police and Thieves" (the Junior Marvin version), "Mellow Yellow" and "Sidewalk Surfin'" are mixed with German hip-hop, bagpipe-led speed-garage and a great tune with the chorus "starrrr pilot." This kind of willful eclecticism can scan as hipper-than-thou, but it's perfectly representative of the Super Furries' inspirations and aims: They're gonna give you some riffs, some pop melodies and some noisy stuff from bonkersville; they're also gonna give you escapism, whimsy, real-world righteousness and utopian imagination. It's poptimistic music with an appetite for construction.

And a set with so many highlights. Post­Beach Boys songs buried in Jesus and Mary Chain­style guitar volume; the onscreen motions of a martial artist synched with the beats of "No Sympathy"'s techno section; a fantastic new song hymning the virtues of golden retrievers; and an impassioned take on the anthemic "The Man Don't Give a Fuck," intro'd with a recording of satirist Bill Hicks intoning "All governments are liars or murderers." For the lovely "Juxtapozed With U," singer Gruff Rhys alternates between vocoder, microphone and acoustic guitar, while blacklit laser-heat figures cavort around a rooftop pool on the screen above; and during the epic "Receptacle for the Respectable," a guitar tech with a John Lennon face mask tosses broccoli crowns into the audience before the song's death-metal denouement, in which the Super Furries are accompanied by footage of Black Sabbath performing live circa 1970.

The evening isn't nonstop genius, due as in '99 to the shortcomings of the venue. That is, ballads and midtempo rockers played 45 minutes into a show are difficult to endure when you have no chair to relax in, and El Rey's practice of charging $6 for a 12-ounce bottle of Heineken didn't really help. Still, you had to admit, it sure beat the heat. (Jay Babcock)


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