Photos by Wild Don LewisCARTER-TUTTI, CHESSMACHINE
at REDCAT, February 25
Richard Chartier’s and Ivan Pavlov’s Chessmachine is an even less rockist version of professional chess (they get their kicks above the waistline, Sunshine) — with all the snores that that implies, as one zzzz calls from the peanut gallery. Split red-blue screen projections reveal extreme Pong; chess block fights chess block; images dissolve into shimmering fire and water. The sounds, meanwhile — stricken fizzles, thwarted beats and crushed concrete music — mutate so much from the duo’s original through-the-mail remix collaborations that they suggest nothing less than aural incest. After an arbitrary marker — Chartier looks at his watch and shrugs — they stop.
Nostalgia is a bit like going to the dentist: Past sensations are felt so acutely that their anticipation nearly equals the original sensation. So it is with Carter-Tutti, formerly Chris & Cosey, they of Throbbing Gristle, submerged until its recent revivification campaign — and what better play space for these wreckers of civilization than a building whose reflective panels inflict sunburn in 10 minutes upon those standing before it? Slowed footage of children at the seaside and amusement parks segues into animated hands altered to resemble Kirlian photography by way of jewels and honey. Carter manipulates various inscrutable dials from his left-side laptop/mixing desk, scoring footage in which Tutti’s veiled head turns into a pomegranate. Her almost subliminal croon subsumes below the music, much of which is propelled by her gentle picking at an echoing guitar before occasional harmonica and trumpet blasts. There’s an overriding sense of revelation, from Carter’s unblinking eyes to the repeated images of wide-eyed children. Over time, naturally, revelation happens in one’s life in more gentle ways — for instance, under the idyllic gaze of Wozniak’s apple and the rapt applause of a literally full house, rather than via past years’ gallery-destroying milk-and-blood enemas.
SKOLTZ_KOLGEN; TOM RECCHION & JONATHON ROSEN; WILLIAM BASINSKI & JAMES ELAINE
at REDCAT, February 26
In James Elaine’s film, winter trees hung over cemetery lanes, then many iconic medallions slowly glowed and disappeared like human faces. In William Basinski’s music, cloudy electro sounds shuffled around the room’s periphery. Complementary, yes, but so are hot milk and bedtime; the appropriate response was slumber, and the audience responded appropriately. The presentation stuck in the mind, though, as things repeated do.
Local sound creator Tom Recchion collaborated with New York (via Silver Lake) visualizer Jonathon Rosen for a gently bent experience. Onscreen, a series of strong, simple, slow-moving images succeeded one another — gears, an eye, a woman, a daffodil, processed in crude B&W for that vintage Buñuel/Dalí effect. Recchion countered with highly stereophonic computer chimes, bells and frog croaks looped for beauty and to emphasize the implied circles/cycles. Contemplative and satisfying, yet playful.
After the somewhat old-fashioned (but still avant) predecessors, Montreal’s Dominique Skoltz and Herman W. Kolgen came off as futurama with their two laptop computers, two overlapping screens, and much overlapping of sound and scheme. Audiovisual improv has always been a challenge, and the duo have birthed not only slick software for the shotgun A/V wedding, but an original look and hot vibrations. Their Flüux:/Terminal, with mostly just thin black and white lines on view, dodged the sterility of other non-representational art with constant dynamic action and the kind of intensely focused pictographics you couldn’t look away from. Occasionally there’d be square sperm or diagrammatic surf to provide reference; whatever the images, the thing breathed. Plus, the sonic composition, for all its eardrum-puncturing rumble and crash, was coherent — real music. Exciting stuff. Excess length forgiven.
HABIB KOITÉ AND BAMADA
at the Skirball Cultural Center, February 24
As the Skirball’s exhibit on the life and work of Albert Einstein filled my mind and the music of Habib Koité and Bamada filled my pores, I wondered: Where did the father of modern physics’ theories about the relativity of space and time intersect with the Malians’ uncanny ability to morph the groove? Then it hit me later, like a flurry of Kélétigui Diabaté mallet strokes on the wooden keys of his balafon, like a sharp Mahamadou Koné thwack on the animal-skin head of his talking drum, like the first torrential thunderstorm after a prolonged Sahelian dry season. Michio Kaku relates in Einstein’s Cosmos that during his amazing run of theoretical insights in 1905, the great man said “A storm broke loose in my mind” when he realized that time elapsed at different speeds throughout the universe, depending on how quickly you were moving. In other words, the faster you go, the more time slows down. Had that old music-lover Einstein helped me unravel a small tangle of the paradox I’d experienced listening to Bamada and other master rhythmic texturalists?
When the tempos surged on “Muso Ko” and “Nanale” or swaggered funkily on “Bitile,” the moments stretched, each player’s contribution relative to the other’s, speedier or slower, busier or spacier, heavier or lighter, all pushing inexorably forward. Amid the relativities, the quality and presence of one thing stayed constant: Habib’s warm, optimistically world-weary tenor voice. This was, after all, just pop music (albeit music with an uncommon generosity of spirit), not a path to positing a Theory of Everything. When Habib and Bamada hit their own intensely mellow sweet spot on little beauties like “Saramaya” or “Kanawa,” it didn’t matter that time was dilating and space was contracting all around us.
THE HOLD STEADY
at the Knitting Factory, February 27
Hardly anyone outside the Twin Cities noticed Lifter Puller until it was too late. In 2003, the posthumous reissue Soft Rock generated more buzz than anything released while they were together. The Hold Steady, front man Craig Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler’s New York–based sequel, isn’t likely to meet the same fate. For one thing, the band has some serious dude-appeal, judging by the knot of fist-pumpers shouting along with unlikely lines (“They dressed him in a shirt with a collar and called him Porky Pig”) from last year’s Almost Killed Me, as though the horn-rimmed, raw-throated Finn were indiedom’s Bob Seger.
Stands to reason: Where Lifter Puller were stylistically diffuse, the Hold Steady have an almost monomaniacal dedication to anthemic ’70s AOR. (“Most People Are DJs” name-checks “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” and “Only the Good Die Young.”) This would be unbearably ironic if the players couldn’t carry it off, but they do, with Finn and Kubler’s classic division of guitar labor, a rhythm section (Galen Polivka and Bobby Drake) that takes care of itself, and keyboardist Franz Nicolay, whose evident chops excused his affected Salvador Dalí mustache.
The through line is Finn’s remarkable lyrics, which follow a recurring cast of losers, users and liars through a hellscape of bad clubs and worse drugs, and rhyme with the dense wit of freestyle rap. (“We’re jamming jet skis into the jetty/With some guy who looks like Rocco Siffredi.”) Live, the Telecaster/Les Paul firepower obscured the talkier passages, but the strongly structured “Knuckles” and “The Swish” were bull’s-eyes. The unreleased material was just as strong, particularly “Your Hoodrat Friend,” an empathetic power-pop portrait of a gang groupie. On the album, Finn sings, “Certain songs they just get scratched into our souls”; it may not be long until his own are among them.
THE SECRET MACHINES
at Avalon, February 21
The gal next to me snoozes through the Secret Machines’ endless electro-chill intro tape, but immediately snaps to when Ben Curtis’ blistered guitar bursts the surface of “Sad and Lonely,” soon bulked by Josh Garza’s feverishly deliberate Bonham beats and Brandon Curtis’ passive/aggressive eight-string bass. See, while the Secret Machines can noodle out instrumental indulgences that might sound the same played backward as forward, amid all their patch-bay pretension and self-aware aloofness throbs the candied heart of a reach-out-and-grab-’em pop group whose intertwining Brit Invasion vocals (from the brothers Curtis) lend hand-holding melody to swollen boulders of lugubrious lava-lamp rock.
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The NYC-via-Dallas trio have come a long way since their stop at the cozy Echo 11 months back, filling the ornate, 1,300-capacity Avalon tonight despite so-not-SoCal downpours. With Brandon Curtis — grimacingly animated even when keyboard-shackled — and the mechanically flailing Garza framing the Harry Potter–attired, Beck-shimmying Ben Curtis, the Secret Machines don’t need crutches of sensory-overload lighting or chemically altered perception for visual stimuli.
Initial opinions of the Secret Machines depend on the viewer’s vintage: If you’re sufficiently crusty to recall prime-time Pink Floyd, Can and Eno, and to taste traces of Bowie and Bolan, they’re a song-savvy rehash; if you’re not, they’re a first-reefer revelation. But soon the band’s sense of purpose, layered sediments of arrangement, and sheer musical instinct shake their stylistic snow globe, obscuring borrowed blueprints.
At their best — the snarky ’n’ sinister, strangely perky almost-hit “Nowhere Again”; the crashing breakers of hooky harmony that swamp the distracted, paranoid verses of “First Wave Intact” — the Secret Machines vault The Wall and pop their art-rock bubble blissfully. By evening’s end, Garza’s elephantine kick drum has become our pulse, and veiled vocal hooks have streaked our thoughts, leaving a lingering natural buzz that few contemporary acts can conjure.