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Pink Flag Burning

Photos by Wild Don Lewis

WIRE at Spaceland, June 21

The collapse of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival seemed more a blessing than a curse when several of the event’s most important bands subsequently arranged shows at a few more intimate and sympathetic spaces around town. The fiery return of a recharged Wire at Spaceland benefited enormously from the venue change.

This highly respected art-aligned “punk” combo emerged from the London uprising circa 1977, and from the start were a band that saw the punk revolution as possibility; even their debut album, Pink Flag, loaded with close to two dozen extremely brief blasts of punk-song attitude, merely exploited the punk form seemingly because it was there. Yet they immediately abandoned that framework on subsequent albums, such as Chairs Missing and 154, incorporating such punk-abhorred items as lush keyboards, aircraft-hangar-huge guitar textures and random electronics, though with an encoded pop melodicism, particularly in guitarist-singer Colin Newman’s songs. Wire are an organic art unit that comes together when all its members’ mental regions happen to meet; they’ve gone on long sabbaticals to devote time to their less rock-oriented, mostly electronic-oriented solo projects, re-imagining themselves periodically as the tenor of the times dictates.

Spaceland’s small main room was the ideal setting to hear the ferocious assault of the lean-again 2003 metal machine that has always potentially been Wire. The space was packed with an interesting cross section of young and old, some probably longtime fans reveling in nostalgia for their halcyon art-punk days, youthful others perhaps drawn by the extravagant critical praise for Wire’s two recent “comeback” EPs, Read and Burn 01 and 02, or those discs’ repackaging as Send. We saw four very plainly dressed middle-aged men, none of whom smiled as such, hit the stage in a businesslike manner and proceed to shred. What Wire shredded this night was a mixture of bits and pieces from the recent EPs as well as a large hunk of the infamous Pink Flag album, mostly, though much of the time you’d have been hard-pressed to determine what was what: Wire, having recently decided to re-investigate the innate capacity and intonation of nothing but hashing bassdrumsguitarhowl, chose their most searing and feral tunes only to tear them to scraps, all their trimmed fat stoking the flames.

The close, confining feel of the room served to further condense and heighten the violence of the band’s primal assault. Newman yelled in that melodious cockney way of his; rather macho bassist Graham Lewis plucked rudely and looked as pissed off as always, like he wants to punch you; guitarist Bruce Gilbert played with his back to the crowd and supplied screech and clang and a surprising rhythmic punch on the upstrokes; and drummer Robert Grey — perhaps the greatest “punk” drummer/metronome of them all — supplied the cogent, insistent snare thump that is no doubt the group’s most identifiable sound.

No muss, no fuss, just a lot of renewed commitment, a death to Pink Flag, and the birth of a new and better art-war machine. And a crowd of old fans and many new believers — battered senseless — dazedly stumbling into the cold night, the scent of singed flesh in the air . . .

NICK CAVE at the Palladium, June 18

Between his pug nose, pale skin, perma-mullet and early-stage male-pattern baldness, Nick Cave isn’t in the running for prettiest front man in rock. He fully inhabits what God gave him, though, and there’s something beautiful in that. Ugliness as beauty is the key to the success of Cave’s songs. His rumbling voice slips off pitch like an overconfident Elvis. He kicks and scowls. And, unlike most mass-media depictions of love, his work acknowledges our mess.

Let’s look at these competing versions back to back. Take, for example, a Hollywood movie versus a Cave song. In the movie, two people fall in love to weeping violins. In the Cave song, two people fall in love to Bad Seed Warren Ellis’ screeching, weeping, overwrought fiddle, then fall out of love to a pizzicato string attack that brings to mind the crack of rebar under stress. “This began as a love song, but it quickly grew fangs,” Cave said, announcing one such number, “West Country Girl.” What followed was one of his brighter lyrics: “Her widow’s peak/her lips I’ve kissed/ . . . Her glove of bones at her wrist/That I have held in my hand.”

At the Palladium, you realized this wasn’t a melodramatic, proto-goth fantasy, but an apt description of the people Cave likes to hang with. Six of the seven Bad Seeds were clad entirely in black, as was most of the audience. Happy people these were not. And pasty too — either they’re an antisocial lot or all the dark clothes make them avoid the sunlight. These were some lonely souls; the Palladium’s security detail was there to help, thank God, offering disturbingly intimate full-body pat-downs to anyone wishing to come through the venue’s doors. (Alec Hanley Bemis)

THE CLEAN, LE TIGRE, YO LA TENGO at Henry Fonda Theater, June 21

The Clean cobbled up a nice, warm glow under the Fonda’s high ceiling. Jangly brambles “Little Heart” and “E Motel” chugged along sunnily, suffused with psychedelic undercurrents and the Kilgour brothers and bassist Robert Scott’s laconic harmonies. It almost felt reassuring on “Someone” when they sullenly chimed, “Someone might love you/someone might care,” amid David Kilgour’s wiggly waves of guitar. The New Zealand trio rocked harder when Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan guested on the rare punk burst “Odditty,” as David K. and drummer Hamish Kilgour manically barked out the call-and-response “it’s okay”s and “it’s all right”s. A real jolt, perhaps only topped by the seedily mystical closer, “Point That Thing Somewhere Else,” which snaked along with a droning, descending-riff exoticism.

Equal parts political protest and pep rally, Le Tigre’s set shifted the energy to a less introspective level. Whether ironic or not, the opening run through the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited” got the sold-out joint hopping and squealing. Things grew serious on caustic broadsides like “FYR” (“Ten short years of progressive change, 50 fucking years of calling us names”), with its livid call to arms, “Feminists, we’re calling you! Please report to the front desk!” Considering the times and former Bikini Killer Kathleen Hanna’s we’re-all-in-this-together exuberance, such slogans came off as daring and unifying rather than preachy. Video projections helped deprogram the willing audience, like the photomontage of counterculture heroes (the Slits, Angela Davis, Babes in Toyland) flashed during the insistent “Hot Topics.” While Devo once tried to turn back evolution with a similar marriage of videos and music, Le Tigre intend to overthrow the patriarchy — and have a dance party.

Yo La Tengo managed to keep most of the audience, quite a feat after Le Tigre’s rebel-rousing fury. The Hobokenites were languid, singing in barely there whispers, with Georgia Hubley’s glassy cooing coming through clearly between snarls from Kaplan’s feedback guitar. While not always as melodically memorable as the Clean, Yo La Tengo share some of the same hazy-dreamy Velvet Underground instincts, which was underscored when Scott came out to strum some acoustic guitar underneath Kaplan’s lovely electric tangle. (Falling James)

THE FALL at the Echo, June 20

There are compelling front men, and then there’s Mark E. Smith. Heavy-lidded and unsmiling, switching between two microphones to no audible purpose, the Manc crank commands attention by withholding it, barely acknowledging his own band’s existence, much less the audience’s. This is a man whose idea of “getting into it” involves scratching his ear throughout a lengthy instrumental break. Still, by Smith standards, tonight’s performance was positively genial. He stalked offstage midsong only once, and later approached the lip of the stage, croaking and gesturing at the crowd for a solid 40 seconds.

In his way, Smith is as autocratic a leader as James Brown, with whatever collection of individuals he’s currently calling the Fall as his Famous Flames. Barely hearable keyboardist/spouse Eleanor Smith’s impact was primarily visual — she’s a delicate-featured gothette, seemingly half Smith’s age. But the core trio (guitarist Ben Pritchard, drummer Dave Milner and a recently recruited bassist who answers to “Dingo”) simply worked, disappearing into monolithic rockabilly (“Foldin’ Money”) and funk (“Telephone Thing”) riffs with effortless drive, despite jet lag and rented equipment.

In this stripped-down setting, material from the about-to-be-released Country on the Click bordered on the comprehensible, with “Sparta F.C.,” a variant on T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong,” the obvious standout. But the most satisfying moments — the reliable garage cover “Mr. Pharmacist,” a spacious, set-ending “I Am Damo Suzuki” — were recognizable even to non-obsessives. Smith even appeared to be enjoying himself during the encore, clapping along with “Dr. Buck’s Letter” before tucking into a bilious checklist of modern necessities: “Amex card — they made such a fuss about giving it to me, but I spend more time getting it turned down.” (Franklin Bruno)

THE FRAMES at Spaceland, June 10

If you were at the Frames’ sold-out show, you may have recognized their front man, Glen Hansard, from his appearance in the 1991 film The Commitments, about a fictional Irish soul band. But probably not. Last time the group played L.A., only a few dozen people showed up. Long “big in Ireland,” the Frames only recently became a buzz band stateside, after the release of their Steve Albini–produced album, For the Birds. That buzz will grow.

“Aren’t we all lost and isn’t it all deadly?” Hansard introduced one tune, apropos of nothing. Aimless monologues like this one prefaced most of the group’s songs, telegraphing the way the band’s swelling folk-rock ranged through big abstract topics — love, life, death — then conflated them, in true romantic fashion. Hansard said the preface to “Lay Me Down” was inspired by the time he bought his girlfriend a burial plot, instead of purchasing a star in her name: “I will write you letters that/Explain the way I’m thinking now/And lay me down/In the hallowed ground/Down by your side I will stay.” The music was flexible enough to hold such grandiosity. A standard rock foursome plus fiddle, the Frames went from big to small in the space of a minute. It recalled the sensitive, inspirational rock of U2 or Coldplay, minus the sense that the emotions involved are — post-fame — more thought than felt.

After an hour-and-a-half set, Hansard did an encore of encores. First he had the jaded Silver Lake crowd ahh-ah-ahhing a tender chorus; then he sang a snatch from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s “Pure Imagination”; then he got the audience to join him in Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”: “Won’t you help to sing/these songs of freedom/All I ever had/redemption songs, redemption songs, redemption songs.” (Alec Hanley Bemis)


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