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Sandblasted Standards

Photo by Susan Anderson

TORTOISE, THE MOUNTAIN GOATS
at the Henry Fonda Theater, February 23

The French Jewish chanson singer Serge Gainsbourg at a Nazi rally. Lawrence Welk doing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock. Backstreet Boys headlining Lollapalooza. A more unlikely bill could hardly be imagined than underground success stories Tortoise and the Mountain Goats playing to a packed house in the heart of Hollywood.

John Darnielle, a.k.a. the Mountain Goats, was raised in Claremont and received early encouragement from Upland-based tape label Shrimper, yet he moved to Ames, Iowa, in 1995 and never looked back. Darnielle has since amassed a catalog of hundreds of songs and upward of two dozen albums, most of them recorded on a boombox and shrouded in tape hiss. Announcing that he hadn't played SoCal since his mid-'90s departure, he ran through a dozen detail-oriented songs about romantic dissolution in the boonies. "This is a love song," he said, "but only if by love you mean bouts of heavy drinking and staring contests." Joined by bassist Peter Hughes, Darnielle made clear that his songcraft has come a long way since his early days. Back then everything was sung in a neck-bursting nasal yelp and accompanied by a callus-forming acoustic strum inspired more by hardcore punk than Bob Dylan; nowadays he records for 4AD and only 3/4 of the set was played in that obsessive-compulsive style. A handful were delivered in a tender whisper, barely audible over the hum of the crowd.

"It's always been my contention that if you write good lyrics, it doesn't really matter what kind of musical arrangements you use for presenting them," Darnielle said in a recent interview. His music is hyperliterary, no doubt, and indeed the most exciting thing about this bill was how radically heterodox the two performers were. Where he was prickly and exacting, the headliner, Chicago's Tortoise, made squishy sounds filled with low-end melodies. Their music led to the invention of the term post-rock, and during a largely wordless set, you could hear why their compositions necessitated a new category. The five members switched instruments freely, leading to all manner of odd permutations — polyrhytmic Reich-like vibes offset by bass and keyboards; dual drum set clatter layered in synth effects and punctuated by jazzy guitars; a jagged Hendrix riff smoldering into a lockstep groove. An enormous projection featured alternating close-ups of the players fingering their instruments, but it wasn't necessary: The sound alone got you that close to their adamantly musical music.

FINCH, THE MOVIELIFE
at the Palace, March 2

Finch's two sold-out nights at the Palace confirm that the groundswell of all-ages enthusiasm for emocore is now translating into serious receipts. Less pedestrian than Jimmy Eat World yet not as challenging (or exhilarating) as genremeisters Glassjaw, this youthful California quintet are lyrically anguished and structurally ambitious, yet sufficiently blunted (on record at least) to comfort conservative radio programmers.

Setting the stage for Finch, the Movielife's ultra-energetic post-pop/punk is always worthy, rarely spectacular. Promoting their second full-length, Forty Hour Train Back to Penn, this Long Island five-piece battle the Palace's cavernous acoustics with admirable gusto behind fresh-faced Vinnie Caruana, a front man who's cloned too many MC moves and often lets his passable vocals descend into shouting. "10 Seconds Too Late'''s breakneck oom-pah beats and the bombastic finale, "Hand Grenade," stir up quite a circle-pit, but seem structurally and stylistically aimless, lacking that singular ingredient that'll leave a lasting stain.

Beneath Marilyn Manson-esque red banners, Finch are instantly in a different league. Opening with squatting vocalist Nate Barcalow accompanied only by pre-recorded loops before the full band catapults into life, Finch are more brutally snot-nosed than their sole album, What It Is To Burn, suggests. Yet beneath the requisite guitar-tossing and last-day-of-school chanting, Finch respect their tunefully artful arrangements, which tell a story in themselves. Finch are approaching angst-core from an alt-metal angle, and it shows in relentless double-kick salvos, strep-throat screeching and kaleidoscopic twin guitars. Renowned for their fans' sing-alongs, Finch duly lead the faithful through the anthemic "I Miss You'''s sudden collapses and furious re-entries, while the somberly received new one "Worms of the Earth" hints at heftier things to come. With an average age of 20, Finch lived up to their minor-phenomenon tag tonight, and their lithe confidence and broad palette suggests a ready-to-burst reservoir of ability and ingenuity. (Paul Rogers)

BIBLICAL PROOF OF UFOS, YAWNING MAN
at Spaceland, February 26

If you've ever pored over a favorite painting with a magnifying glass trying to pinpoint the source of the magic on the canvas — and come away with a case of eyestrain — you know how useless it is to focus too closely on any one component of an artistic statement. So it was with the Biblical Proof of UFOs performance at Spaceland on Wednesday. You had to dig the way Ray Piller milked those "lead bass" notes for maximum tonal juice on the low-riding "Summer Song," but the riff itself wasn't all that exceptional. And the manner in which singer-guitarist Joey D. built his dynamics on "Passive Aggressive" was admirable, but he was basically just bouncing back and forth between the two most obvious chords in the alterna-rock handbook. There was something astonishing about drummer Mike Peffer's atomic-clock timing. He was like a marionette on their set closer, "Two Minute Warning," playing as if some unalterable percussive force were pulling his strings; but seeing the way he cued off the other two indicated that the drums didn't tell the whole story either. You really had to take a step back from the frame and look at the whole picture to understand why you just couldn't stop moving your ass: three musicians so locked into one another's rhythms that the space between the notes was every bit as compelling as the notes themselves.

 

Yawning Man at first seemed a little too aptly named, with Mario Lalli taking a vocal breather to play bass. While it was frustrating to watch Fatso Jetson's imposing singer stand mute through a string of instrumental jams, Gary Arce's crystalline guitar surfing, loaded up with enough reverb to echo into the following day, soon developed a voice loud enough to chase the narcolepsy away. (Liam Gowing)

VOLUMEN CERO, PASTILLA, GO BETTY GO, JUGUETE
at the Roxy, March 2

Don't let the Univisión folks fool you. The youth of Latino L.A. love their two languages — fuck English and Spanish monolinguals. Proof #32: the bilingual bands that jammed the Roxy Sunday night. Opening was Juguete, four guys and a strong-voiced gal all channeling the Gail Harris-led Wailers through an emo vibe. They added sparkle to their peppily downbeat chords with judiciously administered keyboard and tambourine shakes.

Following was the grrrl-rific punk of Eastside muchachas Go Betty Go. Their only problem also happens to be their most alluring feature: lead singer Nicollete Vilar. Tonight, the ingénue was Gwen-ning a bit too much, letting her bouncing breasts speak louder than her growls. But the rest of the outfit picked up where Vilar showed off too much with their always-stellar lead-pipe rat-tat-tats. (Note to bassist Michelle Rangel: Can we go to prom together?) Ending the estrogen extravaganza were Pastilla and their knee-bopping laments. On the eve of a new album, the group are finally feeling comfortable in the Big Rock Group outfit that has been theirs for the fitting since forever. Their new songs built upon their best features — the closed-eyes weeps of lead singer/guitarist Victor Monroy, manly drums commanding everyone to listen, and harmonies borrowed from Liverpudlians of days past. Now if only their label would promote them properly . . .

Miami pound machine Volumen Cero's sweaty mop-top rock was at its strutting best, the band slowing their guitar and vocal reverbs only to acknowledge swooning fans. After the particularly charming "Luces," singer Luis Tamblay grabbed a black bra a buxom babe had thrown onstage. "Someone lost something!" he gleefully proclaimed to the audience, who wolf-whistled in appreciation. Then Volumen went back to work — they had a house to tear down. (Gustavo Arellano)

ATERCIOPELADOS, OPTÓNICA, LOS ABANDONED
at the Palace, February 27

An 8 p.m. show where the opening act starts at 8 p.m.? The concert world's equivalent of Halley's Comet occurred last Thursday at the Palace's Aterciopelados adoration. Staff pro bruisers hadn't yet groped ticket buyers before native openers Los Abandoned scorched into the material that won them La Banda Elástica's Battle of the Bands contest in January. Fronted by the Venus de Chile, Lady P., their scuzzy/shiny bilingual pop proved the esteemed alt-Latin magazine didn't err in selecting the quartet as El Ley's finest rockeros. The crowd was still filtering into the Palace while Optónica of the Nortec Collective "performed." The most notable aspect of his too-loud programmed blurp-fest was the thankfully distracting light show dancing around the stage. The Tijuana tonto did little more than type into a laptop while twitching occasionally to let fans know he wasn't comatose.

But the venue was nice 'n' packed by the time Colombia's Aterciopelados took the stage at 10 p.m. The duo hadn't visited these parts in almost a year because Andrea Echeverri and Héctor Buitrago took time off for the birth of their daughter, Milagros. And parenthood has seemingly changed the Velvety Ones; serene keyboard dreams now originate from the part of their fecund minds that once inflicted machete-hack aural attacks upon Latin America's ears. This new approach isn't bad, though, as Echeverri remains the Kali of Latin alternative — devourer of hate, priestess of love, offering salvation through her wearied larynx. Looking gawkingly glamorous in a black dress bejeweled with a giant red-sequined heart over her womb, she guided her devotees through the group's greatest — a cumbia-drenched "Caribe Atómico" here, an ultra-rare "Pipa de la Paz" there. That the concert ended at 11:30 p.m.? That was fine. (Gustavo Arellano)

 

MILEMARKER, THE BLOOD BROTHERS
at the Smell, February 27

Emocore's the label of choice, hardcore presumably being found insufficiently romantic, not nearly enough for the way ahead. But hardcore is what the Blood Brothers are: chainsaw vocals, approving crowd. Hardcore too because there's nothing to distinguish them — hardcore as a diminutive. Hardcore means bring on the empire; these boys sound ready to take on a skate park.

Their lyrics run in the vein of "We don't need a doctor honey/We need a mortician baby," anger trumping itself without intelligence. Their best moments come when they eschew unangled noise for strummy interludes, chants, danceable beats that make the inevitable return to cacophony almost dynamic. Almost. Because even at their most fiery the band rocks only as hard as an infant in the aisle; their rage is repeated till it's nothing but a litany of complaints never compelling enough to be viewed as anything more specific than a tantrum. Passion, to register as such, can't be this easy.

Milemarker pour a far more convincing draught; if lacking the adolescent purity of the Blood Brothers' incoherence, they more than make up for it with craft. Moments of concussive restraint slide easily into '70s-toned sludge, and beneath it all, there's a kind of keening. Poses are struck, hair flipped, but the band skirts ridicule. Milemarker's too earnest to be absurd, playing with too much grace to the greatly diminished crowd. There's nothing spectacular here, but what's extant is legibly so — emotions rendered visible, a realm opened and made available. Nothing spectacular, but nothing without purpose. (Russel Swensen)

VOYAGER ONE
at the Derby, February 13

Some bands wear inevitable comparisons like a bird wears its cage; Voyager One's oceanic sounds led more than one to compare them to Sigur Ros, My Bloody Valentine or Spacemen 3, despite the fact that Voyager One lacks the sonic architecture of these metal-deliquescing bands. Very simply, this isn't a band with that kind of range.

Voyager One writes psyched-out pop songs. There's a lot of noise oscillating around their trajectory, but the noise is never integral to it, viz., the songs aren't committed to the noise; the songs are committed to a meaty bass line that's just shy of danceable, and fresh-faced vocals that are less shoegaze than man-about-town. Fortunately for Voyager One, they're very good at what they do. The noise never approaches variations on lit-ice, but that doesn't mean it's ineffective; think of it as a vehicle, an envelope sweet enough to taint its contents. Likewise, the video paneled behind the band colors the songs in headier hues; spectral shots give way to awkward dancing, and the word crash hangs above the band like an accusation.

Listening, just then, to the band slip into their most incendiary song is like seeing a girl's face emerge from incense gray. They close with a galaxy-angled cover of the Velvets' "What Goes On," and the puzzle of the song is shaken till it shimmers. "What Goes On" sounds like it's been dragged through their collective psyche, or, more exactly, dragged out of their eye like a long blue cloth. A good cover sounds like this — half conversation, half argument. (Russel Swensen)

PHISH
at the Great Western Forum, February 14

Parking lot of L.A.'s once and still Fabulous Forum, Valentine's Day, 2003, first time in two years the most extraordinary sociocultural organic music phenomenon of all time (save the Dead prophets who gratefully started it all) is giggin' in LaLa Land, and oh how the tie-dyed masses have turned out. In the throes of orange-alert media-fed military mania, 20,000 (yes, that number is accurate, and Phish can do the same throngs in multiple dates at just about every place singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer John Fishman lay their road cases) blunt-tokin', smiling, dancing children of the jam-band generation prepare to rock, Woodstock-style, for PEACE, love and the true American way.

Inside, here they come, the four freaky horsemen of virtuosity, volume and vibe. Opening with a ditty in honor of the day, "My Sweet One," then a cover of "Cover of the Rolling Stone," a cheeky prop to their long-overdue recent achievement, the band launches into a two-part set with the incendiary fan fave "Chalkdust Torture," which sets the jumpin' jam shred/groove/ phunk-phat bar higher than the twirlers behind the sound board or the dazed but not confused carolers in the first row, whom Trey blesses with umpteen disarming smiles throughout the ethereal eve.

 

Two hours-plus later — flying on the final notes of an ecstatic rendition of the Stones' "Loving Cup" — wasted, exhausted, hoarse, the community heads back to the lot for those "special" Rice Krispy marshmallow cakes, an exclamatory munchie after the most phenomenal, indescribable, life-exalting rock experience on the phucking planet. (Lonn Friend)

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