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Steam Dream

THE HISS at Spaceland, July 10

It happens every once in a while: an incredible, hotly tipped American band, already feted overseas, slips into Los Angeles and plays a gig almost unnoticed. In March 2001, it was the Strokes playing to a few random people at the Dragonfly, a club that’s usually host to those terrible, delusional Hollywood bands with big-label deals in their eyes, desperately mimicking whatever sound’s been logging playtime at KROQ or Clear Channel recently. So, without airplay or U.S. media interest, the Strokes played to an oblivious crowd in an L.A. club. And a year and a half later, they’re playing two nights at the Greek.

This is not to suggest that Spaceland was an inappropriate venue for the Hiss, although the smallish crowd certainly didn’t seem prepared for what they were gonna hear: a full-on melodic rock & roll four-piece from Atlanta, Georgia, with enough chuggling riffs, lyrics and attitude to have already received dual thumbs-up from both Oasis’ Noel Gallagher and the White Stripes’ Jack White. By the opening, ascending notes of the set’s fifth song — the massive-sprawling-defiant “Not for Hire” — it was dawning on those of us who’d stuck around that all of the fuss ’n’ Brit-hype (the NME: “They’re better than, well, everything”) might just be entirely justified. Think (yes) Oasis plus the Saints plus Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers plus some Southern spitfire and hoo-ha.

So why is this band without a record deal in the U.S., while its debut album, The Panic Movement, is already slated for August release in England? Why is the only music available at their merch table a three-song CD manufactured by the band themselves? Perhaps it’s just more confirmation, as if it were needed, that the American music industry, American rock radio and the American press have all become so closed — and lazy — that deserving, accessible American bands are now routinely heading to England in order to get a break in America. That a band as good — actually, possibly great — as the Hiss can play in Los Angeles to a crowd numbering in the low dozens is yet another sign that the American music “system” is flawed in a fundamental way. You’ll see what I mean . . . in 2004, probably.

SMOG, JOANNA NEWSOM at the Troubadour, July 18

Anyone who hits the Troubadour’s stage on a Friday night armed with nothing but a harp should get a Grammy nod for sheer balls. But Nevada City, CA, resident and recent Drag City signee Joanna Newsom doesn’t ply the gigantic antique-gilt instrument with the histrionic self-importance a philharmonic harpist might. Looking rather 19th century in her ol’ Clementine dress and girlish bangs, Newsom plucked as vigorously as a bluegrasser while emoting in a crystalline alto that moseyed along before hitting a high-lonesome register that prickled the hairs on the back of your neck.

But the crowd was here to see Drag City vet Bill Callahan, a.k.a. Smog, work his left-of-center roots-rock charms. At first, his band chafed the parameters of rural-prog as the three backing members (including regular tour guitarist Rich Germer, part-timer Jason Dezember on drums, and keyboardist-for-hire Jiha Lee from Bright Eyes and the Good Life) bent over their instruments in an almost self-annihilating service to the music. Ask any Smog fan and they’ll probably tell you that of the band’s nine or so albums, ’99’s Knock Knock is their best because it balances the lo-fi noisiness of the early stuff with the lush orchestrations of more recent material. In a deliberate attempt to wean the alt-country/No Depression types from the familiar, Smog made the new release Supper the showcase, and its dreamy stretches of strumm-a-lumma pop made the two-hour set fly like a Great Plains guster.

For the third act, Smog settled back into avant-Appalachiana, but not before the reticent Callahan did a little flamenco-ish trill on his guitar, cryptically adding, “All the ladies should be doing the tango — whoops, sorry, that’s Robert Duvall.” Then — poof! — they vanished. Not getting off that easy, they came back down for an encore of “Cold-Blooded Old Times” and “Dress Sexy at My Funeral,” with hoots, whoopees and much foot-stompin’ ensuing. It’s always best to leave folks with what they came for. (Andrew Lentz)

DURAN DURAN at the Roxy, July 17

Many don’t recall it now, but 22 years ago, when Duran Duran first breached American shores, they came billed as the new Beatles. The press dubbed them the Fab Five, and girls swooned. They weren’t quite new wave and they weren’t quite pop, but were some new hybrid, a synth-heavy boy band who made men in eyeliner acceptable to the general public.

Last week, in what might just be the first major reunion tour for the almost-balding set, Duran Duran revisited the Roxy, the site of their initial L.A. debut. It was also the first time the original lineup of Simon LeBon (vocalist), Andy Taylor (guitars), John Taylor (bass), Roger Taylor (drums) and Nick Rhodes (keyboards) had played together in 18 years, and, well, they looked older. Gone was the makeup and the clothes; the band instead settled for a button-down attempt to look a lot like Bryan Ferry, the fallback position of aging Brit rockers everywhere. The crowd, as only aging die-hards can, were with them from go. It was the band themselves who took a little while to warm to the notion. Maybe they were rusty or maybe they were scared, but LeBon came out looking a bit self-conscious about the fact that he still can’t dance and that they haven’t had a hit since the Reagan era. It wasn’t until midshow, during the “Wild Boys” thumping drum solo, that the band suddenly remembered that they really were, and somehow still are, Duran Duran.

 

From that point on it was everything you’d come to expect from the D.D.s: sweeping synthesizers, soaring guitars and Simon LeBon singing the back catalog for all it’s worth. They played some new songs. Enough about that. By night’s end, as the band cut into their “Rio” encore, a weird synchronicity arrived: Both the crowd and the band had the look of people who had remembered, for the first time in years, that they too survived adolescence. (Steven Kotler)

SINGAPORE SLING at the Scene, July 17

The girl up front with 3-D glasses sure didn’t need ’em when the six big Icelanders of Singapore Sling stumbled onstage Thursday, each with his own tumbler full of God knows what kind of poison. The band barely fit on the Scene’s little riser, and stood back to back, looking pissed or bored for the most part. The boys had been at the bar for hours already, taking an easy night off from their big-time U.S. tour, opening shows for the Raveonettes. But it looks like the tour with the hot Danish poppers has inflated their pretty heads; they’re used to larger venues, savvier sound techs and more square feet to splay around on, not to mention celebrity status back home. While the Scene’s measly sound system balked at the Sling’s power act, it did make for a dark timbre, beastly and Bauhaus-ish, like an army of lawnmowers barreling down a tunnel.

The couple tongueing against the speakers didn’t care, nor did the shit-faced blonde who kept extracting bassist (and Tom Waits look-alike) Toggi “Tank” Gudmundsson’s cigarette from his lips for a puff, then suggestively slipping it back in. Singer Henrik Björnsson threw the mic around in a cool but very real tantrum, spurned by waves of piercing feedback that whipped at his and everyone else’s ears, while drummer Bjarni Johannsson rolled his eyes in response to the whole mess. Guitarist Helgi Petursson, however, with his James Dean good looks and strong-armed control of his ax-amp-keys combo, kept up a sexy pout and acute concentration on his end, molding the tortuous feedback melody that ultimately gave the drone its soul.

The downward spiral toward total noise continued till the Sling brought it to a crashing halt with their slo-mo version of the Standells’ “Dirty Water” — both a nod to L.A. on the Reykjavikians’ first outing here and a pounding “fuck you” to the Glendale club that couldn’t contain them. (Wendy Gilmartin)

SILVER at the Viper Room, June 24

When defining silver, Webster’s omits the principal element in the precious metal with the highest electric conductivity: Brandon McCulloch. Over the last few years McCulloch has seen his share of silversmiths come and go through the scuzzy pop-gloom of his songcraft for one reason or another (drugs, ambition, the pursuit of gold), not to mention just-passing-through friends such as beloved weirdo Aaron Embry, Cinjun and Shelby Tate of Remy Zero, and Brian Bell of Weezer. Yet, admirably, McCulloch is captivated by and thrives in his own underground culture, writing fluid and thought-provoking songs that are catchy enough to go places but too conscientious to travel very far.

At the Viper Room, Silver plugged in with their keenest roster to date (save when McCulloch’s sister Dionne played keys), performing a fresh batch of songs that further revealed McCulloch’s magical way of communicating the unspoken. Interlacing holdover tunes such as the splashy minihit “Temporary Girl” from the dark and brilliant 2002 release Red City, Silver introduced new ones like “Beat Boy Baby,” with an uplifting marching beat from drummer Colin Chambers and a vocal that seductively wed sinners and saints. “Turn It Up” came off as a classic coup de grâce that indicts a lazy artist for not working hard enough, and earned the warmest ovation of the night, while “A Train Is Coming” might be the nearest to a ballad Silver has ever strayed. Curiously absent from the set was the band’s initial stake-in-the-soil single, “Suspicious,” from the first batch of recordings on the Substance Records compilation, a sure-tell sign that McCulloch has evolved into an inspired new phase of songwriting. (Chuck Mindenhall)


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