Photo by Wild Don Lewis


At the Troubadour, January 7

Art-metal – that almost oxymoronic cocktail of headfeeding and headbanging, challenge and tradition – is a delicate alchemy. Archmasters of the craft – System of a Down, Tool – use melody and musicality to lube their perverse structures and Rubik’s arrangements, but lesser acolytes easily slip into being quirky for the sake of quirkiness, jerky for the sake of jerkiness.

Veteran Valley foursome Bad Acid Trip evoke the more frantic side of SOAD (they’re on System vocalist Serj Tankian’s record label) and the slap-in-the-face-with-a-wet-fish noodle-rock of Mr. Bungle and Primus. They’re like listening to a Picasso painting – okay, a Picasso doodle: seemingly unlike elements adjacent; unsettling, jagged outlines; and psychedelic liberties with scale. Thought-provoking, but ultimately inconclusive.

Live, BAT are a warmer, more grooving machine that last year’s Lynch the Weirdo, opus suggests, whipping up an impressive pit repeatedly on this dankest of evenings. Ironically, they employ considerable virtuosity – even string-bass polyphony, urgent blast beats, spider-handed guitar licks – to produce a sound that’s often punkishly primal. Looking like an ‘80s Brit crust-core outfit with their shaven heads and black attire (Save for the Farmer John look of sideburned bassist Chris Mackie), they’re propelled by vocalist Dirk Rogers’ bug-eyed rantings, the often deathly interjections of Mackie and guitarist Keith Aazami, and passages of four-way unison. And htough there are moments of color and culture, the audience seems to crave mostly the mosh-friendly, metallic assaults.

The bad part of this trip is that the sudden changes of pace, the split-personality vocals, the “I’m a psycho” eye rolling and the irreverent Zappaesque humor have all been done before, and better, and the band’s “we’re so weird” shtick is wincingly self-conscious. And yes, BAT’s vocal pingponging, arrangement gymnastics, runaway-train verses and anti-establishment taunting are way too close to SOAD 101 for comfort.

Bad Acid? Perhaps. Trip? Hardly.


At Tangier, January 4

When Kate Earl, eyes closed and long fingers poised on the keyboard, sang, “This is the coldest winter in a thousand freezing years,” the 22-year-old (who grew up in Alaska) brought every lonely, hollow winter into her chilling wail. In moments like these, Earl’s impressive talent hushed the tight confines of Tangier; otherwise, she drew tender smiles from the pashmina-and-dangly-earrings set with girlish between-song chatter (“Um, that purple bag I have up here? Is filled with CDs?”) and much humble concentration that sometimes felt a little too kid’s-first-recital. For those who were hard to please, Earl’s surprisingly worldly voice, well-structured songs and relaxed phrasings tempered the green.

By the time Inara George wandered onto the stage with a pixie cut, a chilled glass of wine and an enjoyably ragtag backup group, the crowd was primed for an act that looked and sounded like it’s been around the block. George’s precise, silvery voice wound its way through the band’s delicate and occasionally tangled guitar interplay. The spacy keyboard atmospherics of “Fool’s Work” cast the perfect amount of moonlight on George’s vocals, and “No Poem,” with its slight circus patina and admonition of “If I were you, I wouldn’t talk, I’d just keep dancing,” was both stinging and wonderfully slack. Despite a few songs that were way too wispy to stick, the set ended strongly with a charmingly disheveled cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.”

With their genre hopping, stage props, and matching Dust Bowl-era getups, the Ditty Bops are ready-made for an Atlantic City Boardwalk show circa 1930, and every crowd eats them up like a banana split at the old-time ice cream parlor. The Bops skipped some of the dangerously cute hijinks tonight and played a more restrained, contemplative show than usual, showing off their quick-minded musicianship in the process. Accompanied by John Landon on guitar and Ian Walker on upright bass, singers Abby Dewald and Amanda Barrett imbued their plucky songs with ethereal, mermaid-on-land harmonies, juxtaposing the old-fashioned stylings with lyrics about plastic grass, screwing up the earth even as you must inhabit it, and other postmodern conundrums. Maybe the disappointing election put a little teeth into the Ditty Bops’ repertoire; whatever it was, it’s a thrill to see the women stop playing nicey-nice just long enough to deliver a clever blow: “I’ve got God on my side. Who’s that? I don’t know!”

-Margaret Wappler

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