Friday, April 21, 2006

The Sounds @ Metro (4/20/2006)

Attitude and swagger are two ingredients to a good rock ‘n’ roll band. Relying on just those two elements isn’t enough to survive on unless there are engaging songs to back up the talk.

The Sounds made their Chicago return for an all ages show at Metro to the tune of Journey’s ‘70s hit “Don’t Stop Believing.” For better or for worse, the song has a rejuvenated life in Chicago since being associated with the Chicago White Sox and their run for baseball’s World Series title last year. Whoever made the decision to use the song as the band’s introduction should have considered the fact that just a few steps south of Metro is Wrigley Field—the home of the Chicago Cubs. You can give the Swedish band some credit for trying to tap into the city’s sports scene; they certainly aim to please.

To the all ages crowd that was squeezing and elbowing to get a little closer to the stage, it didn’t matter if it were Journey or the 1985 Chicago Bears performing the “Super Bowl Shuffle” over the club speakers; they came to experience the rock ‘n’ roll they’ve come to accept from the Sounds.

The 5-piece band ripped through a set that lasted just under an hour and a half. Every note played and every move made by the band was simply eaten up by the crowd. Even the banter of lead singer Maja Ivarsson worked the crowd up; she must have gotten equal applause for the number of times she snarled “Fuck” to the crowd as she did singing. She was a fitting image of the stereotypical female Swedish goddess to every man and woman inside Metro. She combined the glamour and toughness of Blondie’s Deborah Harry with the prowling stage presence of the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger.

The band’s creative growth may not have taken a massive leap forward between their debut Living In America (2003) and their latest Dying to Say This to You, but they have become better at fusing the raw power of punk and pop chorus hooks with grinding dance grooves on stage; that alone is one of their best musical strengths. In that regard, the Sounds were on top of their game at Metro. New songs like "Queen of Apology" and "24 Hours"
opened the night with furious enthusiasm. Ivarsson showed no fear as she dove into the crowd during “Living In America.” The band kept the show’s pace on high with each song and gave no indication of slowing down. This was evident when the band performed “Night After Night” from Dying to Say This to You. On record, the song appears as two versions: the first as a slow, piano driven take and the other as an up-tempo hidden bonus track. The band opted to perform the “rock” version of the song instead. Proving there was still plenty of kick to their older songs, the Sounds shook up matters even more with vibrant renditions of “Seven Days A Week” and “Hope You’re Happy Now.”

During the show’s encore, the Sounds reached their peak at just the right time. With a three-song punch of “Dance With Me,” “Fire,” and “Ego,” the band delivered the goods and a set designed to keep the body moving. The Sounds might be a one trick pony (god only knows rock music today has plenty of those types of bands), but it’s the band’s persistent desire to maintain a sense of fun for themselves and their music that deserves applause.

What was perhaps the best moment of the night didn’t occur during the show but afterwards. As the crowd left Metro, a family of four huddled off to the side of the dance floor near the back, waiting for their chance to merge with the traffic of people. The parents held their young children close to them, their kids appearing to be between the ages of 10 and 12. All four had looks of shock and confusion. Who were these men with eyeliner and spiked hair? Why were these teenage girls—wearing more make-up than a Las Vegas showgirl—trying to squeeze out cleavage that wasn’t there yet? Was this an all ages concert or some pubescent orgy?

To the Sounds, they would call it a good night.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Death Cab For Cutie & Franz Ferdinand @ Aragon Ballroom (4/19/2006)

The Aragon Ballroom may not be considered the best sounding venue in all of Chicago, but it certainly has a long history of musical legends that have performed under the painted starlit sky ceiling. Bands like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and R.E.M. have all taken on the bass boomy ballroom and survived to see another day.

On Wednesday night, Death Cab For Cutie and Franz Ferdinand brought their co-headling tour to the Aragon for a sold-out all ages show. The initial news of the two bands touring together created a lot of buzz. The tour presented two bands on the rise. In Franz Ferdinand, you had a band out of Glasgow, Scotland, that stormed the world with its 2004 self-titled debut album and pile driving single “Take Me Out.” In Death Cab For Cutie, you had a band from the indie rock circuit of the late ‘90s that was finally having the spotlight come to them on their own terms.

For Death Cab For Cutie and lead singer Benjamin Gibbard, the band from Bellingham, Washington, was capping off a sentimental day in Chicago. Earlier in the afternoon at Schubas, an intimate sized club with a playing room fit for about 150 people (a far cry from the 4,500 capacity Aragon), the band performed for the “Live From Studio X” series sponsored by local radio giant WXRT. It was a chance for Death Cab For Cutie to revisit the stage where they first made their Chicago debut almost six years ago.

“I wish we could play longer, but that curfew is a bitch,” said Gibbard to the audience before the band’s encore performance at the Aragon. The issue of time was one of the drawbacks from a co-headlining show like this. Both bands had just over an hour to put on their best. In some ways, it worked out perfectly for Franz Ferdinand and the tempo of its show. The Scottish four-piece geared up their North American tour behind their second album You Could Have It So Much Better (2005) at the Aragon this past September and played for the same amount of time they were scheduled to have on Wednesday night: one hour. But for two bands that genuinely seem to respect and enjoy each other’s music, it was enough time to have some fun.

Franz Ferdinand proved that although it wasn’t a typical Friday night people could still work up a sweat to the right beats and rhythms any day of the week, even at 7:30pm on Hump Day. After the frantic opener “This Boy,” the band laid down the bricks with a raucous performance of “Do You Want To.”

Franz Ferdinand was brimming with confidence. Singer/guitarist Alex Kapranos may have been the eye candy, flashing winks and coy smiles to the crowd, but it was lead guitarist Nick McCarthy who pushed the musicality of the band to its peak, jerking each note and chord for all they had. Songs like “Walk Away” and “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” provided smooth transitions from the raw, high-speed, dance grooves to showcase the depth of the band’s songwriting and ability to slow matters down. But when Franz Ferdinand jumped back into the fray, there was a sense that the race was coming to a close. “Take Me Out” got the dance floor bouncing, arms began to wave in unison during “The Fallen,” and, finally, the band sprinted across the finish line with the closer “This Fire.”

It was night and day between the end of Franz Ferdinand’s set and the start of Death Cab For Cutie’s set. The stage was barely visible, almost covered in a blanket of low blue lighting, as Gibbard took to the piano and guitarist Christopher Walla picked out guitar notes that echoed throughout the ballroom like distress calls for the band’s opening tune “Passenger Seat.” Although the band’s set took a time detour from the types of shows it normally performs as a main headliner, what remained consistent with this set was the band’s touch as musical painters with sounds and words, splashing songs like “The New Year” and “Why You’d Want To Live Here” with purpose onto a larger canvas.

The crowd’s clamor for “Crooked Teeth” and “Soul Meets Body” dispelled the criticism the band faced with its major label debut Plans (2005), as if the band’s songwriting capabilities would suddenly turn into hollow pop songs because of Atlantic Records. But for all the textures and colors the band crafted throughout its set, it was Gibbard who elevated the show to another realm with a solo acoustic performance of “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.”

The song’s theme of accepting mortality and shedding the fear that comes along with the idea of death created a hush in the Aragon. Gibbard stood stoically in the light with his acoustic guitar as his lips pressed against the microphone with the lines, “Love of mine, someday you will die/But I’ll be close behind and I’ll follow into the dark.” The voices in the shadows joined with Gibbard’s as each line was sung; it was a testament to Death Cab For Cutie’s success of staying its own course as songsmiths and not compromising to gain cheap popularity.

After the encore finale, “Transatlanticism,” Gibbard said to the roaring audience, “See ya at Lollapalooza. We’re playing with Beck. It’s going to be ultimate.” Fans exiting the Aragon must have started their countdown to August when the 3-day festival takes over Chicago’s Grant Park. For all their differences, artistically and stylistically, Death Cab For Cutie and Franz Ferdinand turned a brief evening into an evening filled with moments that were as soul searching as they were exhilarating. Variety was indeed a spice to a Wednesday night.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Monday, April 17, 2006

Yeah Yeah Yeahs @ Riviera Theatre (4/14/2006)

“Sometimes I think I’m bigger than the sound,” wailed Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as she sang in the heat of the band’s sold-out show at the Riviera Theatre. The front woman, dressed like a cross between a go-go dancer and a geisha girl, truly lived up to the lyric during “Cheated Hearts” as her voice carried throughout the theatre with power.

The band from Brooklyn, New York returned to Chicago for their second visit in two months behind their second album Show Your Bones. The hype that surrounded the band after their 2003 debut Fever To Tell has died down but in its place stands a level of credibility the band has rightly earned.

The band’s manic style on stage proved to make a clear connection with the crowd. Fans that packed the dance floor of the Riviera Theatre either jumped up and down in unison to the songs or tossed their bodies into each other, forming sporadic mosh pits during the show. For a show that only lasted an hour and twenty minutes (minus sets by two opening acts), the Yeah Yeah Yeahs never once took a wrong turn.

While Karen O embodied the physicality of the music, it was guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase that brought the cyclone of sound down onto the audience. From the outset, the band dove into their new album. “Turn Into” and “Way Out” set the hard-hitting tone of the night; “Fancy” brought a crushing Black Sabbath blow through Zinner’s chainsaw guitar riffs. The trio incorporated a multi-instrumentalist who played bass, acoustic guitar and keyboards to alleviate Zinner’s guitar duties, which created a much more realized sound and texture. But at the center of everything was Karen O.

Her confidence was as bright as the gold hot pants she strutted around in on stage. Men and women hung on her every move—if she jumped, they jumped; if she sang with venom, the crowd’s intensity would manifest itself into moshing. But through it all, Karen O had some fun, giving fans a quick wink or enticing by revealing her bra straps as a mini-strip tease.

The musicianship of the band continues to blossom, counterbalancing instruments like acoustic guitars and keyboards with their sonic arsenal, but it is the band’s raw touch where they gain much of their strength. “Gold Lion” swam like a great white shark on the hunt, ready to strike at any moment. When they weren’t in a complete frenzy, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs revealed their more reserved side to take a breath and slow matters down while maintaining an edge. After the fuzz jangle pop of “Dudley,” Karen O showed off more of her vocals with the soft, yearning “The Sweets.” The crowd may not have understood the message most of the time behind the band’s songs, but that didn’t seem to matter. Repetitive lyrical phrases are nice tricks to have in songs, but if the audience identifies the emotional push behind the songs, they will sing along with every note.

The band made quick work of their two encores. The audience roared as Chase played the opening drum parts to “Maps,” probably the best known hit by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. After “Black Tongue” tore up the stage, the band pulled another track from Fever To Tell, the hidden track “Poor Song” to close out the evening. The sheer abandonment the band performed with not only commanded the stage but the fans as well. It was that intangible that no one in the room could really put their fingers on but could definitely sense. This wasn’t a band trying to act the fool; this was a band that just wasn’t afraid. On this night, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs arrived and departed as everyone’s number one band.

Dying To Sound Off: Q & A With Johan Bengtsson Of The Sounds

Once in a while, the American musical landscape gets an injection of new life from outside the country’s borders.

Most famously the British Invasion of the 1960s, led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, had such an immense impact on American popular culture that over the course of forty years the music of the past still resonates in the music of today.

In 2002, rock music, thought to be dead and stale since the demise of Nirvana in 1994, exploded once again, bringing down the pop groups that saturated much of American radio. This time around it was the land of Sweden coming to the rescue. These bands somehow found what American rock bands couldn’t seem to find or quite sustain—passion. The band that lit the match with its single “Hate To Say I Told You So” was the Hives. Suddenly other Swedish acts, veterans in their home country, were sharing the spotlight like they just formed a week ago, bands such as the Soundtrack of Our Lives and the Hellacopters.

Among those Swedish groups was the dance infused rock band the Sounds, who made their U.S. debut with 2003’s Living In America. Propelled by the hooky “Seven Days A Week,” the 5-piece band from Helsingborg became a hot buzz band whose energetic live shows worked concertgoers into a hot, sensuous sweat like they had just experienced the raunchiest sex they’ve ever had.

With the band’s sophomore album Dying to Say This to You now released, the Sounds have embarked on their latest tour of America. In an interview with bassist Johan Bengtsson prior to the band’s U.S. tour, the 26-year-old musician discussed the evolution of the band’s new album, his musical calling as a youth, and the push towards the decade mark for the Sounds.

Chris Castaneda: How was it recording Dying to Say This to You after the time off since releasing and touring behind the debut album, Living In America?

Johan Bengtsson: The album was easier to make than I thought it would be. We didn’t write on tour. The time gap between the first album and this album has been quite long. When we got off tour we were like, “Can we really write again?” since we hadn’t written any songs in a long time. But when we actually started to write, the process was pretty quick.

It wasn’t two years, really. We did the Warped Tour and then we turned down a lot of offers. We could have kept on touring but we had to stop it somewhere so we could go back and write a new album. So, after the Warped Tour, we took maybe two, three months off and then started writing. By the summer, we recorded it.

CC: Did Jeff Saltzman’s work on the Killers’ debut album Hot Fuss capture the band’s attention when it came time to start working on a new album?

JB: It was definitely the album. When we started talking about him, I didn’t know he produced the Killers’ album. We flew over in March and had meetings with different producers. We didn’t meet him at the time, but we heard he was really interested. He said stuff like, “I’d drop everything to work with you guys,” and, “I’d cancel all my projects just to make this album with you guys.” That was appealing to us. Then we got the good deal and he said, “Come up to my studio. We can work as long as you want.”

Recording in America rather than Sweden was something we wanted to do for this album. It was more Jeff choosing us than us begging him to make our album.

CC: What was the recording process like this time around?

JB: We had almost unlimited time whereas the first album we did in maybe two weeks. We didn’t have any experience of being in the studio prior to the first album. This time we had time in the studio to actually work with Saltzman and the songs to make them even better songs.

It’s a really good sounding album, and I think he’s a big part of it. Not only is he a good producer, he’s a good engineer, too.

CC: On Living In America, each song was running on all engines. There’s a song on Dying to Say This to You that really goes in a different direction from the first album formula, the slow tempo song “Night After Night.” In fact, there are two versions on the album. As a bonus, you’ve included a faster tempo version of the song. How did that song develop originally?

JB: The fast version was the original version. It was in the studio and Saltzman was saying, “I think this album needs a slower song.” And we were like, “We can’t write slow songs.” We have no idea. He said, “No guys, seriously, you need to write a slow song and this album will be great.”

We couldn’t come up with anything. We just tried and tried. Then late one night we were in the control room and Jesper (Anderberg) was playing the piano. Jeff (Saltzman) was like, “What’s that?” I said, “It’s that other song we’re working on.” Jeff said, “Ok, we got to record it, we got to record it!”

We recorded the piano and then add stuff after that like the drums. We recorded kind of backwards. It turned out really great; it still gives me the chills.

CC: Has the band performed the song live yet?

JB: We only played it once. The first time we ever played any new songs live we did it in our hometown in Sweden. We haven’t played it since then, but we’re planning on playing it as soon as the album comes out.

CC: The Sounds have been together for about eight years, just around the corner from that ten-year mark…

JB: I know. It’s kind of scary [Laughs]. We’ve all been in bands prior to this band, but since day one when we all got together in the rehearsal space there was some weird chemistry between us. Everyone felt, “We don’t have a single song, but I know this is the band that’s gonna make it.”

I think that’s the essential key to having good bands stay together. We’re all a bit different now than we were a few years ago. We’re all getting older; we’re growing older together. We respect each other in a whole other way now. We’re entitled to have private lives that we didn’t have before. I have a kid, a 4-year-old son, and I need time to spend time with my kid; people realize that now.

CC: I noticed James Iha, formerly of the Smashing Pumpkins, had a hand in the album. What was that like?

JB: He and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne were in for two sessions; one in the beginning and one in the end. They really helped out a lot. We’ve known James for a few years now; I respect him as a musician. Adam is a great songwriter. It’s good to have those older people who’ve been around for a while and have been in successful bands with us in the studio to ask them for advice.

CC: What inspired you to become a musician or be in a band?

JB: I started playing acoustic guitar when I was a little kid. I found a guitar in the attic of my parents’ house, and I’ve been playing since. I’ve been playing in bands since I was 12.

CC: Was there any particular band that really hit you the hardest that drew you into music more?

JB: I’ve listened to all kinds of music; it’s gone through phases. At one point, I was listening to Metallica a lot as a kid; on the other hand I was listening to Nirvana and the whole Seattle scene when that was going on. I was in seventh grade and playing in bands listening to Nirvana.

CC: See, I was in class doing homework while you were in bands, and you’re just a year ahead of me [Laughs]. So, what memories do you have from your 2003 show at Metro?

JB: We’re good friends with another band from Chicago—Kill Hannah. They opened up for us when we did the headline tour for the first album at Metro. Chicago has always been nice to us; Metro is a really good venue. We like playing there.

CC: Do you have any favorite songs on Dying to Say This to You?

JB: I really like “Tony the Beat.” It’s a really good pop song with a more experimental vibe to it.

CC: Now, the band shares the songwriting duties in what seems to be a pretty democratic way. Is it pretty fair to say that any idea that gets brought to the table gets a chance to grow?

JB: Actually, that’s exactly how it works. The process was different on this album, though. The first album was written over a long period of time before we even knew we would release an album. We kept on writing songs and kept on trying to get a record deal while playing live as much as possible. All those songs from the first album were played tons of times live before we even recorded them.

On this album, we didn’t have the time to just write forever. So, we built our own studio, a small area where we write. Everything is pretty much written in that studio in Sweden before we take it to the rehearsal place and play it together as a band. So, the process has been different in that way. It gives us time to analyze it more. The songwriting is better now than it was on the first album because it’s more thought through.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Brunettes @ Schubas (4/4/2006)

Hailing from the city of Auckland, New Zealand, the Brunettes have carved out a career spanning eight years. Listening to the Brunettes, one might hear a doo-wop band buried inside a melodic pop band buried inside a garage rock band; each layer is as interesting as the last.

Plus, a rock band that incorporates an ironing board with their stage setup has to know something about putting on a good show.

After an opening slot the previous night for up-and-comers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at Metro, the Brunettes took an evening to headline a show at Schubas. The band’s return to Chicago held some sentimental value since it was in Chicago at the Elbo Room, almost a year to the day, that the band made their first stateside appearance.

A trumpet, saxophone, banjo, lap steel guitar, keyboards, xylophones, and noise shakers that produced duck quacking were just some of the instruments that cluttered an already small stage for the six-piece band. The band’s leaders, Jonathan Bree and Heather Mansfield, tiptoed their way through the stage, smiles on both faces eager to get the show underway. The crowd that was once standing in the middle of the room during the night’s two openers now huddled the stage.

The soft, innocent voice of Mansfield soon commanded the room the moment “Baby” started off the show; its ‘60s pop tones harkened back to early Beach Boys. From 2004’s Mars Loves Venus (Lil’ Chief Records), the lighthearted confessional “Loopy Loopy Love” scored with its catchy hooks and melodies.

Here was a band that was completely of a different musical era but had a strong enough sense of that music that they never came off as a novelty act. The Brunettes ran into the occasional bump in the road; technical issues with Bree’s guitar slowed the momentum of the show and it was clear that Mansfield was fighting a hoarse voice. These problems still weren’t enough to hold the band back. It was at these times when the garage band aspect of the Brunettes revealed itself.

Mansfield found her voice during a new song, a sweet tune bridging the Beach Boys and the Carpenters called "If I." It was during the menacing “Best Friend Envy” when the Brunettes really shined the brightest. Bree and Mansfield traded off haunting vocal parts that made the head spin and the body dance.

The songs played more as conversations with the crowd and less like stories; sometimes the dialog between Bree and Mansfield evoked the boy/girl melodrama the Brunettes are known for crafting.

In what had to have been the evening’s most amusing moment, the band showed off their theater skills by donning masks of two of America’s beloved flavors of the month: Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. The song, “Mary Kate & Ashley,” was as hilarious as it was slightly disturbing. You kind of stop listening to the lyrics when six people wearing either a Mary Kate or Ashley Olsen mask are dancing around playing instruments on stage. But to the crowd the joke was well received.

The Brunettes charmed and delighted the crowd with their energy and genuine excitement. Clever songs and intriguing sounds make the Brunettes more than just your average band. As waves of disappointment were voiced throughout the crowd over the band’s decision to not perform a second encore, Bree shrugged his shoulders and frowned as he waved goodbye from the stage. Albeit a small gesture, it summed up the type of evening people had with the Brunettes; they simply didn’t want it to end.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Monday, April 03, 2006

Robert Pollard @ Metro (3/31/2006)

“Fuck Coldplay,” scowled Robert Pollard from the stage inside Metro. Nearly twenty minutes south, Coldplay was ending its two-night residence at the United Center as the weekend's hottest ticket. But to the longtime leader of Guided By Voices, there was only one real show in town that night, and it was his.

Guided By Voices may be no more, but the arrogance and “what you see is what you get” attitude of that band lives on in the man that embodied the spirit. Bringing his solo show to Chicago for the first time since Guided By Voices disbanded on New Year’s Eve 2004 at Metro, Pollard came ready with a personal bucket of twenty-four chilled bottles of Miller Lite, a bottle of Jose Cuervo, and a brand new cast of characters to give sound to Pollard’s latest musical vision From A Compound Eye. Any notions that this new band was just a revamped version of Guided By Voices were quickly dispelled by Pollard. “This ain’t GBV,” said Pollard to the packed audience. “Now it’s whatever.”

As the group tore through songs like “I Surround You Naked,” “Maggie Turns To Flies,” and “I’m A Widow,” what was evident was the musicianship Pollard surrounded himself with: veteran popster Tommy Keene on guitar and keyboards, Dave Phillips on guitar, bassist Jason Narducy (Verbow, Rockets Over Sweden), and drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk) brought a fresh dimension to Pollard’s massive catalog of songs. Pulling a track from Pollard’s 1998 album Waved Out, the assembled group gave new color to the song “Make Use” and transformed it into a rolling trance-like wave of power chords.

The 48-year-old Pollard still pulled off his teenage kicks, Pete Townshend leaps, and Roger Daltrey microphone twirls like there was no tomorrow. “It’s not a show,” declared Pollard, “It’s a fucking drunken wreck.” He even got security on edge as he defied the city’s no-smoking ordinance (aimed towards bars and clubs) by accepting lights from the front row and packages of cigarettes tossed onto the stage.

That statement may have been true in Pollard’s case (who actually took his drinks in moderation), but it wasn’t for the band. Over the course of two hours, the charge from song to song never let up a second. During “Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft,” described by Pollard as his favorite new song, the band took off on the song’s Cheap Trick-esque stomp a la “High Roller.” Narducy locked in with Pollard for some of the most soulful vocal moments of the night. As Bob Mould’s bassist on his recent solo tour, Narducy provided Pollard a plate of harmonies that always seemed elusive in Guided By Voices.

The banter was still classic Pollard. At one point, Pollard took shots at the Flaming Lips for their cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was a crime in Pollard’s eyes what Wayne Coyne and company did to the song, but then let the crowd in on the joke by mentioning his love for Coyne. “I’m allowed to rip on anyone who sells more records than me,” explained Pollard to the crowd.

After an endurance fest of over thirty songs, Pollard returned for an encore to reward those who came to the show hoping for a little blast from the Guided By Voices past. “Girls Of Wild Strawberries” got the crowd’s lips wet, fists were thrust into the air to applaud “Gold Star For Robot Boy,” and fans threw arms around each other to sing along to “My Valuable Hunting Knife.”

The show’s finale seemed ironic since it was also the last song that Guided By Voices performed over a year ago under the same roof. Still, “Don’t Stop Now” filled every corner of Metro with voices singing in unison. In some ways, it has been Pollard’s musical mantra and as he proved on stage, he’s not even close to stopping.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Extra! Extra!

The April issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online.

I have contributed a write-up on the Swedish rock band The Sounds. Here is a direct link to the page:

For those in and around Chicago, the magazine will sponsor its monthly release party at The Darkroom on April 7. For more information, click "HAPPENINGS" on the magazine's main web page. The event is free.