Monday, May 17, 2004

And now, some music

So, like I said earlier, I went to go see the Ted Leo and the Pharmacists show (hereby Ted Leo/RX or TL/RX) last night at bar 13. This was a “secret” show—minimal publicity, announced on his website and on a couple of others, but not the website of the venue. I had heard of secret shows before—a friend of mine saw Guided By Voices under the nom de plume “Homosexual Flypaper” at CBGB’s and was treated to an intimate evening of covers and old material that people hadn’t heard in awhile.

Mary and I went to the show, and let me tell ya, it was pretty awesome. First off, if you haven’t heard Ted Leo/RX, well, you need to. Besides the fact that Ted Leo is a big Homestarrunner fan, and founded Chisel, one of the greatest bands in the history of the DC punk movement, he's also a fantastic song writer. TL/RX are the 21st century American answer to Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Literate smart lyrics with poppy, complex vintage punk instrumental backing. That’s about the easiest description I can come up with, although those guys at AMG can probably do better.

The special treat of tonight’s oh-so-secret show? Well, TL/RX head into the studio tomorrow to start recording the new album, and they decided they’d demo it by playing it for us from start to finish in order. The new album is going to be great, I think. I can already pick out several songs I really like, including this obsessive arpeggiated number that apparently will finish off side one if you happen to buy it on record and one about taking a walk, or walking around, or something like that. I really like songs about taking a walk. Marvin Pontiac’s “Runnin’ Round” or Spoon’s “Take a Walk” or TL/RX’s “Bridges, Squares” always put me in a good mood.

The new album sounds great, the band is really tight (the RX’s drummer and bassist are a sickly tight backup band) and the fans are cute, and nice (not as attractive as Firewater’s fans but much, much nicer). Ted Leo is a charming front man. He constantly makes cracks at the expense of the band’s last effort “Hearts of Oak” which (I’m just guessing here) hard core fans must not like too much. Oh well, their loss.

After they finish playing the album, the crowd goes a little nuts. Ted Leo struts over to his amp to tune his guitar, and then turns the audience and says “well, that’s the end… of the new stuff. I guess we’ll play some old stuff now. Any guidance?” They proceed to play several cuts of “Tyranny of Distance” and older material based on people’s recommendations. At the end, he plays an oldie that I haven’t heard before and thanks the audience for “not requesting a single song off of Hearts of Oak, really, I’m touched”.

You see, the problem is that TL/RX’s album “The Tyranny of Distance” is basically an instant classic. It’s a beautiful album filled with one excellent song after another. It’s almost overwhelming in it’s power. That kind of success is unrepeatable. No matter what, you’d be headed to dissappointmentville after that. It’s almost inevitable. I happen to quite like “Hearts of Oak”, but then again I heard it before I heard “Tyranny of Distance”, so there you go.

Anyway, they’re playing again in NYC soon and I’m definitely going to see them again. TL/RX are some of the most energetic musicians I’ve ever seen. Every song is played a good 1.5 times the speed on the album, and then they gradually speed up as it goes along. This becomes something of a miracle when you realize how complicated many of Leo’s guitar lines are. Meanwhile, his poor drummer has to go apeshit at least once on every song. By the end of the show he was grimacing, drenched in sweat, looking like he was 2/3rds of the way to a massive coronary. This was the point when someone requested “Dial Up” which probably has the hardest and fastest drum part of any TL/RX song I know. Leo looked to the drummer, seemingly asking permission before agreeing to do the song.

Go see them if you get a chance. Many of their shows are cheap/free and it’s well worth it.

Onto other music business… my friends over at One Ring Zero have a new album out, it’s called “As Smart As We Are” and features lyrics by many awesome writers, including three of my favorite authors (Paul Auster, Jonathan Lethem and Clay McLeod Chapman) and many other well-knowns (Rick Moody, Neil Gaiman, Myla Goldberg, Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers etc.) . Normally, ORZ do instrumental prog-klezmer-circus-jazz or something like that. Anyway, this album is a little more straight forward, it’s a pop/rock album, but it’s a prog-klezmer-circus-jazz pop/rock album. A lot of fun to listen to and worth checking out.

Also finally got my hands on Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” which I fucking love. “18” was the moment when Reich left behind rigid systems, allowing them to inform his song writing without being the be-all and end-all. In pieces like “Drumming” (which I’ve written about here), Reich made realization of the formal system part of the ecstatic beauty of listening to his music. As ‘Drumming” layers version after version of one pattern in occasionally different tempos over and over, and music gets complicated, but the writing is very simple.

“18” is very different. While there are glimpses of phasing, and the style remains rhythmic and repetitive, this music is about something very different. Part one (“pulses”) moves through 11 chords, each one repeated twice for the length of one breath. Then you are treated to variations and expansions on those chords in each of 11 sections. And then we get back to the 11 chords played again as a kind of epilogue.

It’s difficult to describe and, if you’ve never heard it before, it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced. The closest thing I can compare it to is the film scores of Thomas Newman, who presents a kind of watered down, listener-friendly version of Reich’s rhythmic building of themes and variations.

I think I’ve written enough about music today. Three cds you should go pick up if you’re interested:
Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” (get the 1997 version out on Nonesuch)
Ted Leo/RX, “The Tyranny of Distance” out on “Lookout” records
One Ring Zero, “As Smart As We Are” published by Softskull

Happy listening!

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