Pavement @ The Palace, 14th March, 2010

8 out of 10: Delightfully off-kilter indie rock

You could confuse Pavement for your IT department. Despite what you’d expect from a rock and roll band, they saunter unassumingly onto stage dressed in bland T-shirts, their mothers more than likely having cut their hair. Although Stephen Malkmus is the band’s leader, he’s tucked away to the left of the bass player, Mark Ibold, who takes centre stage. And just like computer geeks, once you get past their nondescript exterior and awkward approach to the world, you begin to appreciate the amazing shit they can do that no one else can.

Sure, you might be partial to both sides of the great musical divides, but there will always be arguments over who or which is better: the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, Prince or Michael Jackson, Slanted and Enchanted or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. At the Palace, Pavement only make things more difficult to resolve by beginning their show with the exquisite rollick of Silence Kid (AKA the misprinted Silence Kit), finishing off with a hyper-energetic Conduit for Sale! and mining deeply from their classic first two albums throughout the night.

There is, however, another musical divide that becomes apparent over the course of the show: that between the slower, more reflective songs and the rockier, punchier numbers. Tonight, Pavement are loud and raucous. Yelling the cryptic refrain “forty, million, daggers” on Two States has always been one of life’s great pleasures. Live, with the guitars crunching and the muffled lo-fi fuzz of the recorded version replaced with punky punch, yelling the same refrain is akin to a primal therapy session. Similarly, songs such as Stereo and Unfair take flight when the chorus hits like a manic sonic bomb. Such pep combined with impromptu musical jams between songs, the bizarre antics of not one but two spare-parts musicians and the seemingly random hangers-on emerging from backstage and singing at various moments make for gonzo rock at its finest.

Unfortunately, the gonzo stylings and charged guitars overwhelm what should be reflective moments in the show. The country tinge of Range Life goes begging with nary an acoustic guitar around, and Here comes across as perfunctory rather than plaintive.

Notwithstanding such bugbears, Pavement are delightfully off-kilter. No song structure has ever tied them down, no musical genre typified their music. Their grab-bag style is well converted into a night of shambolic splendour, and their fractured melodies continue to retain their sparkle, positively glowing in the midst of their more manic moments on stage.

Jane’s Addiction at the Palace, Feb 24, 2010

9 out of 10: Awesomeness

Just as their first studio release began, so does their performance tonight at the Palace. The popping bassline and expansive drums on Up the Beach give Dave Navarro room to launch lead runs when not pummelling a power chord, while lights shine bright on Perry Farrell each time he launches his banshee wails standing majestically tall front and centre on a foldback speaker, champagne bottle in hand.

Jane’s Addiction’s heyday was over twenty years ago now, yet the band still look and feel the part of hungry rock stars on the make, Farrell and Navarro cut like men of tenderer years. And like another ageless, oft-topless frontman whose influence spans decades, Perry Farrell is overflowing with energy, limbs flailing uncontrollably, the very picture of an adult ADD sufferer. No one listens solely with their ears, and the sight of such gleeful, unhinged movement makes everything seem louder, more penetrating, as if the amps really do go all the way up to eleven.

Although they were one of the first alternative bands to make it big, the scantily-clad women gyrating provocatively on stage, the light show and the overdriven yet clean guitar tone are quintessentially LA hair metal, the sound and approach of the scene Jane’s Addiction grew out of back in the eighties. The differences, though, are sharp: whereas a band such as Mötley Crüe might write a derogatory  throwaway ditty that aims at the gonads after a particularly wonderful polyamorous sexual experience, Jane’s Addiction write Three Days, an eleven-minute psychedelic-metal epic of multiple movements that exalts the multiple women involved in the dalliance and aims to recreate the wonder of what transpired sonically. Live, dancers gyrating provocatively either side of Farrell, the drums pounding, the bass pumping, the lead wailing, one feels like one has indeed learned exactly what transpired and that eleven minutes never passed so quickly.

And that’s generally what’s most surprising about the gig: their grander epics, Three Days, Summertime Rolls, Ocean Size and Ted, Just Admit It are the most memorable, and their metallic, psychedelic, funkadelic sound spaced out into longer passages becomes almost transcendental. At such heights, Jane’s Addiction are peerless, no contemporary rock outfit ambitious enough to come close. This renders Jane Says and Been Caught Stealing — both spectacular in their own right — as mono-dimensional singalong crowd-pleasers in comparison, a curious result that speaks volumes of just how good they were.

Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here

5 out of 10: Lacking polish, lacking direction, yet still reasonable

Gil Scott-Heron is one of the progenitors of rap. In his heyday, he was an angry, lyrical artist who eloquently catalogued the travails of African-Americans over what were usually sparse rhythms, quietly funky, that evoked the wilds of his enslaved forebears’ home continent.

Scott-Heron’s last album, the solid Spirits, was released in 1994. The years between then and now have not been kind: he’s spent them in and out of jail on drug charges as if a character in one of the stories he used to relate in his much-heralded musical past. Nevertheless, the years between then and now have added to the croaky, baritone resonance of his voice which render his poetic pronouncements so believable, urgent and soulful.

I’m New Here is Scott-Heron emerging from a dark place to find himself immersed in an unfamiliar world. Gone is the sound of defiance that was a hallmark of his earlier work, the sound of resignation taking its place. Unfortunately, much of that sound is created via humdrum electronica of the kind that’s preprogrammed into the latest piece of gadgetry. His lyrical themes, of death, of lives wasted, of heartbreak, take on a tacky hue with such accompaniment, a maudlin evocation of downcast subject matter.

The departures from baleful electronica are highlights, however: I’ll Take Care of You is a stand out, stark and affecting; while the messy handclap loop and Scott-Heron’s ragged vocals on New York is Killing Me feels exactly like the confusion of a mind recoiling from too much big-city stimulus.

I’m New Here is more a passable return rather than a triumphant one: it’s too short, it feels hastily put together and it lacks polish. Sixty-one years of age and now out of jail, one hopes Scott-Heron remains that way, at least so his next album can be the triumph that we know he’s capable of producing.

The King Khan and BBQ Show’s Invisible Girl

2 out of 10: Garage rock that should have remained in the garage

Like a Hindu deity’s avatar, Indo-Canadian King Khan pops up most everywhere. On this occasion, he’s teamed up with Mark Sultan, aka BBQ, and mixed in doo wop with the revivalist garage rock that has become synonymous with his name.

Revivalist, too, is perhaps the best description of King Khan’s vocals: he’s manic, hypnotic, out of tune and most likely inspired by something greater than himself when he gets on the mic, issuing forth filthy smut to raise his congregation up to a higher plane where the good-time splendour of his dirty rock can be best experienced.

In the best of Khan’s previous incarnations, collected together on the fine The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines, this good-time rock and roll is loud, punchy and fun. On Invisible Girl, though, there’s no volume or raucousness to hide the lack of musicianship. All that’s left is bad jokes and cheesy stories of boy meets girl that are as cheap as the staid garage-rock chords that they’re sung over. Sure, Tastebuds is a funny bad joke – it’s about tastebuds on parts of body that aren’t the tongue – but all Invisible Girl amounts to is trashy lyrics and trashy music that might be described as refreshing or edgy by Triple R listeners who equate roughy and ready with cutting edge.

The King Khan and BBQ Show is a poor man’s Ween. Don’t be that poor man – go get yourself Chocolate and Cheese, The Mollusk or La Cucaracha rather than this amateurish excuse for musical ribaldry.

Medeski, Martin and Wood @ the HiFi Bar, 29th Jan, 2010

7 out of 10: As is to be expected from a highly improvisational jazz band, highs, lows and everything in between

Jazz fusion is a dirty word for good reason: the genre abounds in meandering, soulless “songs” that are better off described as excursions into the wilds of boredom. Once upon a time, though, fusion was exciting: Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew is fantastic, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters a revelation. Happily, Medeski, Martin and Wood (MMW) are steeped in the still-hallowed sounds of fusion’s halcyon days and are fittingly one of the few contemporary jazz trios around who are able to draw a crowd anywhere in the world. Tonight they’re at the HiFi, and tonight they manage to three-quarters fill its sizeable surrounds.

MMW tours as part of the jam-band circuit that The Grateful Dead established and which remains a phenomenon confined to the USA. They have material spread over eight albums to choose from, but live, as all jam bands are wont to do, the songs take on a (long) life of their own.

And live, they push their material into a more avant-garde direction. On Lifeblood, for instance, the first song they play, the delicious groove breaks out into an interlude that sounds like the spinning of an inventive madman’s mind. Billy Martin, MMW’s crack drummer, is particularly creative, even sprinkling a passage reminiscent of gamelan into the section.

The night, though, belongs to John Medeski, the band’s supremely talented pianist. Medeski drives the group, switching effortlessly between organ, keyboard and grand piano while evoking the likes of Gil Evans, Bernie Worrell, Ray Charles and Chucho Valdés. The crescendos the band manages to build on the back of the inspired keys are a delight, especially when they lock into the hardest of grooves. Not only does he have the necessary touch of a jazzman, he also manages to turn his keys into an aggressive, howling beast that would not be misplaced on stage with Rage Against The Machine.

If there is criticism to be made, though, it’s the standard one made of improvisational bands: a lack of cohesion. The abrupt jumps from one style to another often sounds as unnatural as switching between radio stations, not to mention the free jazz sections that are at times as difficult to penetrate as they are inventive.

Nonetheless, MMW are a honed live band. Their many years playing together means musical ideas are constantly bounced between each band member with ease. While this improvisatory skill can sometimes be overplayed, the band is always interesting, daring and a welcome deviation from the norm.

Emiliana Torrini at the Forum on the 2nd of January, 2009

7 out of 10: Endearing Italian-Icelandic folkish lolling

Emiliana Torrini has established a strong following in these antipodean shores: the sweet singer with the Italian name and Icelandic voice managed to fill the Forum on a Saturday night set aside for soothing an aching New Year’s head. Only fourteen months separate her last appearance here at the same venue, and Melbourne’s couples are out in force tonight to hear her perform her adorable songs arm in arm.

Torrini sings liberally from each of her three albums released worldwide, showing no particular preference for any one. The crowd too is just as pleased with songs from eleven years ago as they are two, and they enthusiastically support Torrini’s performance the whole night through.

Much of the electronica from Torrini’s first and third albums are arranged for instrumental accompaniment. Live, the approach pays handsome dividends as songs such as Me and Armini and Unemployed in Summertime are rendered evermore affecting. The sparse, disarming songs of her second album, Fisherman’s Woman, only gain in warmth in the Forum’s ornate, starry surroundings, and perhaps the song she’s most known for in these parts, Sunny Road, is a delight to hear in such a setting.

Torrini does venture off into less salubrious territory, though. On Jungle Drum, the upbeat rhythm and her parum-pa-pum-pumming are completely out of place (although her dancing — a cross between Bjork and Peter Garret — is exceptionally endearing), as is the turn to noisier musical accompaniment more generally the further the night progresses. Torrini is best when everything is stripped back and her voice, so charmingly accented, is left to lilt softly.

This is just as true when there is no music. Torrini’s chats with the audience between songs are a joy. Her manner speaks of a happy-go-lucky soul, winsome, effortlessly prepossessing and surprisingly comical. Upon a crowd member’s wishing her a happy new year, she responded self-mockingly with “so let’s celebrate with another song nobody can dance to” before wishing for a dance beat and proceeding to beat box one herself. Woods, birds, cocktails and breezes are repeated themes in her chats with the audience about her songs and whatever else might pop into her head, all of which is duly lapped up by an appreciative audience.

Torrini is a wonderful performer, a natural singer and a disarming character. For those who made their way to the Forum, the second of January may not have been as raucous as the events of last year’s last day, yet its restrained splendour was a soothing contrast that is much more likely to be remembered.

Forro in the Dark’s Light a Candle

7 out of 10: Light-heartedness and warmth from Brazil via New York

Forró (pronounced fo-ho) is a simple, jolly and danceable musical style straight from the barnyards of the north-eastern expanses of Brazil; Forro in the Dark are a band of Brazilian expatriates living in New York who introduce jazzier, more sophisticated elements into the music style that adorns their name and forms the basis of their work.

David Byrne discovered Forro in the Dark gigging in New York, and we have him to thank yet again for bringing to prominence some splendid, little-heard music. Of course, New York should be lauded in equal measure, for the world’s largest melting pot no doubt had a lot to do with the melange of styles and instruments heard on Light a Candle, all of which make it more than just an album of forró.

The melange is best exemplified by Nonsensical, a surprisingly well-worked forró-reggae whose lyrical theme all fans of Jamaica would be sympathetic with: the singer proclaims that if you’re not into Bob Marley, then “you better stay away from me.” Even when not in English (Perro Loco is about a crazy dog), the rest of the album’s lyrics are equally lighthearted in keeping with the upbeat musical style, while the melody lines supplied by flute or saxophone on instrumentals such as Lilou, Caipirinha and Forro de Dois Amigos are a refreshing treat.

Light a Candle is a delightful summer record, perfect for the urbane dinner party where cosmopolitanism, winsomeness, conversation-starting curiosities and the possibility of a dance are always desirable. In certain quarters, such characteristics would be construed negatively as typical of the staid values of the middle classes. Damn politics and just enjoy I say, especially when an album is made as professionally as has Light a Candle.

Salmonella Dub at the HiFi Bar

4 out of 10: They need a frontman

The HiFi is half-filled with dub fiends, half of whom confuse sex with six. The crowd is sparse, but so is the music: Salmonella Dub are launching their new album, Freak Controller, the second since their long-time frontman Tiki Taane left the band to launch a solo career.

Much like Australia’s Cruel Sea, New Zealand’s Salmonella Dub have enjoyed a long career as an instrumental band at heart for whom vocals are an added extra. Not surprisingly, then, the loss of Taane has not greatly shaken the band; live, though, there are problems.

Salmonella Dub’s drummer, David Deakins, takes on the vocal duties in the absence of the more accomplished singers who appear on their recorded work. Thankfully, Salmonella Dub’s instrumental focus means we don’t hear Deakins sing too much; nevertheless, the lack of some kind of leader, driver and all-round spruiker renders void the band’s presence on stage.

Even more problematic is the percussion. On certain tracks, shambolic percussion that sounds as ordinary as the drumming of patchouli-scented hippies that befoul the serenity of summer nights is added to proceedings. One would hope that the messy beats are a one-off problem caused by technical issues rather than a more permanent deficiency in their performance.

Despite the shortcomings, the crowd is rapturous and engaged. And on the dub tracks, there’s good reason for such exuberance: when they turn the reverb up to eleven, Salmonella Dub do indeed evoke the feeling of a spliff – as all good dub should. The reverb on the live brass instruments sound especially good, as does the bounce of the bass. For perhaps the first time, I regret the prohibition of smoking indoors; the smoke from lit weed is conspicuous in its absence.

The continued quality of the reggae numbers confirms the impression: any time Salmonella Dub draw inspiration from anywhere outside Jamaica, the music suffers. It’s as if any musical voyages beyond Jamaica land them in the distorting straits of the Bermuda triangle. Be that as it may, Salmonella Dub do leave their audience in high spirits, and any departure from the three major chords of Melbourne’s countless rock bands is a welcome addition to the city’s musical offerings. Salmonella Dub have behind them a history of brilliant shows; tonight’s performance is not one of them. Nevertheless, Salmonella Dub have enough credits in the bank and such a solid dub style that a ticket to their next show will still be worth pursuing.

Cymbals Eat Guitars and Why There are Mountains

9 out of 10: A brilliant distillation of what can make indie music thrilling

Why There are Mountains is the quintessential indie-rock album: the singer can’t really sing, the lyrics are often incomprehensible, there are few tunes to speak of, guitars squall and solos are fractured, song sections abruptly collide into each other and discordance is not a sin. But like the best of the indie-rock bands – Pavement and Sonic Youth the classic examples – Cymbals Eat Guitars somehow manage to make something refreshingly alluring out of what could accurately be described as a mess.

Why There are Mountains does have one thing going against it in this day and age, though: you have to listen to it as an album. Like a great My Bloody Valentine or Radiohead record, most of the songs on their own won’t grab you. Why There are Mountains wins you over on repeated listens as the mood, pacing and texture of the album drifts you off into an aural kingdom of the album’s own making. And what’s even more impressive for a debut album by a bunch of scruffy New York young’uns is its sheer musical scope: it’s not just guitars and skittish rock as you’d expect, but also keys, violins, synths, brass and even glockenspiels running amok through at times elegiac, spacey and melodic sonic atmospherics.

Why There are Mountains serves up everything that makes indie music thrilling. The album follows its own course, free from the strictures of traditional song conventions, and does so without self-consciousness, as if sudden shifts in tempo and unexpected brass are par for the course. This should be the first of many more albums to come – I strongly advise you be there from the start.

Michael Jackson’s This Is It

7.5 out of 10: Even though it’s the King of Pop and three excellent demos are included, there are better best-ofs around

I wouldn’t be surprised if in every neighbourhood in the world there’s at least one copy of a Michael Jackson record stashed away somewhere; I wouldn’t be surprised if by 2020 there’s at least one other posthumously released Michael Jackson record along with it.

This Is It is pretty much just another Michael Jackson best-of collection. Don’t be fooled by the promotion or packaging – there’s really no significant connection between the film and the music. And as a best-of collection, it’s reasonable even though others released before Jackson’s unfortunate death contain a better selection of songs.

The main gripe: This Is It focusses too much on Jackson’s lesser later works. Regrettably, the glory of Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Rock With You and Bad is overlooked for the ordinary to execrable Earth Song, Man in the Mirror and I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.

Nevertheless, This Is It does set itself apart from other best-of collections by including six previously-unavailable tracks: two versions of the same unreleased song, three demos of previously-released classics and an awful spoken-word piece masquerading as poetry. The spoken-word is laughable, the two versions of the same unreleased song pleasant if not brilliant. The three demos, though, are awesome.

The first of the three, She’s Out of My Life, features nothing more than Michael Jackson accompanied by a guitar, is surprisingly affecting and far better than the syrupy version from Off the Wall. The multi-layered vocal-only demo of Beat It is a sensation even if it is a curio and only two minutes in length, while the stripped back Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ makes it easier to notice what often goes unappreciated: how plain funky Jackson’s voice was.

Off the Wall and Thriller are still the best Michael Jackson albums going round; The Essential Michael Jackson a better best-of collection. But if you do want those few extra tracks worth listening to, head on over to iTunes — it was made for the very purpose of singling out the wheat from the chaff.