Tag Archives: indie rock

Ra Ra Riot and… Tim Finn?

RaRaRiot_Independent_72dpiMy friend Tim from Seattle recommended Ra Ra Riot to me a couple of years ago. He’s one of those guys like me who still make mix tapes (okay, CDs now, soon to be Spotify lists?). We do this each year to introduce friends to our favorite music, to recommend new or old bands, and their albums or singles. Ra Ra Riot, a danceable type of “indie rock with strings” outfit hails from Syracuse, New York. They struck me immediately as an infectious upbeat act featuring talented musicians, electric and acoustic instruments and vocalist, multi-instrumentalist Wes Miles. This remarkable singer is able to hit soaring soulful notes in a high tenor register, and has a beautiful falsetto technique, clear and strong. The musicians joining him include Mathieu Santos (bass), Milo Bonacci (guitar), Rebecca Zeller (violin) and Kenny Bernard (drums).They have been together for ten years, and just released their fourth album, Need Your Light. Take a listen to opening track “Water” to catch their sound. Then try the older track Tim included on the CD mix, “Boy” from their 2011 album The Orchard. It’s definitely more like the band Capital Cities than The National!


In concert at the Independent theater, in San Francisco, March 27, 2016, the band was in top form, clearly healthy, joyous and well rehearsed. The set list included most of the songs from the new album, and they sounded terrific live, remarkably close to the studio RaRaRiot_NeedYourLight_72dpirecordings, but with that extra presence and pumped up energy live performance can bring. On stage, a guest cello player filled in for departed member Alexandra Lawn, adding heft to the strings led by multi-instrumentalist Zeller. And, yes they played “Boy” to enthusiastic dancing and applause.


Standing there listening to the band, I was thinking about how few indie rock and recent alt rock bands have this kind of cheerful sound. Been listening to a lot of Radiohead, Muse, The National, and others who are really moodier and darker. It had me thinking about the 1980s music scene, and the dark and light ends of the spectrum, represented most notably by the likes of The Smiths (dark), and Bow Wow Wow (light). Given Wes Miles’ voice, I was reminded most of the band Split Enz and the solo work of their founder, Tim Finn.


RaRaRiot_SplitEnz_ConflictingCover_72dpiNew Zealand band Split Enz began very differently than it ended. They started out in 1972, featuring Phil Judd and Tim Finn as leaders of an art rock, vaudeville act, adorned in outrageous costumes and matching stage antics. Once brother Neil Finn joined in 1980, they transformed their music to focus more on a rock, pop and new wave sound. The two Finn’s and their band created some of the most adventurous music of that era, producing four fabulous albums True Colors (1980), Waiata / Corroboree (1981), Time and Tide (1982), and their masterpiece Conflicting Emotions (1983) at which point Tim left the band to start a solo career. For those down under, and for fans like me, the two brothers together were like Lennon/McCartney, such were their compositions, and the contrast in their perfectly paired voices. Neil led the group to produce one final album, appropriately titled See Ya ‘Round (1984) then going on to form the popular band Crowded House. Neil is certainly one of the greatest singer/songwriters on the planet. But for now, let’s focus on Tim who came so strongly to my mind during the Ra Ra Riot show.

TimFinn_EscapadeCover_72dpiTim Finn’s compositions and lead vocals on Conflicting Emotions and his first album Escapade (1983) are soulful and inspirational. His soaring tenor voice is one of the most dazzling instruments in the business. That first solo album, which is very light, breezy compared to his other work, was followed by the more assertive, instrumentally varied albums Big Canoe (1986, my favorite), and self-titled Tim Finn (1989) for which he hired nearly all of Peter Gabriel’s early 80s band (did you not know that, I bet not!)  Best to take a listen to the title track from Conflicting Emotions (if you don’t like the mysterious intro, meant to invoke emotional confusion, skip to minute 1:30), or the song “In A Minor Key“ or “I Only Want to Know” from Escapade. Fantastic.


Last time I saw Tim Finn live was also at The Independent. It was an amazing show from start to finish. This enduring talent continues to record and perform today. The Ra Ra Riot concert at the same venue ten years later, was similarly inspirational and I will be following them going forward, starting at this summer’s Outside Lands festival, where they will be on the bill with Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, and Air among many others. Highly recommended.


Dungen Groove at The Chapel

Dungen_EjstesGustavssonThe Swedish band Dungen takes it’s name from the word meaning “the groove.” Their music is an adventurous strain of Indie rock that veers towards the psychedelic and progressive, as though played in a garage with a jazz drummer! Fans of Midlake, Radiohead, Ragnarok, Tortoise and The Flaming Lips (without the performance art) would warm to Dungen’s beautiful, organic and oft mysterious sounds, and the vocals of founder/composer Gustav Ejstes, all sung in Swedish, his native tongue. Dungen was recently on tour to support their imaginative new album Alla sak and we caught the show in San Francisco October 23rd at The Chapel.


Dungen_FiskeMulti-instrumentalist, composer Ejstes apparently plays the majority of instruments on their studio albums and is a clear point of focus of their live performances. His pleasant airy vocals grace most tracks, while he alternates between piano, flutes, and guitars. Occasionally the band launch into longer instrumental pieces, which tend to be more on the psychedelic side. The band that accompanies him is a muscular, brilliant ensemble. Reine Fiske uses
his guitar less for discernable rhythms and lead solos, more for coloring the melodies with labyrinthine sounds and effects. When he does lead, his evocative riffs and improvisational excursions might bring to mind jazz-fuDungen_drumssion virtuoso Alan Holdsworth. Bassist Mattias Gustavsson delivers a fitting bottom end, sometimes leading the down-tempo melodic structures. Best of all, skilled drummer Johan Holmegard focuses on lots of deep, jazzy toms, and skip beats on snare, often using brushes and
soft mallets to vary his sound, which stands out or comes to the fore on nearly every track. All the band members sing, and their backing vocals create harmonies that are often dissonant while building and resolving to more uplifting major tones. It’s often pretty, earthy music with an edge of menace.

Dungen_band2The band’s sound has softened over the years since the debut in 2001. Since it’s music that’s hard to describe, it’s best to listen to a few tracks. Check out this video for “Akt Dit” which sports an intro and melody reminiscent of French duo Air. Or for an earlier more challenging psychedelic track try “Högdalstoppen” from the album Skit I Allt (2010). While the majority of songs are more pastoral and melodic, each show has at least one long instrumental “freak out” such as “Högdalstoppen.” Best to salve the dissonance with a typical follow up track such as “Satt Att Se” which sports a nice animated video. As if to confirm the difficulty one has describing their sound, front man Ejstes explains on their website that the 2010 album Skit I Allt “is about a certain feeling: you’re with your friends and mates, all hanging out till 6 in the morning. You’re the last one left at the party and you call this person that you want to be with. They’re asleep, but they still say, ‘Ah, fuck it, come over.’ It’s that feeling.”

Dungen_EjstesThe concert did run late into the night, allowing the band to cover more than twenty tracks spanning their eight albums. It was a generous helping of indie rock from this talented artist. The tour is now complete, but here’s a recommendation to watch for them to come again, say “fuck it” call some friends and mates, and attend!

Mew at The Fillmore

Mew_1Danish alternative rock band Mew, hailing from Copenhagen retuned to San Francisco last week at the Fillmore Auditorium. It was their first time staging a headlining tour in the Americas in 6 years, supporting their new release +- (plus-minus). The venue was packed with an equal share of loyal fans and many newcomers, drawn to the band on the strength of the recent album. They opened the show with powerful new track “Witness” followed by “Satellites” the lead single from +-, a bit of breezy pop featuring shimmering keys, arpeggios on electric guitars, driving backbeat and soaring, ethereal lead vocals by Jonas Bjerre, the clear focal point of this acclaimed band. Sometimes when a group leads off with their top single it demonstrates a confidence in their set list, and this was the case with Mew, as they ran through six new songs, and ten from their prior releases, delivering an assured, magnificent concert.


Mew actually dates back to 1994, with six albums now in their catalog. The band for this tour includes Jonas Bjerre (vocals, keyboards), John Wohlert (bass, backing vocals), Silas Utke Graae Jorgensen (drums) and touring musicians Mads Wegner (guitars, replacing recently departed member Bo Madsen) and Nick Watts (keyboards). The band play relatively loud, rarely using dynamics to bring the sound down to highlight Bjerre’s amazing voice, in the way that for instance The National has done on their last tour. Also, for this tour, the band put some effort into some unique lighting and original video clips created by Bjerre. Unfortunately on this night at the Fillmore, these were not used, replaced instead by relatively simple back lighting. Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles, as the band was energetic, and in top form, driving their blend of proggy indie rock to stadium level dynamics, best exemplified by rocker “My Complications” from +-. A highlight in the setlist for this patron was the second single from that same album, “Water Slides” which has one of the catchiest choruses in recent memory:

For such a long time I didn’t know if I’d find you
Say stop, made up, lying on the bathroom floor
(ah ah ah ah ah ah ah)

Mew_2This one put me in mind of dreamy 80’s artists Cocteau Twins, and some of their more accessible songs from Heaven Or Las Vegas. In fact, during a recent interview with vocalist Bjerre, he states that his parents listened to a lot of Eurythmics, Kate Bush, and other pop from the ‘80’s but that alterative-rock artists like Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and others stoked the flame and brought them together back in 1994. In addition to these bands, he says “all those ‘80s pop influences, and the sense of storytelling those bands had, kind of sneaked slowly into our sound.” It’s hard to classify Mew, not that it’s necessary, as fans modern rock of any type should check out their fantastic new album and if you can, their current tour.

The Dodo’s

By the way, The Dodos opened for Mew, delivering a blistering set that featured drummer Logan Kroeber’s unique style of playing. This talented percussionist uses almost no symbols, but plenty of precise, rolling toms, and lots of rim shots. Metric Long accompanies with lead vocals and guitar, favoring a frenetic finger picking style, and rapid-fire leads that are fitting to his name! Will definitely be checking out a headlining show from these creative indie rockers.




Midlake Live on in Denton

Midlake_DVD_advertMidlake is a band that mixes a bit of folk, psychedelic, and alternative rock into a unique brand of heartfelt indie music. The group has weathered personnel changes and is now at their strongest with guitarist and lead vocalist Eric Pulido joined by Paul Alexander (bass/vocals), Joey McClellan (guitar/vocals), Jesse Chandler (keys/flute/vocals) Eric Nichelson (guitar/keys) and McKenzie Smith (drums). Notice if you will, that’s a lot of guys who can sing, and they make full use of that vocal talent. Led by Eric’s rich baritone their four-part harmonies fill the latest album, Antiphon (2013), infusing normally down-tempo sounds with beautiful warm tones. Structured compositions give way to free flowing instrumental excursions, mixing flute, lightly distorted guitar leads, and strong lyrics, from the lost love of “Aurora Gone” to the prose admonishing us to bear the “Old and the Young:”

Awoke from a long one that came on the heels of a day
Where sun would arise and then grant us the kindness of ray
Fields full of gladness surrounded by droves that await
And look for the grave in everything adorn
Bear the old and the young

Midlake_Antiphon_CoverFans of Wilco, Badly Drawn Boy, Sea Wolf, The National, and other bands of this kind take note – its challenging, soulful music that’s stands a cut above – one of the best records of its kind so far this decade. Best listen to the title track, “Antiphon” to experience the whole. Follow up with the propulsive beat of the melancholic yet hopeful “Old and the Young.”

Midlake – Antiphon – Title Track (Youtube)
Midlake – Antiphon – Old and the Young (Youtube)

At points, the use of flute, Hammond organ, inventive bass leads, and propulsive drumming will put you in mind of classic rock and progressive contemporaries of long ago. Musical influences like Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, and Pink Floyd have been suggested by others, but importantly this music sounds very much of today – an unique combination of these elements and more without being derivative.

Midlake_DVD_Cover_DSHAfter spending some time on the indie film circuit, last month on Record Store day, Midlake released a DVD of a movie by Jason Lee and Eric Noren: Live in Denton, TX. I snagged the last copy at our local Amoeba Records store in San Francisco. The film is a rare document of this band playing in a small club in, you guessed it, Denton, Texas. The footage captures the concert, interspersing close shots of the band during performance with shots of the city of Denton, it’s inhabitants, and workaday life. The career-spanning set list includes many of their best songs – lots of tracks from their earlier albums including Bamnan & Slivercork (2004), The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006), and The Courage of Others (2010) along with six from their newest, which is really a big step forward for the band. The musicianship and vocal delivery is top notch, and the soundtrack reproduces the live set perfectly – lots of deep bass & drums, with shimmering keys, flute, guitars, and Eric’s amazingly strong lead vibrato, backed by those beautiful harmonies.

Midlake_DVD_Eric72DPIThe film’s images are crisp and clear – lots of deeps hues, colored lights, and interesting use of varying points of focus. Due to the small club setting, and possibly also to represent the experience of those in attendance, many shots are captured from positions in the crowd, which obscures a bit of the action, and the club and stage itself is often so darkly lit it can be tough to catch the musicians technique. Still, it’s fitting to the sometimes-brooding compositions and the drama of their songs. Near the end of the set we get a little more light on the band, and might well recognize them when, hopefully, the next tour rolls into town! Don’t miss it.


Arcade Fire Warm Hearts

Arcade Fire burst on the scene in 2004 with their first full-length album “Funeral” quickly winning over the indie rock community.  After their sophomore release, “Neon Bible“, and tour in 2007 they returned this year with the critical favorite “The Suburbs“.  During these last 6 years, the band earned a reputation as an amazing live act, blending wild abandon with a determined raw energy – building epic tracks towards frenzied crescendos.  Therefore, we waited anxiously for the recent tour’s visit to the Greek theater on the campus of UC Berkeley on October 2, 2010.

The show was amazing and hit all the right notes as hoped.  The band’s performance was full of emotion, energy and intensity.  Yes there was wild abandon, but also a sense that the delivery was very carefully arranged and rehearsed.  Lead singer guitarist Win Butler fronts most of the songs though several selections featured his wife Régine Chassagne as lead vocalist.  All of the band are talented multi-instrumentalists each of whom switch duties throughout the show keeping things fresh and never dull.  Lights, surreal video and a closed circuit live video feed of the show were very effectively combined on a central large hi-definition monitor placed in front of a full sized projection backdrop.  Highlights of the performance included the chipper “Sprawl II” sung by Régine in a childlike lilt.  The dramatic track “Rococo” is a personal favorite which was rendered even more powerful in it’s live delivery.  They closed the show with their epic first hit “Wake Up” and delivered it’s sing-song finish along with enthusiastic audience participation.  Heart warming inspirational show – highly recommended.