Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Concert review | Kings of Leon

It’s hard to go to a concert in the middle of the week if you’re a regular 9-to-5er. There’s either work from the office that needs to be taken home, dinner needs to be cooked, being a good husband/wife/father/mother is also a priority, and well, to whom do we bear our grievances to when we want to catch a show during the week but the prospect seems impossible? The answer by-steps my imminent dehumanization due to technology: THE INTERNET. MSN Music posted on their website the complete Wednesday, April 18, 2007 show by the Kings of Leon in the Hammersmith Apollo in London. To paraphrase JM Coetzee, in the desert of the week Wednesday has become an oasis of unbridled, unrestrained, and the best contemporary rock n’ roll in the world.

Thanks to MSN Music, this was the second time I’ve seen Kings of Leon. The first time was
at the State Theater in Portland, Maine during their tour in support of their second album, the fabulous and underrated gem Aha Shake Heartbreak. Because the crowd’s energy was so palpable, the sold out Hammersmith Apollo became the only existing physical location in the world for the duration of this concert. The concert-goers jumped, sang, clapped in unison, and showed their appreciation throughout. To your humble desk-bound viewer, experiencing the concert via the internet made me feel like I was violating their privacy – an overeager surveillance employee, if you will. Like golfing in rollerblades, it also felt conspicuously inappropriate to be sitting with headphones on while digging a concert.

Since 2005, the band has undergone tremendous changes. No, the lineup and the story behind the band is still the same: brothers Nathan, Jared, and Caleb Followill on drums, bass, and rhythm guitar/vocals, respectively, and first cousin Matthew Followill on lead guitar, started playing their instruments while on the road with their preacher father/uncle Leon. The sound is what has changed. Where on their first album, Youth and Young Manhood, the band sounded like Creedence Clearwater Revival crossed with Southern garage rock, their latest album, Because of the Times released April 2007, drew on Nashville folk and on the bands they’ve been touring with as influences. The impression U2’s The Edge had on Matthew (I will address the musicians by their first names, unless we want to play a game where we guess which Followill is being referred to) is immeasurable; the atmospheric textures, not to mention the favored delay pedal, color this album more than the fiery bursting solos of the previous albums. Although folk and country have been lyrically influential to the band, here the Bob Dylan influence is felt more in the music than in the words on songs such as “The Runner.” Knowing the changes the band has undergone recently, what are we to expect from a concert?

Unlike Pearl Jam – another touring partner of the Kings of Leon – who have lamented their role as a live human juke-box, the Kings of Leon played their older songs with the same zeal as their new songs. The concert began with “Black Thumbnail,” one of the harder rocking songs off the new album. What is particularly noteworthy about this tune is the heavy non-linear propulsion in the chorus due to the absence of the hi-hat. As an opener, “Black Thumbnail” was perfect: it gets the crowd – and computer-bound me – psyched and ready for an evening of honest rock n’ roll. “Taper Jean Girl,” from their second album, displayed their knack for groove. Rarely does a band that rocks this hard groove as tightly as the Rolling Stones circa Exile on Main St.

There are two aspects that separate this band from most others. One, Caleb’s voice. It sounds like Bob Dylan plus Eddie Vedder (no coincidence in touring partners) while on the road for fifty years and deep fried in Nashville soul. Two, the role of the bass. Unlike most if not all contemporary rock bands, the riff lies in the guitar, but with the Kings of Leon, the riff lies in the bass; in essence, it is a lead instrument occupying its own ground, away from the overexposed guitars. Examples abound: “Soft,” “Arizona,” “Milk,” “California Waiting,” and definitely “Slow Night, So Long.”

The fourth tune in the show was “My Party,” also from the new album. It is unusual to hear mostly bass and drums in the verse beneath the singing, and have the bridge and chorus sound like the Kings’ take on Talking Heads’ “New Feeling.” The most successful single off the first album, “Molly’s Chambers,” sounds like such pure freewheelin’ rock n’ roll that – sexual innuendos aside – it could be a CCR tune. “Milk” and “Four Kicks,” both off their second album, touched on seemingly conflicting sounds – new wave guitar and the Stooges-like energy – but certainly worked as back-to-backs. “Fans” was a tribute to their loyal and enthusiastic fanbase in London.

In the desert that is the mid-set, lies “Arizona,” the closing tune to their latest album. It was a wonderful example of their album-length paean to the alt-folk-country aesthetic. Matthew’s guitar in the non-bridge space between the verse and chorus is the proud son of The Edge and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. The melancholia is palatable while Jared kept the tune honest, fulfilling the chord changes by not solely playing the root chords. For a fuller sense of their use of space, please check out Because of the Times. In many songs on the album, notably the intro in “Black Thumbnail,” the sound coming from the amps and the sound coming from the guitars are separate; you can hear the pick on the strings and the vibrations of the strings with each other while also hearing the consummate sound from the amplifiers. Additionally, their use of atmospherics create a three dimensional space within the music.

“The Bucket,” from Aha Shake Heartbreak and also in the mid-set region of the concert, is arguably the band’s biggest single thus far. Underneath the tune’s unabashed poppiness – including the mandatory “wooo!” at the beginning – is a track about young rock stardom vis-à-vis mortality. In the midst of sex, alcohol, anxiety, airplanes the world over, and being the object of idolization, the band find themselves questioning their inertial movement. The song’s hook is “Eighteen/balding/star; golden/falling/heart.” At that point in their career, three out of the four members were twenty-three years old or younger; not exactly eighteen, but the idea is pretty clear. There are two lines that jump out at me from the second verse. The first is, “You kick the bucket, and I’ll swing my legs.” Of course, as is the case in interpreting Nostradamus’ vague nonsense, when it comes to interpreting lyrics, there are millions of ways of going about it. The way I read and hear it is that it’s a metaphorical image of suicide. He – the singer, the band? – is standing on the bucket, noose tied around his neck. Then we kick the bucket, his legs swing, and he hangs. I interpret this as meaning that he is driven to commit suicide by other people but he is the only one that will suffer the consequences. The second line is the most telling and it appears in the last line of the second verse, “Too young to die but old is the grave.” Being “eighteen” (the ultimate symbol in rock n’ roll of youth) is too young to die, but growing and being old is the same as being dead, aka the grave. It is a beautifully penned line, contemplative and regretful at the same time. “The Bucket” is the best song the Kings of Leon have done, excluding “Knocked Up” from their latest album, which is inexplicably and disappointingly not performed in this concert.

The three songs that close the set – “California Waiting,” “Spiral Staircase,” and “Trani” – are essential listening. I’m not sure why – and how could I be? – they lined up this trifecta from their first album as the set closer but the result was mesmerizing. The first track clearly demonstrates their riff-in-bass preponderance, but the chorus – tambourine and all – is what elevates this wistful track to the status of classic rock for the 21st Century. “Spiral Staircase” is just magic. It is their interpretation of the Bringing It All Back Home sound; country-inflected, full of grit and attitude. “Trani” is divided in sections of slow drunken crawl and erupting rhythm and energy. The performance is exceptional, the vocals, drums, and lead guitar dissolving into seeming chaos while the bass, true to its nature, keeps moving forward with one note. To end the set with these tunes is an exercise in ever-ascending tension and release, classic rock strut, brawn, attitude, and energy. How the Kings of Leon came back for a three-song encore that included the funky and odd “McFearless,” the driving and certainly voice-killing “Charmer,” and the tune whose title states a simple, inarguable truth “Slow Night, So Long,” I don’t know; but thankfully, they did.
(All thanks to Lady Groove for suggesting this review. I should also mention that this is an attempt at creating an “interactive” article, meaning that the concert I refer to is available to stream online in a song-by-song basis. Instead of me telling you what I think and then you nod and say “cool”, you can check out the songs yourselves in order to agree, disagree, or qualify my statements. Thank you 21st century. Photo credit: Statia Molewski)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

An Eternal Abyss

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez forced Radio Caracas Television, the oldest private channel in the country and a station critical of his presidency, off the air. This resulted in widespread protests in the capital city of Caracas, where police fired tear gas and plastic bullets into crowds. At least three protesters were injured.

The power of Chávez and his presidency lies in manipulation. In order to reach the most people to facilitate their manipulation, he must control the media. His on-going war against journalists in Venezuela has been raging since the beginning of his presidency. Private newspapers have turned into government-run newspapers and journalists who disagree with Chávez are fired and are less likely to be hired by other publications because of their non-Chavista beliefs. In the wake of this struggle is the termination of RCTV. Of course, Chávez has said that the reason the station is being shut down is due to the expiration of its license. I find it hard to believe that a popular and successful station that has been running since 1953 would forget to renew their license. So what did happen? According to the European Union presidency who has been keeping a close eye on the South American country, Venezuela did not hold “an open competition for the successor license.” In other words, Venezuela allowed RCTV’s license to expire in order for the station to be shut down so that a new state-run channel would take its place. Globovisión is the only remaining private channel that is a voice for the opposition.

For someone who was democratically elected, the rights of the opposition are of little concern to him. Actually, an active part of his administration has been to redefine people’s rights. He has attempted this through a string of slogans: “the oligarchy”; “the rich”; “the opposition”; “us”; “them”, not including his perpetual inclusion of anti-United States, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic rhetoric. (The slogan for the new channel, Socialist Venezuelan Television or TVES, is “Now Venezuela belongs to everyone.” The use of the word "belongs" is particularly compelling because it literally addresses one of Chávez's main goals and obsessions: to turn all privatized companies, organizations, institutions, into state-ran companies). The use of slogans in politics is as old as politics itself, they assist in rallying people and giving the candidates a platform. In the case of Chávez though, these slogans veil his attempts at destroying democratic institutions and the people that believe in them. These slogans are his first battalion of manipulation. His supporters lean on phrases such as “the oligarchy” in order to justify their actions, whatever they may be, and for Chávez to justify his own beliefs. (An example is irate would-be farmers, storming private agricultural lands screaming “fuera oligarcas” [out oligarchs] while wielding weapons, destroying the land, and sometimes killing the current farmers). The cycle of manipulation vis-à-vis slogans is a self-fulfilling exercise.

Another way he has manipulated his supporters is by demonstrating a false sense of accomplishment. For instance, he has changed the country’s flag, coat of arms, and even the country’s name during the tenure of his presidency. The flag used to have seven stars, representing the nations that South American hero Simón Bolivar liberated. Now the flag has eight stars, the last one representing the territory lying to the east of Venezuela that has been in dispute with Guyana for decades. The white horse in the coat of arms used to be facing the right. Now it is facing the Left. The country’s name was the Republic of Venezuela. Now it is the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

I feel these changes were enacted in order to signal the end of the “old” Venezuela, and the beginning of the “new” Venezuela, the Venezuela with a bold socialist agenda. But what did these changes actually accomplish? Well, nothing. Except in inflating the cult of personality of the country’s leader and giving his supporters something to point to and say “there, someone is finally doing something.” It is one thing to empower segments of the population that had previously been marginalized by other administrations, but it is another thing entirely to destroy democracy in what was once a democratic country by manipulating those who had previously been marginalized.

Joseph Pulitzer said that “Our Republic and its press will rise and fall together.” If this is true, and I certainly believe it is, then our republic is plummeting through an eternal abyss of ignorance, misinformation, manipulation, and destruction.

I am Venezuelan. I was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1984. Even though my father isn’t Venezuelan, it was his home from 1977 until my family moved to Costa Rica in 1993. My mother is Venezuelan and so are my sister and my entire maternal family. Our lives have certainly changed since Chávez was elected in 1998. My grandparents moved from the neighborhood they had lived in since settling in Venezuela because violent Chávez supporters were located in the same area and they did not feel safe. (Bullet holes in the front door of the apartment building don’t inspire feelings of security). A close family friend was fired from an investment bank he worked in because he signed the referendum against Chávez. The apartment my family still owns and is renting has been devalued due to the current situation in the country.
Anti-Semitism has been increasing because of Chávez's rhetoric and his close partnership with Iran. The Jewish Community Center and School I used to go to with my family was raided in 2004 by armed and hooded Venezuelan investigative police in order to find information about the assassination of prosecutor Danilo Anderson. They locked classrooms where children were studying holding them hostage while they “searched for information.” Eventually, the students, who had not been allowed to communicate with their parents, were released three hours later. Nothing was found. The Jewish population in Venezuela has significantly dropped, with segments of the population immigrating to the United States.

Chávez headed a failed coup in 1992, was imprisoned for about two years when he was pardoned by then president Rafael Caldera, and in 1998 began campaigning for the presidency. It is clear that the achievement and maintaining of power was and is his goal, by any means necessary. The country’s constitution, as rewritten by Chávez, stipulates that a presidential term is for six years with one possibility of immediate reelection. There is also the option of a popular recall referendum anytime within the last three years of a term. When the constitution was changed, there was a new election.

Chávez has been in power since 1999 and he was just reelected in 2007, meaning that his term would end in 2013. Chávez is obviously in love with power and, since no opposition candidate favors his Bolivarian Revolution and because Chávez will not let his vision be compromised, I find it unlikely that he will freely leave office.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Other I

Disguises offer an undeniable sense of security through blissful anonymity. These could come in the forms of masks, cloaks, and costumes, but the most telling yet indistinct of forms is the Alter Ego. Artists have used alter egos for a variety of purposes, including literary devices, as Joseph Conrad used Marlow in order to introduce his personal convictions into his works and to delve in any direction he or his character desired. Fernando Pessoa used his various heteronyms – the literary concept that refers to characters created by the author who possess different physical forms, styles, and biographies – to explore writing under as many lenses as possible. In most cases, such as Conrad’s and Pessoa’s, the artist is very much aware that he has invented an alter ego and is using it/him/her for a specific purpose. In the case of Jorge Luis Borges and Otis Jackson Jr., alter egos constitute a reality that is its own; not quite parallel, for the two worlds intertwine, and certainly not one and the same.

Borges’ essay/short story "Borges and I" is the skeleton key of alter egos. “The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.” With this first sentence, the reader is quickly extricated from the comfortable confines of merely reading to the realm of metaphysics. If the other one is Borges, then who is writing the essay? After all, isn’t the author Jorge Luis Borges? Is my hair being pulled with a wink and a smile? Or am I just not smart enough to understand this? The following sentence begins with an all too telling subjective personal pronoun: “I”. The issue that is being put forth, just by the first two sentences, is that there is a distinct difference between Borges and the “I”. The writer continues by stating that Borges is the well-known author, the one who is included in biographical dictionaries. The difference then becomes fairly evident: Borges is the published author, strictly and exclusively, and “I” is Borges’ personal identity, in other words, the self.

Because a writer cannot exist out of the immaterial, a physical body is necessary; this is the way the “I” feels his identity is being used by Borges. His interests become Borges’ interests, but as soon as they are published, they are his no longer. It is not surprising to encounter morbid humor in this line of thought, for even without the “I”, Borges the author will always exist. This a case of immortality by means of mortality. “I” states that, “I am destined to perish”, and so he has (in Geneva, June 1986 due to liver cancer), but Borges will never perish. The irony is that “…those pages cannot save me…” Faced with this stark and absurd reality, “I” states that “Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.”

Whereas Borges the author seems to be completely unaware of the “I”, Otis Jackson Jr. maintains a dialogue – no, a mutually eager partnership – with his alter ego
Quasimoto. Most people know of Jackson by nom de plumes. He is better known as Madlib, DJ, producer, and MC extraordinaire, in that order according to him. To jazz heads he is known as that rap guy that got unlimited access to the Blue Note vault to create his sound collages that resulted in the fascinating Shades of Blue, the only hip-hop album released by the most famous of jazz labels. In addition, he fabricated a jazz quintet called Yesterdays New Quintet, that is musically comprised entirely of himself, yet the “members” have different names. Since the above examples refer to Jackson’s different names, or pseudonyms, it is time we consider his other identity, or alter ego/heteronym, known as Quasimoto.

Critics, notably Oliver Wang writing in his May 2005 review of Quasimoto’s second album, The Further Adventures of Lord Quas, in URB magazine, have argued that Quasimoto is Madlib’s id allowed to run wild and uncontrolled, jonesing for weed, booty, and violence. As gratifying and conclusive as it might be to psychoanalyze Madlib, the pleasure principle does not address issues such as authorship and creative daring. Madlib’s first album released under the identity of Quasimoto was 2000’s The Unseen. Unseen indeed – unlike the hidden section of an imposing iceberg, but like the artist himself: a cartoon character that isn’t human and speaks and raps in a voice akin to rushing wind passing through a tight doorjamb in a storm. Unseen because he exists in sound and not in explicit image.

In this first album, Quasimoto and Madlib form a partnership that is not unusual in the hip-hop and rap worlds: the MC and his DJ. Not like Eric B. & Rakim, where Eric B. solely cut and God MC blew the world away with his monotone cadence. But something more like Pete Rock & CL Smooth, where Pete Rock is indeed the DJ and producer, but also raps and underscores his partner’s rhymes. Madlib even performs the ceremonial duty of telling his MC to drop that thing and show ‘em how it’s done. Even in “Return of the Loop Digga”, there is a mid-song skit that dramatizes a DJ’s worst nightmare. He goes to a record store, looking for some Stanley Cowell, Grant Green, or Chick Corea, but the store attendant asks if those artists had “any hits.” Additionally, the store doesn’t have any good breaks or reggae, prompting Madlib to say, “I’m out, buddy.” However, this partnership isn’t called Madlib & Lord Quas – it’s Quasimoto, pure and simple because, in this case, Quasimoto is the physical (we know his shape and voice) yet unseen alter ego of his partner.

As in the case of Borges and "I," Quasimoto and Madlib are distinct entities. On the one hand, with "Borges and I," the “I” knows that he exists within Borges, and if it were not for him, Borges would not be able to live and to write and thus achieve immortality. On the other hand, Quasimoto and Madlib are presented as absolutely distinct beings. In this case, we have an advantage. Quasimoto and Madlib have their separate forms in image, one a cartoon creature and the other a human being. Even on record, where we cannot rely on images, we know who is who because they have different voices. Quasimoto is Madlib’s external and internal creation.

Many non-artists also have external and internal creations. Sometimes those creations power our other selves entirely, as in the case of "Borges and I." Human beings and the roles we are given and choose to undertake predetermine certain identities. For example, a father might also be a husband might also be a man with a name. It is clear that every one of these identities are separate and dissimilar from the previous ones. But when we get to the source, the question remains: who is I? This question is even more pressing in the age of cyberspace. It is possible to create an identity and have that be a secondary or even primary one, and exist through that identity by means of the internet. The age of online chatting and blogging has created the anonymous digital identity where people are free to create themselves in any manner they fashion; in effect, hopping between online reality – as the chatter or blogger – and, well, any other reality they desire. Like Borges and Madlib and their respective alter egos, the realities of the online person and the “real” person are certainly not identical, but they overlap and interlace. Is the “I” the person who is created and presented in cyberspace or the person behind the computer? To the other people experiencing that specific “I” through the internet, that person is a solid, unmovable identity. But is it the real one? Moreover, is the person behind the computer the real “I”? The truth is that the real “I” is in danger of diluting itself to the point of evaporation.

I do not know which of us has written this page.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


This post will serve as a welcome to my blog. I had never thought I would create and maintain a blog, but recent discussions with friends, loved ones, and Syracuse University faculty prompted me to do otherwise. This blog will primarily contain essays, reviews, musings, and profiles about popular music and its artists. I can guarantee that I will never speak of my daily doings and undoings. I have yet to move to Syracuse to begin my studies at the Newhouse School of Public Communications, but I felt a need to begin this blog.

A word on the title of the blog. "What Is Groove?" This question has been in my mind for as long as music has held me captive, and I am no closer to finding the answer, which is exactly how I would prefer it. Unlike the man behind the curtain who powers the great Oz, the "man" behind groove will always be elusive. I can point to it and say, "That, right there, that is groove." For example, Billy Cox and Buddy Miles beneath Jimi Hendrix in "Machine Gun", John Fogerty's propulsive leads in "Green River", or Fred Wesley and Fred Thomas in the JBs' "Damn Right I Am Somebody." Although groove will forever be mysterious, it will be hovering over the posts in this blog, making it funky.

I hope this blog will be something I enjoy writing and you enjoy reading. I fare you bidwell, kind homies. Please leave comments if you are moved to do so.