Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sneak Peek at The Book of Mormon

Originally published by PopMatters on March 1, 2011

It could have been a disaster. I was thinking it might be as I made the transfer from the G train to the E on my way into Manhattan from Brooklyn. “The guys from South Park are making a musical about the Mormon church? This is bound to be a train wreck.” But on my way to the show’s rehearsal space, I passed the Foxwoods Theatre, home of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, and everything was put into perspective.

The Book of Mormon (subtitled “God’s Favorite Musical”) is scheduled to open at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on March 24, a month after previews began. A few weeks ago, a large group of entertainment writers were given an opportunity to see a stripped down rehearsal comprising roughly the first 20 minutes of the show, which featured book, music and lyrics by South Parkcreators and societal scab-pickers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Robert Lopez, co-creator of Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q. Much of the hype has centered on what layers of sacrilege and offense the partnership might produce, and based upon the brief preview, the quick answer is probably quite a lot.

But to dismiss the show as nothing more than another chapter in what has been a long history of provocative shit-stirring by Parker and Stone would be a mistake. Based on the first few numbers,The Book of Mormon is certainly that, but it’s also lively, hilarious, toe-tapping fun. And, dare I say it, it’s also reverential to its subject matter.

It’s entirely possible the trio came into the press conference knowing they’d need to play nice so as to avoid being added to the hit list of yet another large group of potentially organized and potentially even more angry people. And if that’s what they did, primarily attempt to deflect fury, they did so with a seemingly genuine balance of awe and awesome.

“In terms of Mormonism, we are all fascinated by it,” noted Parker, the admitted instigator of the whole affair. “We didn’t come into this to bash Mormonism; I’ve liked every Mormon I’ve ever met.”

To that end, Parker said they weren’t overly concerned about the consequences of upsetting the LDS, even those who don’t necessarily approach the musical with a sense of humor.

“Mormons are so nice,” he said. “We’re not as worried about them as other people.”

Stone praised the Mormon Church as being a wholly American religion, while Lopez was a bit more direct.

“It rekindles your faith in the miracle that all these people believe in this shit,” he said.

On its surface, The Book of Mormon is sort of like The Odd Couple, only the fastidious stiff and irascible shlub are young elders paired together on a missionary assignment, not to an oversized Manhattan apartment, but rather to Uganda.

“It’s a coming of age story,” said Stone. “The challenge was telling the story honestly.”

Parker agreed.

“It all comes down to the characters and what they’re doing,” he said.

The primary elders are played by Andrew Rannells, who has done plenty of voice and stage work; and Josh Gad, who has carved out a niche in the goofy best pal role in films like Love and Other Drugs. The pair work well together, and the rest of the cast is also dynamite, from Jesus on down to the elders. When the setting shifts to Uganda, the cast is every bit as strong, especially Michael Potts as Mafala Hatimbi, quite a divergence from his turn as Brother Mouzone on HBO’sThe Wire.

Where it all leads after the elders arrive in Uganda remains to be seen, as that’s where the sneak peek ended.

“You’ll know it’s done when you hear the word ‘cunt’ and everyone bows,” Stone said, and he wasn’t kidding; the last song heard in the rehearsal hall featured a torrent of catchy blasphemy, the likes of which anyone hoping the show will be a smash should be more than thrilled with.

OMD Return to the USA

Originally published by PopMatters on February 24, 2011

They’ve sold countless millions of records, thrilled packed houses all over the world, yet Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark still find themselves plotting and scheming as they did a few decades ago: Even in 2011, OMD are strictly underground.

“I just got out of a basement rehearsal room,” said the undeniably genial Andy McCluskey, lead singer and bass guitarist of OMD. “That’s what it is, and it doesn’t change, does it? It doesn’t matter how many synthesizers or computers you’ve got, we’re all mod cons. Rehearsal rooms are still stinking places.”

McCluskey and his compatriots – Paul Humphreys, Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper – are gearing up for their first tour of North America in 20 years, a trek that will go coast to coast during the month of March, including a stop at SXSW on the 17th as part of a Bright Antenna/Independent Label Group showcase at Maggie Mae’s Rooftop. 

Though OMD reformed a few years ago, they’ve primarily toured in Europe, where they remain more widely known than in the States. Their biggest hit on these shores (“If You Leave” from thePretty in Pink soundtrack) barely registered in the United Kingdom, an odd curiosity McCluskey said is indicative of how the electro-pop icons are viewed through different lenses from country to country.

“’If You Leave’ is by a mile our best known song in America, and to a lot of Americans we’re a one-hit wonder, which is a bit depressing,” he said. “But ‘If You Leave’ didn’t even get in the Top 50 in the UK; we were already starting to slide somewhat out of fashion in the UK by then.”

The Atlantic Ocean isn’t the only barrier separating hits and misses in the vast OMD canon, either.

“We have a song from the ‘90s called ‘Sailing on the Seven Seas,’” McCluskey said. “Massive hit in Germany, massive hit in the UK, absolutely fuck all in Belgium, Holland or France. So do we put it in the set when we play somewhere or not? I don’t know.”

Crafting a set list based upon regional preferences is daunting enough, but there are also diehard fans who’ve waited an eternity for an OMD show: What to do about them?

“You’ve got to throw a few bones to the real hardcore, and we are going to play one song from the first album that we haven’t played in around 25 years,” McCluskey said. “But as it will be 20 years since we’ve played in the States, we might err on the side of caution. But I think that’s understandable.”

Additionally, the band will be showcasing material from their new album, the enthusiastically received History of Modern.

“On the tour we’re going to be doing six new pieces,” McCluskey said. “We’re not going to do the whole album, because we’d be asking for trouble. We’ve got a nice balance, and the new songs fit right in.”

A new album wasn’t even on the band’s radar when they casually reconnected a few years ago. 

“As the new millennium rolled along, we started to get people calling us asking if we’d do TV shows, or were we interested in gigs, and as the whole electro thing started to grow, we started to hear, ‘Could you produce this band?’” McCluskey recalled. “So we got asked to do a TV show in Germany in 2005, so I just phoned up Paul and said, ‘The band is finished, it’s all over, but do you just fancy for a laugh, for old time’s sake going to do a TV show together,’ and he said yeah.”

In Germany, even before the cameras began rolling, they knew the spark was still there. 

“We all sat together having a beer in a hotel bar, and it became evident very quickly that we all remembered how we used to interact with jokes and one-liners,” McCluskey laughed. “And it was there and then where we said, ‘We’ve been asked to do gigs, does anybody fancy doing gigs?’ ‘Let’s have a go. Let’s put a few on sale and see if there’s any interest.’ We put nine gigs on sale, and they all sold out. So in 2007, we ended up doing 40 concerts.”

OMD didn’t take their reunion lightly, especially when they realized just how much work they had to do to keep their reputation afloat.

“There were huge amounts of rust,” McCluskey said. “When I was younger, I used to want to be an archaeologist. I don’t know if you’ve seen these programs on Discovery Channel where they have marine archaeologists who find what they think might be a cannon, but it’s totally encrusted ; they drag it out and just start hitting it with hammers and chisels, and finally they chip away all the rust, and they say, ‘Oh, yeah! There’s a cannon under here still!” That was like us rehearsing. ‘There’s something under there, keep chipping! I remember what we used to be!’”

There was also the humbling realization that the time spent away from the band meant they had to re-learn things that used to come almost naturally.

“We were so nervous about it, we started a year early to rehearse,” McCluskey said. “As a band we hadn’t played together for 16, 17 years. That’s a long time. We had forgotten who we used to be, and so it was a long process, and quite amusing, really. Imagine four middle-aged guys sitting in a smelly basement, literally having to listen to our old CD’s going, ‘Oh, it’s in G! Okay, G to D!’ You know, it felt a bit like being a cover band. Plus, I hadn’t sung live into a microphone for 13 years. It was a long process, but somewhere deep down inside of ourselves we did finally remember who we used to be.”

And who OMD used to be was a band that made terrific records. Why not do it again?

“It was a big step to reform the band to start playing live again, but at least we were playing songs everybody knew and everybody was happy to come along and hear all their favorite hit singles,” McCluskey. “Frankly, it’s a very dangerous and bloody stupid thing to dare to make a new album when you’re 50. The reality is that most people make shit albums when they get together again, and everybody’s like, ‘Please don’t play the new songs – I’ll go to the bar!’”

Fortunately, History of Modern is a strong collection of electro-pop songs that trace a direct line to the band’s original touchstones. It’s something McCluskey said they made a concerted effort to do.

“When we decided to do the dangerous and stupid thing by making another record, we consciously analyzed our history,” McCluskey recalled. “We were trying to be the future 30 years ago, so what do 50-year old modernists do in the post-modern era? We asked ourselves a lot of questions about the relevance and the style, and we decided that the first four albums, which were not really that big in America, were the ones where we had our own distinctive, unique sound that appears to be the sound that is cherished and remembered and is now considered iconic. And we also believe that. As the ‘80s wore on, we had a catastrophic commercial disaster with our fourth album, Dazzle Ships. It dies a horrible death commercially and was ripped by the press. But now, 27 years after it was released, it’s considered to be our lost masterpiece.”

The key, of course, was to make sure it didn’t come off as phony. 

“The trick was to try to not just be a nostalgia trip, a pastiche of ourselves,” McCluskey said. “To use production techniques to use a sound and style where we got the same kind of musical colors but sound relevant in the present. That was the tightrope we were trying to walk, and it appears that it was received by people that we did get the balance right. It’s a blessed relief, quite frankly. It is well received, and I guess we were fortunate we had plenty of time to work on it so that we were able to have more objectivity on the quality o the songs than perhaps we used to get in the days when it was album/tour/album/tour. It’s been great.”

Which brings us back to the balance between the classics and the new material, the obscure nuggets and the solid gold hits.

“We’re going to be playing the opening track on the new album, ‘New Babies, New Toys,’ and the guys have been just taking the piss out of me all week,” McCluskey said. “‘Oh my God, the set starts with McCluskey playing lead bass through a fuzz pedal? Oh, Christ…’ It sounds great. We can’t wait to get out on the road with this new stuff, but it’ll be a balance. I think you have an obligation to give the people what they want to hear, especially when they haven’t for so many years. I’ve never really understood people who go, ‘Oh, I’m bored of our hits.’ Fuck, no. I’m proud of our hits, and I’m delighted people still want to hear them.”

That generosity is a part of what OMD is all about, apparently. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were certainly generous all those years ago when they allowed for the shortening of their grand moniker, even if they didn’t necessarily have semi-literate music journalists in mind when they did so. But they’ve also been generous about their legacy.

“It tailed off once we were no longer on television or on the front cover of magazines, as you slide into obscurity,” McCluskey said. “But in the last few years it’s started to happen again. In particular, my kids who only had some sort of strange dark inkling that apparently dad used to be in some band that used to sell records, but that was a million years ago. It’s cause for great mirth if I’m out with the kids and someone says, ‘Oh, Andy, I saw you play, and your songs mean the world to me,’ and my kids are sniggering in the background while I’m saying ‘Thank you very much.’”

McCluskey said he’s incredibly grateful for moments like those.

“We had this strange deluded notion when we were young that we were somehow going to change the world by doing our own type of futuristic music,” he said. “Then the depression sets in when you realize that you’re selling millions of records, but oops, you haven’t changed the world. It’s lovely to have been in a band, it’s lovely to have sold millions of records and it’s lovely to do the tours and have the opportunity to travel the world which I never would have if it hadn’t been for OMD, but when somebody actually comes up to you and tells you that something you did, even if it just lasted four minutes, actually touched them, actually made an impact on their life, it’s an incredible feeling. That, more than anything else, is incredibly fulfilling.”

Some of those who’ve been touched by the music of OMD include artists who’ve shown the influence in their own music.

“They don’t phone me up and tell me that we’ve been influencing them, but you pick up certain things,” McCluskey said. “There’s been quite a few like James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem and MGMT and even Mark Ronson recently. People name-checking us; there’s obviously been something in the air recently.”

For anyone wary of seeing a band with clear, crisp electronic sounds in a live setting should also take heed: OMD aren’t fooling around.

“We actually started OMD as a live band,” McCluskey recalled. “Paul and I invented Orchestral Manouevers in the Dark to play a live gig at Eric’s Club in Liverpool. We were never a studio band who had to struggle to bring it live: We always kicked ass on stage. It’s often been a bit frustrating for us where people who haven’t seen us before think, ‘Oh, they’re going to stand there behind their synthesizers twiddling knobs and pretending to be robots and it’ll be deadly dull.’ No, we kick ass, and hopefully without resorting to too many rock & roll clichés.”

It was true back then, and it’s true now, said McCluskey.

“I’m sure you have probably gone to a gig where there was a band that you used to like that hasn’t played in a long time,” he said. “You go and see them more in hope than in confidence, and the first few numbers you either stand there going, ‘Oh, shit, I wish I hadn’t come, this is blowing my fond memories,’ or you see what’s happened with us, where you can see people in the audience where it registers: ‘I wonder if they’ll sound any good…Oh, they do…Oh, good!’ We love touring now. We’re a little better, a little more confident and quite frankly, the equipment is a lot better than it used to be.”

The Streets: Computers and Blues

Originally published by PopMatters on February 8, 2011

If Mike Skinner is sick of the Streets, what are the rest of us supposed to make of his purported final album under the moniker? Computers and Blues isn’t always the send-off we might have hoped we’d receive, but that might at least partially lie in our own lofty expectations. He’s been hit and miss in the past, but as a whole, Skinner has been a constant reminder that top quality hip-hop isn’t the sole domain of the United States.

The constant comparisons to Eminem must get tiresome, because for most fans of the Streets, Skinner’s innate ability to tap into the malaise of Average Joes is far more successful than Marshall Mathers’ own efforts in the same genre. That’s not meant to put the backgrounds of the two under the microscope for some attempt at gauging street cred, because honestly, who gives a shit? But while Eminem’s music often seeks to elevate the mundane, the Streets revel in the ordinary world. Eminem, though, is a massive star the world over, while Skinner’s fame is largely relegated to the United Kingdom. He’s always had an uphill struggle in the colonies, where his dense Mockney affectations evoke comparisons to Dick Van Dyke’s chimneysweep in Mary Poppins, only with way more f-bombs.

Skinner is at his best when his music treads the line between comfort and cacophony, a notion proven when the virtually unlistenable “Roof of Your Car” veers from one narrow extreme to the other, then back again. It’s the combination that’s the key, as best exemplified by “Without Thinking” and “Puzzled by People”, both of which offset Skinner’s laconic delivery and everyman lyrics with hooks and beats guaranteed to latch on to your subconscious and stay there for a while.

Computers and Blues includes multiple collaborations with Rob Harvey, former frontman of the most unwisely-named band in the search engine era, the Music. That’s Harvey’s Geddy Lee-lite on the dreary “Soldiers”, on which even Skinner sounds bored by the whole affair. For a more successful collaboration, look no further than the album’s terrific closing number, “Lock the Locks”, on which Skinner is joined on the reflective chorus by singer-songwriter Clare Maguire.

But more often than not, Skinner’s on top of his game. “Trying to Kill M.E.” is a grand string-and-piano laden epic about addiction, while “Trust Me” comes off like a sunshiny rollerskating jam.

It’s understandable why Skinner would want to bid farewell to the Streets. Despite at least half ofComputers and Blues sounding as vital and important as the best of the Streets, it’s just as vital to know when to let go. The lyrics are still dynamic, the music sharp. But Skinner himself, whether through his muted pre-hype or his often disinterested (even by his standards) performance, sometimes seems as though he already had one foot out the door.

If Computers and Blues is meant to wrap a dynamic five-album cycle, perhaps one need look no further than the cover art. On the acclaimed debut by the Streets, Original Pirate Material, the music is represented by a bleak London tower block. By Computers and Blues, the protagonist is seen through the window of a red-lit condominium; it’s not a palace by any means, but is probably a step in the right direction.

The Streets had run its course, and presumably Skinner will move on to bigger and better things, possibly involving aviation or shipping. Oddly, Skinner recorded more music as the Streets after completing Computers and Blues, though the Cyberspace and Reds mixtape was actually released two weeks prior to the final album proper. Skinner said he wanted the Streets to bow with a bang, claiming on his own Beat Stevie online show that the final Streets album would be “dark and futuristic”, and inspired by a synthesizer exhibition he’d seen in Austria. It’s not unreasonable to assume he’s generally hit the mark with Computers and Blues, a heavy collection of songs with the inimitable Skinner sense of style and substance.

7 out of 10

The Vagrants: I Can't Make a Friend 1965-1968

Originally published by PopMatters on February 1, 2011

Virtually every ‘60s band not called The Beatles has been given some claim to the “blueprint of punk” mantle. In the case of the Vagrants, the generally tired cliché actually has some basis in fact.

The Vagrants formed at Forest Hills High School in Queens during the mid-‘60s, leaving an imprint on friends and fellow students Johnny and Tommy Ramone, who, a decade later, would turn the influence on its ear in The Ramones.

Though they played most of the happening clubs in and around New York City at the time, opened for the likes of the Who, the Doors, and the Rascals, and saw their guitarist, Leslie West, go on to form Mountain in the early ‘70s, the Vagrants still fly under the radar. An appearance on the original Nuggetscompilation in 1972 (their storming cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” which failed to gain traction when released around the same time as Aretha Franklin’s own take) solidified their credibility but did little to cast the gaze of the public at large their way.

Outside of a 1986 Arista release which cobbled together the band’s singles and some rare sessions, The Vagrants never actually released an album. They progressed like other bands from year to year, but they did so through the single. That history has finally been given its proper due with I Can’t Make a Friend 1965-1968, a new compilation by Light in the Attic Records. The Vagrants are presented here in all their ramshackle glory, a collection if A & B sides that, even when occasionally swerving into fairly garden variety garage rock, still maintains a vibrancy that makes this an absolutely essential release.

The set opens in 1965 with “Oh Those Eyes”, a seemingly standard garage shuffle with a dark sneer thanks to Jerry Storch’s lead vocal and organ stabs. “You’re Too Young” is a more than serviceable b-side with a minor debt to Phil Spector by drummer Roger Mansour. As the songs move into 1966, an air of sophistication creeps in, a welcome addition as it arrives without forcing out the band’s natural energy. “The Final Hour” has elements of what was happening in Los Angeles at the time, while “Respect” might as well be the bridge between The Sonics and Vanilla Fudge.

Producer Felix Pappalardi came into the picture midway through 1967, expanding the band’s sonic reach on the “Beside the Sea” single, on which Storch’s organ sounds like a death ray from War of the Worlds, West’s guitar solo only adding to the sense of distress in Peter Sabatino’s vocals.“And When It’s Over”, the last recorded song on the compilation, sees West’s guitar stepping even more into the spotlight, perhaps signaling what was to come in Mountain.

The album is worth seeking out on vinyl or CD, as the liner notes by Mike Stax (of Ugly Things Magazine) are the perfect accompaniment to the wild story of the Vagrants.

8 out of 10