Show review: The Catalyst, Flowers In the Attic, Hexmachine

Since I started going to shows regularly again after a three-year hiatus, I've been posting reasonably lengthy reviews of pretty much every show I've been to on my favorite message board. In the interest of continuing to update this thing every day, these will now be appearing here as well. My apologies to anyone who is already encountering these in their original home--hopefully tomorrow will bring you something you haven't already read.

So, last night: The Catalyst, Flowers In the Attic, and Hexmachine, in Eric's basement.
I'd been hanging out for hours already, as we had band practice earlier that afternoon (my band now has two entirely finished songs. I am stoked). At first I was a bit worried that people weren't going to show up, but sure enough, as is the case in Richmond with house shows (and really, with all shows), everyone was just late. The show was supposed to start at 7, but it didn't start until around 8:30, by which time a respectable amount of people had arrived.

The Catalyst played first, and though I've seen them several times before, this was my first time seeing them in Richmond while they were a Richmond band (I've seen them in DC since they all moved to Richmond, and I saw them in Richmond twice back when they still lived in DC. Heh). This was the best I'd seen them play, ever. They started with "Panic Don't Panic", which is one of the songs on which Jamie, who just joined a few months ago, plays second drums. A lot of the kids who were in the basement when they started playing had never seen them before and were a bit surprised at the double drum-kit action, but I guess they liked it, because no one headed for the exits or anything. Jamie switched to guitar after that song, and they proceeded to run through four songs without stopping. This was probably the best I'd ever seen them play, even in spite of the fact that Eric's pedal setup shorted out in the middle of one of their songs, forcing him to skip singing an entire verse while he banged on the connections repeatedly, trying to get sound going again. I've written about The Catalyst's sound here before, but to recap, they are a pretty interesting mix of the more rock-n-roll based hardcore of the past decade or so (think At the Drive-In or early Rye Coalition) with full-on Nirvana-style grunge/alt-rock. That might sound lame, and it could be lame if done differently, but the way they do it combines the best features of both styles into a unique and powerful sound. Their new songs that have been written since Jamie joined the band are incorporating more of a metal influence, but it is doing nothing to take away from what they're already very much succeeding in creating. Last night's set was pretty much the best I'd ever seen them play, and they definitely won the crowd over.

Baltimore's Flowers In the Attic played next, doing the last show of a six-week tour. They didn't seem tired or lackluster at all, though, and knocked all present on their asses. Not just because they were loud, either (though they definitely were: the cops came during their set, a first for shows in Eric's basement. For the record, they didn't make us stop the show, and they didn't come back for the rest of the night). Flowers In the Attic play a dark, metallic version of hardcore with awesome female vocals that fortunately don't fall prey to the "woman ranting" cliche of female punk vocals (see Crass, Nausea, etc.). Instead, vocalist Rebecca screamed her head off in a manner that reminded me of Michelle from Scrotum Grinder, only backed with a slower, heavier style of music that ultimately took a lot of cues from later Amebix material, as filtered through more modern bands like His Hero Is Gone, Tragedy, and One Eyed God Prophecy. They started their set with some shorter, relatively uptempo material, and steadily moved towards longer and slower songs as the set went on. They pulled the crowd along with them, too--by the time they finished the last song on their setlist, the whole place was chanting "HO-LEE SHIT!" which, when everyone figured out they were done, evolved into chants of "ONE MORE SONG!" and then into "WEED JAM!" Their guitarist picked up the mic from where the singer had dropped it and said, "We have a weed jam, and we'll play it, but you guys have to move up. Stand right in front of us." So we moved up until the band barely had room to move, and they played "Extinct", the closing track from their new CD, which is 8 minutes long and heavy as fuck. It was positively brilliant.

Hexmachine had a hard act to follow after that, and opinions were varied as to whether they'd succeeded. I personally wasn't too impressed with them the first time I saw them, and though I thought they were a little better this time, it still wasn't anything amazing. I think a lot of the reason people care so much about them is because their drummer is Dave Witte, formerly of Burnt By the Sun, Discordance Axis, Human Remains, Black Army Jacket, etc. etc., and currently a member of local thrash kings Municipal Waste. Hexmachine doesn't sound like any of those bands, though--they most closely resemble the midwest-based noise rock scene of the early 90s, bands like The Jesus Lizard, The Cows, Unsane, Vertigo, the early Butthole Surfers, and maybe The Melvins or early Nirvana, among others. Anything that came out on Amphetamine Reptile around that time, really. This would be awesome if they were updating the sound for more modern times or coming up with a fresh new take on it, but they do neither and instead just churn out slow, dirgy grooves that take forever to get where they're going and mostly just bore. Some of their riffs are extremely catchy, but they're catchy in an annoying manner, where you wish you could get anything else stuck in your head, but for a couple of hours it's pretty much impossible. I watched them play for a few songs, but the music wasn't good enough (as it had been during the other two bands) to keep me from noticing how hot and stagnant the air in the basement was, and I ended up leaving about halfway through their set. I wasn't the first to do so, nor was I the last. My friend Tyler credited his "punk rock ADD" with driving him away, and I know what he means: I have a friend who mostly goes to see bands like Primus and Radiohead, and he will complain about a band "only" playing for 90 minutes, while to me that seems interminably long. Another friend of mine mentioned that Hexmachine guitarist/vocalist Trevor comes off like a jerk because of the way he talks inbetween songs. This made me laugh, because I used to know Trevor when he was doing the band Human Thurma in Richmond back in the late 90s, and I know firsthand from trying to book shows with him that he IS a jerk. All of that said, some of my friends were really into them, so maybe it's my prejudice against Trevor that's keeping me from really getting into Hexmachine. Then again, I feel like their songs being too long and not having enough going on is at least part of the problem, if not the lion's share of it.


Freak folk... whatever that means.

I'm really tired of slacking on this blog because I'm not feeling up to generating the kind of prose that I've come to expect from myself when writing here. So I'm changing the format slightly: in exchange for allowing myself to write less formally here, I will be updating every day. This may mean that on busier days, all that shows up is 40 words about whatever CD or individual song I'm really excited about that day, but it's more likely that just getting myself to sit down to write at all will cause the verbosity to flow, and once I'm there I'll go on for a while. However, you may get nothing more than a rambling discourse about a show I went to the night before, or an album I bought that day. Or even something like what I'm posting today: an annotated track listing for a mix CD I made for a friend. This one is for my friend Chris Lauderdale, with whom I've had a couple recent conversations about the recent acoustic-psychedelic/"freak folk" movement. Turns out that we are equally enthusiastic, but he's heard a lot less of it than I have. So here is the track listing for the mix CD I made him, complete with liner notes explaining where each song is from and, in several cases, why I put them on the CD at all.

"Freak folk: whatever that means"
Mix CD made 9/25/05

1. Skip James - "Devil Got My Woman." A later, far cleaner recording showed up on the soundtrack to "Ghost World", but this is the original recording from sometime in the 1930s, no doubt made in a hotel suite in Memphis or some such (see the cover of "King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. 2" by Robert Johnson). This version is available on CD on "The Complete Early Recordings". I put it on here because I feel that a lot of the strange outsider stuff that birthed the modern "freak folk" (hereafter to be used without quotes) movement has its initial roots in pre-WWII blues artists, who created their music in total isolation and poverty, and were generally ignored and passed over for decades before enjoying any degrees of popular fame. In fact, a significant portion of them died before the mid-60s English blues revival brought them out of obscurity. I can't help but feel that this stuff is the earliest still-extant example of the vaguely defined mentality that all of the shit that's around now has in common. By the way, don't ask me for a more solid explanation of what I'm talking about--I fully admit I don't have one.

2. Skip Spence - "Little Hands". From "Oar", his only solo album, recorded in 1969. Skip Spence was already famous in hippie circles at the time that he did this record, for his tenures in Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape, but he made this record after attacking one of his Moby Grape bandmates and spending a few months committed to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York. He played almost all the instruments himself, and legend has it that it's one of the poorest-selling releases on a major label ever. It's in print now on one of those 60's revival obscurity labels, and the CD has about double the tracks of the original album (lots of half-finished outtakes). This is the first song on the record, and my favorite. Sometimes the songs are totally out there, but there's always a feeling of country-folk-pop brilliance at their core, and this is probably the best example of that.

3. Van Morrison - "Beside You". From his first real solo album (after a singles collection, "T.B. Sheets"), "Astral Weeks." 1968, I think. Van is most famous these days for being the type of soft-rock musician that your mother and radio stations with "lite" in their name love, but not only did he do some amazing and truly weird work early in his career, he still does put totally weird songs right next to MOR pop even on his current records. "Astral Weeks" is without a doubt his best album, and it's dark and depressing as fuck. The backup band were a bunch of renowned jazz studio guys, and they blend perfectly with Van's vocals and guitar playing, but legend has it that Van was so freaked out when he did the album that he recorded all of his tracks alone in a dark room with his back to the control room window. Who knows what the truth is, but I can say that the whole thing bleeds this air of raw desperation, evident in this song with the way that the vocals never seem to follow any particular pattern, slow and mournful one second and rushing to get everything out the next. He's too busy following the emotion to worry about nuance of song, which could have been horrible but instead is brilliant.

4. Nick Drake - "River Man (solo demo)". This song appears on his first record, "Five Leaves Left", with an orchestra backing him up, but this version is from a posthumous comp called "Made To Love Magic". The version with the orchestra is amazing, maybe better than this one, but without it it's much easier to hear just how complicated and interesting the vocal arrangement and guitar patterns are on the song. You might not notice at first, but the entire thing is in 5/4, and he's fingerpicking it out on a nylon-stringed classical guitar. Most people think of Nick Drake as an emo guy, and granted, that's there in a lot of his songs (then again, it's in a lot of Jandek's and Daniel Johnston's, too... more on them in a bit), but he had a lot more going on than just that. All of these guys do; if they didn't, we wouldn't find their stuff so interesting.

5. Tim Buckley - "Monterey". Tim Buckley changed on every album, and he recorded 9 before dying at age 28, which is a pretty incredible workrate. God knows what he would have done if he'd lived. This song is from "Starsailor", which is his most experimental album and which came at the exact midpoint of his career. There's a lot of jazz influence here, as well as a level of sheer unpredictability that can probably be blamed more on Tim's tendency to hate being pigeonholed. He apparently hated it so much that he would change his sound on purpose just to throw off his fans and frustrate his record company. His last couple of albums are sometimes said to be pointless descents into proto-disco, but I find them to be just as worthwhile as his early folk-troubador stuff, or the period from which this song comes... and I have no idea what to call that.

6. Syd Barrett - "Clowns and Jugglers (Octopus)". This song is from Barrett's first solo album, "The Madcap Laughs", and is sometimes called one or the other of those two titles instead of both. Barrett, who sang and played guitar in Pink Floyd until 1967, is the most famous acid casualty as far as I can tell, and there are a lot of urban legends about him, but the truth of the matter is that he had some schizophrenic tendencies, and the huge amounts of acid he was taking merely exacerbated them. Any stories you hear that are wilder are almost certainly untrue. In the early 70s, he made a couple of solo albums with the help of David Gilmour, who had replaced him in Pink Floyd. They are acoustically based and completely lack the experiments in feedback and effects that marked his time in Floyd, but are still based on weird time signatures and abrupt changes that often seem unscripted and to be coming as much from dementia as creativity. That said, I still think they're brilliant. Barrett completely vanished from the public eye in the mid-70s, and as far as I know is still alive and living with his mother in suburban England.

7. Roky Erickson - "True Love Cast Out All Evil." During the mid-60s American garage rock explosion, Roky Erickson sang for Texas's 13th Floor Elevators, most famous for their song "You're Gonna Miss Me" (you heard it in the opening scene of the movie "High Fidelity"). After their second album, he was arrested for the possession of two joints, and due to the vagaries of Texas law ended up serving his sentence in a mental institution, where he was given Thorazine and electroshock treatment. I really don't know of his mental state before going in, but he definitely came out crazy. His post-institutional music is mostly acoustic based, though sometimes he still plays with a full garage band. One thing all of it has in common is his obsession with horror movie concepts ("I Walked With a Zombie," "Creature With The Atom Brain", and "Two-Headed Dog" are some of his most famous song titles). The lyrics mix common themes of life and love with truly strange passages, and he's apparently incoherent in person most of the time, but his gift for pop melodies never went away, as can be seen in this song, from the recent double CD retrospective "I Have Always Been Here Before."

8. Daniel Johnston - "Walking The Cow". This song is from his first real album (he'd self-released a few cassettes before it), "Hi, How Are You?", which came out on Homestead in 1984. Every song I've heard from the album begins with him speaking the title phrase. As far as I'm concerned, the early home-recorded stuff that's muffled and played on guitar/piano/chord organ is Johnston's best work. After Kurt Cobain's vocal appreciation for him got him signed to a major label, he started recording in really nice studios, and it's just not the same. For the record, it was his refusal for a time to take medication that led to the violent episodes (in which he apparently attacked other indie-rock musicians) that eventually led to him being institutionalized. He's been out for around a decade, and apparently is fine these days. While he was in the mental hospital, he'd see any visitors that came, and I heard from a few different people about them making pilgrimages to the hospital in Austin where he was living. Apparently he was really nice to all the fans that came to see him during that time.

9. Jandek - "I Passed By the Building". From "Blue Corpse", which I think came out in 1984 (too lazy to look it up). According to Seth Tisue's website (www.tisue.net/jandek), this song and several others from the album feature a different singer. Who knows who the dude is. I think "Blue Corpse" is the best of the Jandek stuff I've heard so far, and if you looked around on the website you know that the material varies wildly in sound. "Interstellar Discussion", the only other of his albums I've played a lot, is heavier and more electrically based. It's hard to say any more about Jandek, because it's so hard to know what to say, so I'm just gonna move on.

10. Sixteen Horsepower - "Seen What I Saw". From their first album, "Sackcloth and Ashes." This period of their career is far more country than their later stuff, but I still find it sincere and intense, completely avoiding the ersatz country trap that it could have fallen into. There's a lot of Christianity in some of these songs (as well as in David Eugene Edwards' newer band, Woven Hand), but there's also a lot of creepy Southern poverty/death/voodoo/crime imagery, and that plus the really dark sound Sixteen Horsepower's instruments always have is what really wins me over.

11. The Mountain Goats - "Yoga". From the "Devil In The Shortwave" EP. This is from a more recent Mountain Goats record, after the end of the era in which he/they recorded all of their songs on a boombox in a bedroom. I love that stuff, don't get me wrong, but there's a lot more room for atmosphere in the superior recording techniques, and I think the newer records are if anything even darker and more intense than the early stuff.

12. Tattle Tale - "Fly Away". This song was on a comp called "Julep", which was the second "Yo-yo a Go-go" compilation of bands recorded at Yo-yo studios in Olympia. I'm not sure if Tattle Tale ever released any albums of their own--their best-known song, "Glass Vase Cello Case", is on the soundtrack to "But I'm A Cheerleader". However, there are between 8 and 12 songs floating around on the internet in various places. Oops, I see from allmusic.com that they had an album called "Sew True". Either way, this song isn't on it. Tattle Tale was a duo consisting of cellist Madigan Shive and singer/guitarist Jen Wood. All of the songs that I've heard by them have the same sort of dark, quiet, emotional intensity as this one; like the early blues, but without any real musical links to it. They broke up a long time ago, and now Madigan plays in Bonfire Madigan, while Jen records solo under her own name. Neither of those projects come anywhere near the awesomeness of Tattle Tale, which is a shame.

13. Vic Chesnutt - "Dodge". From his album "Drunk." Vic Chesnutt is another of the more country-associated artists on this CD, but again, I think he's worth checking out anyway. He has an interesting backstory; he was paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident he had while driving drunk at the age of 18. It didn't get him to stop drinking, but it did inspire him to start playing really depressing solo acoustic music. The self-loathing lyrical attitude of this song is common in his work; I wouldn't know, but I'm sure this is great music to listen to while getting hella drunk because life sucks. For the record, this song came out in 1993. His newer shit tends to be more slickly produced, which I don't like, but you can't go wrong with his first few albums.

14. Sufjan Stevens - "Vito's Ordination Song (demo)". This version of this song is pretty much vocals and banjo, and while the album version never really stood out to me, I feel that this one is transcendent and incredible. I'm pretty sure that it was exclusively released to the internet, specifically iTunes, but don't quote me on that. I'm thinking you've heard this song in another form, as it seems to me that you told me you have the album it's from ("Greetings From Michigan"), but I still figured I'd put this on here just because of how much better I like it in this version.

15. CocoRosie - "Terrible Angels". This is from their first album, "La Maison de la Reve". I don't know too much about this group, although I have to say I find their combination of simple, bare-bones pop tunes with weird fucked up background noise quite interesting. Apparently all the critics hate their new record, and even though I haven't heard it it seems from the things I've read that it's generally for bullshit reasons. Who knows. I'd say it bears investigating.

16. Two Gallants - "Crow Jane". This is from their album "The Throes", but I've only heard it because a friend sent me the mp3 file. I have no idea what the rest of the album sounds like, but judging from this song I'd say that these guys are also riding the line between "really dark alt-country" and modern freak folk. Whatever it is, I'm digging it. [By the way, sorry I've got less to say about these later songs--there's less history to the more recent groups, nah mean?]

17. Danielson Famile - "Fetch The Compass Kids". From the album of the same name. The Danielson Famile are really fucking strange and change a lot from album to album. They're led by Daniel Smith, who writes the tunes, plays guitar, and sings in a really weird voice. They're nakedly religious, just like Sufjan Stevens and Sixteen Horsepower, but stuff like that never really bothered me. I like it, but I'm not quite sure what "it" is.

18. Diane Cluck - "Heat From Every Corner." This is my favorite song off Devendra Banhart's "The Golden Apples of the Sun" CD comp, and I know that it's also from her record "Macy's Day Bird". That's about all I know, except that this song has that strange looping feel that shows up in my favorite Animal Collective stuff, as well as stuff by Cromagnon (note: FUCK, I forgot to put both Cromagnon AND the Godz on this CD! FUCK FUCK FUCK! I will make you another one soon). Sometimes repetition is boring and lame, but from acoustic/folk artists it can be quite hypnotic, and this song is a prime example.

19. White Magic - "Don't Need". Also from "Golden Apples of the Sun", as well as being on their Drag City EP, apparently. Remember when I told you at the bar that this band had members you wouldn't at all expect to be in some weird acoustic psychedelic band? It's vocalist Mira Bilotte I was talking about, who was in Quix*o*tic with her sister Christina, of Slant 6 fame, and drummer Miggy Littleton, who played in Ida with her brother Dan, also of The Hated fame. Strange roots for a band now identified with Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart, but the music is still really good, if a bit more refined than I'd like it to be.

So there you go. I'll try to come up with another mix containing all the shit I wanted to put on this but forgot to in the next couple of weeks.

That's it for today's installment. Tomorrow I'll try to get to writing about why I'm very unhappy with the new Death Cab For Cutie album (even though I really liked all of their previous ones), or maybe I'll just talk about my weird mixed feelings about the two CDs I got in the mail today. If nothing else, hopefully I'll write SOMETHING.