Album review: The Hives roll back into rock on ‘Lex Hives’

The Hives
“Lex Hives”
Disques Hives

The Hives are bringing listeners back to the yesteryear of garage rock on “Lex Hives.” But rather than simply return to the 1960s and ’70s punk and garage breeding ground, the Hives seem to venture only as far back as their own earliest recordings.

The approach almost makes sense. When the Hives first broke through to the masses with “Hate to Say I Told You So,” the band quenched a rock ‘n’ roll thirst — one that may have gone undetected otherwise — with near-spastic tempos, chubby bass lines and all the shouting and stomping a person could desire. Isn’t that what made the Hives so likable from the start?

It is, but it’s also potentially a little monotonous, even if pleasantly so. “Come On!” starts the band’s fifth studio album appropriately at about a minute in length, egging the listener to stay tuned for the full half-hour release, evocative of a kid brother or sister tugging at your shirt for undivided attention.

But that’s not to assert that “Lex Hives” lacks powerful material. The band really cops an attitude on “Go Right Ahead,” an excellent instance of what the Hives do best. Within the first 10 seconds, there are claps and a curdling battle scream, the vocal signature of Pelle Almqvist. Throw in layers of baritone-rich horns, Almqvist’s taunts — “Go right ahead/scream your head off like the day you was born” — and iron-fisted drum cadences and the process is complete.

The Hives continue to do right by their rock ‘n’ roll roots on “Midnight Shifter,” a song that bookends the album with a sound that could nearly fill a dancehall. The tempo is quick, but not dizzyingly so. The band horn section fattens up the track alongside hand claps, a fuzzy bass line by Mattias Bernvall and Christian Grahn’s heavy drumming.

Without the brass, the song might risk the destiny of a filler track on “Lex Hives.” Instead, “Midnight Shifter” is one of the album’s strongest tracks. “Don’t get me wrong,” Almqvist sings. We could be one in the same/but there’s a difference in the way that we’re playing the game.” And the conviction of the Hives’ playing shines through.

Other songs on “Lex Hives” are not as fortunate, and cause the otherwise loud and swift album to drag a bit, regardless of the beats per minute. “1000 Answers” has a blistering tempo and motorized guitar riffs by way of Niklaus Almqvist and Mikael Karlsson, but the hinting desperation cannot be masked.

Almqvist howls, “I’ve got a thousand answers, one’s gotta be right/Give me a thousand chances and I’ll get it right.” In such moments, it’s as if the Hives are trying to convince themselves that they’ve almost got it right, that all relevance hasn’t been lost.

A band as raucous as the Hives has done well in taking the core elements of rock ‘n’ roll as heard throughout the decades and assembling their own brand of screeching garage rock. But in the end there are no guarantees that the Hives won’t fall by the wayside. Recycling one’s strengths simply isn’t the same as innovating them.

Concert review: Nada Surf (with WATERS), in earnest, at the Old Rock House, Monday, June 25

Nada Surf at the Old Rock House. Photo by Roy Kasten.

There’s irony in the fact that what most people know about the band Nada Surf is that they once had a mainstream hit in the ’90s by the name of “Popular” — and that’s about it.

The band isn’t that popular and they certainly aren’t mainstream anymore either. Their past three albums — “Lucky,” “If I had a Hi-Fi” and “The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy” — could be read as metaphors for the waves subsequently felt by critics and fans after each release. “Lucky” (2008) established Nada Surf as as a band with serious pretensions at a time when the music industry was being transformed from a label-based, CD-distribution model to a studio-based, peer-to-peer model. As a result, the New Yorkers developed fans they never would have had, but “Hi-Fi” (2010), an album of cover songs, passed many of us by with little fanfare — and judging from Pitchfork and the charts, a degree of indifference took hold.

Which is why I was happy that the audience was so engaged this past Monday at Old Rock House. First, I was happy that the sound they represent — earnest guitar riffs and even more earnest lyrics — isn’t going away. Second, that the band that made the song “See These Bones” a remarkable anthem worthy of R.E.M. or the Pixies back in 2008 wasn’t reduced to dust, despite lyrics like, “Just like we are, you’ll be dust.” It was the highlight of the night for me but left an odd longing. Why couldn’t every song they play be like this?

Nada Surf doesn’t exactly disappoint, but they don’t overwhelm either. Those coming to see a band like Weezer or Death Cab for Cutie won’t get anything close. They are a band of anti-hits, with an anti-hipster style to boot and a stubborn integrity that borders on pathological. I’ve heard others comment that they sound best in a studio (who doesn’t?) and that their live stuff tends towards well-practiced jam-bandiness.

This latest performance didn’t prove otherwise. The vocals could have been a little louder or the drums a bit softer, and the tempo changes should have been more pronounced. All in all, the show lacked the nuance that fills their records, but it still delivered some fine moments — especially “Jules and Jim” and “Let the Fight Do the Fighting,” both songs that show Nada Surf’s depth and set the band apart. Does that sound like equivocation from a wannabe fan? Maybe, maybe not.

The opening band, WATERS, was a perfect lead-in for Nada Surf. These guys are so raw they make Jon Voight in “Midnight Cowboy” look like a well-heeled veteran. When their singer, a youngin’ out of San Francisco named Van Pierszalowski, gathered in the crowd for an a capella number, I almost felt bad for him. Just last month, I’d seen Israel Nebeker from Blind Pilot do the same to great effect, but these guys seemed too eager too pull it off. To the contrary, he got an audience as his chorus, and made my cynical and stodgy self feel ashamed at my premature embarrassment.

After WATERS and Nada Surf, I made a small mental note to myself. Relax your expectations a bit man and let it flow; sometimes a little earnestness is what you need.

‘Let’s make it louder here’ An interview with St. Louis rock band Aquitaine

Kelley Luckett

“A wall of sound built from the best bricks of Brit pop, shoegaze and psychedelic rock” is how songwriter and guitarist David Collett describes Aquitaine, a new four-piece rock juggernaut based in St. Louis.

William Hildebrandt and Gerald Good join Collett on guitar and bass respectively while Chris Luckett sits behind the skins.

“We set out inquiring, ‘What if Ian Curtis shared a prison cell with Mick Jones?’ and ‘What if Echo and the Bunnymen had been born in a city on the Mississippi rather than a city on the Mersey?’” says Collett. “We pondered those questions and wrote out the answers in the form of songs.”

“Oh God, I want to forget,” moans Good when reminiscing about the long journey to choosing the band’s name.

“Our first band name, Supermoon, got stolen by about 10 other bands, including one from Alton, Ill., so we had to change it to avoid confusion,” he explains. “Our quick-fix solution was Super Maroon, which was universally hated. One of the options we were leaning toward was Chateau Chouteau. I Googled it and found out there was a vineyard in Aquitaine with that name. Will asked if there were any other bands using the name Aquitaine, and there weren’t. Since it sounds neat and looks good on a T-shirt, we went with it.”

“During our Supermoon identity,” recalls Hildebrandt, “we had discussed coordinating a ‘Battle of the Supermoons’ concert with a ‘may the best band win and keep the band name’ approach to the evening.” He hopes to one day have a Supermoon open for Aquitaine. “The premise for having one of the Supermoon bands opening for us would be that the best band did win and has a way cooler name now.”

The majority of the songwriting is handled by Hildebrandt and Collett, with Good and Luckett pitching in where needed.

“A lot of the time I try to subtly influence the dynamics of our songs,” explains Good, “by saying, ‘Let’s make it louder here’ or ‘Everyone shut up here’ while trying to make everyone else think it was their idea.”

“As the drummer, my role is to show up on time sober enough to play and load gear,” says Luckett. “I feel that my actual greatest role is that of support personnel, because at the heart of the strongest organizations are strong support figures.”

Aquitaine is having a CD release party on Friday, June 29 at the Firebird to introduce the world to “American Pulverizer: Part 1,” the first batch of songs that the group recorded at Sawhorse Studios in St. Louis. The tracks were mixed in New York City by band friend and Grammy winning producer Greg Thompson. Plans are in the works to record and release “American Pulverizer: Part 2″ sometime before the holidays.

When asked what the concert-going public should expect from the party, Collett replied, “I think they can expect to be able to one day say, ‘I was there at the beginning, and got a glimpse into the future of a quickly emerging St. Louis band.’”

Concert review and photos: Charlie Hunter makes his guitar sing and swing at Jazz at the Bistro, Saturday, June 23

Charlie Hunter Duo at Jazz at the Bistro. Photo by Wil Wander.

Immediately upon sitting down at Jazz at the Bistro, I knew that the night’s show, featuring Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola, would offer something a little different.

Amendola’s drum set, only slightly off to the left of center, was turned not towards the audience, but to face Hunter directly, whose bench sat open near the center of the stage. This set-up already foreshadowed a night of unified grooves and reciprocated provocations between the duo as they revealed their chemistry together.
Resting on the bench was Hunter’s signature seven-string guitar, a custom made piece by Jeff Traugott. Traditionally, Hunter had played with an eight-string, created by Ralph Novak of Novax Guitars, but he found the top string to be cumbersome to use, and after modifying his original guitar, favored a new design. On both guitars, the design is apparent from the beginning. Rather than featuring strings of the same length from neck to bridge, they’re mounted diagonally at each end, allowing Hunter to make use of two bass strings in addition to five lead guitar strings on a single, relatively narrow neck. It requires a slightly different playing style, which is illustrated by the frets that run not parallel to each other, but fanned outward as the strings get lower. This design enables Hunter to play the bass line, and both rhythm and lead guitar parts simultaneously.
The show started as the duo slinked stealthily through the crowd and took the stage, unnoticed by most, until Hunter took up his guitar and played a simple, test riff. The mood was set even before the music started, as the guitarist demonstrated a witty rapport with Jazz St. Louis staff during his introduction. He immediately opened up the night with a walking bass line set to a swing rhythm, and after a brief intro to set the tone, he tucked in his lower lip and demonstrated why he’s been wowing crowds for two decades.
While the music is certainly supplied by his nimble fingers, anyone that’s seen Charlie Hunter play can attest that the show is in his face. As he improvises his tunes, bounding between riffs and breaks, Hunter exhibits an array of facial expressions. Sometimes they’re deeply committed to the groove, but often they feature goofy grins and other playful expressions, well complimenting Hunter’s quirky and humorous style. It’s not at all uncommon for his gaze to pick out a member of the audience, and challenge them to a staring contest until he claims victory through laughter, and then proceeds to the next target. 
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Album review: Béla Fleck heads ‘Across the Imaginary Divide’ — and leaves the swing behind

Béla Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio featuring Rodney Jordan and Jason Marsalis
“Across the Imaginary Divide”

“Across the Imaginary Divide” is another foray for Béla Fleck into jazz, coupling with a pianist much as he has done with Chick Corea in their live shows and on their CD “The Enchantment” (2007). The trio is filled out by Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums.

Fleck is — and this of course needs not be said, but here I go saying it again — a musician of the first order. He has brought new audiences to the banjo, or at least that’s how the story goes, but his music since the release of “The Bluegrass Sessions” in 1999 has really been less about the banjo and simply more about music. He’s ventured into classical music, jazz, old time, traditional Chinese music (with Abigail Washburn), African rhythms, all while keeping college audiences happy with the work he does with the Flecktones. The fact that the music revolves around the banjo is superfluous; rather, it is just music, masterfully conceived and performed.

Therefore to be critical of someone who has done so much, and so well, can feel a bit like heresy. But, as much as we might like to think so, Fleck actually can’t do everything. As a jazz fan, I’m not sure that he does jazz with any great success, and the reason is something that is true in all of his music: He just can’t seem to swing. Of course, when playing bluegrass that’s not always warranted, and his impeccable timing is something that set him apart on some of his early recordings that are now genre classics, such as “Fiddle Tunes for Banjo” with Tony Trischka and Bill Keith. His rolls have the precision of the metronome, and in a bluegrass setting, that’s a good thing.

The thing about jazz, however, is that it really has to swing. We can disagree, of course — and no doubt this is a topic that could fuel lots of silly, blowhard conversations — but I know that I’m not alone in thinking that one of the things that makes jazz, well, jazz is swing time, using dotted quarters to deliver a feel that is relaxed in the ballads, and fluid in more up-tempo pieces. It’s true that not all jazz players swing all of the time, but they all do at least some of the time. Again, it’s one of the things that makes jazz, jazz.

The irony is that one of the things that Earl Scruggs, a great hero and inspiration to Fleck, brought to bluegrass was swing time, and in some senses that’s what audiences were really responding to. He was using three fingers — and that’s the innovation that is always attributed to him — but his timing was often based in swing whenever accompanying vocals or other soloists. When taking solos, he’d go into straight time, and that was one of the things that allowed his banjo to come forward and really sparkle during those rightfully famous solos.

Fleck doesn’t do that, and in much of his work, it perhaps doesn’t matter. But on this collection, it really does. Marcus Roberts is masterful, but he also is really playing jazz. He swings, feeling out the melody and supporting it. He’s great at it, and whenever he steps back into the mix, we long to have him back at the front again. The banjo is often a distraction from what is really going on. Even on the title track, the banjo sounds like it’s competing rather than participating, something that happens throughout this disc. On “One Blue Truth” the banjo seems to ignore the feel of the piece entirely, which is a gently swinging ballad. There Fleck’s playing is like it is everywhere else: metronomic.

There are some successful moments, of course, and “Big Ups” is perhaps one of them. (But given that it’s in a New Orleans style, it’s easy to wonder why Fleck never gives a nod to the tenor banjo styles of that music. The piece just leaves you longing for that.) “Let Me Show You What to Do” is an instance where the straight staccato banjo sections provide a counterpoint to the trio sections, and therefore is a more successful pairing than in the ballads.

In the end I’m left just wanting Fleck to get out of the way of the Marcus Roberts Trio, who are fantastic interpreters, writers and performers. And they play exactly what they know best, jazz — which is exactly what they should be doing.

Concert review: Unknown Hinson, King of the Country and Western Troubadours, holds court at the Old Rock House on Friday, June 22

At the Old Rock House on Friday night, instead of an opening act, we were treated to almost two hours of Squidbillies, the dark, absurdist “Adult Swim” cartoon in which Unknown Hinson voices Early Cuyler, an Appalachian Mud Squid with a low IQ, an alcohol problem and a penchant for trucker caps with trashy phrases on them.

Squidbillies episodes are approximately 15 minutes in length, so two hours of surrealism was a bit much. However, it did give the crowd plenty of time to prepare for the main event.

Unknown Hinson’s band took the stage and set to tuning up in the dark while classic country tunes played in the background. Once the band started in on the Unknown Hinson theme song, Unknown took the stage with a bang. Bang as in he pulled out his .38 pistol, fired a shot into the air with a whoop and a holler and strapped on his Reverend signature series guitar.

I went to the show knowing nothing about Unknown Hinson other than his affiliation with Squidbillies and a generic idea of his musical style. Given that Hinson’s act is a comedic send up of classic country and western stereotypes with a healthy dose of ’50s rockabilly wrapped in a monster movie double feature, I was expecting decent musicians playing decently while the humorous lyrics propped up the act. When Hinson came out on stage dressed in a rodeo tailor suit looking like Grandpa Munster with a mile-wide mean streak, I thought my suspicions were confirmed.

But once he started ripping into his guitar, all it took was about five seconds and I knew I could not have been more wrong.

Hinson’s backing band (Jimmy Church on the pedal steel and guitar, Rick Cutshaw on the drums and Hugh “Tuff” Blanton on the bass) is one of the best sounding acts I’ve seen in a long time. They play so well together that I’m convinced that they were jamming together in the womb or else they wouldn’t have had enough time to get that tight. They were so locked in that even Beatle Bob wasn’t able to get out of the groove.

In my opinion, the pedal steel is one of the few instruments that can make or break a performance. Jimmy Church definitely hit the former, playing accents and licks that were audible and tasteful without overpowering the rest of the band. He also knew when to slide in with a killer lead and slide back out before you even knew he was there.

Hinson’s guitar playing really knocked me for a loop. I had no idea what I was in for, but I did not expect him to have more chops than a butcher shop. Whether he was playing basic chords or ripping out a lead at the speed of light, Hinson was a tone machine and one of the best guitarists I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing live.

The songs themselves were well crafted and performed masterfully. Whether they played a slow barnburner honoring a good smellin’ waitress in “Fish Camp Woman,” a ballad to an inflatable lover in “Polly Urethane” or a classically-styled, mid-tempo country and western tune about a gold-digging girlfriend in “Pregnant Again” the band sounded sincere and as authentic as you can get without a chicken wire enclosed stage. Lyrically the tunes were well-written, tongue-in-cheek mash-ups of traditional country and western tunes if they had been written by the most stereotypical white-trash hillbillies that had come from the mountains of West Virginia.

The sound was a little off for this show. Hinson’s vocals were muffled and hard to understand at times. To counteract this, I spent the second set of the evening out on the patio, where the vocals were crisp and clear as the evening air. Much like the Squidbillies episodes from earlier in the evening, the action on the patio was quite surreal.

Between songs we were entertained by the drunken girl throwing up in the parking lot after too much of what Hinson calls “party liquor” and a gentleman who emerged from an ambulance to a round of applause after having been loaded in for collapsing on the dance floor. We were amazed by the equipment loader who was doing some amazing things with hula-hoops before helping tend to the previously mentioned collapsed gentleman.

Stealing the show was the disheveled hippie guy who was ejected from the venue twice, once for messing with the band’s monitors and again for jumping the patio fence to get back in. Halfway through his antics the gentleman in front of me shouted some advice to him, telling him to return to his family who miss him. Shortly afterwards he darted into traffic on 7th Street on two occasions, the second of which nearly cost him his life. Fortunately his girlfriend came and rounded him up, taking him to points unknown.

Hinson sat at the merch table for about two hours after the show, signing autographs and talking to anyone who wanted to meet him. Meeting a man with that much musical talent who has a sincere appreciation for his fans is a rare thing in the music business, and is one reason why I walked out of the Old Rock House with my spirits high and nothing but love for mankind in my heart. The other reason was too much party liquor.

All Aboard for Fun Times: St. Louis show highlights for 6/22-6/23

All Aboard for Fun Times Train

Regarding my revised policy on door/start times — bar and/or restaurant venues open outside of show times won’t have a door listed, unless they specifically cite one (due to the venue portion operating separately).
Semi-local (other members are from Champaign) pop-tinged rock act the Jans Project snagged one of the Saturday afternoon slots for the Taste of Downtown food and music festival in Springfield, Ill. July 6-7. 
The lineup is pretty great.
June may have been short on rain to date, but it has been awash in good shows; Friday needs a flash flood warning, while Saturday is somewhat parched — although localized instances of ”Raining Men” may occur in Tower Grove Park (see below).
Friday, June 22
Wayne the Train Hancock / Miss Jubilee and the Humdingers
Off Broadway 3509 Lemp 7:30 door/8 start $12 (+3 under 21) Smoke-free
Austin’s WTTH offers just what’s needed if you’ve got a Hank-(as in Williams or Thompson)ering for some vintage-styled country/swing sounds — it’s honky-tonkin’ time! 
High-energy swing/rockabilly/blues sounds from MJatH.
Guitar-slinging kook Unknown Hinson brings his rockin’ vampire schtick to Old Rock House (1200 S. 7th). Daniel Hill engaged him in an amusing Q&A for the RFT.
Doors at 7/show at 8 (no opener listed), with an $18 advance/20 door cover (all ages).  Smoke-free.
7 Shot Screamers / Bible Belt Sinners / Ellen the Felon
Firebird 2706 Olive 8:30 door/9 start $10 (+3 18-20) Smoke-free
Singer Mike Leahy comes in from LA for a visit, allowing 7SS to perform their potent blend of punk and rockabilly sounds again.
Rockabilly sounds, featuring the powerful growl of Miss Molly Sims, from BBS. Cabaret-styled piano-pop from EtF
Soma Jet Set / Butcher Holler / Old Capital Square Dance Club
The Heavy Anchor 5226 Gravois 9 start $5 Smoke-free
I haven’t heard SJS, and there’s not much — just show listings — on the web.
A lively mix of rock, country and rockabilly sounds from BH. A mix of country, blues and rock sounds from OC(sic)SDC.
Tight Pants Syndrome / HUMDRUM / The Campfire Club
Plush 3224 Locust 8:30 door/9:30 start $6 (18+) Smoke-free
Hook-filled, sugar-sweet pop-rock from TPS.
H blend catchy pop melodies with noisy techno synth sounds.
TCC offer a mix of rock, country and rockabilly sounds.
El Lenador (3124 Cherokee) hosts a show headlined by the engaging punk-ish rock of DinoFight!.
They’re joined by KC’s minimalist punk-pop duo Schwervon – who were quite enjoyable on their first visit – along with two other bands (Johnny Vega$ told me their names, but I don’t remember them).
This will start after 9, with a $5 cover (21+). Smoke-free.

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Concert review and set list: Motion City Soundtrack kills with sweetness at the Firebird, Thursday, June 21

Introducing themselves as the Motion City Clay People (a friendly poke at opening band the Henry Clay People), Motion City Soundtrack didn’t waste any time getting the beyond-capacity Firebird to bounce, sing and make the floors wobble.

I’m a sucker for pop punk. The sweeter the better. Dentists have warned against this molar-melting pop music. But I can’t help myself with Motion City Soundtrack. Once I get started on the band, I just can’t stop. So as you can imagine catching them Thursday night at the Firebird was a treat, one that didn’t rot the ol’ choppers. But enough about my dental hang-ups and more about this dynamic show.

Taking the stage the band staggered into “Circuits and Wires,” the opening track to their new album, “Go.” Right off the bat lead singer and guitarist Justin Pierre forgot a little more than a line or two in the first verse. He quickly regained his composure and chuckled it off. Surprisingly, the band ran through a handful of selections from their back catalog (or “old school” if you’re so inclined) like the lively “A Lifeless Ordinary,” “Point of Extinction” and “Perfect Teeth.” The older songs definitely got uproarious reactions.

And during all these songs, new, old, amazing, indifferent, keyboardist Jesse Johnson literally hopped, heaved and wallowed all over the keys and synths while singing every lyric without a mic and acting as a hype man. Giving Flavor Flav a run for his gold watch medallion, this dude gave 110%. And then some.

As he slapped hi-fives and hung from the rafters, one couldn’t help but to appreciate and reciprocate his enthusiasm. And if that wasn’t enough, he made those dirty, filthy, disgusting sounds on that incredible Moog. Emanating spacey bleeps and boops (“Attractive Today”) and happy-go-lucky leads (“True Romance”) throughout bits and pieces of the set, Johnson even attacked a cowbell at one point earning him the status of the secret ingredient of Motion City Soundtrack, like the diced walnuts in your mom’s chicken salad.

Motion City Soundtrack albums tend to be very involved listens. Plenty of Moog squeals, backing vocals, complicated drum patterns and battling guitars neatly litter their recordings. And Justin Pierre’s constantly cracking falsetto vocals are delicate and precise, and that’s a tough element to translate in a live rock show. He sounded good, but a lot of his vocal nuances got lost in the mix.

That didn’t seemed to have mattered much as the crowd chimed in on damn near every big hook. But what intricacies might have been missing last night, the band made up for with sheer exuberance and energy. While singing, Justin Pierre would often fuss with his super nerd-afro and wipe the sweat off his face or just blatantly clean his black-rimmed glasses. Pierre was hyperactive and hilarious between songs, claiming he downed a Red Bull before the show (something he’s not prone to doing); one might be safe to assume he watches the directors cuts and commentary of ’90s sci-fi films and can talk intelligently about any given topic. He was positive and happy as hell to be playing for a crowd that came out to watch him and his band.

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