Nick Acquisto's Posts

Nick Acquisto's Photo I'm the Music Director at 88.1 KDHX and host of the Space Parlour every Thursday evening. My blog covers art-rock, psychedelic, folk, new wave and other inventive alternative acts, with additional focus on b-sides, rarities and live recordings. Visit me on Myspace.

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A Very Bert Dax Christmas: An interview with Matt Harnish and Rob Severson

Bert Dax image courtesy of Rob Serverson. Lights image courtesy of George Deputee.

A St. Louis Christmas legacy marches on with “A Very Bert Dax Christmas Volume 9.” The latest CD of Christmas songs from St. Louis artists will be released this week with four CD release shows around town.

This year’s disc includes songs from Prune, Catholic Guilt, Bass-Amp & Dan-O, Navigator, Ellen the Felon, Hathead Jones, Bug Chaser, Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship, Dubb Nubb, Ded Bugs, the Chill Dawgs and Black James. And it all came together in just two months.

I discussed this year’s album and the history of the project with Matt Harnish — who began the holiday tradition roughly 10 years ago — and Christmas compilation cohort Rob Severson of Pancake Productions, who now co-produces and co-curates the album and release shows along with Harnish’s established brand, Bert Dax Cavalcade of Stars.

Nick Acquisto: So you’ve been releasing “A Very Bert Dax Christmas” compilations for about 10 years now. How did this all get started?

Matt Harnish: Well, the precursor to it was the Vintage Vinyl collection, the “Better Than Fruitcake” CD that I helped curate. I was talking to one of the owners of Vintage Vinyl about the idea of putting out a local-band Christmas CD because at that point I don’t think anyone had done one, at least not on any sort of large scale. So we ran with that as a charity thing that Vintage Vinyl put together and had 15 bands or so, maybe more, I don’t remember. That was “Better Than Fruitcake,” and that was back in 2000.

I’ve always been a sucker for Christmas songs, so that was something I was interested in. The Vintage Vinyl one was a little more broad scope so I was more interested in having more control over what went into it. That went well, and so then, the next year after that I decided to just do my own thing, and I just kept doing it.

So where did the name “The Bert Dax Cavalcade of Stars” come from?

Matt: I like the idea of there being a fictional head of affairs, Bert Dax.

Over the years these compilations have included the Highway Matrons, Tight Pants Syndrome, the Blind Eyes, Theodore, Sex Robots, the Monads, the Vultures, Bad Folk and many many more. Do you know about how many bands have participated or how many songs you have at this point?

Rob Severson: Like an approximate average of … say 10 [on each volume].

Matt: Usually more than ten.

So around 100 total?

Matt: Eight was the lowest; the second year. I would say we’re closing in on a hundred. There are a few things put together specifically for the CD, and there are a few not real bands and things, so in terms of real bands, there’s 80+ and then another 20 joke, one-off things.

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Album review + MP3: DeVotchKa follows its own muse on ’100 Lovers’

DeVotchKa 100 Lovers

100 Lovers

Creating a follow-up to the 2008 masterpiece A Mad and Faithful Telling would be a difficult achievement for any artist, but DeVotchKa seamlessly delivers — and with gusto. This quartet’s roots are in a self-made style of multi-instrumental punk, and clearly, as this album demonstrates, they have continued on that path while evolving along the way.

The overall sound of 100 Lovers, as with many albums previous, including their 2006 score to the breakout indie film Little Miss Sunshine, is cinematic, epic, intense, emotive, exciting and soothing — often simultaneously.

On this album in particular, frontman Nick Urata sustains his vocal notes over galloping percussion that moves songs along and strings that often glide, twirl, engage and disappear before you realize just what happened. Whether on fast or slow tempos, his disciplined singing style shines through.

100 Lovers was produced with Craig Schumacher at Wavelab in Tucson, Ariz. Schumacher is best known as longtime producer for Neko Case and Calexico, among others, and his skills behind the board show well throughout this record, as on the many fine records he’s worked on previously. Ever heard Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone or Fox Confessor Brings the Flood? With the arrangements and clever production decisions on 100 Lovers, as with many great producers, one could easily make an argument that he plays the role of fifth member to the band.

The single “100 Other Lovers” is about as close to a pop song as DeVotchka gets, and the melody and subject matter offer a slight nod to the Police’s “King of Pain.” Even with all the hooks the song is never predictable — strings, reversed flute, percussion and Urata’s voice and delivery shift to drive the song as it unfolds. As the title suggests, his love interest may have 100 other lovers, but the singer chooses to shake it off by declaring, “I guess it’s just as easy if you lie to me.”

The accordion and electric guitar heavy sound of “The Man From San Sebastian” stands out as a clamorous, classy, Klezmer track. The song gracefully slides into a ghostly, ethereal guitar/theremin solo, and then jumps back into form.

Mariachi horns and accordion set up the merengue song “Contrabanda,” lifting the album with Latin spice and pizzazz. But the album’s recurring thread occurs in songs like “All The Sand In All The Sea,” “The Common Good,” “Bad Luck Heals” and “Ruthless,” all of which exude emotion like, well, like opera. An amazing, beautiful south of the border/Eastern European opera.

DeVotchKa’s 100 Lovers overall demonstrates an inimitable group at the top of its game, and like many bands I love, DeVotchKa plays by its own rules. It’s unfortunate that groups like this are too often thrown into genre boxes based on their instrumentation. If voice and instruments are colors on a pallet, the vocals, guitars, keyboard, accordion, strings, horns, bass and percussion really color the heart and soul of the album. And those dimensions, as a whole, are so richly developed.

DeVotchKa – “100 Other Lovers”

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A few rambling recaps and on-the-fly photos from CMJ 2010


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jaill at the Studio at Webster Hall

Before starting their set, the singer warned the audience in advance that the band had just eaten falafel and so no one should stand too close to the stage. The set started a little rough, but Jaill had won the crowd over by the end as the energy and songs got better as the set drove along. Their vocals live had the snarky tone of a young Tom Verlaine or Richard Hell. This is probably what prompted me to buy not one but two Television bootleg discs at the WFMU Record Fair a couple days later. Jaill sounded a little different than the recent Sub Pop release, a lot more loose and raw, not better or worse. Again, I had few expectations, but was totally won over by them by the end.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. at the Studio at Webster Hall

Stayed at the Studio for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., but wandered outside for a minute and saw the line all the way down the block trying to get in to see Two Door Cinema Club, I still wonder if any of those people actually got in. DEJJ had a full house even though they were playing several different venues throughout the course of the 5-day festival. They appeared onstage in Nascar racing suits covered in logos. One sported Cheerios across the chest and the other Lysol. I wonder if they actually got endorsements. They played great live and rocked, their songs trickled and soaked by bleeps and electronic pads. Their show also displayed make-shift strobe light bulb kits shining about 30 light bulbs each on both sides of the stage. Plenty of gimmickry, but they really delivered some great songs with an equally great performance.

Olof Arnolds

Olof Arnolds at Googies

Next I wandered to see Icelandic artist Olof Arnolds perform at Googies, a venue above the Living Room in the Lower East Side. Olof switched between guitar, violin and ukulele, while her partner switched between a white baby grand and guitar. There were a couple of sound issues and monitor problems brought to the attention of the audience by banter back and forth between Olof and the sound guy and audience. It ended up really distracting from the show and slowly started becoming the show. When it just grew too awkward and not much music happening, I had to make my way out and off to the next gig. Maybe next time Olof.

Drink Up Buttercup

Drink Up Buttercup at Bowery Electric

I had hoped to catch Lawrence Arabia here, but my stop for quick pizza slowed me down. It’s easy to forget about eating at CMJ. Drink Up Buttercup was epically amazing, the new material is a total departure from the band’s previous album. Operatic vocals, think Queen and Sparks blended into clamorous wild psych-rock songs. It made for a great live rock show and their energy was contagious. I had hoped to see Suuns, up the street, but the amount of people outside trying to get in half way through their set, made me realize that wouldn’t be possible. So Drink Up Buttercup was a good close to the night.

Friday, October 22, 2010


DeVotchka at Fontana’s

There’s nothing like seeing a great band in such a small basement venue. Lucky for the audience this one wasn’t listed in the CMJ guide, otherwise, I don’t think a lot of us would have gotten in. DeVotchka has a lot on its plate right now: the band has scored music for three films about to be released in the next month or so and has a new album due out in February. The set was beautiful and, as expected, nothing short of pro. They played a few new songs, which successfully excited the crowd for their upcoming album. The following night they played at Big Top and the show featured trapeze artists (not to mention, Big Top itself is a circus grounds). Crazy! Wish I could have made it. I ended up finding a clip on YouTube and kicked myself.

The Generationals

The Generationals at Fontana’s

The Generationals made their way through their catchy catalog and played two of my favorites “Angry Charlie” and “When They Fight They Fight.” (This song from their album Con Law is fated to close a TV show or film.)

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Reflections on The Space Parlour: Live in St. Louis Series

Space Palour: Live in St. Louis Series 2010

When I was a teenager in the ’90s going to shows, I thought most local bands were just what you sat through, while waiting for the headliner. Why would I want to pay money to see a band that’s in my own city, who no one has ever heard of? What if I don’t like the band?

My hope is that the Live In St. Louis Series, along with many other recent events and compilations, have changed people’s minds on this once typical point of view. This city is flooded with local talent. And like all good music, it has to be searched out a bit. We at KDHX try to make this easier.

I’ve been producing The Space Parlour: Live In St. Louis Series for four years now through KDHX. It all began in 2007, when I started feeling overwhelmed by the number of great local bands making inexplicably interesting, fresh and different music.

Suddenly, it seemed like there was a local explosion of pop bands writing catchy, intense and interesting songs that were all very stylistically different: Grace Basement, the Hibernauts, That’s My Daughter, Bug and Bravo Company, to name a few. Pseudo-Americana punk bands like the Monads, Bad Folk, Casey Reid, Rats & People and Strawfoot were emerging and getting better and better. Some of these bands I knew, some I didn’t know at all. But I did know they clearly needed to be shared with the world. Because I hosted the radio show, the Space Parlour, the program seemed like a perfect way to do that.

So, for a few months, I turned over half of my show to a weekly series featuring a different local artist. Seth Wahlman, a session engineer at KDHX, offered to mix the sessions live on-air. It was completely DIY: get the bands in, put them on-air and roll. Viva la Live KDHX Radio! The recordings turned out amazing, so much so that releasing the tracks as a cohesive, live, local band compilation seemed the natural next step.

We held three CD release shows a year at various local venues; those shows paid for the cost of the CDs. And shortly after, the CD won the RFT Reader’s Choice award for “Best Local Release (Not on a Label).” It was great to see that kind of support for local music – support KDHX helped garner. But I still didn’t really think there would be more compilation CDs, until I realized the number of bands that I wanted to have on the next year. And the next year and the next.

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