Some years back, when Rolling Stone celebrated its 25th birthday with a massive silver anniversary issue, the editors were circumspect enough to include, for nostalgia’s sake, some of the choicer letters that had drifted into the publication over the years. One of them, as I recall, was from a NASA scientist who reported with a good deal of alarm that according to calculations made by their room-sized computer (whose functions, no doubt, could today be performed by a machine half the size of a box of Blue Tip matches), popular music was in danger of running out of new melodies within five years.
That is to say, well before 1980. Looking back, it’s nowhere near as scary to think that we might have run out of one-trick ponies to kick up the pop charts as it is to think that some of this chimp’s colleagues would, in the not-so-distant future, be sending 72 pounds of plutonium into the atmosphere on the Saturn-bound Cassini Probe.
Not to worry, not to worry. Thanks to the wonder of combinatorial systems, if you sit down to a toddler’s miniature piano with only ten keys, the number of 20-note combinations you can produce using only quarter notes rings out at a hundred million trillion. But what’s really amazing is the existence of any reasonably complex melody when reckoned against the statistical likelihood of it never having emerged from the explosion of possibilities. In your musical travels this week, please savor any melody you encounter, no matter how cloying, flawed, underdeveloped or obvious. The odds of your never having heard it are infinitely greater.
Arlo and the Deathray Davies at Jay’s Upstairs
Los Angeles-based Arlo, one of the two bands riding into Jay’s Upstairs this Tuesday on a magic carpet of melody, are no more a rock band than, say, the Pixies ever were. But peek between the folds of the big, burnished rock sound and you’ll find a similar penchant for making recondite hooks sound doh-obvious and adding occasional turns and potholed detours around what sound, ten seconds off in the distance, like perfectly driveable stretches of the road. Mostly, though, Arlo stay the course through uplifting and anthemic territory that the listener comes away from with a certain appreciation of heft and thickness in the pop.“Oh Yeah,” from their debut album on Sub Pop, Up High in the Night, is the perfect slice of summer-afternoon arena bliss with all the trimmings: little drummer boy pah-rum-pum-pum intro patter as vocalist Nate Greely (first line on this song: “Come on, baby”) confidently eases into the song on the heels of a guitar warming up for the big shimmer; restful plateaux of “oh yeah, oh yeah” and guitar trapezoids that make the ascending melody sound cleaner and steeper every time it comes back. Then comes the quantum reach into falsetto! It’s not rocket science or anything, but crimony, when they all land on a part at once, it’s beautiful.
The other half of this Jay’s double-header, the Deathray Davies, take a slightly more urgent approach to the matter of melody. Fans of raw British pop looking for a musical explanation of the Dallas band’s misappropriated name will be gratified and a little flustered to find some signature Kinks moves loitering around a lot of the songs in delinquent packs of two and three crunching chords. These are only footnotes, though, and do not tell the whole story. The Return of the Drunk Ventriloquist, last year’s long-player on Idol Records, finds the Deathray Davies waffling between Kinks territory and the psych-rock of yesteryear, shot through with the familiar Farfisa sound and the frequent chattering of a tambourine. Modern impulses manifest themselves in the anthemic choruses (“Clever Found a Name”) and on an echoic ballad or two (“The Bitter Old Man Blues”), making the album much more than just a stylishly updated and beautifully played throwback. Still, it’s not tough to tell what kind of diet these cats grew up on. “Evaporated” even rewires the bass opus of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” into an ultra-slinky groove with floating keyboards and Bonham-heavy drums. Whether it’s done consciously or otherwise, there’s nothing ribbon-cuttingly new about assimilating chunks of pre-existing melody into new building material, but it’s not so often that a band makes it sound so effortlessly good.
Arlo and the Deathray Davies play Jay’s Upstairs next Tuesday, 10 PM. Cover TBA.
That 1 Guy and Johnny Dowd at the Ritz
Maybe it’s because we’re creatures of habit. Some of us still like drums and guitars and are wary of bands being replaced by little black boxes onstage—if a stage is even relevant anymore. We like bass, even keyboards, and people playing them. These things are the No. 2 pencils of live music.
And maybe we will get left behind, but in the meantime it’s still cool to see musicians like Mike Silverman putting themselves somewhere between the old familiar band/musician territory and the vaguely frightening (for me, anyway) frontier of completely digitized, computerized, programmable electronic music with something one writer has called “analog techno.” Silverman, aka That 1 Guy, plays strange, not always comfortable music on an array of one-stringed homemade instruments with ominous names like the Evil Bass and The Pipe, and adds even stranger lyrics over the resulting sequence of unearthly sounds in a grating frat-guy rapper voice. Listening to his latest CD, Songs in the Key of Beotch is a little like listening to a free-associating Surrealist hip-hop version of the cantina band from Star Wars.
Silverman is a professional musician in San Francisco with a rap sheet of studio credits longer than a union lunch break. He started his solo act as a half-joking response to the paltry $50 that one of his bands got for playing a club (“I said, ‘I’m gonna start a one-man band, play these shitty little clubs and keep the $50 for myself,’” he told a writer for alt.music publication The Synthesis) and just kept adding new things to his original set-up of analog drum machine and bass played through a small amp.
The most interesting development is easily the elbowed-together mass of inch-and-a-half galvanized steel pipe with one bass string tuned to low C. The pipe is festooned with an arsenal of drum triggers and wiring that funnels the sound through a gauntlet of signal-splitters, Echoplexes, pedals, processors, filters and mixers that belch forth the layer-cake weirdness. There’s also another string tuned to high G that Silverman bows to produce a low-lying cloud of ethereal effects. Taken in CD form, the resulting sound is fairly exhausting after only four or five songs, but live—you can just tell— it’s going to be mesmerizing high weirdness.
There’s weirdness of another kind at work in the music of Johnny Dowd, an upstate New Yorker who apparently runs a moving company during the day and spends the small hours writing songs of murder, salvation and retribution. The style itself isn’t that jarring, it’s mostly the vocals (delivered in his own exaggerated Deliverence gibber on “Big Wave,” from his Temporary Shelter CD, or in bandmate Kim Sherwood-Caso’s fey Rosemary’s Baby la-la-la on other selections), and the creepy midnight death-trip vibe that suffuses all of the lyrics. Melody is treated to a long dark arsenic tea-party in the tormented (for artistic reasons, anyway) soul of Dowd, who furthermore seems to have modeled his psychotic musical alter ego on the character of Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart. Temporary Shelter kind of made me want to take a long shower with a wire brush and quart of lye. Since there isn’t actually a title track on it, and since the spirit of something dead or about to die seems to be front and center on each of the 11 creepy selections, Dowd should actually have called his CD You’ve Lost that Living Feeling. Hopefully you understand that I mean this as a compliment.
Johnny Dowd and That 1 Guy are locked in a death-grip double-header of high weirdness this Friday at the Ritz. 10 PM. $5.