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Eugene Weekly : Music : 3.22.07

Epic Soundtracks

Ratatat's road to victory

BY JOSH BLANCHARD

If you believe that beneath all of your 21st century sheen there's an ancient Viking oarsman ready to sail off into glorious battle, then New York's Ratatat might just be what it takes to make your warrior blood boil.

Ratatat, 120 Days, Despot. 9 pm Thursday, March 29. .WOW Hall. $12 adv., $15 door

The twosome's perfect marriage of propulsive hip hop rhythms and soaring guitar lines boasts all the dramatic victory of a power metal anthem but with a decidedly more sophisticated flair. You might think a band with such a knack for tapping epic, emotional realms would have broken the process down to a science, but with Ratatat, it's just a matter of instinct.

"I'm not sure what makes one melody triumphant and another not," says bassist and beat master Evan Mast, "but you certainly know it when you hear it. For instance, no one could listen to the 'The Final Countdown' and not sense the triumph."

A former Portland resident, Mast had already established himself in pre-Ratatat days as an electronic artist under the name E*vax, while his future collaborator, Mike Stroud, had been working as a guitar slinger for well-known acts like Dashboard Confessional and Ben Kweller.

"We met at school but didn't start making music together until a few years later though, when we were both living in New York." explains Mast. "I ran into Mike on the subway, and we decided to get together and make a song. We made this really over the top speed harpsichord song that was inspired by the 'Thong Song.' It was really funny, and we had such a good time with it, so we just kept going, making more stuff."

The hyperstylized focus of Ratatat's self -titled 2004 debut wet many a critic's whistle but also created such a distinct sound that the duo could have easily typecast themselves as one trick ponies. A listen to last year's follow up, Classics, instantly dispels such notions as the band explores dusty spaghetti western themes, subtle funk inflections and cordial acoustic breakdowns. Don't expect the surprises to end here, though.

Mast says, "We have a few more months of touring to go, and then I think we'll get back to writing new stuff. We got very caught up in details on the last record, making sure every sound and part worked together perfectly. I'm not sure what direction the new songs will take, but I want to try something quick and sloppy and see where that goes."

 

 

Juicy, Whimsical Jazzpop

Local debut for the "sharp of mind and young at heart"

BY VANESSA SALVIA

Eugene's Jessica Parsons-Taylor grew up on 10 wooded acres in Cottage Grove, "running wild," pretending to be a gnome. She's been singing practically from birth and playing piano since age three, so it's no surprise that this 4' 11" bundle of energy chafed at the restrictions of music school.

Jessica Parsons-Taylor. 8 pm Thursday, 3/29. Luna • $5

Now 22, Parsons-Taylor says the scales and strict exercises "repelled" her. "I was always attracted to music purely for the joy and the passion," she says. She preferred experiencing music rather than talking about it.

Celebrating her debut CD, The Slower Side of Time, Parsons-Taylor is definitely living it. The album's cover image of Parsons-Taylor wearing a sophisticated, sexy yellow dress while holding a whimsical red balloon creates a contrast paralleled in her music. "I have a lot of serious or semi-serious subjects like love and longing and loss and all the things people write songs about," she says, "but at the same time I think there's definitely a youthful, playful quality to all of it."

Parsons-Taylor's music is piano-led pop; sparse but not sad, quiet but not somniferous, and her voice is intriguingly childlike. A nice clarinet line sets off the simple melody of "Say Anything" while Parsons-Taylor croons to her love that she's "quite prepared to fall, if you'll say anything at all." "Styrofoam Palace" has plucky parts that sound almost like a music box tune. Parsons-Taylor declares that her love, like Styrofoam, may crumble but won't fade away. It sounds silly, but it's a catchy tune highlighting her unique way of describing everyday ideas.

As young as she is, Parsons-Taylor is already gaining national attention. She's one of ten finalists in the Plowshares Songwriting Contest in Phoenixville, Penn. A songwriter friend told Parsons-Taylor about the contest, and she entered four songs. She flies out to compete for the grand prize on March 31.

Despite Parsons-Taylor's youthful appearance, she's no ingénue. "I always have felt much older than my 22 years," she says. "I've always felt like an old soul." Joining her on stage will be drummer Chris Lay, bassist Mark Schneider and guitarist Tom Teutsch.

 

Red Hot Opera

Vagabond Opera

Scandalous scarlet crinolines, old school accordions, guys with waxed moustaches — who wouldn't love being temporarily transported to an old-world cabaret house? Vagabond Opera is a Portland ensemble that taps into the lusty bohemian in all of us, satisfying days-of-yore urges with compositions that infuse classical opera with European and Middle Eastern elements ranging from Persian hot jazz to klezmer to Ukrainian punk. Sultry and rhythmic, comic and dark, Vagabond Opera does more than cross music genres; it evokes forgotten mysteries and celebrates the timeless, tragic joys of life during the group's acclaimed stage show.

Eric Stern is the eclectically minded musical maestro behind Vagabond Opera. A European trained opera singer, Stern felt ill at ease amongst the regalia of classical opera and longed for "performance on a more intimate scale." The breeding ground of creative genius that is Portland led Stern's path to cross those of five other highly trained musical misfits, each on a respective journey to find the magical crossroads between conventional art and groundbreaking innovation. Since they began practicing their intoxicating alchemy, audiences all over the West Coast have lapped up their performance experience and come back begging for more: more unpredictable tempo changes, more soul-shattering notes held longer than humanly possible, more spellbinding stage presence and more haunting melodies to float upon in dreams come nightfall.

Vagabond Opera shares the stage with Eugene's own Mood Area 52, also masters of scrambling the time-space continuum between old world tango music and avant garde jazz. Prepare yourself for an evening of romantic languages, sensual harmonies, off-beat humor and antique inspiration.

Vagabond Opera and Mood Area 52 play at 8 pm Friday, March 23 at the WOW Hall. $7 adv., $8 door— Adrienne van der Valk

 

 

Pondering Sondre

Sondre Lerche's 2002 U.S. debut, Faces Down, was a bit of a barnstormer within indie rock circles across the country. Twenty years old at the time, the Norwegian singer-songwriter floated in from nowhere to light up college music charts and dazzle critics with his dulcet folk/pop tunes. Lerche went on to record three more LPs and a slew of import-only EPs; inspired by a wide array of '80s pop — from the new-wave vibes of Thomas Dolby to the crisp rock 'n' roll of Elvis Costello — the young crooner's erudite grasp on the mechanics behind classic pop tunes enabled him to sell the saccharine without ever sounding vapid or meretricious.

In hindsight, Faces Down — while his first and most raw-sounding — is still Lerche's best; even with his growing library of material, it was Lerche's stark, one-man acoustic version of the album's title track that had journalists and employees swooning at a recent ad-hoc acoustic session over at Astralwerks HQ. Faces Down heralded Lerche as this kind of neophyte-savant — his melodies were ingenious, but the way his impetuous falsettos cracked and awkwardly wrapped around certain high notes added a charming dimension to his youthful persona.

But the young man has grown quite comfortable and skilled with his intuitive gifts as a performer, polishing his singing and evolving his songwriting. And while his latter albums — most notably 2006's studio-jazz/lounge-pop album, Dupper Sessions, and 2007's energetic mod-rock endeavor, Phantom Punch — might sound more appropriate wafting overhead in a Starbucks than coming through the college radio airwaves, Lerche's music is still pretty damn sweet. His performance at such an intimate environment as Sam Bond's should prove both scintillating and whimsical.

Sondre Lerche and Willy Mason play at 9:30 pm Saturday, March 24 at Sam Bond's Garage. 21+ show. $10 adv., $12 door. — Steven Sawada

 

Punk Jazz

Skip Heller

Skip Heller's background is so diverse — playing and composing everything from exotica to big band, soundtracks for crime audiobooks, space-age lounge, rockabilly, film scores, cartoon music, Chicano music, even a stint touring with NRBQ — it's a wonder the L.A.-based guitarist been able to find his own voice. Yet while much of what Heller plays starts off sounding like something else, it usually winds up recognizably his own.

Consider the long and winding stylistic roads he's explored in 42 years: started listening to country folk as a kid and then worked his way through soul, 1980s L.A. punk (including X and the Blasters, whose Dave Alvin appeared on Heller's 2002 disk) and rockabilly. Heller eventually ended up playing jazz in the mid 1980s, working with musicians from Uri Caine to Yma Sumac (!) to X drummer DJ Bonebrake (who'll be joining him here) on several projects. Critics hailed his every sudden turn. His path proved circular: Heller's last few albums have maintained the organ combo format that reached its pinnacle during his youth in his native Philadephia with Philly legends like Jimmy Smith.

Not to say Heller plays musty half century old jazz standards; for all his reverence for Bill Evans and Grant Green, his new disk covers XTC's "Dear God," the Dead Milkmen's "Punk Rock Girl" and X's "Motel Room in My Bed" along with his tasty originals. But it all grooves (with equal credit due B-3 whiz Chris Spies), it's all as accessible to rock and pop fans as to jazz heads and you can hear traces of every genre he's sampled along the way.

Skip Heller Trio plays at 9 pm Saturday, March 24 at Jo Federigo's. 21+ show. $5. — Brett Campbell

 

For Us!

Against Me!

Live albums: Interesting musical documents or filler between new stuff? The question's a little different when you're talking about a band like Against Me!, a ferocious mishmash of aggro rock with an overlay of dirty twang. An Against Me! live show is a thing of blistering energy, both from the band and the sweaty kids on the floor, and there's just no way to fully capture that though the band's most recent release, Americans Abroad!!! Against Me!!! Live in London!!! (yes, all those exclamation points are really necessary), makes a game go of it. The live record is still on indie punk label Fat Wreck Chords; the quartet's next studio album, New Wave, will be released by Sire Records (part of the massive Warner Bros. empire) and produced by Butch Vig, whom you may know from such releases as Nirvana's Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream. What that means for the Florida band's anthemic, sometimes country-tinged punk sound should be on display at Sunday's show, as the current tour is a new-stuff preview. "Genre-blending" is the word the press release uses, and it roughly fits: You've got your politics ("From Her Lips to God's Ears," with its roaring "Condoleeza!" chorus), your pints ("Pints of Guinness Make You Strong"), your throat-tearing vocals, your singalong rants (the spectacular "Sink, Florida, Sink") and a delicious dose of fuck-shit-uppedness.

Against Me! plays with Riverboat Gamblers and Fake Problems at 8 pm Sunday, March 25 at the WOW Hall. $13.50 adv., $15 door. — Molly Templeton

 

New Wave Numerals

The Manchester music scene of the '70s and '80s, where musicians experimented with and perfected pop-infused punk songs and danceable club beats, fostered such bands as Joy Division, New Order and The Smiths. The scene, with its catchy, pop appeal, no doubt inspired similar bands of today like The Killers and Aqueduct.

Roman Numerals

A long way from Manchester, the Kansas-based Roman Numerals evoke the new wave club scene of the former era with '80s dance beats, angst-laden vocals and airy synthesizer. The band's website sums them up nicely: "This is the sound of the past informed by the future, as if Big Black had visited early-'80s era Gang of Four in a vision, or if the ghost of Fugazi had haunted Modern English."

Of course, they weren't always The Roman Numerals. Fittingly, they were originally a Joy Division cover band. The positive response from one Halloween show (as Unknown Pleasures) inspired the boys to write their own tunes.

Their self-titled album begins with "My Life After Death Pt. 1," which gives the illusion that they're a straightforward rock band with added keyboards. The moderate pace of the song, combined with airy guitar plucks and grizzly vocals with a hint of reverb, gets you moving, but it's later in the album where the incorrigible dance beats come out. By "The Rule of V," the David Bowie-inspired vocals, crunchy guitar and sneering synthesizer will get the audience on the dance floor, swaying their hips and arms like drugged-out zombies (maybe I've watched too many after-school specials about club kids).

The Roman Numerals, Dan Jones and the Squids and The Underlings play at 10 pm Thursday, March 29 at Diablo's Downtown Lounge. 21+ show. — Amanda Burhop