Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Test of Time takes another

Artist: Wu-Tang Clan
Song: "C.R.E.A.M."
Rating: B-

Remember the 90’s? I don’t but I do.

My own experience was a rise into adolescence that has pretty much smeared by years of stimulant use. Everything I can remember from that decade is in still frame images; it doesn’t move and the sounds and other senses associated are made up in my head. A walk to school, a snowball fight, Genesis and Super Nintendo, sitting in the living room with Dad listening to the Pixies and Michael Jackson.

Off the top of my head, that’s it. I don’t really remember anything otherwise.
But there’s always the discovery of hidden memories in objects and pictures and videos. I see them, and presto, I’m back in 1994, a second grader drinking Hi-C in the greenbelt behind my house, wondering where it all goes from here. This video has a similar effect, even though rap music was not allowed into the home and disliked by all my friends.

I didn’t even get into Wu-Tang until last year, however. This song is associated with 3:00 a.m. drives across town, a college junior/senior sipping out of a used water bottle, wondering where it all goes from here. Same shit, different decade.
There’s obviously some conflict of emotions when I watch this video. It’s a timeless song, but a video that’s very obviously aligned with style of hip-hop videos back then: rappers dropping rhymes with their respective armies in the background, slum landscapes, appalling graphic effects and grainy video and not single damn smile to be seen. These are not images that have withstood the test of time, considering the bizarre top-ranked hip-hop video these days. How far we’ve come.

Most hip-hop videos back then didn’t even attempt to set the bar, but don’t discredit the style. An undeniable cool is tied to the 90’s style, and there’s a certain flow to the images that I like. Look at that. I’m getting caught up in my own generalizations. I don’t want to dislike this video, I admit.

You want some real positive criticism? Right here: In this video, Wu-Tang gives a subtle finger to the big money style that was also a popular style at the time. There’s that fabulously cliché scene near the end, with the boys sitting around the table of champagne and money bags, casually tucking cigars into their mouths while sneering at the camera. That’s C.R.E.A.M. for ya kid.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Dressy Bessy crank out album, hit the road

Originally published in Colorado Music Buzz, November 2008

Lounging in his hotel room in Memphis, John Hill remarks that this is the first time Dressy Bessy has played the city. But just because they were lucky enough to get into town early doesn’t mean they’ll be seeing much of it.

“I always say that if you want to see a city on tour, it takes like about half dozen times coming to that city before you actually see that city,” guitarist/vocalist Hill says over the phone, adding: “Yeah, (the show’s) tonight. We have a fairly late load in… I might actually have to leave here in a couple of minutes.”

It might be their first visit to Memphis, but the Denver-based power-pop collective is no rookie when it comes to the national tour. They’ve even developed their own strategic approach to their current tour: drop the album, then hit the road. Stopping by a few unfamiliar spots doesn’t hurt either, as Hill has discovered.

“The last week we’ve been more or less in the south. We’ve never been down there, thought we’d try it,” he says. “We’ve had good turnouts and actually have fans out in these places we’ve never been… It’s definitely worth doing, but it’s kind of hard. You don’t make quite as much money and the shows aren’t quite as big.”

Hill adds that most fans probably haven’t had a chance to pick up their new full-length, Holler and Stomp, which the group dropped last September before kicking off the tour with a show at Monolith.

If anything, most fans might not even know Dressy Bessy was still cranking out new material; it’s been three years of little-to-no activity since the release of their last album. Hill, who also plays guitar with The Apples In Stereo, notes that his work with the Apples (who released a b-sides compilation earlier this year) took up a fair share of his time, but the group never entirely stopped operations.

“It wasn’t like we we’re really taking a break, we just took a little bit of time off really.” Hill says.

Even when they weren’t entirely active, Dressy Bessy learned new lessons.

“We’ve immediately learned that we won’t wait so long in between records anymore,” Hill says. “We are finding that we have to break new ground in some areas, because the music industry changes so much and has been changing so quickly in the past three years.”

The industry might be subject to change over the years, but since Dressy Bessy took shape in 1998, the sound has retained some similar qualities since Hill and lead singer Tammy Ealom founded the band: short boppy pop powered by catchy hooks.

“When Dressy Bessy started, Tam and I were both listening to and fairly well-obsessed with 60’s pop,” Hill says. “A lot of those songs are 2 minutes and 10 seconds, just quick in-and-out, fairly simple, maybe some complexities. That’s kind of where Dressy Bessy started and then, I dunno, it’s changed a little bit over the years as far as our sound. But the basic root of it all, the kind of quick pop song with the quick hook and kind of get-in and get-out… that kind of stuck with us.”

Even then, Hill maintains, there’s more to the music than its sugary surface.

“A lot of times we get lumped into this bubble gum pop, which is fair enough, but if you read more into the songs, most of the songs are about Tammy being pissed off or something,” Hill says. “Everybody ends up thinking ‘Oh, she’s just La-Dee-Da!’ But almost all of them come from some conflict she’s had with somebody or something, it’s just hard to read into it.”

Hill says Ealom took a different approach in creating Holler and Stomp.

“Tammy approached this one in a much different way, where it was more of a beats-first kind of thing, whereas normally she’d approach it in the opposite way,” Hill says. “It is a little bit of a departure from the last two records in that the last two records we went into a studio and just banged it out, and had a deadline, which when you record an album and you don’t really have a deadline, you just work and work and work.”

There’s also the linear notes message from a very special fan: the quirky mop-haired Missourian who claims to have attended at least one show every day for the past commonly known as Beatle Bob.

“We’ve known for him, gosh, like 10 years maybe. He always comes to our shows in St. Louis, and then occasionally we’ll see him at South by Southwest and things like that,” Hill said.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

His Name is Magic Cyclops

Originally published in The Rocky Mountain Collegian, November 13, 2008

The man isn't interested in talking.

"You don't see me," he mumbles, scurrying past the Collegian reporter, a duffel bag under arm. "Not here."

He, a lanky pale figure who could pass as the Unabomber's protégé in his black hoodie and baseball cap, makes his way to the tiny stage in the corner of the room. Out of the duffel bag comes a mic stand, a vocal effects processor with built-in pedal and a MacBook with a "Regular Joes for McCain-Palin" sticker slapped on the monitor's back.

The sticker is somewhat ironic in a dive bar like Surfside 7, the only joint in town that proudly blasts the likes of Slayer and Turbonegro over its speakers and where piercings hang from bartenders' every appendage.

He turns on the microphone: "Test, test, hello, hello."

He toys with the processor, suddenly sounding like Alvin the Chipmunk: "W-w-whoa dude. I'm high on drugs."The bored female bartenders laugh. A small tweak in the controls and his voice drops into the hulking tone of a "60 Minutes" anonymous source: "I sound like a sexual predator."

Eyeing the bartenders, he adds a flirty purr to his monstrous baritone: "Hey there little boy. You like candy?" Pleased with this pitch and the responding laughter, he disappears into the kitchen behind the pizza counter.

Fifteen minutes later, a strange character swaggers out, bearing a black muscle shirt. His eyes are tucked away behind dark tea shades, while his long black hair is held to the sides of his face by a neon purple and blue bandana baring a single word: "MAGIC." He introduces himself: "It's legally Magic Cyclops. Legally."

One eye, one dream
Consider Cyclops to be many things.

"Magic Cyclops is the ultimate performance artist," says Nate Clark, sound engineer and production manager at the Aggie Theatre, who claims to have been a Cyclops fan since his earliest performances. "He's a musician, a character, an actor, a hero and a villain."

In less esoteric terms, Cyclops is the "Weird Al" Yankovic of Fort Collins, minus the direct parodies and PG rating -- he once told a heckler, "If I wanted any lip from you, I'd unzip my pants." He alternates between musician, with a berth of original songs, and professional disc jockey, never straying from an 80s sound.

"I've just always kind of been into music. Ya know, your Def Leppards, your Journeys," Cyclops says. "New music is crap. I enjoy what most people would call bad music nowadays."Then there were the heroes of the decade -- Hulk Hogan and other professional wrestlers -- who had a considerable impact on his life as well. Cyclops had sported a "HOGAN" headband up until this year, realizing that his idol "was the biggest douchebag on the planet."

But when pressed for details on his newfound hate, Cyclops ponders, retracts.

"I have been watching his celebrity wrestling lately, which is making him seem a little less douchey. I still think he wants to date his daughter and I kind of find that a little 'insane in the membrane,'" Cyclops says, drawing the classic "coo-coo crazy" signal with his finger. "Although if I had a hot daughter, I'd probably want to date her. Can I really condemn that? I dunno."

Sipping incessantly from a mixed drink, Cyclops says his hometown of Davenport, Iowa had a bad habit of inbreeding. He admits the possibility that his own mother and father might have been a little too close on the family tree.Cyclops often uses the words "unfortunate" and "sadly" in describing his early years.His impoverished upbringing, for example, left a permanent mark. BBC programming on PBS was the only entertainment he had access to as a child, manifesting in the British accent that he has never shed. The peer torment that followed never entirely faded either.

But escape was found in the music and icons of the times, the very subjects Cyclops clings to today. He recalls various babysitters taking him to concerts around Iowa and lesser-known acts like Mr. Mister and Centro-matic inspiring his decision to pursue a music-making career.

His arrival in Fort Collins was, at first, nothing more than another stop in Cyclops' 2000 nationwide tour. But when his car broke down, he says he decided to make Fort Collins his new home. There wasn't much back in Davenport, except some serious gambling debts.

Hot hits
Tonight at Surfside, Cyclops is doing the DJ thing.He greets the pooling crowd: "Time to get wicked. But first, I'm gonna play my theme song."

He turns to his MacBook and unleashes it, a startling 20-second blast of high-pitched wailing on the crowd. Just another Cyclops "hot hit."

"You know, a lot of people are just astounded and amazed, so much so that it causes them to get very angry," Cyclops says of his music's reception. "I could only imagine it's what, you know, your Stones, your Beatles, your Michael Jacksons had to go through in the early days."

Ben Prytherch, bassist with local band Motorhome, recalls an early Cyclops performance at Surfside that sparked such anger in one patron that he wrote a letter to the bar declaring he'd never come back.

"It used to be Magic Cyclops versus the audience," Prytherch says. "It was really fun watching a lot of people getting really angry."

Most Cyclops fans are of the "love-to-hate" variety, taking delight in the camp and comedic edge of his music, regardless of the artist's original intention. But it's hard to believe he meant anything else, considering song titles such as "Rainbow of Pain" and "Wrath of (Chaka) Kahn." There's also his most popular release, "Teen Pregnancy Don't Do It," a Casio keyboard ballad that's part song, part public service announcement. When asked about the inspiration behind the song, Cyclops refers to "growing up in Iowa, hoping that I didn't get the ladies pregnant."

"I saw most of my high school class had sons and daughters that are almost as old as I am now," Cyclops says.

There are very few specifics when it comes to the song-writing process for Cyclops.

"Like every musician, I just write about stuff," he says. "Stuff inspires me. Some days I'm over there at the Wal-Mart, and I'll see something like a muffin top. That inspires me. And then I'm like, going to get milk or something, and then a minute later, I'm like 'Oh, that'd be a hot hit, Muffin Top.'"

Most would argue Cyclops' talents are more concentrated in his stagemanship, particularly his air guitar antics. Earlier this year, Cyclops won the Denver Regional Air Guitar Championship, earning a trip to San Francisco to compete in the U.S. Air Guitar Championship in August.

"I picked the death sentence spot of going first," Cyclops says. "No one's ever advanced to the second round going first."

There's always next year. Cyclops says his steady performance schedule has kept him conditioned, and he eagerly anticipates the chance to redeem this year's mistake.

"I'm not like your average DJ; I lip-synch, I air-guitar, air-drum, it keeps me in the realm. It's like practice," he says. "And sometimes, late at night in my room, I'll kick on some Colt, put on my BVD's and rock it on out."

Expect a sizable showing of talent on Nov. 22, when Cyclops opens for 12 Cents for Marvin at the Aggie Theatre.

The man behind the Magic
Cyclops declined to give or confirm his supposed "real" identity for this article. While Cyclops will insist he is who he is, there is another personality behind the one-man show.

"He's not like Magic Cyclops at all," Clark says. "He's just a guy, a guy that loves punk rock, indie rock and music in general... nothing like Cyclops. Cyclops is an asshole, a prima donna."

"I see him around town," says Dayton Hicks, bassist with local band Arliss Nancy. "He's a nice guy -- kind of an introvert, I guess. He does his own thing."

"A lot of people, I think, mistake him for a complete goof-off," says Darren Radach, instrumentalist with Motorhome and Glove Trucker. "But he's one of those guys who, if he continues to take it as seriously as he does, could end up being on Comedy Central, Saturday Night Live. He's got that kind of talent and that kind of conviction in his comedy."

Saturday, November 8, 2008

CD Review: Project Moonbeam

Originally published in Scene Magazine, November 2008

Immersive at best and boring at worst, progressive rock is often considered decades past its time, particularly when based in the synthesizer style that gave nerd bands like Rush an unexpected place in pop culture. As cutting-edge as it was then, listening to Project Moonbeam’s self-titled debut makes it pretty obvious that some sounds are best left on classic rock radio.

The man behind the Moonbeam is Loveland musician Chris Fournier. Project Moonbeam, as he writes in the liner notes, was a three-year learning activity to get his high-end music studio, Earth Shaper Audio, “understood and operational.” Fournier self-produced the final product, and considering the elegant layering and flawless effect placement, it’s apparent that he has learned much. However, the music itself doesn’t quite hold up in comparison.

It’s not that the pedal-heavy guitars or poky rhythms feel a few decades late, it’s just that there’s little fun to be found in listening to the same tawdry track over and over. Project Moonbeam’s album has a tendency towards that: an intergalactic assortment of rising Satriani solos melded together with crunchy riffs (“Air,” “Quarkz”) and soft-shelled keyboard melodies (“Depths Unknown,” “Man I Was”).

Also to be stressed is that in this day and age, drum machines are only permissible when they’re buried deep in the audio layering and don’t resemble a drum machine whatsoever, a rule that Fournier has regrettably chosen to break in “Reality Is.” The opening electro-percussion kick in that track caused me Baltimora flashbacks. For that, I say shame on you Project Moonbeam.