Wednesday, February 25, 2009

review: Ra Ra Riot lives up to ‘best young band’ buzz

The brace-faced, plaid-clad crew was out in force at Neumos on Feb. 25, but to my surprise the barriers separating bar from dance floor was left a larger drink-available region than I’ve ever seen at Neumos. That allocation of space and diversity of crowd was a true testament to the cross-generational appeal that genre-melding indie rock has gained.

One of the first things I noticed while waiting for middle-slotted New Zealand outfit Cut Off Your Hands was a dreadlocked fan from the band’s first Seattle stop in support of We Are Scientists last July. After the group’s performance that night, he thanked each member personally as they exited the stage in a touchingly personal example of true appreciation. Though he didn’t get quite as involved this time around, he seemed to enjoy the show as much as the rest of the crowd.

The kiwi quartet utilized strobe lights and fog machines to their complete advantage, and turned their danceable indie-rock into a total crowd pleaser. The one thing I failed to notice last time is that all four members are mic’d up for vocals — and they all contribute significantly — making the entire performance was really an exercise in sharing.

Unsurprisingly, frontman Nick Johnston pulled many of his same stunts: tossing his microphone into the crowd, writhing around the dance floor, somersaulting over barriers. I have no idea how he didn’t break through the skin of his drum after beating it with the wrong end of his sticks, or break his neck from the wild positions he contorted into while writhing on the stage.

When Ra Ra Riot took stage around 11 p.m., I remembered that, through no fault of my own, female musicians are intrinsically attractive. That being said, cellist Alexandra Lawn surpassed Flobots violist Mackenzie Roberts as my latest crush. She’s incredibly talented, along with violinist Rebecca Zeller, and was clearly classically trained before she switched to electric and traded in Rachmaninoff for Rock ‘n’ Roll.

With six on the stage, Ra Ra Riot managed to maintain perfect stage flow and awareness not only of self but all the others. That really came through as evidence of their closeness, a bond developed from years together at college and the death of a band mate; John Pike, the group’s original drummer, drowned in June 2007. And though they attended Syracuse and mostly hail from the Northeast, signing to Seattle record label Barsuk made the Northwest their home away from home.

The sextet, who began generating buzz almost as soon as they formed and toured with the likes of Art Brut, Editors, Vampire Weekend and Los Campesions!, earned their headlining tours. It’s still amazing to hear how they can transform a cello-violin string duet into a rock song at the drop of a hat. Ra Ra Riot creates a true symphony of sound, a wave rising above the stage and crashing down on the audience. I caught myself starting to lose focus on the band itself and focus only on the music-inspired feeling.

With the volume turned just a few notches below “eardrum-bursting,” my ears rang for hours after leaving the venue. The performance — and feeling of musical satisfaction — was well worth the cost.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

review: K'naan — "Troubadour"


K’naan Warsame fired his first gun at age eight. At 11, he demolished half his school after accidentally detonating a found hand grenade. The next year, the boy fled from gunmen and narrowly escaped with his life; his three best friends weren’t so lucky.

Growing up in a part of Mogadishu known as “the River of Blood,” named by the UN as “the worst place on earth,” his childhood bore witness to unimaginable horrors. K’naan’s mother walked through gunfire to the US Embassy daily to file for a visa for her family. He was 13 when they left in January 1991. Theirs was the last commercial flight out before the government collapsed and violence closed the airport.

K’naan and his family moved to New York City for a brief stay, then continued on to Toronto. He caught the attention that fueled his rise to international fame after performing a spoken word piece before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1999, criticizing the UN for their failed aid missions to Somalia.

Sophomore album Troubadour — a French word meaning “folk singer” — is a fitting follow-up to 2005 debut The Dusty Foot Philosopher. K’Naan truly acts as a voice for his region, following in the footsteps of his aunt Magool (one of Somalia’s most famous singers) and poet grandfather Haji Mohamed.

He doesn’t beat around bushes. There’s “mountain bike racing,” where kids wrap rusty barbed wire around bicycle tires and roll them down hills. He touches on the common practice of mixing cocaine and gunpowder to make “brown brown.”

Despite being signed to A&M/Octone Records, a subsidiary of “big four” label Universal, K’Naan doesn’t hesitate to be real in the only way he knows. His long-term goal isn’t a mansion or a clothing line, it’s to effect change in his East-African home. He makes the point that gangerstism isn’t something to brag about — for some, it’s a horrible fact of life.

Troubadour features some titanic guest appearances for the fresh new artist, including Mos Def, Chali 2NA, Chubb Rock, Damian Marley, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett. Those artists and their varying genres are represented through the pure lyricism, The buffalo soldier ideals, pop vocal backings and symphonic instrumentation that saturate the album.

Explosive single “If Rap Gets Jealous” is the only carryover from K’naan’s debut album. But while the underlying theme is still unbelievable pain, the palpable angst and stream of consciousness from the first version fades after a complete rewrite of all but the first three lines of chorus. Fortunately the solos and guitar riffs from Metallica’s Hammett, intensifying the musicality of the song and pushing it beyond the purely hip-hop original composition, redeem the new recording

The crown-jewel track of the album is undoubtedly “Somalia,” a beautifully flowing and deceivingly upbeat ode to the horrors of his homeland and “to never know a single day without a big commotion.” The piano-backed diamond in the rough is “Take a Minute,” opening up with a time-old revelation: “any man who knows a thing/knows he knows not a damn damn thing at all.”

K’naan’s flow is consistently impeccable, and his melodious beats mask the pain of a childhood filled with closed coffins and blood-soaked streets. Don’t miss your chance to share it at Neumos on March 10.