Boombox Babies


I was No. 11. Before I could decide if participating in a show I was to review was or wasn’t ethically dubious, I was propelled by a crowd current onto the stage at Wetlands, where the Flaming Lips were conducting their 19th ”Boombox Experiment” on Sunday night. A woman shoved a Ziploc bag full of tapes in my face as lead Lip Wayne Coyne encouraged each of my fellow 39 volunteers to ”be a trooper,” by which he meant would we please suppress our need to pee? A quick test assured that our boomboxes were sorta in synch, though the Lips really wanted us because we would eventually fuck up the most simple of tasks.

Coyne was a sick parody of a conductor, barking out pre-song countdowns with a bug-eyed enthusiasm (half Richard Simmons, half B.A. Baracus). The opener, ”The Big Ol’ Bug Is the New Baby Now” (an altered version of a track from Zaireeka, the Lips’ mind-boggling ’97 release, which consisted of four CDs designed to be played simultaneously), sounded like an angelic choir heralding a volcanic eruption. Things got exponentially more outlandish: ”A Winter’s Day Car Accident Melody” turned police sirens into anthemic soundbursts; ”Realizing the Speed of Life” made our boomboxes bawl like neglected babies; ”Altruism” slowed down Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm from When Harry Met Sally to a nightmarish pant and then built it back up over thrusts of dissonance, ending the show with our boomboxes literally coming in our laps.

The experiment took lo-fi to its ultimate extreme–the ”performers” needed no musical talent–while expanding Pet Sounds–inspired orchestral pop into giddy new territory. But what impressed the most wasn’t how the Lips made their cumbersome sonic architecture awesome or even how they turned dweeby experimentalism into pop we could get off on. It was how they unwittingly summoned the spirit of Radio Raheem, patron saint of the boombox. The massive sound anchored the night’s unwieldy theme (can we overcome the oppressiveness of technology with communal ritual?), crafting a silly yet moving response to this big premillennial mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.–Josh Westlund

Can Do

A vaguely ”Can Festival” is planned for next year in Berlin, but the shows at the Cooler last weekend may be the closest we get to seeing the band here. The latest version of Can singer-shaman Damo Suzuki’s band, now with Can guitarist Michael Karoli, rolled into town for a seven-date North American tour–the first time either had played here. With Can, Damo’s screams, sighs, and battery-acid gargles added an edge to their music that was never matched. Back then, he didn’t much know about or care for German rock music, and now he’s similarly uninterested in the genres–punk, postrock, Japanoise, and techno–that subsequently lapped up the Can-on. Still, whether he’d care to admit it or not, Damo remains something of an avant-icon, with plenty to live up to.

But c’mon…two guys hitting 50 with some youngsters in tow trying to recapture that ol’ Krautrock magic? Actually the only pisser of the evening was the way they confounded the young, clean-cut crowd by playing three one-hour sets (the way it’s done in Europe, apparently). All the songs were long, untitled improvs (the only recognizable elements were snatches of ”Mother Sky”). The group weaved through styles, from gut bucket to psychedelic wailing to funk, like the Dead with bad karma or Can in their prime. No choruses or verses–just peaks and valleys of loud, noisy, loose rock. Their wild swing and spidery guitar lines sounded almost like Beefheart, brought home when Gary Lucas did Hoovermatic impressions with them for the second set. It’s no big surprise that they record their shows for possible release, since these loony workouts are impossible to re-create in a studio.

Decked out in Day-Glo pants, Damo clutched the mike with his eyes closed, long black hair waving over his face. He gibbered, chanted, yelled such inspirational rants as ”Eye stese O!” Karoli sat quietly in the back at first but was soon bouncing around, playing violin, and later joining the audience for some ass-shaking. Damo thanked the 15 or so people remaining at 4 a.m. after the last set by hugging each and every one of us. It wasn’t Can but it wasn’t supposed to be. Once you got over that and got caught up in the free-form madness, there was no need for narcotics. This was cheaper and probably did as much damage to your mind.–Jason Gross

Sour Apple Grey

The source of Bob Mould’s problems, it turns out, is the Village Voice, and specifically the Pazz & Jop poll. ”Two of the records I made with Husker Du ended up in the top five in one year,” he explains on the interview disc that comes with his cranky new album, The Last Dog and Pony Show, ”and all of a sudden I felt like I had an obligation to be like the best artist in the world, and I always had to live up to everybody’s expectations.”

This is the Pete Townshend Disease: deciding that acclaim and intelligence condemn you to high seriousness. At the Irving Plaza stop of his farewell electric tour last Friday night, Mould played like rock was his responsibility: vigorous, powerful, professional, almost joyless. The full-band format is stifling his songs, it’s true. He looks great bounding around the stage and soaking his T-shirt with sweat, and oh, how that bristling guitar tone will be missed, but he sings everything in the same nasal roar to make himself heard over it, and the stiff-legged Dog and Pony Band (including former Tommy–Hedwig and the Angry Inch lead Michael Cerveris) doesn’t do the material any favors. Besides, Mould has made it very clear that he’s sick of alt-rock and sick of playing the music-biz game, and the great big banner across the stage advertising his Web site suggests that maybe he wants out of the familiar distribution paradigms, too.

The only reasonable explanation for why he’s hauling his ass out on the road this way is that sense of obligation to his audience. So why is he avoiding the (superior, beloved) Huskers and Sugar catalogues, meaning that the only nostalgic sing-along was 1989’s ”See a Little Light”? Maybe it’s that he’s trying not to be Pete Townshend–trying not to wring out his old glories until they tear–but if this tour really is for old times’ sake, he could at least trot out the appropriate dogs and ponies. The grim self-importance of what’s left in his repertoire is a bad sign. Being motivated by the significance of his career is, in its way, as undignified as clinging to his past would be.–Douglas Wolk

Rave Reminder

Saturday at the Bowery Ballroom, a loved-up-to-the-gills crowd greeted Balearic godhead Paul Oakenfold as if the hedonistic 1988 Summer of Love had never ended. Oakenfold’s epic, nearly four-hour set, all thudding 4/4 beats, vamping piano stabs, wailing divas, dizzying drum rolls, and slick ambient glazes, was transportingly cheesy, without ever relying on nostalgia for effect.

The shockingly young-looking Oakenfold (better living through chemistry, indeed), who wears his headphones like gladiatorial headgear, provided one rapturous moment after another, including a housed-up remix of Blur’s ”Song 2,” which had the crowd whooping along to its ”Whee-hoo!” refrain. Revelers pogoed, group-hugged, drew unknowable patterns in the air with their hands, even wept. As the set reached its shuddering peak, one party-goer hoisted a Union Jack behind Oakenfold’s turntables in an apparent burst of drug-induced patriotism (God save the E!). Isn’t rave supposed to melt away nasty stuff like nationalism? Still, in the end, this strange, contradictory gesture was irrelevant: Oakie’s beats are too universal to fly under one flag.–Ethan Brown