Screen Tests

Sometimes it seems as if everyone in L.A. rock is working on the sonic equivalent of a screen play, cranking out ersatz Tarantino or gussied-up John Hughes. Mark Stewart, the formidable frontman of the Negro Problem, isn’t entirely free of that company-town mentality, but his kitschy commentaries aim quite a bit higher—bridging the gap between, say, Corman and Korine…with a few nods to Brian Wilson for good measure.

At Brownie’s on Friday night, Stew and his crew—including a Weezer-geek keyboardist and a shag-topped bassist born too late to be a Runaway—did just that, striking a perfect balance between hippie costume drama and hipster psychodrama. A sexually ambiguous, plus-sized cross between Pere Ubu’s David Thomas and Darius “Hootie” Rucker, Stewart proved unafraid to camp it up on flouncing versions of lite-psychedelic ditties like “Repulsion (Show Up Late for Work on Monday)” and “Comic Book.”

But even though the singer-guitarist has got the Knack for textbook Angeleno fluff, Stew art is at his most compelling when he guides the band, ever so subtly, into the less savory side of La-La Land. On “Buzzin’,” for instance, three-part harmonies that might as well be about cruisin’ down the 101 melted away, leaving the singer to murmur, brow furrowed, about the queasiness brought on by being called “a credit to his race.” The quartet wrapped up with the even more deftly executed U-turn of the prog-flavored “Peter Jennings,” a cannabis-fueled fantasy about romping on the moors in lovestruck pursuit of the anchorman that ended in dubwise chaos, with an increasingly distressed Stewart fleeing the L.A.P.D. Stewart’s no gangsta, not by a long shot, but when it comes to outrunning the law, even Snoop Dogg’s got nothing on him. —David Sprague

Devil May Care

Have you ever looked at the ceiling of the Hammerstein Ballroom? I mean really looked at it? Way up there amid the cherubim and seraphim afloat in the clouds is a strange tableau depicting a couple of guess-you-could-call-them-hippies placidly strumming their instruments. Towering over them, however, is a tall, dark, and goatlike figure, wailing away on the devil’s own instrument, a fiddle.

This cohabitation of good and evil was mirrored on the floor and onstage Halloween night, when the five-piece upstate-based vamp band moe. performed an ambitious guess-you-could-call-it-deconstruction of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Following an hourlong set by the Disco Biscuits, the usually impressive Philadelphia techno rockers who’d apparently shot their wad before hitting town, and a low-affect spinning session by DJ Logic, moe. bassist Rob Derhak (dressed as Wonka) and guitarist Al Schnier crooned “The Candy man” from the Hammerstein’s upmost box.

A game of one-upmanship was afoot. Phish traditionally dons musical Halloween costumes and covers entire albums (e.g., Quadrophenia and Remain in Light). Moe. upped the ante this year (while Phish takes a breather) with actual costumes, a black-lit Willy Wonka set, and intermittent appearances by roadies dressed as those moralistic candy-factory drones the Oompa Loompas. Amid a heady mixture of post-Allmans avant-groove music, moe. deftly segued from the heights of demonic double-guitar drums-akimbo fluxus into the chanted ominosity of the Oompa Loompa verses and “The Rowing Song” (“not a speck of light is showing/So the danger must be growing/Are the fires of Hell a-glowing?/Is the grisly reaper mowing?”). It was a memorable evening, for the devil, you see, always has the best tunes. —Richard Gehr

Pill Popping

Pastilla’s sudden appearance on the Club Monaco stage last Friday had the surreal, Seconal-hangover edge of a Velvet Goldmine dream sequence. For their first New York show, the L.A.-based rock en Español quartet had the bizarre task of clearing the dance floor of Halloween-costume-clad merengue-dancing couples with a barrage of dissonant power chords—it was almost like the Buzz cocks bursting into the middle of a swing-dance class.

Although most of Pastilla were born in Mexico, they grew up in places like Pomona, and the band comes on like a revved-up driving machine designed to navigate the alienation of SoCal sprawl. Bassist-vocalist Victor Monroy established Pastilla’s androgynous punk pose with “Vuelo,” an echo-y, distortion-filled assertion that he had not lost his wings. Sheets of cacophony gave way to trippy reverb rushes as Monroy’s plaintive voice begged for release from boredom, urging the audience to join the Latin rock carnival in “La Carpa.” There was no mosh pit, just a few swaying kids with backpacks milling around. As if to engage them in a pleasant fuck you, he suddenly turned to the audience, saying, “If someone wants to buy me a drink, it’s their problem.” I guess that’s what you could expect from a band with a song called “Porque Quieres Poder?” (Why Do You Want Power?).

Pastilla, whose name stands for whatever pill you prefer to take to make you feel good, is about how love is the drug, and how the mere feel of someone’s skin or lips can be a hallucinatory experience. When Victor’s brother Adrian Monroy took lead vocals for “Formula” (from their new release, Voz Electra), power-ballad licks gradually degenerated into angry fuzz bombs as his tale of romance began to fray at the edges. It’s a formula we’ve all heard before, but somehow, through their curious bicultural eroticism, Pastilla knew how to make it their own. —Ed Morales