I wrote some months ago about an emerging Californian independent scene.
I also pointed out that in recent years duos have been springing as fresh water from the Rock mountains.
August 2009. Another chapter adds to this story.
Crocodiles got the attention of media because of No Age.
When the LA duo said somewhere that their favourite song was Neon Jesus by Crocodiles, the antennas of music freaks pointed to San Diego to discover more about this other duo.
No Age were right.
Neon Jesus is one of those song that comes out of a speaker and you ask “what’s this?”
Most important the entire Crocodiles album, Summer of Hate, which curiously does not contain Neon Jesus, is a fresh example of this Californian noise-pop. If the guys in the band ever read they “wanna kill me now” for writing this, see why.
Formed by Brandon Welchez and Charles Rowell, Crocodiles deconstruct all your ideas about San Diego and Californian lifestyle. Right as No Age did for LA about a year earlier.
They speak that out loud: “If you live there, then you slowly die… a lot of the nastiness in our music comes from reacting to the boring culture there, and the sunshine … The sunshine can be oppressive.”
Love it or hate it, this is a perfect picture of what I got spending three days visiting San Diego. They are from San Diego, though, which make things a bit more elaborated.
In a welcomed, but not so insightful, artistic statement “We’re really into blurring that line between violence and beauty” which is already transparent reading songs’ titles –Summer of Hate, I Wanna Kill, Refuse Angels, Young Drugs– there is most of the concepts you need to know about Crocodiles approach to music and California.
Thanks to internet, rumours spread fast and they were spotted and signed by the best record label south of Seattle: Fat Possum.
Fat Possum became famous years ago recording and letting the world know the almost recluse blues from the Hill Country, which differs from traditional Delta Blues for being rougher. A music that developed in a self confined area of Mississippi and didn’t have the chance (or didn’t care) to leave the bars to move north to Chicago.
Thanks to Fat Possum recordings, the music world got to know old bluesmen as Juniour Kimbrough, RL Burnside, T-Model Ford to name but few.
Fat Possum does not just follow the Lomax family mission of catching and recording the anthropological heritage of America’s native music, their mission goes beyond.
Fat Possum blues changed rock in this millennium, and it is not another of my hyperbole. Members of U2 and Rolling Stones travelled to Oxford, Mississippi, to listen to these guys playing.
Jon Spencer brought there his entire Blues Explosion to record an album with RL Burnside (A Ass pocket of Whiskey) which put the basis to the horrible definition of a key music trend: punk-blues. The Black Keys recorded on Fat Possum their best albums and homaged Juniour Kimbrough with a covers’ EP.
On the top of that The White Stripes found the mainstream formula, managed to export this music out of the Mississippi Hill Country to Detroit and from there to the whole world.
Crocodiles’ Summer of Hate is not a blues album but retains the lo-fi glamour of the Fat Possum blues records. Raw, jagged, unrefined, goes direct to the heart of the listener with no frills.
The philosophy is close to No Age noise-pop but the music is different. Brandon Welch has programming duties beyond singing, Charles Rowell took a synth to a San Diego recording studio. The result is a sound that is more complex than straight drum’n’guitar garage and more various. Not always a strength.
Crocodiles have a high melodic taste designed by a great amount of atmospheric keys and a more danceable beat. Most rhythms are programmed and it’s when the guitar enters to break the dreamy synth-pop patterns that the contrast emerges and transforms the unrefined thing into something which isn’t sugar.
Recipe is well proved. The merging of this two opposite approaches to music, melodic-pop taste and guitar-noise passion has been explored since Velvet Underground and Nico.
Which songs to like is a matter of personal taste, either the obsessive loop over the seven minutes of Young Drugs (no one dared to put it on youtube) or the catchy pop song that is Neon Jesus.
To my personal taste the most interesting stuff comes when a balance is reached. I Wanna Kill is a pristine song hidden behind a strident, noisy guitar with vocals reminding Jesus and Mary Chain.
Summer of Hate uses the same formula, the same sensitivity with a better melody. Sang through an effect, it reminds me of the Stones when they were trying to get psychedelic.
The rest of the album goes with highs and lows but contains enough variety of seeds for a band to blossom, it’ll be nice to see which they decide to sow.
It is nice to see from California, south California, LA and San Diego (San Francisco scene has always been an anomaly and the desert have been offering sandy, abrasive music for over a decade) some guys able to challenge the clichés and deliver songs that goes beyond the FM Radio-friendly unsustainable stadium rock.
When I read Crocodiles were coming to London to play an acoustic gig at Rough Trade East on a Sunday afternoon, I decided to go. Why unplugged gigs played by electric bands have this irresistible appeal? It must be Nirvana’s fault.
Meeting them was nice. Two easy going guys in skinny jeans. They’ll hate me twice, but they are Californian-style from a European perspective.
Despite the claim to detest and be bored to dead of it, I could still feel the upbeat mood that comes from living all year in the sun. Meet Kevin Shield for a change and you will understand what I mean.
If Brandon Welchez attempts a sunglasses look that reminded me how Noel Gallagher looked like a decade ago, Charles Rowell didn’t hide behind dark lenses and reminded me the young Bob Dylan. The acoustic guitar helped the association, not counting the presence of a mysterious “Mr Tambourine”.
The half-hour set had the prompt effect to make me desire to see their electric show. Not because it wasn’t good, they confessed this was the very first time they where playing acoustic, but because cleaning the songs from the noise didn’t do them a good service.
Some of their best stuff couldn’t be played because it simply wouldn’t have worked without a synth, a laptop and a jack. Other songs were left only to the melodic core without all the noisy trimmings.
It was like having a Sunday Roast without the stuffing.
I think it was the real Bob Dylan (correct me if I am wrong) saying that a good song still sounds good when played solely on vocal and guitar. I disagree. It may work to test his stuff, but arrangements to today’s music are as key as the chords progression.
You can’t sing I Wanna Kill and Summer of Hate with acoustic guitars and it’s not because they are not good song. Is that they immediately transforms into “I Wanna Peace” and “Summer of Love”. Kind of the hippie stuff they hate, ain’t it?
Despite the nice setting of an in-store free gig, next time I want to see Crocodiles very loud.
Hate must come out at 130dB from the amplifier. I want to taste the real thing, with all the stuffing, the gravy and even the chips.
To get ready you can listen to Crocodiles on [myspace]
I am not sure Rough Trade East is the “the UK’s largest record shop” as their press release states, but I am pretty sure it is the best, which their press release shouldn’t be shy to declare.
Few years ago it joined the original Rough Trade shop in Notting Hill and soon became a reference for rock music lovers.
I am personally attached to it, not only because it displays the best music you can find outside Amazon (it is more expensive than the online sites, so it works nice if you are set in a rush-mode more than in an economy-mode), I am fond of it because it reminds me of a similar shop in Rome which I used to browse for endless hours during my University years.
That shop was called Disfunzioni Musicali and looked very much as a working class version of Rough Trade East.
Instead of classy 24″ iMacs (not with free internet anymore), there were old computers with greasy keyboards that allowed to browse a huge catalogue of records through a MS-Dos software.
Xerox-copied CD covers replaced the real CDs on display.
Orders went through a very analogic system. You brought to a guy at the counter the xerox-covers of the album you want, he wrote on a post-it your list and sent it down to a misterious basement through a LP-size cubic lift. While you waited for the gnome lift to come back up, you could browse through millions of classifieds on the walls. Anything from an obscure punk concert to a “prog-bass player wanted” kind of thing was there.
There wasn’t a cafe’ inside nor posh Brick Lane eateries outside, just a hard-discount supermarket next door and the best pizzerias in town round the corner.
In a similar “Rough Trade fashion”, it used to have short reviews on records, the music was grouped in endless obscure sub-genres, there were loads of empty vinyls sleeves which you could ask to listen to. Walls were full of poster, fliers, graffiti but not fine-art photography though. The staff was so competent they could have written the Wikipedia music section themselves.
Better than Rough Trade, Disfunzioni Musicali had a huge second hand branch which allowed me (and millions of guys) to discover music with the few money students have. Even more, bands could bring in their demos (still on tape) and the shop sold them on band’s behalf.
The small section of bootleg on tape of the live scene in Rome was a cult. You went to a great concert and want a recording? If someone had managed to sneak a walkman and taped it, it was there. Expect terrible audio, home made covers and perhaps a wrong song list.
Disfunzioni Musicali, which was basically created on the same underground philosophy of Rough Trade East twenty years in advance, shut down few years ago. As a counterpart, Rough Trade East is one of the few successful record shops (probably) in the world. Fate.
What Disfunzioni didn’t have, was a small stage to play live music.
A few wheeled shelves filled with CDs are moved to make enough space to the few Crocodiles followers.
I don’t understand why fans are shy to get close to the stage when there is a small attendance but are ready to spend hours squeezed on the barriers if they are thousands.
Good for me, I was free to crawl undisturbed in front of the stage.
There are pro and cons of in-store gigs.
Advantages is that it is a shop. The lights are much stronger than at a dark club, stage is very low and you are very close, there is no 3 songs rule and, sometimes, you don’t even need a photopass. At Rough Trade you also have the opportunity to shoot from the side of the stage.
Disadvantages is that it is a shop! The surroundings are not dark and neat as a black curtain. All sort of shop items go into the pictures which could look quite messy. Acoustic is far from perfect and lengths are shorter.
To isolate the subject you need to be creative. Find original angles, use selective focusing and always keep an eye on the background to see if you can turn some disturbing elements into something useful. Paradoxically even if you are close, telephoto short depth of field is useful.
It is challenging and different which also means it is a great place to start and get used to the “art” of concert photography or take unusual shots. With the plus of having the opportunity to chat to the bands, pass on to them your visit card and, if you’re a fan, have your CD autographed.