Rock Around the Clock

The CMJ/Rock Hall Music Fest takes over the city.

Mad Hot Ballroom Cedar Lee Theatre
As Heartless Bastards, Fags, and Lab Rats prepare to invade Cleveland for the three-day CMJ/Rock Hall Music Fest, the city is girding for one of the biggest events of its kind ever to take place here.

With more than a hundred bands performing at every major club in town, the fest spans everything from bossa nova to heavy metal, hip-hop to ghoul punk. Moreover, there's a slew of special events at the Rock Hall, including a speaker series featuring famed punk Richard Hell, Sire Records founder Seymour Stein, and hip-hop icon Grandmaster Flash; a guitar competition judged by Joe Satriani and others; and a rock-poster show boasting the work of Cleveland's Derek Hess and scads more. In addition, rising Cleveland label Exit Stencil Recordings will be throwing a free barbecue Saturday afternoon at the Beachland Ballroom with sets from Roué, the New Lou Reeds, and others. They'll also be hosting a showcase later that night at Pat's in the Flats.

In short: there's a lot going on in the next three days. Read on, as we break down the shows you don't want to miss. -- Jason Bracelin

If it hadn't been for a stray comment made in a radio interview, Frank Black might still be contemplating the vicissitudes of "My Life in Storage." Black wrote this soft folk-rock number after going through a divorce, putting his backing band, the Catholics, on hiatus, and moving from a musical hotbed (Los Angeles) to the outskirts of a hippie haven (Portland, Oregon). He plans to release the song in July on Honeycomb (EMI/Back Porch), a rootsy album cut in Nashville with legendary session men like '60s soul guitarist Steve Cropper. But just a few days after recording it last spring, this moderately successful cult artist resumed the stage name Black Francis and set out on a tour with his first band, the Pixies, easily one of the most important underground rock bands since the Sex Pistols -- and still one of the most thrilling.

The history and the thrill go together. With the possible exception of Sonic Youth, the Boston quartet did more to ignite the alt-rock explosion in the 1990s than any underground band of the '80s. Sonic Youth had an avant-garde tuning system and a complete commitment to bohemia; the Pixies had something simpler and perhaps more profound -- a complete commitment to postmodernism's ultimate earwax remover, disjuncture. It defined the loud-soft-loud dynamics that Kurt Cobain lifted for " Smells Like Teen Spirit," with jarring breaks and musical shifts as sharp as a digital beat, bizarrely allusive lyrics, and incongruous cultural references from surf rock to flamenco to Un Chien Andalou.

The Pixies reunited after Black casually mentioned the idea on an English radio show, as if it were a passing thought. For fans, though, the extended reunion tour has become a highlight during a low time in rock, as everyone from smalltime blogs to the London Times has proclaimed it a triumphant example of how emotionally direct yet multifaceted rock once was and should still be. Reached by phone from a tour stop in San Francisco, however, Frank Black/Black Francis is typically evasive on the subject.

"All we can do is move our little amplifiers into a rehearsal space and work up a little show," he says. "Or book a recording studio and make a little record. It's really up to the world -- or it's up to critics, to a certain degree -- to decide whether we made rock history. That may be our ultimate goal, but you don't sit around and analyze it. You don't sit around and say, 'Okay, how shall we be fantastic?'"

Right. Taking back the deposit on the storage space is a no-brainer. -- Franklin Soults
The Pixies. Wednesday, June 8, at the Rock Hall (early show). With the Bellrays at Scene Pavilion (late show).

Grandmaster Flash and Digable Planets
It seems a foregone conclusion that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will eventually induct Grandmaster Flash and his Furious Five. Although the group failed to make the cut in its first year of eligibility, and there undoubtedly remains a pocket of "hip-hop-isn't-really-rock-and-roll" resistance among some voters, Flash's credentials can't be ignored. Not only did he help create hip-hop -- which you could certainly argue has had more influence on rock and roll over the past 25 years than, say, Eric Clapton -- he's also the forefather of DJ culture, the guy who made the wheels of steel an instrument.

But if Flash and the Five are to become the Hall's first hip-hop inductees -- a goal that Flash has stated publicly he wants to achieve -- they'll have to hurry: In a couple of years, Run-DMC will come before the voters with a more obvious connection to rock (e.g., "Rock Box," "Walk This Way," etc.).

But when Flash and company finally do get recognized by the Rock Hall, the induction ceremony should be pretty intriguing. Flash and legendary rapper Melle Mel, who took the Grandmaster handle and half of the Furious Five with him when the group split in 1983, have had fairly frosty relations over the past two decades. And a couple of years ago, Flash pledged never to reunite the group without his best friend, the late Keith "Cowboy" Wiggins.

However, as any fan knows, when musical reunions are concerned, "never say never" is the operative cliché. This is underscored by the return of Digable Planets, the Grammy-winning pioneers of the fusion of hip-hop and jazz, who will be sharing the bill with Grandmaster Flash at the Agora on Thursday. Even this trio never officially split; they took a dozen-year hiatus that seemed likely to become permanent until last fall, when Doodlebug, Butterfly, and Ladybug regrouped for some dates and a place in the burgeoning '90s rap revival. -- Dan LeRoy
Grandmaster Flash, with Digable Planets, Procussions, and Lab Rats. Thursday, June 9, at the Agora Theatre.

Stephen Malkmus
"I don't even smoke pot, you know," says Stephen Malkmus indignantly. The former lead singer of Pavement is on the phone from his home in Portland, Oregon, defending himself against assumptions of drug use made by Joe Gross in his Spin review of the artist's third solo album, Face the Truth (Matador). On the surface, it may be Malkmus' weirdest album in 15 years of recording, ranging from the wheezing, discordant electronica of "Pencil Rot" to the lilting fake country of "Freeze the Saints." But in fact, its creation came about in much the same way as all his albums: "I really believe in, within reason, a sort of serendipity -- although I don't like the way that word sounds."

Malkmus' music has long sounded something like genius. Throughout the '90s, Pavement's rickety jams and free-association lyrics completely avoided the self-flagellating overkill of grunge, while the band's wry distance skirted the smugness of most underground irony chefs. It was only on Pavement's swan song, '99's Terror Twilight, that the band began to lose steam. The wryness sounded more complacent than compassionate, suggesting that Malkmus' distance was becoming detachment.

For all its strangeness, Face the Truth might turn a corner on that period. Lyrically, many numbers hint at Malkmus' happy life as a comfortable musician and family man. (His daughter Lottie was born in February to girlfriend Jessica Hutchins, a visual artist who came up with the cover art.) The conduit for that connection was, as he says, pure serendipity -- his discovery of the slew of obscure homemade albums from the '70s and '80s re-released on This inspiration led Malkmus to record the album in his basement, where he refocused even as he spewed more than ever.

"I was really trying to channel that spirit, my spirit of the self-released, outsider thing," Malkmus says. "I would rather be a fly on the wall to see how this record was made than do some major-label album, where you just go and do things so you get it right, and there's all these people planning things. Everything doesn't have to be everything in its right place." -- Franklin Soults
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, with Paik. Thursday, June 9, at the Beachland Ballroom.

The Futureheads
The Futureheads don't yet have the platinum bling or alluring star power of recent tourmate Franz Ferdinand, a band that managed to draw both David Bowie and Robert Plant to a New York City show. But the Sunderland, England quartet is starting to turn the heads of some notable classic-rock luminaries: David Lee Roth attended its recent Vancouver gig with Hot Hot Heat, watching the show from the side of the stage.

Anyone hoping for stories about classic Diamond Dave high jinks will be disappointed -- or, as bassist-vocalist Jaff puts it, "We're not really the most rock-and-rolling of bands; there's not any wild parties to be told of." Nevertheless, the Futureheads' air of innocence is part of what makes them the most charming of the post-punk revivalists -- even though the band's influences aren't exactly of the cuddly variety.

"We find bands like Shellac, Fugazi, the Minutemen, and a lot of that early American hardcore music really quite inspirational in terms of confidence and confrontational aspects of the music," says vocalist-guitarist Ross Millard. "I don't really think many English bands have those reference points."

Nor do many English bands have the means to employ Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill as a co-producer of their self-titled debuts. But The Futureheads is a triumph of economy, the musical result of the Jam tussling with XTC over who should play last at an all-ages hardcore show. Most noteworthy, however -- and what makes the album so listenable -- is the way its tunes initially seem so simple.

"The production on the record helped," Jaff says. "There's all these little things you can hear. It's almost like we've made quite complicated music, but the production's masked that and made it quite poppy. You listen to it for the first time and find it poppy. And then, listening to it again, you hear different guitar parts and vocal arrangements you might not have noticed the first time."

This complexity emerges during the Futureheads' high-energy concerts, when its pinpoint harmonies and spastic dance grooves cause limbs to loosen involuntarily. Even a late-February show in notoriously staid Boston featured kids jumping around with the kind of gusto normally reserved for Slipknot gigs. The band members naturally fed off this enthusiasm, cracking each other up with random asides and encouraging the crowd to sing backup "Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh" vocals on its cover of Kate Bush's "The Hounds of Love."

"We try and take that sort of typical Britishness and put our stamp on it that's not particularly typical of British bands," Millard says. "With bands like Fugazi and stuff, you have that amount of control onstage. They're in total control. There's no trade-off there. When we play, it's really important that people in the audience get into the show, because it makes it easier for everyone." -- Annie Zaleski
The Futureheads, with High Speed Scene and Coffinberry. Thursday, June 9, at the Grog Shop.

For five albums, Memphis' Lucero was just another traveling alt-country band: Good live show and rabid fans, but the albums never got much attention. It's ironic that the title of the band's latest LP, Nobody's Darlings, acknowledges this cult status at the very moment that the band is becoming something deserving of national attention. "And We Fell" and "Sixteen" are rich with the not-quite-punk riffs you'd expect from a classic Replacements song, while the slightly Skynyrd leanings of "Angalee" could've sneaked into Son Volt's alt-country classic Trace. The rest of the album sits somewhere between those two bands, yet isn't dominated by either side's influences, and "Bikeriders" nails the balancing act with pop-punk drums, southern-rock guitars, and the two-cartons-a-day vocals of Ben Nichols. His voice alone sells this album, particularly on the touching "Hold Me Close," in which he blames booze, New Year's Eve, and anything else before finally admitting he's in love: "I feel the cold ground underneath my boots/And for no good reason, it reminds me of you." Of course, the next song opens with the line "Bloody knuckles and a broken nose," but Darlings' lyrics, despite tough overtones, are vulnerable. These are stories of boys in a man's world, tinged with both violence and regret, and Nichols' half-gravelly, half-nasal voice sells both extremes. -- Sam Machkovech
Lucero, with the Heartless Bastards, the Honorary Title, and Cory Branan. Thursday, June 9, at the Odeon.

Britt Daniel, the overachieving leader of the Austin band Spoon, can't seem to just relax and enjoy being an indie rock star. Daniel is one of a handful of current cult heroes making music that trumps the hype often tossed their way -- others being Mountain Goat John Darnielle, Frankie Stubbs of the U.K. punk band Leatherface, and Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk of Low. But so far this year, only Daniel -- with help from drummer Jim Eno and bassist Josh Zarbo -- has crafted an album expansive enough to reach far beyond his cult audience. Spoon's latest, Gimme Fiction, is a gorgeous, oddly Lennonesque disc that may well end up the critical album of the year.

"We only recorded for about three months, about 10 or 12 hours a day, about six days a week," Daniel says nonchalantly while on his way to a gig in Atlanta. Only? For most bands, that kind of grueling studio regimen is akin to participating in the Iditarod. Produced by Daniel, Eno, and engineer Mike McCarthy, Gimme Fiction is a crisp, lavish studio effort in an era when laptop recording has made everyone and their crazy uncle into troglodyte Phil Spectors. The album contains Spoon's sinewy, post-Fugazi bent, but the band's minimalism has given way to a traditional rock eclecticism akin to a '70s Stones record.

"We weren't as interested in keeping everything so sparse this time," Daniel explains. "It's a bigger production and slightly more of a rock record. The idea of very meticulous control of audio output has always been there since A Series of Sneaks," he continues, referring to Spoon's 1998 cult classic. "But we've gotten better at the details, and we always try to have a lot of little surprises in the recordings."

Among Fiction's surprises is a trad-rock brass section and crumpled squalls of sound effects that wouldn't sound out of place on a spastic old Pere Ubu record.

But it's the songs themselves that really make Gimme Fiction stick. The sleeves-rolled-up power-popper "Sister Jack" could have been the rock single of the summer -- if it hadn't been bumped from that honor by the falsetto-funky "I Turn My Camera On," a riposte to the "dance-rock" trend, which proves once and for all that a rock band can bring some old-fashioned funk. Too bad clothes-conscious Generation Y will probably shun it in favor of pasty Eurodance replicas.

And while these tunes don't have the gut-busting lyrical scrupulousness of, say, Ted Leo, they offer complex portraits and perspectives, rather than the whining straight from the id or deliberate obliqueness that so many contemporary rock acts display. "The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine," which Daniel describes as being "about a guy who wakes up every morning and practices for a part that he never plays," feels like something out of Victorian fiction. And the lead track, "The Beast and Dragon Adored," manages to be a literary prologue to the album, referencing the songs to follow without the pretentiousness suggested by the title. It all may be enough for Spoon to finally break through and enjoy a measure of commercial success to match its critical acclaim -- not that Daniel seems to care all that much.

"I meet a lot of people who seem to approach music as a popularity contest," he says. "I'm not against making it, but being proud of the music is the most important thing." -- Andrew Marcus
Spoon, with the Clientele. Friday, June 10, at the Beachland Ballroom.

DJ Keoki
DJ Keoki is perhaps most notorious for his proximity to the late-'80s N.Y.C. dance-scene murder chronicled in the book Disco Bloodbath, which in turn inspired the flamboyantly grotesque Macaulay Culkin vehicle Party Monster (now available at a video store near you). Keoki provided the soundtrack to the film, which depicts in squalid detail the cold-blooded, drug-fueled murder of scenester Angel Melendez by wacked-out club promoter Michael Alig. While the honor of being played by that Fez guy from That '70s Show would be plenty of juice for most mere mortals, it turns out that there's a whole lot more in Keoki's glass. One of the most long-lived and respected dance-music practitioners working, the El Salvador-born, Hawaii-raised Keoki has also toured with Lollapalooza and appeared in cartoon form on The Simpsons. His crucial transition from merely creating soundscapes with other people's already existing recordings (i.e., deejaying) to Full-Fledged Artiste was accomplished with the release of his "Caterpillar" single in 1997. Since then, Keoki has made music-biz headlines with his vehemently pro-Napster views -- even recording the track "Pass It On" specifically for trading on the 'net -- and dropped a slew of albums. His latest is the Great Soundclash Swindle, which borrows its title from the classic Sex Pistols mockumentary and comes with just as much attitude as that of those leering Brit punks. -- Scott Faingold
Keoki, with Frankie Bones. Friday, June 10, at Peabody's.

Critics have long contended that Orgy's hair is more ambitious than its music. And truth be told, the band does have some fairly high-tech 'dos: Just look at bassist Paige Haley's new-wave sheepdog coif or guitarist Ryan Shuck's mound of blond spikes. But the band has never really received the credit it deserves for its futurist throb -- mainly because its music sometimes feels less thought-out than its carefully manicured look.

This isn't a bad thing. The band's Hugo Boss threads and mascara-smeared faces highlight the cool detachment around which their music revolves. On '98's Candyass and 2000's Vapor Transmissions, the band members sucked in their cheeks and belted out sexy robot rock, with frontman Jay Gordon's impassive vocals drowning in wave after wave of buzzing guitar. Sure, their last disc, 2004's Punk Statik Paranoia, was a crapshoot -- with the emphasis on the crap. Nevertheless, Orgy remains a forceful live draw, with blinding strobes and pulsating electronics creating a dense, disorienting effect. And the band will be signing autographs at the Rock Hall at 3 p.m. on Friday and again after its show at the Odeon later that night. Admiring fans can meet the players and get some tips on the proper application of mousse. -- Jason Bracelin
Orgy, with Project 44, Disown, and R.U.O.K? Friday, June 10, at the Odeon.

Nashville Pussy
Though it hails from the land of Dixie, Nashville Pussy doesn't exactly embrace polite southern sensibilities. "We want to unbuckle the Bible Belt and suck God's dick," guitarist Ruyter Suys says on the group's website.

Like a redneck Motörhead, Nashville Pussy sweats out coed come-ons, abetted by frontman Blaine Cartwright's Boss Hog holler and a guitarist who dons little more than tight pants and a Wonderbra onstage. The foursome speeds through classic rock raunch with punk abandon, while offering such sage advice as "Keep On Fuckin'" and "Shoot First and Run Like Hell." Still touring in support of 2003's randy Say Something Nasty, this bunch will turn your stomach or turn you on -- either way, it's gonna get messy at the Grog this Saturday. -- Jason Bracelin
Nashville Pussy, with the Paybacks and Amps II Eleven. Saturday, June 11, at the Grog Shop.

Rogue Wave
That clichéd party line about indie bands being difficult to pigeonhole holds true for Rogue Wave. The San Francisco band's 2003 debut, Out of the Shadow, garnered lots of lazy Shins comparisons -- even though Elliott Smith's heartbreak and U2's emotional bloodletting were better touchstones. And while it plans to release a new album, Descended Like Vultures, in September, band founder Zach Rogue isn't straying from Rogue Wave's anything-goes modus operandi. Talking about the sound of the upcoming songs in a February interview, he described some as "really quiet," others as "really heavy," and a few that "just sound weird." -- Annie Zaleski
Rogue Wave, with Helio Sequence and Six Parts Seven. Saturday, June 11, at the Beachland Tavern.

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