by Michael Goldberg
Monday, October 20, 2003
Music For The Turning Of The Leaves
The Concretes a new kind of 'girl group' rock
The Concretes are a Stockholm-based, eight-member collective (commune?) that sounds kinda like what you'd get if you put Nico, the version of the Velvet Underground that recorded the group's awesome third album, and the Jesus and Mary Chain in a recording studio with best-of collections of The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las. In other words, they sound sad and romantic and retro and sexy and downbeat and heartfelt, and full of love and heartache. Which, as summer in Northern California has given way to fall, is the right sound for the moment.
The group's first real album, titled simply The Concretes, comes direct from Sweden on the group's own Licking Fingers label. Formed in 1995, The Concretes began as a trio singer/lyricist Victoria Bergsman, guitarist Maria Eriksson and drummer Lisa Milberg but over the years have expanded such that at times, when they perform, as many as 15 full-time and "Honorary Concretes" take the stage. (The current lineup includes eight full-time band members.) They began releasing singles and EPs in 1995, and in 2000 Up Records combined two of the EPS, releasing them as a single CD album titled Boyoubetterunow.
Somehow I missed all that. But Neumu Senior Writer Anthony Carew, who keeps up on every cool obscure artist and band in the known universe, recently filed a review in which he called The Concretes "the best record in the history of 2003 as it stands so far." Them's fightin' words for sure, so I made use of Google and soon had an email address for Licking Fingers. A few weeks later, what should arrive at my P.O. box but a package containing both The Concretes and their CD single, "Warm Night" b/w "Final Goal."
To get this out of the way right at the start, Carew is right. The Concretes IS clearly one of the 10 best albums of 2003 (thus far), right up their with The Wrens' The Meadowlands and Jolie Holland's Catalpa, Damien Rice's O, the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Fever to Tell, Songs; Ohia's The Magnolia Electric Co., Cat Power's You Are Free, and the Pernice Brothers' Yours, Mine & Ours.
The album's cover is a photo of a young man and a young woman, walking along a rocky ridge. If they were walking along the sand with the ocean behind them and sunny blue sky above them, this would be a sappy Hallmark image. But instead of beach and waves, we see desolate rock and dirt. The sky is grey with a strong chance of rain. And the couple appears androgynous, wearing what could be post-apocalypse outfits of grey and gold. Adding to the strangeness is a drawing in red ink of a giant cat approaching them. Clearly there is no guarantee of a happy ending to this story.
And yet the stylized cat, which reminds me by turns of Peter Max's '60s pop art and Aubrey Beardsley's late-1800s drawings, brings a whimsical feeling to the cover. You want to laugh. Which is so true to right now, when so much of the day's news is so, so downbeat that the only way out is just to pull back and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.
And that's where the timeless yet timely sounds and emotions of The Concretes come in. I mean, they're off in Sweden making this very European yet very American-influenced rock music. Check out their pictures on the lickingfingers.com Web site and you'll find what looks like a bunch of '60s hippies who haven't gotten totally over the British Invasion.
The Concretes make dreamy music that sometimes starts way minimal, but over the course of a song grows as orchestration and background vocals slowly build. They like that early '60s rock beat that showed up on a number of The Shangri-Las' songs, such as "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)," and which was later borrowed by the VU and, two decades later, by the Jesus and Mary Chain. The Concretes' music would sound right at home in '60s Swinging London, yet since they sing about the human condition, about love and loneliness and betrayal, their songs are true for right now, just as they'll be true for next year and the year after.
One of the album's many highlights is the gentle, languid ballad New Friend, which begins with just a single repeating drum beat, a bass line, and then this cool melodic guitar, before Bergsman sings, "I called you/ She answered/ Got strangled on the way/ She gave the phone/ Said it was for you/ Didn't know/ Didn't know/ Didn't know/ Didn't know you got yourself a new friend." Her voice is so sad to the point of numbness as she repeats "didn't know" and then "didn't know you got yourself a new friend"; you hear the effect of this betrayal on her. That line "got strangled on the way" might seem odd at first, but when you think about it, isn't that the way you would feel if you called up your girlfriend or boyfriend and their "new friend" answered the phone?
The Punk Photographs of Charles Peterson
I don't remember when I loaded up my old Rio 500 MP3 player with a bunch of Sleater-Kinney songs, but the other day, I took it along on a walk through the cool Sonoma, California neighborhood where I live. Listening to songs off Call the Doctor, Dig Me Out, All Hands on the Bad One and One Beat, I thought of the time I tagged along as the great Seattle-based photographer Charles Peterson took pictures of the group on the streets of Portland for an in-depth feature story that I was doing on them.
One of the photos from that session is included in Peterson's wonderful new book, Touch Me I'm Sick (powerHouse Books).. Peterson is the guy whose photos for a number of Sub Pop albums gave "grunge" an image. While Seattle was the hot scene, Charles was the photographer of the moment. This beautiful coffee-table book convincingly yet effortlessly makes the case for Charles Peterson as one of the great rock photographers.
I'm quite biased when it comes to Charles Peterson. I've loved his raw black-and-white images since I first saw them in the early '90s. His photograph of Kurt Cobain seemingly standing on his head while playing guitar on a Vancouver stage in 1991 is pure genius (that photo was featured on the cover of Peterson's first book, Screaming Life, but thankfully it's also included in the new book). When Emme Stone and I launched the Neumu Web site in June 2001 our first "Depth of Field" photo exhibit was a selection of photos by Charles from what was then a work-in-progress, but which is now this book, Touch Me I'm Sick.
By shooting with high-speed film, doing time exposures and using a strobe flash unit, Charles created a unique personal style that captures the raw power of rock 'n' roll. His onstage and offstage photos convey the world of punk rock. Whether it's members of Mudhoney peeing in a men's room, a tender, moody close-up of Beat Happening, or Henry Rollins' heavily tattooed back, Peterson's photos are unpredictable and non-clichéd and just plain great. I love the photo of someone in Mudhoney plugging a guitar cord into an old effects box. Another classic is of Cobain, crouched on the floor, hand on his forehead at a Seattle record store in '91, fans standing around hoping for an autograph. That one photo perfectly depicts the toll on Seattle rockers from the attention that put "grunge" in the spotlight for a few years.