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Beautiful Swamptronica: thenewno2 Perform their Soundtrack to the Film “Beautiful Creatures”
posted by John Thomas
Dhani Harrison straps on a glittery, Gretsch “Silver Jet” guitar while his thenewno2 bandmates Jonathan Sadoff and Paul Hicks, respectively, lay down an acoustic guitar rhythmic figure and bed of quirky electronica. Guest violinist Jessy Greene offers up a quickly bowed and slightly eerie descending line and Harrison steps to the microphone and intones the opening lines to It’s Never Too Late, a song from the band’s just-released soundtrack to the new Warner Brothers film, “Beautiful Creatures.” Halfway through the tune, Harrison plays a vicious, overdriven guitar line to which a string quartet plays counterpoint. The performance culminates with squealing feedback from Harrison over a violin melody and eases into Harrison’s final, breathy vocalized syllable.
Although that Gretsch may resemble the instruments his father used with the Fab Four, this is not Harrison’s father’s guitar playing, nor do the composition or arrangement betray a family resemblance. This is Dhani Harrison being Dhani Harrison. Or, more precisely, this is Harrison being an integral part of thenewnow2.
The band’s name conveys a lot about both its persona and music. The all-lower-case aesthetic and embrace of the number 2 (the name is also a reference to a character in the 1960s British television program, “The Prisoner”) eschews the look-at-me pleas of most popular music performers. The music, too, is about the band rather than its individual members. There are no long instrumental solos and all vocals, though led by Harrison, are enveloped in cocoon of voices. The live presentation also embraces this theme. Band members stand at equal distance from one another so that the visual speaks to the group and not its leader and there are no spotlights - everyone receives the same lighting.
Tonight’s occasion is the world premiere performance of the band’s “Beautiful Creatures” soundtrack. I’ve been fortunate to spend the afternoon chatting with the band and playing fly-on-the-wall during soundcheck. The recorded work is a beguiling mixture of sounds, textures, and instrumentation, both acoustic and electronic. The performance is a bold and successful attempt at recreating all of those elements live. Were audience and band not having so much fun, the scene could be a clinic on how to transform complex, electronically enhanced studio music for live performance ... and make it rock.
For this occasion, the band, comprising those three core members plus guitarist Jeremy Faccone, drummer Nick Fyffe, and bassist Frank Zummo, is augmented by a violinist Greene, a flutist, string quartet, and singer Liela Moss. The venue is Henson Recording Studios in Hollywood, the storied facility founded by Charlie Chaplin that has served as the epicenter of the LA music scene for decades and is now also home to those lovable Muppets.
The soundtrack is the product of thenewno2 and the film’s Oscar-nominated writer/director Richard LaGravenese discovering almost instantaneously that they shared a common vision for the project. LaGravenese was searching for “a sound that I hadn’t heard before,” but did have in mind a melody-driven soundscape infused with electronica and modern rock. Oh, and he wanted “a Southern Gothic sultriness and classic suspense-film intensity.”
Melody infused with electronica and modern rock? Meet the newno2! OK, says Jonathan Sadoff, the band hadn’t exactly been mining the “Southern Gothic” music genre. But, the guys were more than up for the task. “This was fun,” says Harrison, about developing a new music genre the band has dubbed Swamptronica.
If you’ve listened to the band’s recorded work, including the excellent 2012 release “thefearofmissingout,”you know that, although their music is definitely rock and roll, the longer pieces sometimes verge on the cinematic. Thenewno2’s music is adventurous, edgy, and experimental, but you can still sing along and dance to it.
So, the LaGravenese/thenewno2 relationship was a match made in, well, Swamptronicalandia (hey, if thenewno2 can make up a word, so can I). The “Beautiful Creatures”soundtrack is stunning in melody, complexity, and experimentation. While discussing the recording with the band, I likened it to a three dimensional, moving audio puzzle. A song might begin with a simple acoustic piano figure, followed by both electronic and acoustic drum figures, voices then appear, hover, and disappear. Elements small and large, subtle and dramatic move in and out of the soundscape, sometimes taking center stage for some duration and sometimes making fleeting appearances. The result is dizzying, fascinating, and, well, fun to hear.
Throughout all, though, melody dominates. For the film, probably in an ode to “Southern Gothic sultriness,” those melodies resemble the simple folk themes that Antonín Dvořák, for example, put center stage in his compositions and surrounded with complex yet very listenable orchestrations. When I equate thenewno2’s work to Dvořák on acid, Harrison, Hicks, and Sadoff all burst into laughter and Sadoff says, “You’ve made my day! That’s exactly how I’ve been thinking of this project.”
So, tonight we get Dvořák on acid, live. Maybe others haven’t associated the music with Czech composers and illicit substances, but there is a palpable buzz (pun intended!) in the house. The band members are all in good cheer as they squeeze through the crowd and make way toward the stage.
The strings and flute take their places first and the room quiets to a dull roar. Then thenewno2 step to the stage and Harrison’s appearance elicits loud applause. The band launches into the opening song on the soundtrack, Inception. The performance begins with a repeated, pre-recorded figure and drums and keyboard enter followed by Harrison’s vocals embedded in multi-tracked, prerecorded companion vocals. The performance is a pretty close approximation of the recorded work, but it’s augmented by both the live visuals and in-the-present emotional context.
The opening song sets the pattern for the night. The recorded versions operate as the backdrop, and even include samples from the recording triggered by Paul Hicks and his bank of gizmos. But Harrison and Sadoff contribute tasty live touches of acoustic and electric guitars and keyboards. The string quartet’s contribution floats above the scene and Greene’s violin weaves in and about the mix.
The pattern changes dramatically, though, about two thirds into the hour plus set when guitar wizard Mike Campbell (of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and who has collaborate with everybody) hops on stage, gleaming red-with-white-racing-stripe Duesenberg guitar in hand. The band launches into the funkiest of songs from the soundtrack, Honey Hill Stomp, and Campbell’sslashing, screaming slide contributions notch that funkiness up about 1,000 percent.
The crowd roars over Campbell’s playing and it’s clear that he and Harrison have a special bond. Indeed, just before the show began, Harrison expressed his thrill at having Campbell sit in by saying, “Ever since I first heard you play, I’ve wanted to play together.” Campbell replied, to the amusement of both, with, “And you were how old then, nine?” That childlike glee is evident when Campbell lays down gorgeous, keening slide lines in the next song. The single-ready Run to Me. With that, Campbell disappears into the crowd and leaves the building.
After Campbell’s departure, thenewno2 perform one more song from the film soundtrack, Never Too Late, and, as if to remind the crowd that they are first and foremost a rock and roll band and not film score composers, close the evening with a pair of songs from “thefearofmissingout.” The first is Time Zone, which introduces a bit of whimsy into the festivities by featuring Harrison and Faccone on ukuleles. The arrangement is augmented by a soaring string arrangement and a wild synth line.
As if to signal a return to rock and roll for the evening’s last tune, the string quartet and flutist leave the stage while Harrison straps the Gretsch back on. The band then cues up All the Time, a song from the UK version of the "thefearofmissingout.” A restrained introduction yields to Harrison’s electronically multiplied vocals on the verse and what can best be characterized as a wailing, wall of sound refrain. Harrison and Sadoff play a bluesy guitar line in unison that walks walk down to the wall of sound refrain and a final, feedback laden crescendo.
With that, the thenewno2 put down their instruments, hop off stage, wade into the crowd, and the after party begins. It was a fascinating, thoroughly enjoyable, yet challenging performance. Part pop, part Avant-garde, part chamber orchestra, and all rock and roll. The band has charted a difficult course for itself. But, they easily navigate their chosen route though application of equal parts verve, intellect, wit, humor, and hard work.
Thenewno2 are second to none in fusing musical and cultural archetypes!
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