Reviews

Charming Hostess
Eat
(Vaccination)

On Eat, Charming Hostess' intense three-voice harmony radiates female energy enough to terrify the average Johnny Rocker. The women whose voices distinguish the Oakland-based ensemble -- Jewlia Eisenberg, Carla Kihlstedt, and Nina Rolle -- don't traffic in flaunted sexuality or flirtation; instead, the singers prefer to upset gender roles and power in relationships with confidence, poise, and beauty.

Charming Hostess is a pop-rock band, but the trio don't play pop -- or rock -- of an easily identifiable tenor. They're not grunge, punk, or metal (and they're certainly not the Spice Girls). The approach is far more diverse and theatrical -- no surprise, since Charming Hostess includes members of Oaktown's absurdist rock troupe Idiot Flesh -- and contains a unique and persuasive admixture of world music. In fact, Charming Hostess is essentially an urban-California gitano, or gypsy band. The group takes melodies and lyrics from traditionally outcast ethnicities -- Bulgarian, Hungarian, Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Turkish, African-American -- and adapts them to a contemporary global sound. The Hostess' world fusion hits with the same passion, soulfulness, and full-tilt boogie of Zap Mama's integration of the African-European diaspora, only here it comes in a rainbow of largely Eastern European, Jewish, and American flavors: Nearly half the tunes on Eat are sung in various Balkan and Yiddish tongues.

Casting a postmodern lens on gender identity and the power balance in intimate relationships is a Charming Hostess trademark. In "Ferret Said," a dramatic dialogue of a lovers' quarrel, the singers create an ambiguity in the narrative voice that undermines expectations. The listener is uncertain whether the male or female character is speaking when the Hostesses taunt, "Yeah I sleep with other girls/ If you can't handle that, too bad." But when they dis poor Mr. Ferret -- "White bread white white bread white ..." -- the situation snaps into focus.

In the Charming Hostess world, empowered women get their cake and eat it, too. They'll also share the feast with Johnny Rocker, as long as he's willing to do the dishes.

Charming Hostess perform at a CD release party on Thursday, Dec. 11, at the Transmission Theater.

-- Sam Prestianni

Electronica Hanukkah
Friday, Dec. 5
Maritime Hall

Green Christmas
Saturday, Dec. 6
Kezar Auditorium

When performing an illusion, magicians use smoke and mirrors to conceal the real action. At the Live 105 Electronica Hanukkah, programmers and DJs employed smoke and lasers to hide the fact that very little happened onstage. Nevertheless, as the contrast between the performers at that show and the acts at the alternative-rock station's seventh annual Green Christmas promotional concert proved, even faceless music and neat lighting are far more compelling than tired rock gags.

Green Christmas was doomed from the beginning. Not only did two of the more substantive acts on the bill cancel (the Verve and Bjsrk, leaving the show with only three bands), Kezar Auditorium is a sucky venue with abominable sound and the rough intimacy and feel of a high school gymnasium.

Running back and forth along Kezar's 10-foot-high stage, the Specials had plenty of energy. However, the atrocious sound (besides the muddiness, feedback squealed throughout the set) and the repeated "Hello, San Francisco!"s and plugs for the reunited second-wave ska band's impending record made the intensity seem manufactured. So too did Bowie. The Thin White Duke (six or seven newer songs, "Scary Monsters") played with a spare four-piece band, but the already dated techno beats and the '80s-style guitar squeals made Bowie's act feel distant. And the only thing remarkable about Everclear was how extraordinarily bad the band's poppy alternative rock sounded over the shitty house system.

The previous night, at the Maritime, the more adventurous of Live 105's two holiday concerts began with DJ Kimo getting the kids off the floor of the hall. But then the Sneaker Pimps proved that nothing ruins a dance party like a self-important dumb rock band. Singer Kelli Dayton tried to slink in her shiny dress, but not even her protruding nipples could distract the crowd from the fact that she couldn't sing. DJ Shadow was far more successful because he opted to push buttons and spin records with coolheaded, expressionless efficiency. To Shadow, eerie string arrangements, impossibly low bass frequencies, and tinny high hats matter more than grandstanding. The crowd agreed, loudly cheering for "Midnight in a Perfect World," and newer, even more experimental work. The sets by DJs Josh Wink and Keoki -- who both spun records at a table set up on the floor at the foot of the stage -- were like television. Wink goes for the hard techno and Keoki -- a self-proclaimed "superstar" DJ -- uses repeating samples ("If I die" or "I'm going to leave") to illustrate imagistic themes of sex, death, and breaking up. There's very little in the music to respond to in a rational way; the beats make you dance, or they don't. The same could be said of the Las Vegas breakbeat duo Crystal Method or even Meat Beat Manifesto, who have moved away from their industrial roots to the techno sound the kids are into these days.

Electronica Hanukkah was frenetically paced on the main stage; downstairs, there was a room of clubby drum 'n' bass and acid-jazzish tunes spun by DJs from OM and Ubiquity records. But the difference between the two shows wasn't really the music. David Bowie's set used his screwed-up idea of what modern music is in an attempt to convince someone that he has a clue about contemporary sounds; a band like Everclear, even if you like their songs, is just riding a temporary wave and won't be remembered. And even the Crystal Method's simple, bottom-heavy canned breakbeats owe more to rock than techno. The difference is the pretense: You go to a rock show and you get a simulacrum: David Bowie trying to look larger than life, mimicking some tired visage of his former self. You go to Electronica Hanukkah and you get a temporal and fleeting but nonetheless visceral experience: Basses thump, kids dance, blue and green lasers dart across the room. It's not exactly magic, but the smoke and lights work hard to make it seem that way.

-- Jeff Stark

 
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