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Tankian works outside the System

July 15, 2007|August Brown; Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

SYSTEM OF A DOWN'S Serj Tankian is one of modern metal's most popular singers. He's fond of wry political laments howled over demented guitar thrash tempered with Armenian folk. He is also a gentle protector of insects.

When an errant moth flew into the living room of his Calabasas home while Tankian served rosewater tea, he rushed to cup his hands around it and set it free out the back door. It was a sweet gesture from a vocalist whose most well-known chorus lyric is "I don't think you trust in my self-righteous suicide." But it gave a hint of where Tankian's head is at as he prepares to release "Elect the Dead," his debut solo album, due Oct. 23.

Recorded in his rural home studio, with Tankian handling most of the non-percussion instruments and engineer duties, "Elect the Dead" is more tender and songwriterly than "Mezmerize" and "Hypnotize," the two recent chart-topping System records. It's still a brutally engaging guitar-rock album, to be sure, but it seems to come from a longing for small, more personal changes than System's sonic assault suggests.

"Civilization is already over," Tankian said. "What I felt with this record is that micro leads to macro. The other day I was trying to make a left turn on the freeway and a lady slowed to let me in, and that's the same thing as kindness between nations."

Likewise, "Elect the Dead" is full of tiny deviances from System's sound that add up to a distinctly different record. "Feed Us" is rife with jazzy breakdowns and nervous catcalls, and "Lie Lie Lie" is a daffy cabaret number with campy girlish shrieks. "Unthinking Majority" and "Empty Walls" are more traditionally pummeling rockers. But it seems Tankian isn't burdened by the expectations placed on him as a vanguard representative of modern heavy music and as an activist for the Armenian diaspora.

Last year, Tankian lobbied Congress to pass an amendment recognizing the Armenian genocide in Turkey. While the album does have oblique references to "the East where you killed her," "Elect the Dead" isn't a policy paper, nor a way to distance himself from System. Because even with its steely lyricism and throttling textures, "Elect the Dead," as in his band's best moments, is also really, really funny.

"Even politics can't be completely serious," Tankian said. "We're silly creatures. If we could record the thoughts of animals, they'd think we're ridiculous."

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So many 'Little Boxes' are growing on 'Weeds'

THERE are plenty examples of great television turning underappreciated music gems into intriguing theme songs -- "The Sopranos" and its use of A3's "Woke Up This Morning" springs to mind -- but the makers of "Weeds" have taken it a step further by using their opening credits each week as a sly forum for guest musicians to reinterpret the series theme song, "Little Boxes."

Malvina Reynolds' original version from 1962 would have served nicely on its own as the theme for the acclaimed Showtime series about a young suburban widow who takes up drug dealing. But the show's producers had a better idea: Each week a different artist offers a take on the song, and as a game for music lovers, that guest is not identified until the closing credits.

Season three of "Weeds" starts Aug. 13, and Gary Calamar, who took over as music supervisor last season, said the new episodes will have Randy Newman, Joan Baez, Donovan, the Shins, the Decemberists, Michael Franti and Billy Bob Thornton singing the theme.

"There's some wonderful interpretation," he said. "I think Randy Newman will be starting the season off. We have some unusual versions too. Angelique Kidjo has a great Afro-pop take on the song, and Persephone's Bees has done a version for us in Russian. For a hip-hop version, we have the Individuals. We have so many great versions now, we're talking about what we could do. Should we stockpile them or maybe put them online? There was talk of an album of 'Little Boxes,' but after hearing the same song six times, well, that may wear on you."

-- Geoff Boucher

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The Aboriginal club sound is Pentz's cause

DJ-producer Wesley Pentz has made a career of bringing the sweaty, sexy party music of impoverished neighborhoods to wider (and often whiter) audiences. He scoured Rio de Janeiro's violent favelas for homemade, deliriously vulgar baile funk, midwifed the Sri Lanka-via-London MC M.I.A. into prominence and is one of the most outspoken evangelists for the Baltimore Club sound. Now the tables have turned for Pentz's turntables. His new charity, Heaps Decent, aims to funnel production DJ equipment, musical training and the hip-hop and club music of established scenes into impoverished Aboriginal communities in Australia.

"It's about empowerment," Pentz said. "There's an attitude there of 'I'm just some poor kid, I have no right to do anything.' We want to change that."

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