Soliton (Chris Corsano and Jenny Gräf)
Monarch; Berlin, Germany

[08-25-2013]

Soliton — a recent collaboration between Chris Corsano and Jenny Gräf — played the only set of this particular event to an audience sitting on red velvet stools beneath still-in-Saigon ceiling fans: a Sunday night’s light entertainment, short and, as they say, sweet. Well, sweet may not the most apt of descriptions for the sounds, but it might be apt enough for the warm feelings induced in my innards. And I say short, though I don’t really know; the sense of time passing was lost to me as the music quieted my inner monologue’s inane witterings. But when the pulses, thrums, and clattering were abruptly withdrawn with a quiet off-mic “thanks” from Gräf, I felt both calm and — like some other members of the audience — that more would certainly have been welcome.

Jenny Gräf (one part of Metalux, sound and film artist) synthesized sounds by turns murky, grainy, jagged, or shrilling; she sang too, all meaning lost along the signal chain; sometimes she looped little guitar figures, also quickly lost in the mass of sounds created with or processed through a particularly intriguing device, the tranoe. One, I’m told, of only four in the world, it’s a synth that can be patched in any which way, including skin contact: an interestingly tactile instrument, put to good use in the construction of diverse and gritty sounds. And while Gräf provided the texture and much of the shape of the performance, Corsano’s ever-frenetic drumming was responsible for driving up the tension, pushing and pulling on Gräf’s muddy loops and distorted vocals. As he has been known to do, Corsano manipulated the timbre and pitch of his drums with blocks of wood, bowls, and other miscellaneous objects without even so much as hinting at slowing down, circling around the beat and studiously avoiding the temptation to lock too rigidly to it — not so much accompaniment as provocation.

Afterward, Corsano told me he would rather push things toward falling apart than just watch it happen; maybe so, but from an external perspective, the way the two played off each other was pleasing. Soliton may be a newish collaboration (this was their fifth show), but the two are old hands at collaborating, and it’s easy enough to see in their give-and-take. Their combined tendency to avoid stagnation ensured it was a performance that never became settled, never too satisfied with finding itself or anyone else. Taken with the abrasiveness of many of the surfaces provided by Gräf, this might seem to preclude inducing any sense of bliss or tranquility; all the same, at the end of the evening I left with a peaceful feeling.

Pixies
The Echo; Los Angeles, CA

[09-06-2013]

While everyone in Los Angeles was anticipating the sold out Pixies shows at the El Rey and Mayan Theatre next week, Frank Black & Co. threw a curveball by announcing a secret show at the tiny yet historic Echo. Just four months ago, The Rolling Stones played a secret $20 show downstairs at the more spacious Echoplex, and not to be outdone, Pixies not only charged $10 less, but also capped the tickets at 100 so everyone could have a little space to enjoy the spectacle.

A mere eight hours after the gig was announced, the band took the stage, wasting no time with banter and immediately getting the crowd rocking with a duo from Surfer Rosa, “Brick Is Red” followed by “Break My Body.” For a band that hadn’t played live in almost two years and was introducing new bassist Kim Shattuck for the first time, their 28-song set was tight, aside from when Black’s heightened self-criticism caused him to stop “Here Comes Your Man” 90 seconds in, saying his vocals were an eighth of an octave off. After a bit of banter with the band and the crowd, Black chose to move onto the next song and never return. Aside from that hiccup, this was truly a band in top form.

Shattuck fit comfortably into the other Kim’s impossible-to-fill shoes, killing all those much-beloved bass lines while lightning the stage with her upbeat energy. It was clear she was having a blast just being on stage with the boys. Joey Santiago was unsurprisingly terrific, seamlessly transitioning for the early portion of the show’s more downtempo pace to the second half’s more aggressive and noisy approach, while drummer David Lovering’s dutiful pounding was confident and unerring. And Black’s vocals held their own without Deal’s assistance, even if they’ve lost their edge.

After recent tours centering on Doolittle, last night’s setlist had a little something for everyone: six tracks off Surfer Rosa, four from both Trompe le Monde and the new EP, three off Doolittle and Come On Pilgrim, one from Bossanova, a Neil Young cover, and even a few unreleased songs for good measure. While the band’s freshly pressed EP1 has taken a beating in the music press for the past several days, it’s reassuring that the Pixies can still destroy on stage.

Setlist:

Brick Is Red
Break My Body
I’ve Been Tired
Head On
Bagboy
Motorway to Roswell
Bone Machine
Another Toe in the Ocean
Gouge Away
What Goes Boom
Havalina
Winterlong
Here Comes Your Man
Nimrod’s Son
Subbacultcha
Broken Face
Something Against You
Wave of Mutilation
Blue Eyed Hexe
Greens and Blues
Caribou
Hey
Planet of Sound
Heaven
Andro Queen
Where Is My Mind
Vamos
Indie Cindy

Sebadoh / Octagrape
Larimer Lounge; Denver, CO

[08-06-2013]

Aug. 6 at the Larimer started off with a band called Octagrape, and the only note I could really think to scribble down during their set was “four dudes, eight grapes.” And it was true of them in a figurative-literal sense, I guess, but it also played a bit to their general doofiness, which helped to explain an awkward, if at times powerful and truly rocking, show from the opening act. The lead singer at some point in life decided he’s best while clenching the guitar in the armpit instead of using a strap to hold the thing up, while also keeping the microphone about a half-foot above the nose to make singing and playing at the same time as awkward a task for himself as humanly possible… And I can’t for the life of me get through this review without mentioning the time he stepped on his monitor, only to have the thing topple beneath him. And yes, he did indeed wind up flat on his ass! But I will say the whole spectacle added an odd and beneficial sense of suspense to the band’s Pixies riffs and epic squalls of chorus, a rock ‘n’ roll attack thrilling enough to inspire the lady in front of me to dance a very, very strange dance. As the crowd filed in throughout and the band tightened up over time, applause got heavier. Still, I caught myself peering at my phone’s clock on a regular basis. It’s a Tuesday night people; I have to work tomorrow, and by God, people are reading Tiny Mix Tapes live blog to read about Sebadoh! Let’s get to it shall we? We’re not getting any younger. We’re getting… older.

Which, by the way, will someone tell me whether or not I’m old? Nothing makes you feel more unsure about your age than being about 10 years younger than the average Sebadoh concertgoer, yet also being one of the only folks in your immediate surroundings who seems to know the lyrics to “Skull.” I’m not even exactly sure what feeling that phenomenon gave me, but it wasn’t “good.” However, my body fought my brain’s apprehensive disbelief and trembled before Sebadoh’s awesome sonics. It was the type of show that hurt the next day, mostly neck pain and a slight headache. Worth it. So worth it. And who cares about age anyway, right? I’m not quite at liberty to reveal the birth year of Lou Barlow, but dammit if he isn’t the best bass player I’ve seen in the last five years. One cool thing about seeing Sebadoh in the flesh is that it’s something of a great reveal as to who wrote which song, if you were like me and didn’t ever bother to research the liner notes of Bakesale. Loewenstein and Barlow’s voices are just so close to one another, but when you see Jason howling away for the climax of “Not Too Amused,” the world makes a little more sense somehow. And yeah, they played most of Bakesale, and yeah, that was a good thing. But the band also ripped through the entirety of their excellent new EP and even a couple of as-yet-unheard tracks from the forthcoming full-length, which promises to rule with a fairly hard and/or iron fist. In comparison to Octagrape, it was better, sure, but that’s not so much a diss to the former as it is just a fact of life; that Sebadoh got big in the age before the internet for a specific reason: They’re good. They write good songs. Bob’s a kick-ass drummer, etc. Best to not even worry about dealing with the why, and just recognize that you might have to put up with a sore neck the next day.

Julianna Barwick
Judson Memorial Church; New York, NY

[08-20-2013]

The Julianna Barwick album release show at Judson Memorial Church felt like a music recital. The atmosphere was surprisingly adult considering most of the audience was 25 or younger. The church’s interior, which I was told is used for multi-denominational services, is beautiful, painted pale blue with stained-glass windows and a high ceiling. There even were white flower arrangements on the music stands (yes, music stands) in front of the empty chairs on stage. Barwick was the only performer, and it was hard to know what to expect. I’d seen her a few times before, always solo, and she always was fantastic at summoning the almost inhuman beauty of her music into a physical space, whether that was a dive bar or the Guggenheim.

I haven’t heard the new album yet, but from both what I heard at the show and recent interviews with her, it seems Nepenthe is a new direction for Barwick. Her last album, the stunning The Magic Place, had a consistent and winning formula: all of the songs started with a few lone ethereal sighs that built through looping into sonic jacuzzis full of flower petals or kittens or something else unbelievably calming. It was very nice, almost spiritually so (hence the appropriateness of her playing in a church). The new album seems like it takes a somewhat more experimental route. The songs she performed alongside a viola player and guitarist did not swell into climaxes and then sigh into silence, but had unpredictable structures and sometimes surprisingly stark moments of just her keyboard playing or squeaky viola sounds. Whereas on her first album each song was a gorgeous free-standing whole that was slowly illuminated into view and then dimmed out over the course of a few minutes, her new material feels more like a painting you never see in its entirety, different sections of which are lit up and then darkened again.

There is something otherworldly about watching Julianna Barwick perform; unlike many artists that employ vocal loops, there seems to be a distance between what she sings and what eventually is heard, and the melodies don’t add up as you think they will (the only other artist I’ve seen who does this in quite the same way is the under-appreciated Lichens). In the past, Julianna Barwick was always a solitary artist, and she’s spent most of her life making music totally alone, so the slight awkwardness and tentative feel of her collaborations was understandable. Later in the set, she had the girls from Prince Rama and two other women join her for backing vocals, which didn’t add as much as I’d hoped. She came back for an encore of one of her songs off The Magic Place, and her ease made it clear she is still much more comfortable as a solo artist. Then the concert was unceremoniously over, and we all drank the free champagne.

Speedy Ortiz
Great Scott; Boston, MA

[07-06-2013]

I’m happy to report that some invisible psychological dishwasher tablet (perhaps it was being an un-photogenically miserable child) got my subconscious sparkling clean of any trace of romance for the 90s. I’ll take its music and culture any day, but when I heard a few of its recent musical converts I recognized its attitude as something I would rather scrape the back of my eyeballs with a needle (thanks Isaac Newton, for the crafty tip) than revisit. The 90s: that decade of rustic, abject boredom, when advertising became coyly subliminal, when there was literally nowhere to hide from the glare of the bullshit. I see the decade rolling back into town again, and I see a re-run of that pursuit, a world where viral marketing techniques hone in on their targets, not with choppers and loudspeakers, but with the drones.

Now dear reader, this avert-sign is not a negative comment on Speedy Ortiz; it’s a token of my genuine goodwill: I want Speedy Ortiz — I want all young people in bands — to be happy. And since to be happy is to avoid being misled by the fashions of Urban Outfitters, it is with concern about the attitude of the scene rather than its music that I approach my young charges’ burgeoning careers.

Speedy Ortiz’s affectionate curation of their roots in this East Coast scene, stretching back to the 90s and before, seems a good start — check out their “Drivin’ on Nine” compilation, which features Heatmiser and Come (and the hilarious outtakes Mission of Burma and Marky Mark). At Allston’s Great Scott I witness a crowd-surfing guitarist, frenetic drumming, a bunch of 22 year olds learning how to mosh, and an intense lock-down of a set during which the music — challenging the easy power-chord distortion combo with off-kilter tempo and the interweaving of Sadie Dupuis’ barbed, colorful lyrics — reveals itself as tightly constructed — nothing like the tame shoebox-sticker definition of ‘college rock’ that all those Pavement comparisons suggest.

With her own hands, Dupuis made the cover of their first album, Major Arcana, into a clever collage out of layers of blue-and-white tissue paper that she picked to resemble willow-pattern pottery. The band’s work ethic is beneath-the-fingernails too; tours revolve around Dupuis’ breaks from teaching and studying at Amherst. Matt Robidoux is a guitar teacher, and Dupuis herself has been playing guitar since she was 13.

That presumably explains their odd assortment of 90s influences, which seem pulled together until you realize the 90s music once was born out of very different scenes has now retired into the old soldier’s paradise of guitar-book selections. Dupuis even once played in an all-female Pavement cover band called Babement. And yet Dupuis, who also has suggested half-jokingly that she might set up an all female tribute band called “She-badoh,” sings the lyrics “You picked a virgin over me” in an accusatory line that sounds painful to utter. Dupuis does a good job of handling the dual responsibility of being a laid back frontwoman and a tortured lyricist carving out a heroic, battle-scarred personality for her band — but this still seems like a tough line to walk. I kept uneasily returning to the “limp” that she mentions in her lyrics, the summer spent on crutches as a kid. And I remembered that back in the day, these stoic heroics came with a price — a stiff (pierced) upper lip. That is the other side of the undoubted power and glory of Speedy Ortiz’s rock-reanimation project. There was an acceptable disconnection with the power of the individual voice when traveling in the dude-ranch of the rock-band (even if it was a female dude-ranch) that bordered on groupthink and seemed to emanate from some wrong-ass conviction that a ‘we’ could only give birth to a stunted version of ‘me’ — unless we all like the same things and nod our heads in unison.

Rightly or wrongly, the title of Speedy’s first full-length, Major Arcana speaks to me of this paradoxical self-expression-with-a-clamp. It might be deliberate, it might not be. But even without getting into a discussion of the tarot reference, the distinction between major secrets and minor secrets is reminiscent of 90s tribalism — a world in which local scenes and bands protected themselves in their purity, became ‘big secrets’ that gave local audiences a sense of purpose, resistance against the danger of selling out.

There’s nothing really wrong with this, unless it breeds insularity and stifles creativity. Minor secrets depend on major secrets, depend on the concept of “in-the-know.” And we have to allow the possibility that perhaps insularity breeds creativity. That petri-dish has to stink of armpit & Allston for fermentation to take place. Speedy Ortiz went a long way toward breeding this genuine excitement at their Great Scott Show, wherein the dragging limp of Dupuis’ thorny lyrics is channeled into the healthy business of outing the beast of songs like “Tiger Trap.” The band have said they strive never just to turn up and play, always to deliver a good show. But still — for me at least — the cryptic antecedents of the underground looms over proceedings; the archness of ‘saying it without saying it,’ a safely detonated protest that packages confession as an incomplete gesture: “Oh-well-whatever-nevermind.”

It’s a very tricky thing to put your finger on the source of your geriatric, knee-jerk unease. I’m sure it doesn’t spell the apocalypse of all culture to see musicians mining this part of our cultural history again. And if Speedy Ortiz are going to volunteer their reassuring presence during this second dark age, I couldn’t ask for a band with more focused concentration, a band who actually cares about stage presence and putting on a good show for their sweaty audiences. Forget about the 90s revival, forget about the ticker-tape search results of mainstream publications delighted to stumble on their coolness, just find out when they will be in town, and be there. “Being there” raw, live, and alive was what the guitar/bass/drum outfits really offered us during the 1990s — not precious secrets.

Chromatics
The Mid; Chicago, IL

[07-19-2013]

I. Fucking. Love. Chromatics. Their recordings should be classified as a barbiturate. It’s always 1 in the morning on a Saturday night when their music slinks into my veins. Johnny Jewel’s synths translate into images of tungsten light on city streets, pretty girls alone in apartments, and a place where the sun doesn’t exist. Aside from maybe The Weeknd, no one else can create night out of sound like Chromatics. In a live setting, Ruth and Johnny spike their aural opiates full of club stimulants. Four-on-the-floor kick and snare, rib-rattle bass, a few extra BPMs sprinkled like coke on a molly line; all the accoutrements necessary for a writhing mass of club kids. The last time I saw Chromatics was an outdoor stage in Austin, and while it was still everything I wanted in a show, Chromatics clearly belong in dark confines wrapped in fog and neon. I won’t lie; I’ve never been much for The Mid since it opened, but this also was the first time seeing an artist there who plays actual instruments instead of dicking around with Ableton. It won me over that night.

Chromatics put in about an hour, covering ground from In the City all the way up to their last single “Cherry.” The brooding and isolation marking tracks like “These Streets Will Never Look the Same” (by the way, definitely heard that on a Nascar commercial while I was watching Sportscenter last week) washed away in the singing from the crowd and fist pumps from some group of dudes in tank tops standing by the front. The festival detritus washing out from Union Park was apparent. You could tell Johnny Jewel was stretching his legs for Glass Candy’s set at Pitchfork; I don’t remember them taking longer than 10 or 15 seconds between songs. When they closed on “Running Up that Hill,” the only thing I wanted, like anytime I listen to that song, was for it not to end. The only thing to do now is wonder when Chromatics feel like coming back to my city, but it’s fine. I’m patient. I can subsist on album sleeves and record grooves. I can live inside minor keys and black outfits for as long as it takes. The day always feels like it’s never going to leave, but when I hear that music, it’s like someone shut off the sun.

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