Wild Beasts / Still Life Still
Chop Suey; Seattle, WA

[02-14-2010]

About three minutes into Still Life Still’s 45-minute set at Seattle’s Chop Suey, I realized I wasn’t going to get through this review without mentioning Broken Social Scene. The young Torontonians would get high marks at Canadian Indie Rock College for their grasp of prevailing aesthetics and sonic concepts. Scruffy and half-bearded, their laid-back jams were charged with an energy meandering between raw and relaxed. Nothing particularly new there, but the band’s chemistry was effortless. They weren’t particularly tight, but they weren’t particularly tight in the exact same proportion to each other.

Wild Beasts, on the other, were extremely tight. And by time the English four-piece took the stage, the 250-capacity club was packed. On paper, Wild Beasts shouldn’t be perplexing: four guys playing two guitars, bas, and drums, pinning down grooves with brutal focus. Their metronome beats and precisely picked guitars compelled onlookers to consistent head-bobbing and concentrated ass-shaking.

But it was the vocal interplay that stole the show. Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming share lead vocals, and the contrast between their styles is transfixing. Fleming’s voice is deep and steady, while Thorpe’s vibrato-heavy falsetto is startling, even unnerving, cutting through the thick instrumentation. They only indulged in a few vocal harmonies, but their traded vocal duties were clearly the highlights of the show.

Yet, while Wild Beasts constantly threaten greatness in a live setting, they’re a little too static overall. After building solid grooves and cranking up the tension, a lot of the songs stop as soon as you expect them to climax or change up the beat. They never build on the momentum. Still, it was a captivating hour of music and proof that, in a world of electronic music-making gadgets, a traditional four-piece rock band can still sound fresh on stage.

White Denim / Brazos
The Larimer Lounge; Denver, CO

[01-27-2010]

In case you didn’t know, when it comes to band names, White is the new Black.

Fuck-fuck-FUCKK Black Lips, Black Hollies, Black Time, Black Eyes, Black Heart Procession, Black Milk, Black Rice, Black Dahlia Murder, Starless & Bible Black, Black Sea, Black Angels, Black Keys, Black Mountain, Blackstreet, Blackfield, Black Uhuru, Black Flag, Black Sabbath, Blackhearts (Joan Jett and), Black Box, Blackbyrds, Blackfoot, Black Sheep, Blackhawk, Blackjack, Black Oak Arkansas, Black Girls, Black moon, Black Lab, Blackwell, Black Star, and all the rest; give me WHITE Shit (a better-than-the-mothership side project of Big Business), WHITE Lion, WHITEsnake, WHITE (Barry), WHITE Hills, WHITE Lies, W-H-I-T-E, WHITE Stripes, Average WHITE Band, and, of course, WHITE Denim, perhaps the best-named band in all of America.

Although my wife and I failed to find matching white-denim outfits at thrift stores before the show, we did manage to listen to the entirety of White Denim’s Fits two times on the way to the Larimer Lounge in Denver. It was no preparation; I’m not sure if they used condensers the size of a small pick-up truck or recorded in an air-proof bomb shelter, but Fits doesn’t come close to harnessing the proud pummel-horse that is a White Denim show. So sick they should give H1N1 shots at the door, White Denim are a sexless three-piece with the chops of Comets On Fire, the drugganaut bluster of Black Mountain, the ham-fisted proto-punk power of early Melvins, and the endless-jam power of fellow power-trio Titan.

Rarely giving the crowd the chance to catch their breath, W. Denim covered our noses with an ether-soaked rag of technical virtuosity, only letting up occasionally to look at each other and burst into another long-form creation full of stops, starts, ticks, tocks, ups, downs, breakdowns, shakedowns, stutters, hesitations, jukes, jives, staccato, arpeggio, triple-F blastissimo, and more tricks I don’t know the names of (and wouldn’t want to). Best of all, W(M)D don’t have a saxophone, clarinet, flute, oboe, or trumpet player giving the audience a Talibam! teabag, so you can concentrate on the guitar, bass, and drums, which the trio derive so much life from you wonder why so many acts feel they need a 12-piece neo-classical arrangement to “wow” a crowd.

Any attempt to describe specific moments of this show would be akin to detailing a high-speed car crash in which I was a participant, so I’ll just say I was visibly shaken by White Denim, unable to do much save sweat, stare, and drool. They were so dead-on I seem to have blocked out the set by openers Brazos. But just let me say, there ain’t no Cane left for Brazos; there just ain’t.

The Black Lips / No Bunny / Jemina Pearl
The El Rey; Los Angeles, CA

[01-23-2010]

Saturday night, I went to The El Rey in Los Angeles to see Jemina Pearl, No Bunny, and The Black Lips; despite the fact that the bill made complete sense, this show felt like three distinct events. Each of these bands makes their living portraying themselves as bad kids who aren’t really that threatening, which is really what just about every teenager spends their time doing. There’s no point being so bad ass that everyone is afraid to be around you; all successful and loved cool kids understand the difference between being a lovable rascal and a villain.

It may surprise you, but out of a pack of scuzzy boys toeing the line here, Jemina Pearl was probably the best at playing that role. It’s hard to see The Black Lips and No Bunny telling a crowd it sucks, but the former Be Your Own Pet frontwoman seems perfectly content to, “burn every bridge down on [her] way out of town” and “wave goodbye with a middle finger.” It’s not to say that she comes to a show with a predetermined attitude; she’s just more willing than most to engage with her audience in any way, including antagonistically. That’s what makes her so interesting to me. She’s an explosive performer, virtually incapable of ignoring the audience. For all the punk egalitarianism that’s represented by sharing the stage, bands typically treat those individuals as obstacles to play through. Pearl seems more interested in response than anything else, and on nights like this, when she doesn’t get it, she’s not afraid to give you hers. “Who here’s looking for trouble? No? Well maybe I’ll give you some of mine.”

No Bunny was up next, dressing conservatively in a pair of red briefs. He easily outplayed every other performance of his I’ve seen due, in part I’m sure, to the fact that this was far and away the largest audience I’ve seen him in front of. No Bunny is the type of act that benefits from the stupidity masses bring. By donning his bunny mask and wig, he has taken himself completely out of the equation and turned himself into the ultimate party cheerleader. He’s probably the best dancer since Chris Chris (winner of LVHRD’s first DNCHRD competition), and it’s pretty much impossible to resist throwing in with him the way some of his call and responses are designed. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, but the bros probably didn’t quite know what to make of it and held back. Oh yeah, there were bros. If I’m going to stick to high school clichés, then No Bunny would be more of your enthusiastic goof, whereas The Black Lips are easily the coolest kids in southern-tinged-garage-throwback school. At this point, I guess their reputation precedes them, and when you hear that a band has had to sneak out the bedroom window of an entire country (India), you expect to get rowdy.

I was vaguely aware of guitarist Alexander Cole playing with his teeth and jumping off the drum set, but I was far more engrossed in the power struggle playing out in the crowd as bros, fashion victims, and regular people collided. Things actually calmed down after a tiny girl decked one of the burlier guys in the face. The resulting armistice left me free to actually watch the set and remember just how much filler The Black Lips have produced over the years and how long they’ve been touring. The Lips are fifth-year seniors, and they’ve got copies of all the old assignments. Question 1A: play guitar behind your head. No one else seemed to notice, and cups continued to fly all night, but the sense that I was watching a band who had it all figured out grew and grew until Ian St. Pe, a guy who probably hasn’t worried what his parents thought for a decade, happily reminded the crowd, “It’s Saturday night and our parents are back in Georgia.” There are far worse things than being good at your trade but when it comes to compelling figures I’ll take someone with a little left to learn every time.

Stellar Om Source / Daniel Higgs / Zomes
Brickbat Books; Philadelphia, PA

[01-29-2010]

Though I had romanticized it a bit in my mind the night prior, going to see a show at a bookstore isn’t really any different than seeing one at a more conventional indie venue. If you don’t manage to score the perfect real estate you’ll still be staring at the backs of heads, and the vast majority of those heads will belong to white men. The only difference, which may be a big one for the well-read aesthete, is that if the low-end gets especially heavy there’s a possibility that it may rattle the bones of some dusty text such that it jumps off the shelf and into your hands. Aside from absorbing some interesting sounds, I walked away from the night with a copy of Louis Althusser’s The Future Lasts Forever, the memoir he wrote about accidently strangling his wife to death during a routine Sunday morning massage.

Zomes is the recording project of Asa Osbourne, who used to play guitar in Lungfish alongside Daniel Higgs. As on his 2008 Holy Mountain Records debut, Osbourne’s performance gear consists of a series of pre-recorded percussion tapes and a keyboard run through several effects pedals that distort, fuzz, and sustain the phrases. The consequence is a mesmerizing and head-nodding pop world stripped of all frills; minimal, and confidently basic. The beats and simple pop phrases conjoin in a sonically sophisticated and architectural way, and while there may be better comparisons, the repetitive sounds instantly reminded me of Jackie Mittoo. Osbourne’s bare sound structures leave much space for autonomous thinking, namely for the listener to imagine the possibility of additional pop fills that the artist cleverly denies due to his well-practiced restraint and allegiance to pop minimalism.

Daniel Higgs has a sage presence that warms up a room. He’s some sort of hyper-spiritualized and worldly warrior/comedian who has returned from outside places to deliver coded messages, warnings, laughs, and blessings. Armed with a profound understanding of oratorical power, his mostly improvised parables and chants fully absorb the listener like opium. His banjo sounded like it was played through an amplified radiator, jagged and brushed with steel wool, transitioning between folk phrases and violent raga outbursts. While his stories and lessons are enticing, they quickly become preachy. Given our constant bombardment with persuasive language – the politician, the preacher, the monsters of advertising, the boss, the culture industry, and so on – silence and non-verbal sound may be more appropriate for healing and learning. Higgs’ aesthetic, though, is deeply rooted in the oral tradition.

The crowd significantly thinned during and after Higgs’ performance. By the time Stellar Om Source, the sound project of synth-lord Christelle Gualdi, juiced up her sound stations and got the green-light waves swirling around the room it was possible to see her furiously spinning and tweaking the countless knobs and pedals. Gualdi has created a sizeable discography over the past 5 or so years, though I’m most impressed with her 2009 self-released CDR, Ocean Woman. The moods and sounds are concurrently meditative and intense, flirting with New Age sound without falling into sweat-lodge-dehydration ridiculousness and pounding the keys toward some unrealized past or future world like fellow hypnagogist Daniel Lopatin. Her synth waves delicately washed over and pulsed through the room, soothing and blasting minds out into other spaces. Without being restricted by time and beat, the rootless sounds are free to linger and float, searching for some curious ear. Seeing this music performed live only increases the joy: leaping and grooving behind the multiple sound-stations like some deranged astronaut who’s attempting to remember which button delivers the ship to eternal bliss. Regardless of whether you prefer to call this recent return to the synthesizer h-pop or neo-Kosmische or something else, Gualdi is constructing some powerful sound-worlds that deserve exploration.

[Photo: Dan Cohoon]

Sonic Youth / Sic Alps
The Fillmore; San Francisco, CA

[01-10-2009]

My god, what a difference a generation can make. The last sold out show I saw at The Fillmore was The Mountain Goats, and the crowd was pushy, sloppy, and young (still a great show). The SY crowd by comparison was courteous, excited, and full of dancing energy. Old people can be awesome concert-goers. We were treated first to openers Sic Alps, who played a familiar brand of psychedelic folk-rock with occasional bursts of noise. After a brief smoke break, we returned to find the drummer switched, which resulted in an even stronger performance.

I could feel the floor moving when Sonic Youth walked onstage. The dancefloor was packed in tight, and Thurston fed off of the electricity like a drug. He’s still so boyish, and boys can’t feign aloofness when they’re giddy. Good crowds will do that to you.

As Sonic Youth continue to generate new material after being on the scene for over 30 years, their setlists tend to focus on the new stuff. Songs from The Eternal dominated the setlist and sometimes stretched out to the 14-minute mark. Similar to a jam band experience, but of course too noisy and calculated for such a label, watching Sonic Youth is like watching a modern symphony—a really bad-ass symphony. Despite playing almost exactly the same setlist as the last time I saw them, SY played an epiphanic show that could’ve saved lives and bludgeoned eardrums.

Thurston dedicated “Leaky Lifeboat” to his daughter, Coco, who on a recent trip to City Lights Poetry Room observed that it was “too quiet.” “Antennae” recalled the lovelorn lethargy of Murray Street’s “The Empty Page,” with melodic guitar lines plucked over a sea of analog delay and static white noise. “Hey Joni” was so fast and heavy—you couldn’t hear any hint of a tennis wrist-injury from Lee Ranaldo—it moved from avant-garde punk to dirty metal riffs faster than you could say “collision.”

From beginning to end, SY never once took it easy. What seemed like a holy-fuck-it’s-Kool-Thing moment was actually “Sacred Trickster,” which is an easy song to like, but it becomes another beast live. “‘Cross the Breeze” drove everyone into a dancing frenzy, with 20-year-old urban outfitters head-banging with 45 year-old art professors. Steve Shelley’s frantic double-time beats pummeled the song into speed metal territory. They closed with “Death Valley ‘69,” leaving us drained, but euphoric. Thurston was the last member to walk offstage as classical music blared from purple-lit speakers, a messianic image only Mr. Moore can pull off.

[Photo: Charlie Cravero]

The Fiery Furnaces / Young Coyotes
Bluebird Theatre; Denver, CO

[11-24-2009]

There comes a point in every man's life, usually when you've sat around chewing the chorus-repetition gristle-fat with a band like Young Coyotes (good first impression, great roots but no growth; set plods) for 20-30 minutes, when you wonder if you've made the right decision. You feel insecure, naked to the world. A few more bad shows and the wife'll have yr balls in a cannery jar. Not only that, but you had to spring for a babysitter and spend gas money to get there.

Bands like The Fiery Furnaces make the effort worthwhile. Boasting top-level troops at each key penetration point, FF use a traditional r'n'r quartet to burrow through the surprisingly rigid boundaries imposed -- whether self- or subconsciously -- by much of the genre. You just don't hear bands twitch, stutter, double back, dip, dive, dodge, duck, deep-dick, stop-start, jump-kick, side-swipe and twitterpate rock the way Fiery Furnaces do; it's just not DONE. This is why they bake my brain like a brick-oven rye.

If you thought their albums were pounding, incredibly intricate epics, you were right, but their live presence is equally confounding, consisting as it does of:

- a drummer giving his absolute FUCK-all to every measure;
- bass playing both nimble, bold and tough as a thimble-thumb;
- Eleanor Friedberger's singing, a bit low in the mix at times but never completely lost; a British sea captain lost his drawl in the rain and E.F. snagged it for her Blueberry Boat;
- Radiohead-bater/lover of ghost-language Matthew Friedberger on guitar: at times negligible, at times best-ever, always the driving force as the rhythm, the lead, and, most of all, the one we ALL KNOW wrote these fantastic songs (all in that so-characteristic overcoat)...

I can way without hesitation I didn't recognize all but one of these songs. Think about it: I've been following this band semi-closely for a half-decade and they put out so much material I can't even parse more than a single song from a set of 14-odd! You gotta love their fluidity. Hell, you gotta love them period. If you want the NOISE brought on you, but with a history-professor edge and some Jimi Hendrix/Ira Kaplan/J Mascis six-string pyrotechnics thrown in for good measure, I can't think of a better recommendation than The Fiery Furnaces.

[Photo: Lithe Sebesta]

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