Birthdays; London, UK
Sometimes the UK (and even London) is a dull place, you know: too polite, genteel, and utilitarian for its own good. That’s why — after being kidnapped in the middle of an intense weather-discussing session and dumped at the front door of Birthdays in Hackney — I groggily jumped at the chance of seeing clipping., who, if nothing else, might inspire a little gratitude for the generally stupefying quiet of English life.
Helping them in their bid to splinter eardrums and corrupt the usually sexless British march toward death was MXLX, also known as Matt Williams from Beak>. Before his set Williams could be seen pacing in and out of the room/hall/moshpit/basement, a bottle of sociability in his hand. Maybe he was nervous, but once he hit the stage and unleashed his churning oscillations of Merzbow-esque digital fuzz, any suspicions that he might’ve been uptight or anxious were eviscerated. Familiar only with his excellent Black Meta album, I couldn’t tell whether he played one continuous 25-minute noise/drone piece, or strung several of his vaguely misanthropic-cum-self-loathing trips together. Either way, his waves of static all-but solidified the air, its thickening mass cut only by his own full-throated shouts and chants. Near the end, the bulging torrent of low-end gave way to a manipulated whirl of screeching high-end, which may’ve been the sound of Lucifer’s cat being sucked into space. Regardless, I took the slightly unsure applause of the crowd as a sign that his performance was impeccably caustic.
As for clipping., I was curious as to how their mixture of oblique textural beats and headlong rhymes would translate in the live setting. I was also curious as to whether they’d provide ammunition for those semi-regular (and unfair) Death Grips comparisons by being antisocially aloof during their 45 minutes, since their music is pretty antagonistic in its own right. But no, Daveed Diggs was as clubby and talkative as you like, kicking off the proceedings with a version of “Intro” that — rather than beginning at full speed — gradually accumulated its dizzy momentum on the way to those “Come get it” explosions. From there they played a queue of tracks taken from Midcity and the earlier singles, including a run through “Guns Up” that had the crowd throwing into the air the closest things they had to guns, which in England is their hands. They also played “Or Die,” “Chain,” and “Jump” — three new tracks that would suggest their future direction is one that emphasizes Midcity’s nascent contrast between abrasive dissonance and more accessible hooks/choruses. The only negative point for me was that such abrasion could’ve been a little louder, simply because without the excesses of volume some of the agitated energy of their material didn’t always reveal itself.
There was probably a reason for this curbing of decibels, however, which is that it was intended to bring out Diggs’ gymnastic flow. When he reached his peaks of tempo and propulsion during the culmination of “Story” (and the above-mentioned “Guns Up”), his rhymes became a kind of runaway train that threatened to charge ahead of itself, and that whipped sections of the London crowd into volleys of unrepentant headbanging. When they finished with their debut single “Face,” this train almost took off, and for that final song the moshpit turned into a miniature dance floor, largely thanks to the small (but no less enthusiastic) number of girls in attendance. Possibly enticed by their nubile limbs, Diggs’ launched a second tour through the crowd that evening, which is pretty much where he stayed once the virtually unbroken focus of Jonathan Snipes and Williams Hutson brought the night to a close.
[Photo: Herman von Matterhorn]
Oneohtrix Point Never / Nate Boyce
EMPAC; Rensselaer, NY
Oneohtrix Point Never plays the most hard-hitting ambient music I’ve encountered. His works are extreme in their garishness to the point of absurdity, with melodies flushed out and plugged like so many unwitting Duck Hunt participants. Daniel Lopatin’s project also is like a silent version of that laughing dog, wherein every botched attempt the listener makes to lock into a groove is puckishly undermined. This is brain schism, not brain dance, but it’s bracing. And the kick-off show in Rensselaer, NY for his R Plus Seven tour reinforced this notion for me. Of course, I was among those (everyone, as I recall) who failed to recognize that there were applause breaks (sometime collaborator Tim Hecker played the same venue with no breaks), so there was awkward silence at the start.
Perhaps it never stopped. I honestly can’t tell how the audience was receiving things. Many of those in attendance were students with nothing else to do. But I was floored. Not only was the set full of surprises (for one piece, there was a churning, almost sans-live drum Add N to (X)-type progression, the likes of which I have never heard from the man), but the visual elements were perfectly synced. Nate Boyce and his contorting CGI renderings of various abstract sculptures blended with OPN’s stunted, jarring spa-core missives in a most uncanny fashion. It was a thrill to see and hear such brazen works of abstraction. Even though Hecker’s sound setup was more elaborate (apparently a week was spent setting up site-specific multiple-speaker arrangements), OPN was considerably bigger sounding. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that Lopatin works with bright, clean sounds rather than decaying, fuzzy ones, but there was a lot more Maxell commercial-level intensity.
On a related note, if you don’t live too far from the capital district of New York, I highly recommend EMPAC as a venue. Most of the performers are of the more prestigious, experimental variety (though past guests Deerhunter and Japanther aren’t necessarily much more than rock music, and folk singer Josephine Foster has also played there), but the sound quality is impeccable.
Date Palms / Man Forever
The Monarch; Berlin, Germany
With Man Forever, the first thing you’ll probably notice is three guys huddled around a single drum — one of them Kid Millions of Oneida and instigator of said project — whose concerted drum rolls initially resemble the comforting pitter-patter of rain on a roof. That reassuring sound soon is internalized, swept through our bodies on a huge wash of bass, keys, and EBow’d guitar hum and drone, with the power of it lifting each witness a half-inch off the ground. A vast ocean of overtones magicked out of the mysterious churning phases of the drumming, an open sea of cascading tonal hints and gradual drifts, a few, maybe three, suitably disorientating shifts in the drone-tones (we grow attached without noticing, and the change is wrenching), the three drummers’ sticks rebounding higher and higher off the drum until, with an impressively synchronized snap-finish, it’s over.
Dates Palms up next, the recent additions of bass and guitar lending slow heft to their wilted desert sway, doom-y riffs subtly steering the action in the general absence of drums. Date Palms play music that takes you places, soundscapes for desert landscapes, soundtracks for non-existent Westerns, a pleasant mélange of unapologetically evocative musical traditions. They are unhurried and expansive as I can only imagine the desert sky is; they play music that seems so closely linked to places they’ve been and I haven’t, and they do it well — it’s only too easy to think I might have been there myself. Yet they transport, and all my mental theatre has to bring up in response is received ideas, stock photography, and cinematic mythology — not that that’s Date Palms’ fault. Maybe it isn’t all quite so arid as to be entirely lonely dust and desert imagery; a particular highlight of the set for example, “Night Riding the Skyline,” brings out more watery depths with its dubby echoes and drum machine, and in Marielle Jakobsons’ violin there’s also a touch of human longing, smearing mournful melodies with a homestead-y familiarity over the proceedings — a testament to the life (no matter how tenuously it clings on) in the empty spaces.
One evening, two different trips — Man Forever’s perhaps more bodily, Date Palms’ more imagistic — and how easy it is to be snapped out of that delicate aim of trying to make my way from Berlin across the Atlantic to the desert-y open spaces by means of music alone.
Willis Earl Beal
Schuba's; Chicago, IL
Presence, stage presence, is an unwieldy weapon. Ambling between concrete musical talent and presenting self and work as a spectacle people would be interested in dropping $20 to catch a train and show up at a venue laughably over fire capacity is a needle point some musicians take care to tread. They’re admirable musicians. But like Francois 1 or Derrick Rose (when his career’s over, they’ll be in the same tier of history), some dudes are just fucking born with it. The ease they radiate in snaring a crowd is infuriating and the tandem hatred/admiration only surfaces after you leave the show.
Willis Earl Beal has a backstory constructed meticulously from Americana mythology Kerouac supplicants can only fetishize; joined the army, discharged, bummed around in Albuquerque, left cryptic drawings and CD-Rs around, discovered by tastemakers as a force of both storytelling and American music tradition. After seeing Beal in flesh and Ray-Bans, I think that’s all a front. I think he actually pulled himself out of an unfinished Jarmusch script to walk the earth and spread the word of “swagger” from the Delta Blues and the rock & roll of the mid-decades of the 20th century. He has the off-kilter oddball gait and cadence of Tom Waits (his acknowledged hero), the good looks of a young Chuck Berry, and the caterwaul of Lead Belly. He’s so goddamn cool he could roll a pack of cigarettes in his sleeve and no one would call him an asshole.
His CD release of Nobody knows. at Schuba’s saw him for the first time outfitted with a full, highly capable band. Foregoing his staple Wayfarers for a black Venetian mask, the set saw a seasoned Beal parsing through Louisiana Pentecostal devil shake-downs, 12 Bar Chicago Blues sweats, and the hot-breath confessionals that marked Acousmatic Sorcery. I use the descriptive “seasoned” intently; at a young age, Beal is a showman, and a good one. Schuba’s was so full I stood on a wooden bench lining the venue like a kid at an overcrowded 50s dance hall, and I didn’t mind. His theatrics and stage positioning changed scene with every song; writhing on the floor, perched on the stool, wobbling on the mic stand. His astoundingly level speaking voice in banter between songs provided a (probably intentional) confusing contrast between the hard-life bluesman he affects and the “outsider artist” he purports. In Beal’s own words, “I equate the live experience with watching my uncle sing songs drunk.” With the nephew, it’s impossible to tell whether he cracked the bottle or drained it.
Since he began garnering attention, questions of authenticity and presentation have swirled around Beal. Frankly, I don’t give a shit what percentage is facade and what percentage is pith. My dad’s been a blues-bar musician for nearly 40 years, and I grew up in rural Indiana with appreciation and reverence for the sneer and saunter music embodies. I know of way too many acts today who clad their name in neon prints and perform what amounts to an aerobics routine without ever touching an instrument. When Willis was done, he walked off stage-left and into a sweltering Chicago alley.
Zola Jesus with JG Thirlwell & Mivos Quartet
Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral; Brooklyn Heights, NY
This shit was a listed event, which I attended under pal Stephen’s name, yet they let me in without ID, so really anyone could have just snooped a name on the list and got in at the door. But it took place in a legit CHURCH, making me feel a mixture of knowing I’ll end up sore by the end of the “service” and potentially bored, but my accomplice and I found a solid pew up front and to the side, much to our excitement. My girlfriend (also attending) felt the church gave her a guilty vibe, which I wondered what others took from it too, considering most of Zola Jesus’ shows are, well… not in churches.
A suited dude (JG Thirlwell: crucial music legend) came out with feathered hair around headphones on both ears, followed by the Mivos Quartet. Then Zola Jesus came out in an unflattering dress (making it WAY more flattering), introduced herself, thanking everyone, and began with the first track “Avalanche (Slow)” off her 2013 album Versions. The Mivos Quartet strings were featured most in the accompaniment as JG Thirlwell’s was conducting, trying not make a full cross while standing in front of the altar. And Zola Jesus was fucking serious. Which was appreciated in the world she builds musically AND the world she placed us in that night.
Zole Jesus let it all out there too. Way unabashed and beautiful, completely free in the moment comprised so intimately, while welcomed guests nodded and moved their shoulders. And as she continued through her album, she strolled around the audience, who were stiffly trying to keep an eye on her. Not really, but really, there was a pew marked/reserved for the full cast of Grey’s Anatomy. Then she played a track for Sacred Bone’s owner Caleb; a track she has never played live before. During this track she jerked around less while singing. I’m actually listening to it now, but am unfamiliar with the name of it: I got everything/ I got it going on/ I’m not going home without a fight x2/ And I will only wait for so long. Ben Greenberg, who also attended, suggested I don’t share the live recording, which he’s right: it wouldn’t do her voice justice.
As she walked back to the accompaniment, Zola Jesus adorned the altar after stating she was performing her last song, and sang it on high. My girlfriend and me appreciated that because people had periodically tried to stand in front of us to take photos and such, but we I gave ‘em good New York taps and line-of-sight motions to move. But “Collapse” wasn’t sung last, though it’s her last track on Versions. However, before she sang “Collapse,” she mentioned the song was about the audience, which interestingly enough put the attendees at a fair, but awkward distance from Zola Jesus; her statement made “Collapse” a performance than a preach piece, and I really dug that.
“Fall Back,” the last song, ended with the strings as she left, but then came back as they all bowed down, and we bowed OUT to try and beat the crowd. Like an IDIOT, I tripped out the pew, just after watching my girlfriend do the same, only I lost my balance and got handy with one of the Sacred Bones people, which consisted mostly of hair; totally professional shit; PAY ME! On that note, we booked it outta there faster, found a cheap pizza joint around the corner from that Brooklyn Heights classicism shit, and feasted post-Yom Kippur style on a full meal at $7.14.
Soliton (Chris Corsano and Jenny Gräf)
Monarch; Berlin, Germany
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.
The Echo; Los Angeles, CA
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.
Brick Is Red
Break My Body
I’ve Been Tired
Motorway to Roswell
Another Toe in the Ocean
What Goes Boom
Here Comes Your Man
Something Against You
Wave of Mutilation
Blue Eyed Hexe
Greens and Blues
Planet of Sound
Where Is My Mind
Sebadoh / Octagrape
Larimer Lounge; Denver, CO
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.
Judson Memorial Church; New York, NY
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.
Great Scott; Boston, MA
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.