Jay Reatard
Harper’ s Ferry; Allston, MA

[04-20-2008]

On April 17, the Silver Dollar in Toronto teetered on the brink of complete chaos when a fan hopped onstage between Jay Reatard and his band, causing Jay to tear off the line-crosser’s shirt and punch him in the face, sending the man reeling back into the surging crowd, and Jay announcing that the show was over as he walked off stage.

Three nights later, Jay Reatard played a show in Allston, MA, at Harper’s Ferry. I wondered if, in light of the debacle in Toronto, Jay might address the crowd, maybe make mention of the incident, or perhaps warn anyone drunk enough to saunter onstage that they would meet the same fate as the (now undoubtedly quite sore) gentlemen in Toronto.

But I forgot something important: this was a Jay Reatard show, which means April 20 would be no different than April 17 or April 21, right on down the line. The only evidence of a scrum a few nights before was a group of well-positioned security guards standing around the raised stage, wearing all black, arms folded, facial expressions menacing.

And so it went: Jay, bassist Stephen Pope, and drummer Billy Hayes took their places, Jay set the distortion levels on his pedals to “kill,” and launched into “Blood Visions,” the opening track on 2006’s album of the same name. The band would rip through song after song, with Jay stumbling around, periodically spitting, and singing in a much throatier, lower register than he does on record. After one song finished, he’d shout the title of the next song in queue, along with something like “let’s go!” for good measure. The band was loud, tight, and efficient, and they churned through the set list expertly. What you hear on record (the set list was culled from Blood Visions and some of the various 7-inches Jay has been releasing through Matador) is what you hear in concert, except that in a live setting, the aggressive songs turn into something close to belligerent, in the best possible way.

I got the feeling watching them that punk rock had found its new mouthpiece. Of course, most of that sentiment comes from the music itself: there’s no denying that Jay Reatard’s songs – short, powerful, melodic tracks that scream out of Jay’s flying-V like a derailed subway car – bring to mind the Urinals and Buzzcocks while sounding distinctly modern. But it’s in Jay’s stage philosophy that has garnered him heaps of attention and praise from critics and show-goers alike. Take this musing from a video on his MySpace page: “We just like to Blitzkrieg everyone and just play as many songs as we can as fast as possible with no breaks or bullshit. So I think... just the energy level can make out stand out.”

And so the April 20 show at Harper’s Ferry, while stunning, was just like any other Jay Reatard experience, and the events at the Silver Dollar a few nights before did nothing to alter Jay’s game plan. Ultimately I think Jay’s ability to shrug off near disasters is a good thing. After all, don’t we go to punk shows to get “Blitzkrieged” anyway?

Kaki King
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY

[04-09-2008]

The instant Kaki King started playing, I was mesmerized. It happened all in a brief moment: a loud, milky voice said, "Hey guys," and before I had a chance to react, the first song had begun. The music seemed without direction, as if it were playing inside my head. My friends were making their way up the stairs to the balcony, but I staggered, paralyzed, my neck craned in the opposite direction so as not to break my gaze from what was occurring on stage.

Barely even seeming to touch the strings, Kaki King constructed an otherworldly sound, a beautiful tone that was difficult to believe was generated by someone’s fingers. Audio and video had not come close to conveying that which was occurring in front of me. The intricacies of her performance can only be perceived live, and the awe of the first experience, I discovered, can be completely overwhelming. A few minutes later I remembered where I was and suddenly noticed that, aside from a few people at the bar in the back, the entire audience was silent.

Later, a drunk person would occasionally blurt out inappropriate encouragement or shout “Call me, Kaki!” met immediately with a chorus of “Shhhhhhhhhh.” “There’s always that one guy,” smirked Kaki, about halfway through the show. This seemed to indicate not that her concerts are always disturbed by some drunkard, but rather that her audiences are usually as remarkably quiet and respectful as they were that night. Though there were times this audience got excited and cheered for a particularly difficult piece of guitar playing, more often it felt like the entire audience was lost in the music, as unaware of their surroundings as I.

The very intensity that cast a trance over the concertgoers made this a particularly difficult show to review. While paying the most attention to documenting the performance, I felt the least involved, though my lapses in attention were rarely voluntary. Many times, I became entranced by the sonic experience, forgetting to do anything other than stare and listen. As the song completed minutes later, I was released and able to scribble down a few notes but mostly reluctant to verbalize what I had just been involved in.

In a way, Kaki King is cursed by her talent. Her technique is so astounding that nothing she does can be as remarkable as playing solo on her Ovation. Inclusion of other instruments and overdubs creates an uncertainty that detracts from the fact that helps make her first album so astounding: that the sounds were created by a single human being and guitar. This is not to say that I do not enjoy any of her subsequent albums, rather that I would have given them a fairer evaluation had they been released by someone else.

This dilemma seemed somehow less relevant in a live setting. The presence of the other musicians removed the vagueness from the songs’ construction. More importantly, Kaki has chosen a strong group of instrumentalists to support her, and their communicative synergy is obvious. While I occasionally caught myself wishing I had seen Kaki’s solo tour in support of Everybody Loves You, when her inclinations towards pop melodies were lesser, songs like “Life Being What It Is” and “Pull Me Out Alive” swelled to life, far surpassing their album versions. And while I was once convinced that no musician could appropriately match Kaki in concert, the drummer’s performance on “2 O’Clock,” in which he and Kaki matched perfect thirty-second notes for some time, was enough to convince me otherwise.

Despite beginning with six straight tracks from Dreaming of Revenge, the concert felt remarkably varied. Familiar songs were given new life by interesting performances. During the already-absurdly-fast “Magazine,” Kaki pushed herself to speeds unheard on the album, until her hands were nothing but a blur. While she was friendly and funny, Kaki rarely spoke, allowing several songs to flow together. Near the end of the show, the band played environmental music while Kaki read the opening to Frank Herbert’s Dune. “They’re making a Dune movie,” she explained, “and I want to be in it.” The concert closed with “You Don’t Have To Be Afraid,” in a performance so beautiful that it could easily have stood without an encore. Of course, Kaki took every advantage of the encore, returning with a live-sampling pedal-steel solo performance of “Gay Sons of Lesbian Mothers.” The band joined her once more to play an intense and lengthy version of “Doing The Wrong Thing,” after which I was sure the show was over. “We really love German Metal,” Kaki told the audience, before the band launched into an explosive cover of Bubonix’s “Fashion Tattoo.” It was the perfect ending to such a varied performance. If there had been one thing the audience was not quite sure that Kaki King was capable of, it was screaming, rocking, and playing twice as loud as the rest of the concert.

During the performance of “Magazine,” I began to wonder if this was the most incredible feat of guitar I had ever witnessed. As I stood outside on the sidewalk, I contemplated this again, just as Kaki King ran out of the venue and into her van. As her tiny body brushed by me, I noticed that she looked like she could have just has easily been one of the concert-goers now congregating outside and felt the same amazement that had originally drawn me to her music: those incredible sounds, the songs -- the entire experience -- had all somehow been born of that one human being.

Surrounded
The Social; London, UK

[04-07-2008]

For those of us dwelling within the confines of modern day, urban London, it’s easy to get caught up in the frenzied rush for the next big thing. Whether it’s the fast fashion clothing stores lining the streets or the glut of free tabloid newspapers competing for attention with pictures of the latest Z-list celeb stumbling out of overpriced drinking dens, the sensory onslaught is as overwhelming as it is intoxicating.

It’s a characteristic that often transfers itself over to music with numerous nightclubs attempting to hawk the same latest house/techno/disco variant or grotty rock dive after grotty rock dive filled with the latest indie pop puppets slinging their guitars around in the hopes of landing their first magazine cover. For a city that can be absolutely everything you want it to be at times, it’s surprising how narrow the musical spectrum can occasionally feel.

It’s on a cool Monday night in April, then, that the sparse audience at the Social, a hipster bar hidden behind the mass commercialism of Oxford Street, finds itself witness to a band quietly performing a sound that’s so far outside the current media-approved noises of the moment, it almost feels shocking on first impression.

Led by a school teacher named Martin Rydell, Surrounded are a Swedish quintet who specialize in crafting their own take on a lo-fi Americana that’s best compared to the likes of Sparklehorse, Summerteeth-era Wilco, and the quieter moments of The Flaming Lips’ back catalogue. Performing with that perfectly balanced, crystal clear style that appears to be the genetic birthright of all Swedes, Surrounded offer the audience a gentle sampling of highlights from their latest long player, The Nautilus Years. On record, it’s a fuzzy, slow paced emotional affair that wears its heart on its sleeve alongside the best of the modern day troubadours. Transfer it into a live setting, and Rydell’s whispering croon takes on a world-weary weight that injects his songs with some much needed gravitas -- one that, unlike so many bands living in the queen’s realm, avoids being pinned down and neutered by recent music history.

An alternative to the dreary norm, then, this also means that there’s little chance Surrounded will be making much headway in today’s one-night stand attitude toward music. There’s little flash witnessed on stage tonight. No neon hues or tight leather jackets for this bunch. No musical hybridization or even reactionary poses against the status quo. Instead, all we get is solid craftsmanship that doesn’t ask for much. They may not cause a stir among the bloggers or find themselves on the cover of the NME next week, but that doesn’t really matter. The only thing that does is the fact that, for just a few minutes, Surrounded are a welcome relief from the storm that awaits us all outside.

Kimya Dawson
The Herbst Theater; San Francisco, CA

[02-25-2008]

The gentrification of indie rock means that the bourgeois can dip toes into chlorinated waters of high-profile acts such as Neko Case, My Morning Jacket, and Spoon. Kimya Dawson has been thrown into the pool.

She is still who she is: a peacefully protesting, sloppy-mama-clothes-wearing warrior who handles death and vileness like a child fondling the feathers, broken bones, and maggots of a dead bird. And unlike most “singers” (she is more of a talker who switches tones), she lets the music deliver the message rather than drowning it or, as the existential tides rise, obscuring with sonic waves and undertows the fact that there is none.

Dawson speaks humbly about playing San Francisco’s Herbst Theater, which only barely eases the awkwardness of her playing the Herbst Theater. It’s like watching a scripted production of house party and café shows, an undeniable simulation of what normally actually happens. Next to her is a guy named Matt, who sits cross-legged on the floor. The crowd is a mass of nice heels and expensive hair cuts and shirts with pre-fab owl patches on them.

“Rocks With Holes” evokes the dissociative, sad-soaked magical realism of The Virgin Suicides. Matt tinkers on a xylophone, which finesses the song in lullaby. The anti-Bush song “Fire” resurrects Gandhi with such lyrics as "It's a mistake to just take and not give/ It's not true that we must murder to live." We could start a snuggle revolution! She calls Matt a “baby genius” and says that they have played together a lot. We never quite learn who Matt is, but he does start playing a banjo in “Trump Song,” in which the words, “Without a stinkin cotton-pickin dime” sound good against a little baby genius banjo solo. “Underground” is morbid-crass and silly-sweet, complete with her idea about tattooing instructions on her ass not to bury her when she dies. Then she plays “12/26,” which is about a woman whose family dies in a tsunami but who survives by clasping onto a palm frond. Her whispered kind of fast amplifies through the institutionalized stillness of the theater. Anybody want to go dumpster diving after this? ...um, just kidding.

Next is a song for her daughter about a little panda bear. It’s off Alphabutt e. pee., a kid’s album she recorded in Oakland. Suddenly, some really cute kids from the album get on stage to play along. The Kid’s Korner mini-set highlights include a song about Fabio riding a horse down to Mexico and the title song, an ABC’s of fart humor. The whole affair is corny and sweet, like a family barbeque.

”Lullaby for the Taken,” “It’s Been Raining,” and “Singing Machine” refute the lyrics in the latter: “They can’t all be ballads.” This last song gets funny when Matt petulantly puts the toy keyboard away because she’s going too fast even though he asked her to slow down, and then he says, “They’re all ballads to me.”

“It’s okay if at the end of the day all that I can do is be a good mother,” she sings. Then she goes into a medley consisting of snippets from Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be” (yes, the greatest fan of your life) and Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway.” Next, she plays a rendition of a song her brother wrote about doing a “macho man.”

Her husband, Angelo Spencer, comes on stage with his band, which opened, along with those Alphabutt kids, and it is a gentle clambering that is kind of mildly engaging. “We won’t stop until someone calls the cops,” she sings, and then she leaves the stage without an encore. Thank goodness for that, because these lullabies have made me sleepy. I go to bed and have a dream that I am a frog prince threatened by death via blender, until a Huck Finn type rescues me and we go on a road trip into the Midwest.

Tokyo Police Club / Smoosh / The Static Jacks
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY

[04-20-2008]

I have never been fashionably late to anything in my life. I have this constant fear that I am going to be missing out on the best part of an event if I am anything but punctual. Too many times have I entered the Bowery Ballroom only to be harassed by bouncers as they corralled me and my fellow concert-goers into the dungeon bar, our prison until the doors finally opened. But this time I was going to be smart -- this time I left late. The doors opened at 8 PM, so I left my house at 8:30 to catch what I was hoping to be a long subway ride downtown. I walked into the place and once again was herded to the bar packed with what seemed to be a high school graduation party. I knew the crowd was going to be pretty young.

The openers were New Jersey's The Static Jacks, whose claim to fame was a song featured on the hit, and now pregnant show, Zoey 101, followed by the always-lovable Smoosh. During the latter's set, I kept thinking these guys are going to be even better than Tegan and Sara when they are older. Then my mind wandered to the question of whether or not they are going to be attractive when they are older, but I stopped myself before I was forced to put my name on some sort of state sex offenders list. These girls are barely teens. What the hell was I doing at that age? My greatest accomplishment at that point was obtaining a Golden Chocobo in Final Fantasy 7.

Finally, after staying up past their bedtime, Smoosh resigned and Tokyo Police Club took the stage. I looked up and could only think to myself, "Oh Canada, hockey hair." At that point I had moseyed almost to the edge of the stage by accident. I turned around to notice the cool, "I know how to show up fashionably late" kids had finally filled the ballroom.

Not one for silly things such as banter, Tokyo Police Club lurched into "La Ferrassie." Their set slowly built up until, halfway through, it just turned on a dime and melted faces. From that point on, the dedicated crowd became putty in their hands. Every clapping rhythm was met with applause/rhythm/self-congratulations. There was very little time to breathe between songs with the occasional awkward story before launching into the next. Just as soon as the crowd started getting into a song, it would abruptly end.

That's Tokyo Police Club's Achilles' heel: all of their songs are way too short. To the best of my knowledge, they only have two songs that break the three-minute mark. They have cut the fat that would normally drag the songs down, but the unintended consequence is they all end too soon. This has also been a problem with their studio work because their two EPs and one LP run roughly an hour, which isn't enough to get me to work and back.

An unexpected treat was the inclusion of a light show. Placed behind the band were six tall, skinny lights that contained several LEDs of different colors that flashed throughout the show. Below were several of, I'm assuming, the same types of lights that casted a "ghost story-esque" feel across the front three members of the band.

Almost as soon as the set started, it ended. They wrapped up "Be Good" and walked off stage only to be called back for the inevitable encore. But this is the first time I've ever seen a band walk off stage and be just as anxious as the crowd calling for their return. Unfortunately, they quickly blasted through "Cheer It On," and two minutes after the encore began, it was over... what a tease. The entire set lasted a brisk 56 minutes.

I have the perfect solution for Tokyo Police Club, and it could easily make their set twice as long. Start it over from the beginning. Not one audience member would stand there and second-guess the decision, and with such a limited amount of material, it is a great way to extend an already great show.

Setlist:

Radiohead / Liars
Nissan Pavilion; Bristow, VA

[05-11-2008]

If you’ve lived long enough in the DC-area, you will hear that the Nissan Pavilion sucks. When Radiohead first announced they would be playing this “shed” to the southwest of DC, a collective groan must've shot out of fansites and hipster message boards across the region. I have never been to the venue, but I have frequented my share of shitty places. So I bought tickets, wondering what could be that much worse here than any other corporate-owned amphitheater.

Radiohead and DC, historically, have never jibed. A show at Bull Run had to be canceled due to flooding, and lightning struck during a performance at RFK Stadium. I didn’t live in the area during those weather-related disasters, but little did I know I would be involved in yet another Radiohead vs. the weather fiasco this time around. As I left the house, a deluge of rain bucketed down and water cascaded in rivers down streets. Thankfully, I didn't possess a lawn seat. Besides, I probably wouldn’t have sat in the lawn anyhow. I’m one of those “Oh yeah, I saw Radiohead in a club 11 years ago for $15” kind of guys. Nothing but good seats for me to see this band.

I live 78 miles from the venue, so it took over three hours to get there. The rain continued to hurtle down. When we finally arrived at the venue (via a two-lane road!), it suddenly dawned on me that my seat was a mile away. Long story short, I was drenched by the time I sat down -- and so was everyone else around me. It was less than 50-degrees out, and Liars hadn’t even gone on yet. This would be a long time to wait in wet, cold clothes. Of course, I could continue with stories about the two-hour wait to get out of the parking lot, the flooded road closures, the drunk girl peeing in a cup next me in the car, but this is a concert review. Let’s focus on the music.

Liars came on promptly at 7:30. The amphitheater was still more or less empty, but that didn’t stop the band from turning in a cracker performance. As Angus Andrews prowled about the stage, his massive hands waving about in a blur, the freezing crowd danced along, desperate to find a beat to warm up to. Highlights of the 45-minute set included “Plaster Casts of Everything” and “Houseclouds.” The guys on my left had never heard Liars nor did it seem many of the others who responded with polite applause. It is easy to forget just how mainstream Radiohead is, even though they manage to defy expectations with each and every release.

Someone mentioned that the rain would only add atmosphere to Radiohead’s music. And it's true: their songs are rife with dread, and some of their crystalline piano ballads are perfect for a rainy day. I was intent on ignoring the cold in order to focus on the music. Amid a sea of beams that hung from the roof of the stage like metal stalactites (or the world’s biggest example of vertical blinds), Radiohead finally took the stage to thunderous applause. Behind us, a sea of umbrellas swallowed up the lawn, but the crowd under shelter was relatively sparse. Thom Yorke, dressed in a red T-shirt with grey hoodie welcomed “the wet people.” Then the band launched into the dirge “All I Need,” from its outstanding new album In Rainbows. Filled with looming synths and a menacing bassline, the song’s lingering intensity set the tone for the evening.

It takes something quite powerful to lift a shivering, soaked writer out of his saturated jeans, and as Yorke’s warm, fragile voice filled the amphitheater, I was taken away to someplace else. The band then transitioned into “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” and as the tempo picked up, the crowd began to dance.

What amazed me the most about the 25-song set was just how clear everything sounded. Yorke’s vocals swooped and soared on ballads such as “Lucky” and “Nude.” But it wasn’t only a grim affair. On faster songs such as “15 Step” and “Myxomatosis,” Yorke danced about the stage, his scruffy head twisting in all directions. Jonny Greenwood met Yorke’s intensity as he freaked out with guitar, synth and who knows what else.

Midway through the set, Yorke said, “We know how tough today has been for you guys and, uh, sorry.” The band then launched into OK Computer’s “Paranoid Android.” Whether or not he aimed the “Rain down, rain down/ Come on rain down on me” refrain to the freezing groundlings below, the moment was chilling. As bright blue and red lights reflected off the metal beams and Ed O’Brien’s unnerving backing vocals poured from the stage, the moment turned magical. Even a hardened concert-goer like me felt the magic.

There were just so many high points: the spastic paranoia of “Idioteque,” the sweeping beauty of “Reckoner.” By the time the band finished its first set with the rollicking “Bodysnatchers,” I didn’t think that it could get any better. But it did.

They returned for the first of two encores, with the haunting “Like Spinning Plates,” soon to be followed by “Optimistic” and “Karma Police.” Next came “Go Slowly,” a track off the bonus LP of In Rainbows. This fragile ballad felt perfect against the rain, its melody a menacing, twisted music box, Yorke’s vocals both ethereal and enveloping. After closing the first encore with “Planet Telex,” Yorke returned to inform us that many concert-goers never made it to the show. Some of the local roads had been washed away by the rain. The band offered up “Fake Plastic Trees” in dedication to the unfortunates who never arrived.

The concert ended with a raucous “The National Anthem” and the gentle “House of Cards.” Yorke and company eased us out of the show cooing “I don’t want to be your friend/ I just want to be your lover” before singing about collapsing infrastructure and lascivious key parties. Then the band retreated to drier quarters, leaving us in silence to face the rhythm and fury of the rain.

Photo: [kubacheck]

Colin Meloy
9:30 Club; Washington, DC

[04-13-2008]

IN DEFENSE OF COLIN MELOY

Why do so many people think Colin Meloy is such an asshole? If one were to scour the web for opinions on the front man of the seminal Portland collective The Decemberists, any praise found would be tempered with an equal amount of vitriol. This sentiment is never leveled at the musicality of Meloy and his cohorts, though, but squarely targets the man himself. After a period when nary an article would reach print without dubbing the band “literate” and “erudite,” the inevitable backlash appeared, attacking the very virtues that made The Decemberists famous in the first place.

Then what’s the problem? Has Meloy’s brand of nerd-rock for those who do the Sunday Times crossword and revel at online IQ tests grown tiresome? When my friend describes Meloy as “the smarmy villain from every ’80s teen flick,” did he mean the sweater-wearing Ivy League-bound James Spader from Pretty in Pink or the dickhead thug William Zabka from The Karate Kid fame? Has Meloy just grown too priggish, pretentious, and preposterous for the indie kids?

Let me be the first to admit that I am a Decemberists fan. While I waited outside the 9:30 Club for my friend to arrive, I saw a bunch of people trying to unload spare tickets. Bad sign. Usually the corner of V and 9th is jumping before a show, but beyond the unlucky scalpers, only I stood out in the cold that night. Something felt wrong. That didn’t matter too much. I was excited.

Inside, a modest crowd waited for Meloy to take the stage. I have been attending shows here for a few years, and rarely has it been so empty. What’s the story, Colin? Do you need Chris Funk to bring the noise? Is it really Nate Query the groundlings are clamoring to see?

Meloy finally appeared and informed us that DC is his “home away from home.” As he led the crowd through a series of vocal warm-ups, I asked myself if this was the self-possessed man I have heard so much about. He was positively disarming, embracing the crowd before launching into “Shiny” from the 5 Songs EP.

One thing can be said about Decemberists fans: they are wordy folk. As Meloy moved between stripped-down renditions of “The Perfect Crime” and “O Valencia!,” the crowd sang along, not missing a single word. When Meloy strapped on a 12-string guitar to play the Picaresque trio of “The Engine Driver,” “We Both Go Down Together,” and “The Bagman’s Gambit,” his wistful melodies presented themselves, unburdened by The Decemberists’ lush arrangements. It is undeniable that Colin Meloy has stage presence, and these three songs were the highlight of the evening. He has a strong, distinctive voice, and he employed it well during the show. The guitar sounded crisp and clear, and it is easy to lose oneself in his tales of chimbly-sweeps and scalawags.

The Decemberists announced but then promptly canceled a tour late last year, where they planned to play long songs one night and short ones the next. Meloy apologized to the crowd for the cancellation and said, “I’m doing my best to make up for it on my own. Self-flagellation in the form of a rock tour.” Though he didn’t draw the numbers that the truncated sold-out tour had garnered, the appreciative crowd applauded his self-effacement and apology.

This is not Meloy’s first solo tour, and it has become a tradition for him to hawk a tour-only EP of covers. Past collections saw Meloy covering the songs of Morrisey and Shirley Collins. Before launching into a version of “Cupid,” Meloy took a moment to pimp out his newest Sam Cooke collection. Joined onstage by opener Laura Gibson (dressed in something last seen in some Polygamist sect), Meloy turned in a serviceable version of one of Cooke’s classic songs.

Meloy closed out the first set with a humorous new track about Valerie Plame that dissolved into a sing-along of “Hey Jude” and “A Cautionary Song” from his band’s first LP, Castaways and Cutouts. As Meloy sang the lead guitar part over his own strumming, it struck me just how dependent his tunes are on the full orchestration of the band. While a lot of them are just good folk songs without the rest of the band, others are sketchy and slight. Could it be the accordion and violin that really make The Decemberists standout?

The encore did little to exorcise my doubts, but it did confuse me more. After refusing to deviate from the setlist (he blamed something in his past life that prevents him from doing so), Meloy performed a heartbreaking version of “Red Right Ankle.” Somewhere in the quiet plucking, I realized that beneath the armor of big words and tongue-in-cheek witticisms, Meloy is a sentimentalist. Most of his songs are about lost love or longing. Could all the ostentatious instrumentation and high-minded tales be the self-defense mechanism of a romantic? I think so.

But Colin Meloy the Showman soon reappeared for the evening’s finale of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” perhaps one of the best known tracks by Decemberists fans. The crowd thrilled to this shanty of madness and revenge. Meloy paused to let the audience sing the female parts and even to lecture us on the differences between “screaming” and “quailing.” Though rollicking and fun, this final song seemed safe, a big way to end the evening.

Why does everyone hate on Meloy so much? Plenty of rock stars have been pricks and have rarely gotten such a bad rap. Let’s admit it, most of us music nerds were never the most popular kids at school. We weren’t in the lowest stratum, but we weren’t the All-American football stars either. Just maybe Meloy was one of those guys below us, a shy kid with glasses who liked to read. Could it be envy? Does his success cause us to look at our lives with more scrutiny?

Xiu Xiu
Music Hall of Williamsburg; Brooklyn, NY

[03-23-2008]

Xiu Xiu aren’t for everyone, and that’s nothing new. But their latest album, Women As Lovers (Kill Rock Stars), is probably their strangest and most off-putting yet. It’s packed with dark, perverse childhood sexual imagery and even alludes to incest. A few months ago, it racked up a sheaf of ambiguous reviews that basically amounted to, “Well, it’s Xiu Xiu, so it must be good, but for my part, I’m weirded out.” People knew it was good, but some measure of disgust was preventing them from truly engaging with it on its own terms. But that utter awkwardness makes it one of this year’s most challenging albums to date, and every listen has revealed something new, fascinating, and, yes, frightening, too. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t always fun, either, but this is music as art, kids. We ain’t just talkin’ about the shit you can dance to.

The seriousness is just as palpable live. Xiu Xiu always form a little box of bizarre instruments, pushed into the center of the stage, that sort of isolates them throughout the show. There’s a skeletal-looking electric, upright bass in one corner, an enormous cymbal, and some gongs attached to the drum kit, a xylophone, and a flute that make brief appearances. Keyboards of all kinds are everywhere.

The entire show revolves around Jamie Stewart, who says almost nothing to the audience between songs. Someone yells, “Good job, guys!” and gets not even the slightest hint of a response. But when he sings, it’s like he has the only vocal role in the kind of opera in which everyone dies at the end. He’s a consummate performer and a loose cannon at the same time. Stewart can be violent, childlike, or completely spastic.

Equally changeable and unpredictable is Xiu Xiu’s sound. At one moment, they’re all discord, feedback, and the scream of castrated brass instruments; the next, they lay down the hottest rock riff you’ve ever heard. You only feel the transition if they want you to. They’re the horror movie and its soundtrack.

And just because the band members didn’t speak to the crowd, it doesn’t mean they failed to connect. Looking down from the balcony, I saw people jumping up and down, hugging each other, even crying. I don’t think Vampire Weekend is ever going to move anyone to tears, but I seem to remember the vast majority of their reviews being overwhelmingly positive. Coincidence?

[Photo: Sean Ruch]

Handsome Furs
Satellite Ballroom; Charlottesville, VA

[04-03-2008]

With anticipation for the upcoming Wolf Parade disc reaching fever pitch, Dan Boeckner’s other outfit, Handsome Furs, is still touring in the wake of last year’s debut, Plague Park. Alongside wife Alexei Perry, Boeckner uses the Furs as a conduit for the more electronic-oriented side of his musical self. Teaming his live guitar parts with Perry’s frenetic fingers while grappling with various knobs and keys, the couple creates music that's equal parts trippy electronica and conventional indie rock.

With this as a backdrop, the band greeted a small but devoted crowd with a fantastic set, especially for an act armed with such a limited pool of material. Boeckner’s throaty vocals were perhaps the most impressive part of the show, as they were more dynamic and forceful than on the Furs’ recorded output. In listening to Plague Park after the show, I’m still frustrated over its lack of the crisp and soaring quality that Boeckner and Perry are able to convey in their live performance. Throughout the set, the pair was loaded with a contagious brand of energy, and it all came spilling out through Boeckner’s voice and Perry’s impassioned electronic work. Stationed at the front of the stage, a gold necklace encircling her neck like the end of a lasso, Perry bounced about brandishing a smile that was impossible to ignore, as the duo bubbled with exuberance and communicated every bit of nuanced emotional expression.

Refreshingly, the band was very gracious and pleased with the occasion, churning out tune after tune and fitting each with both a compelling tension between live music and recorded sources and a visible harmony between husband and wife (made possible in part because of the egalitarian arrangement of the couple). All the expected standouts from Plague Park made appearances, with the euphoric momentum of “Dead + Rural” emerging as the centerpiece of an altogether engaging performance. Boeckner’s mumbling of “la, la, la, la” near the close of “Sing! Captain” was a second highlight, as the set slowed for a contemplative moment, allowing the lazy vocals to wash against an enraptured crowd.

In the dead space between songs, Boeckner’s banter was a source of additional entertainment. He laughed over his recent April Fool’s revelation that the new Wolf Parade record is titled Kissing the Beehive. He confessed that he’d been falsely telling audiences that one song (I’ve forgotten which) was about his time at Columbia, and then admitted that he’d never attended the Manhattan Ivy and didn’t vacation at Cape Cod, taking obvious swipes at the drab though upcoming Vampire Weekend. In another instance, Boeckner acknowledged some fans that had come from Indiana to catch the show, jokingly regarding the move as “retarded.”

The night didn’t settle the endless Spencer-Dan debate that captivates so many music nerds and bleeds across the internet. It did, however, provide a forum for Dan to showcase talents that seem so often overshadowed by the wondrously prolific Spencer Krug. It created excitement for what’s to come from a guy with such varied and gifted musical abilities, someone who’s been able to retain that youthful enthusiasm usually lost to the business of music-making.

Hot Chip / Mathew Dear And His Big Hands
Barrowland; Glasgow, Scotland

[02-26-2008]

It is impossible to miss the Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom if you find the right street. The venue is marked by a giant sign with the word Barrowland spelled out in hot orange neon letters surrounded by bright white neon stars. Inside, the scuffed wood floors and faded orange and yellow stars scattered across the domed ceiling of the ballroom further enforce the sentiment that you have been transported to an oversized rollerskating rink from the 1970s. Matthew Dear And His Big Hands were already playing for the half-full venue when I arrived. There weren’t enough people in the ballroom to balance out the acoustics, or maybe they didn’t get a sound check. In any case, everything sounded swampy and indefinite, and in the old ballroom, it was surreally beautiful.

After Matthew Dear And His Big Hands left the stage, the sound crew quickly installed an impressive array of music making devices including guitars, a bass, four futuristic-looking synth stations, bongos, and part of a drum set. It was evident that the night’s show wasn’t going to be a pre-recorded karaoke fest. My prediction proved accurate as soon as the lights dimmed and the London quintet ripped into the first song of the set. Alexis Taylor furiously pounded away on the toms and snare, while Owen Clarke manned the bongos and Al Doyle provided that ever-appreciated cowbell groove. Soon, the whirlwind of live percussion was replaced by Felix Martin’s drum machining, as Taylor’s cry of “I’m ready to try this!” established that the gritty techno onslaught that had emerged was “Shake a Fist.”

Throughout the set, Hot Chip molded their material into a fluid club set that was often a drastic departure from the songs’ recorded versions. Gone were the candy-coated nuances that make Hot Chip a rewarding headphone listen. They rejected their dorky pop-wizard persona and attempted to reinvent themselves as red-blooded, club-shaking rock stars. And I kinda liked it. The wall of heavily distorted guitars and hungry synths became harsh and overbearing at times, but these guys know how to craft a sweet riff and channel the immediate rapture that comes with it. Despite all the distortion and stadium-ready riffs, Hot Chip couldn’t deny their roots as nerdy nice guys, which created an endearing tension with the rock star posturing. Bearded frontman Joe Goddard, looking like a jolly camp counselor, danced awkwardly behind his synth-station, while co-frontman Alexis Taylor, wearing his big glasses and singing earnestly, stood stationary behind his synth.

Although they forsook the often-gorgeous details and buoyant warmth of their recordings, Hot Chip’s live set displayed a knack for subtlety and engagement with the audience. About halfway through the show, the audience’s energy levels dwindled as the simplified renditions of their songs started to become monotonous (especially the drums, which didn’t change much). But then, quietly at first, and without any other shift from the last song, came the opening riff of “Over and Over.” And that was all it took for the audience to rush forward and dance wildly. By the time the rest of the band caught up and settled into the verse, everyone was jumping up and down jubilantly. “Ready For the Floor” was the show’s highlight, as they briefly dipped into the intro and then extended the bridge for a full two minutes of tension-building before ecstatically launching into the chorus at just the right moment. Clearly, their experience as DJs has paid off.

As they closed the set with the lyrics of New Order’s “Temptation” sung over “No Fit State,” I reflected on what seemed to be Hot Chip’s mission: to break down barriers in the pursuit of pop. Were they DJs, rock stars, nerdy bedroom divas? Throwbacks to the synth-pop of the 1980s or to 1990s techno? I don’t know. Maybe all of those things to some extent. I can’t call the gig a revelation, but it certainly was fun.

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