Thursday, October 30, 2008

Future of the Left, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists--Webster Hall, New York City

Tonight, I was that guy who was at the show only to see the openers. I was that guy who thumbed his nose at the headliner and wondered (sometimes aloud) how the openers could possibly be opening for this other piece of shit band. Tonight the openers were Future of the Left and Ted Leo & the Pharmacists. The headliner? Against Me! That exclamation point is part of the name of the band. Now, I realize that Against Me! actually has a little bit of cred in the music snob community, and I realize that calling them a “piece of shit band” is a liberal use of hyperbole, but I will not see, and will certainly not abstain from making fun of, a band whose name officially includes an exclamation point. To bands whose name includes an exclamation point: I am Against You!

I got to Webster Hall a little after the doors opened at 6 already a little drunk (another reason why I ditched out on the headliner was that my friend was turning 30 that night and we all got started early). I quickly got myself a Red Bull and vodka and made my way to a pretty good spot in front of the stage. Then I noticed that I was probably the oldest person in the room by maybe 10 years (I’m 29 - barely). Apparently, Against Me! draws one kind of audience: teenagers. Not 5 minutes after I planted my feet in my show-watching spot, two of these teenagers (they were girls, and, dudes, the answer to your question is no) tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I could buy them drinks. Christ. I asked what they wanted. Long Island iced teas. Of course that’s what they wanted, because do teenage girls drink anything else? I went ahead got them their beverages because I’ve been in their position before (fucking 10 years ago) and I think I’d rather be that old guy who was nice enough to buy drinks than that old guy who was an asshole.

It’s going to be hard for me to write the rest of this without it sounding like a love letter to McLusky. Actually, fuck that, lets get this out of the way.

Dear McLusky,

I love you. When I first heard “To Hell with Good Intentions” about 5 years ago I was smitten. It was loud, nasty, confrontational, abrasive, and completely fucking awesome. I listened to it maybe ten times in a night and went to buy McLusky Do Dallas and the awesomely titled The Difference Between Me and You is that I’m Not On Fire the next day. I listened to them immediately and have not been able to get them out of my head since. You have one of the highest perfect-song to recorded-song ratios of anyone ever. I challenge any band to match the brilliance of the end of “She Will Only Bring You Happiness,” and I think you are criminally underappreciated. I admit I only fell in love with you after you broke up, and I hate that I never got a chance to see you in person. When I heard that your lead singer, Andy Falkous (Falco) and drummer Jack Egglestone formed a new band with ex-Jarcrew bassist Kelson Mathias called Future of the Left, I was pretty excited. I was a little disappointed by the album, Curses, at first, but then it grew on me to a point where I like it very much. When I saw that FotL was playing in NY I was a little surprised that they were opening for some band I’d never heard of, but I decided to get a ticket anyway just to see if they were a good substitute for you. That doesn’t mean that I love you any less though. We’re still cool.


Ok, now that that’s out of the way, Future of the Left was exactly what I expected them to be: loud, tight, and funny. They opened with “Wrigley Scott,” which was kind of a surprise, and played through most of Curses. Falco played a guitar for the first few numbers, then moved over to a keyboard for a few including “Manchasm,” my favorite on Curses. Apparently it’s some other people’s favorite, too, because, hey, look! Other non-teenagers! I knew you guys would be here - I bet you love McLusky, too. In fact, I know you do because why else would you be here and shouting along to “Manchasm?” Good to see you. After a few songs at the keyboard, Falco moved back center stage with his guitar for a few more songs before they had to stop. The few new tunes they played sounded pretty solid - nothing too different from what’s expected, which is a good thing. My only complaints are that I wish they could have played longer and would have played “The Lord Hates a Coward.”

FotL looks great on stage - Egglestone bangs away with great energy, Kelson is funny looking - tall and bearded - and has typical bassist moves (don’t ask me to describe them - you know what I mean), and Falco has an awesome front-man stance. Not quite as awesome a stance as Mike Ness’, but pretty close. Their stage banter was tough to make out, but the pieces of what I did hear were hysterical - something about someone’s mother and “fist love” was the highlight. It’s even funnier with those Welsh accents. Aside: have you seen Welsh written in Welsh? It’s preposterous.

I would have loved to have seen McLusky back in the day, and after seeing FotL, I realized that, barring some sort of unlikely reunion, I never will. FotL is not a McLusky replacement - they are their own band. Sure, they sound a lot like McLusky, but it’s not right to compare them in terms of quality. Before I left, I grabbed FotL’s tour-only live EP, made a few more snide remarks about the opener, downed another Red Bull and vodka and…decided to stay for Ted Leo.

I wasn’t planning on staying for Ted Leo because I had to meet up with some friends and I’ve never really gotten into his stuff. But I also kind of felt like I’d have to turn in my music snob ID card if I skipped out on someone like Ted and realized that it was only about 8:00. So I stayed. I’m glad I did. I don’t know enough about Ted to know what songs they played - I know one of them was a great version of “Little Dawn” and some of the others were off of Hearts of Oak, which I’ve listened to a few times. He was really struggling with his voice tonight, but he was a total trooper. The only times I could tell that his voice was fucked was when he said so. Actually, come to think of it, I think I might be bad luck to Mr. Leo. The only other time I saw him was during the 2006 Pitchfork festival when he spent an ample portion of the show with blood streaming down his face. Sorry about that, Ted.

Ted and the Pharmacists are all great performers - the band is excellent and Ted always looks like he’s having a great time, even with a shot voice and even with a face full of blood. I wish I was more familiar with their catalog - I would have enjoyed them more than I did (which was a lot). I’m going to spend some time with his studio output in the next few months. He also seems like a pretty cool guy - I heard that after his set, he was down in the crowd for the headliner’s set. Don’t know if that’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

After Ted Leo played, a lot of people left, leaving the venue to teenagers who now had no one to buy them booze. On the way out the dude at the door who was supposed to stamp the hands of people who wanted back into the venue looked confused as to why no one wanted his services. The music snobs, including me, laughed at him.

--Jim Powers

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Of Montreal
Skeletal Lamping
Rating: Too much pork and earmarks.

This being an election season the NQL Editorial Board decided the best way to deal with the issue at hand would be a debate. In this review, Alex and Brian get together and square off, track-by-track on the merits and pitfalls of Skeletal Lamping, the latest offering from Of Montreal. We’ll start with a quick opening statement from each.

Alex Crisafulli: I love Of Montreal. I love the theatrics, I laugh at the gender bending, and most importantly, I enjoy their records. Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? was one of my favorite records from last year. And anytime I’m throwing a party, Of Montreal is a main-stay in my stereo. Who feels like a steak!

Brian Herrmann: I intensely dislike Of Montreal because their outward displays of otherness play like demands for attention, a demand I am conditioned to reject. Moreover, I am of the opinion that a band's music should be attention-getting enough on its own: It's one thing to have a confrontational aesthetic, but quite another to demand the confrontation (make no mistake: on-stage nudity demands confrontation). Any theatricality should add to your appeal, not detract from it.

Alex: Alright, let’s do this. [starts the record]

Alex: I feel Skeletal Lamping starts pretty strong with "Nonpareil of Favor." It's a good Of Montreal song, with some dips, and grooves, and Rudy Ray Moores (r.i.p.).

Brian: Yeah, it starts off so promising, even the canned beat. Barnes's voice flows pretty seamlessly between regular and falsetto, but then we get, "so I'm callin' your ass up at like 3 in the morning," and the jammed-down-your-throat heavy distorto-pounding dissonance. No thanks. At 2:30, I'm already done listening to a 6-minute song.

Alex: I’ll have to agree with you there. I'm not positive what I think of the clangy jam-out at the end.

Brian: And the vocal outro does very little for me--too reminiscent of that terrible vocal turn, the repeated ad-infiniutm 'oo-oo' on Hissing Fauna's “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal.”

Alex: Correct me if I'm wrong, but you love that "Grotesque" song, no?

Brian: You're corrected. I think it's a grotesque animal.

Alex: Much like Kevin Barnes. I wonder how long an Of Montreal album would be if you took out all the unnecessary filler that is concedingly in so many tracks. 20 minutes?

Brian: Yeah, probably an EP length--15-25 minutes. Okay, here we go, track 2 “Wicked Wisdom.” This song just seems silly, and totally arbitrary stylistically, even for a song. Like Barnes forces these shifts because why the fuck not, that's why.

Alex: I disagree, I like the immediate funk-punch at the beginning.

Brian: I call it faux-funk, a bi white boy's idea of funk and rap. Fucking black she-males shouldn't rap.

Alex: Says you. Although lyrically I think he needs to clean it up. I was going to give this album to my 3-year-old nephew for Christmas had it not been for the uncalled for cursing in this track.

Brian: You wouldn't get the cover art past your brother. Or his wife.

Alex: You’re probably right, but let’s give credit where credit is due. That’s some great album art. You don't have to get too far into this album to figure out that the band is doing something different from their last couple releases. But again, this song starts off very promising and then just frustrates the hell out of me. What is Barnes doing with his vocals? Is he singing? Is he talking? And is he doing either in English?

Brian: Again, we agree. Halfway through, I've lost interest, despite the Queen shout-out. I wish Barnes would learn how to self-edit, because the chorus melody is incredible.

Alex: I missed the Queen shout-out. Please fill me in.

Brian: [singing] "When we get together, we are the champions," or some such.

Alex: Huh. I took that as a Grease shout-out. And you have a lovely voice.

Brian: Thanks. But I don’t think it matters. What does matter is there are way too many vocal tracks, too. I can hear 5 or 6.

Alex: I hate to say this, but damn this song sucks. It’s almost making me visibly angry.

Brian: I thought that was blood coming out your ear. Track 3, “For Our Elegant Caste.” I hate...HATE...this song. And it's nothing to do with its extreme sexuality. I can't. I don't know. I just can't describe. Shit.

Alex: See, I disagree, I kind of like it. At least the beginning. He's into soft-core, but polite enough to give warning that he likes it both ways. Who says chivalry is dead?

Brian: Each of these songs is a microcosmic identity crisis. One thing I give Barnes big ups for: wordplay. I love what he does with language, even when it doesn't make sense he makes it sound interesting with the rhythms and polysyllabic words he chooses.

Alex: I couldn’t agree more. But you know, this song is just another example as to why this album bothers me. I like dramatic musical shifts in mid song, but these do it with no rhyme or reason. It's a jumbled mess, but for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes a jumbled mess can be defended, I don't think this is one of those times. Sadly.

Brian: Yeah, it's like he had 3 or 4 times as many songs as he needed, tracked all of them and put them into a computer, and toggled between different tracks and said "I'll call this one 'For Our Elegant Caste.'" “Touched Something's Hollow” (track 4) is a nice come-down, but ultimately nothing more.

Alex: I'm right with you on that one. A good time to exhale. The lyrics are pretty personal though. I like them, especially when he says, "Why am I so damaged?..."

Brian: Track 5, “An Eludarian Instance.”

Alex: I'm not going to lie, I like the horns. Brian, you're the English guy...are these real words?

Brian: No. Eluardian, Triphallus, Mingusings: Not words. But “An Eluardian Instance” is how I wish the rest of the album was: sensible, hooky, complex. Easily a high point.

Alex: I agree, but we're through five songs and I feel like I've heard 20. It's like that time on The Muppet Babies when the gang tried to get a song submitted on the radio and they all wrote songs, but then Animal screwed up the tape and when it was put back together it was just one giant medley of all their stuff. Pretty good episode.

Brian: I'll have to YouTube that shit. And did he just say, "Don't you pimp out my heart."? Nice.

Alex: Well, it's no coincidence that we like this song and it recalls their former albums more than any other on the album. At least, to me. Although here comes another completely onerous interlude/shift towards the end of the song.

Brian: But for once, I really like it. “Gallery Piece” (track 6) is surprisingly tolerable as well. Naked desire, man, pure lust.

Alex: Huh? Well, whatever the case, this is a song I can get behind. And so should DJ's. This is a very good club song. At least the first minute is. Some ridiculous lyrics, too. "I want to sell you out/expose your flaws." "I want to make you come/200 times a day."

Brian: Yeah, it's pretty great. High point #2. And not surprisingly, it's pretty by-the-numbers.

Alex: And it sure was nice of the band to tone down all the fun at the 1:30 mark and ruin the song. Thanks, guys! But they do come back to their senses at around 2:30, if only for a second or two. Here comes “Women’s Studies Victims” (track 7). Whoever green-lighted this song probably gave the go-ahead for every Eddie Murphy movie made in the last 10 years. Horrible song.

Brian: I feel like this song belongs in a student film.

Alex: Would this student film be called Norbit?

Brian: Norbit 2: Rebirth of the Drool. And if I could write our dear friend Kevin a letter, it would read like this:

Dear Kevin Barnes,

You are not a rapper. Please. Just stop.

Your friend,

Brian Herrmann

Alex: Well, forget Outback Steakhouse. I don't think they could sell this garbage to Little Caesars.

Brian: Well, if they do, Caesars should change their slogan to 'Stop it! Stop it!'

Alex: [laughing] Alright Kevin and Co., let’s pick it up with "St. Exquisite's Confessions" (track 8). I like the feel of the beginning of this song. Kind of a very smooth '70's-ish black-exploitation film-feel. And did Barnes just say he was sick of sucking dicks or something? Now I have heard of everything.

Brian: 'Sucking the dick of this cruel, cruel city', I think was the line. Tired of living by other people's norms. Or something. I really like the idea behind this song: someone fed up trying to be what he knows he's not, "kicking down the doors" and being true to himself. Too bad it feels put on and disingenuous.

Alex: I kind of disagree. If there's one song where I really enjoy the lyrics and feel it, it's this one. It has a nice confessional tone to it. And I believe him. I think his security is a facade that has always been masked by outrageousness.

Brian: I can dig it. But we can't assume the songs are autobiographical.

Alex: Very true. Time for "Triphallus, to Punctuate!" (track 9). I don't even know what I think of this track. I don't like it, but I don't dislike it. I feel absolutely nothing for it. I could listen to it while also watching some Bill Kurtis show which I think might be a bigger insult to Of Montreal than saying you hate one of their songs. It's boring. And they've been a lot of things, but never boring.

Brian: Believe it or not, I fucking love this song. The one point on the album where everything coheres and just kicks tons of ass. The interludes, the weird vocals, the insanely catchy chorus.

Alex: Interesting. It does little to nothing for me. I think part of the reason is by the time it rears its head, I've already lost interest in the album. And it's just another glaring example of the inconsistent and fluctuating musical tendencies.

Brian: Oh, come on! "I was your booster, babe, back when no one else cared." He should care now, but he doesn't give a fuck! Awesome!

Alex: Agree to disagree. "And I've Seen a Bloody Shadow" (track 10). This song represents my main complaint with the now I feel like I have already heard this song three times.

Brian: See, I love the seamlessness between “Triphallus” and “Bloody Shadow,” another great tune. Listen to what he’s saying: "How can I function, man, in the face of all this mind is exploding with sappy murders; they really poison my sexuality."

Alex: Yeah, but you could completely mix up the track order and it wouldn't make one iota of difference in my mind. The flow seems really flat and confusing.

Brian: Fine. Moving on. “Plastis Wafer” (track 11). Another logjam!

Alex: They really have cornered the market on androgyny and sexuality, I will give them that. Pleasure puss? Whatever.

Brian: Classic and nasty line: "I want to make you ejaculate until it's no longer fun."

Alex: Fun for who?

Brian: Fun for the dude ejaculating, suggesting the line between pleasure and pain, and dominant/submissive. Maybe. Seems like a power-play kind of statement, especially when considered alongside the narrator's desire to "be inside you" or whatever he says.

Alex: I’m starting to feel uncomfortable. But back on topic, while listening to this record, I just want to scream "try harder!" There are good songs in here somewhere, but they never morph into the butterfly. Instead, we just get slugs trudging along and I'm reaching for the salt.

Brian: I have another letter for Kevin:

Dear Kevin Barnes,

Panda Bear called and he wants his ideas back.

Your friend,

Brian Herrmann

p.s. Did “Plastis Wafer” really need to be 7 minutes long?

Alex: I agree. The last three minutes of this song are just a big, damn waste of time. Thankfully, it is over. Here we got "Death Isn't a Parallel Move" (track 12).

Brian: Dude, he's just trying to get healthy.

Alex: I kind of dig what they're serving up here at the beginning. "I feel just like a ghost..." And of course it tapers off into something completely boring.

Brian: This song is like fakey-fake Syd Barrett bullshit.

Alex: Yeah, well you can't fake "crazy." The end of that song left me speechless but not in a good way. Time for "Beware Our Nubile Miscreants" (track 13).

Brian: Same theme, I keep waiting for a payoff, but it never comes.

Alex: I have been bored with this record for the last 15 minutes. I swear I'm not trying to be overly negative. You know me, I love this band. But for the life of me I can't get into this record. I do love the Halo shout-out though. This song has some great lyrics. And Barnes is no fool, maybe he made the music a bit more morose on purpose to focus on the lyrics. Right? Yeah, probably not.

Brian: I agree about the lyrics--they're spot-on--but that doesn't excuse the totally static music. Morose still has ups and downs. For example, The Smiths, The Cure, The Clientele.

Alex: I haven't felt this way since I watched Beverly Hills Cop III.

Brian: "Mingusings" (track 14).

Alex: I think what you just said might be the missing ingredient with this record: sincerity. Robert Smith doesn't have to try too hard to come off as sincere. I feel like Barnes always feels like he has to compensate for something which leads to outrageous stage shows--which I love, by the way--but it makes a lot of people overlook the fact that Of Montreal has put out some great records.

Brian: I agree totally with this. It's my main hang-up with the band. I said as much in my year-end comments last year. The theatricality outweighs anything they'll ever do musically. What was it Teddy Roosevelt said? Walk softly and never wear a fucking lobster suit?

Alex: [laughs] I will defend the band this way. When people who don't know much about them see them live, they enjoy what they see but probably 9 times out of 10 come to the conclusion that they are a one-trick pony. All style no substance. But that's not true. Just like it isn't true with a band like Les Savy Fav. Like I said, they have put out some great records, this just isn't one of them.

Brian: This is probably my second-favorite song on the album. Reminds me, thematically, of Dismemberment Plan's "The Jitters" when Barnes says "want to fire my friends and start over again." It equates to Travis Morrison's "I realized my friends' true intentions, cut all ties."

Alex: Last track. “Id Engager.” Finally. And at least they're consistent. Nothing notable with this closer.

Brian: Why did they make this the closer, and the first single? I admit, it's impossible for me to pay even half-attention at this point. It's just too much, like a turducken.

Alex: Want to know when I first got suspicious of this record? And this might be poor form to say, but it was before I even heard it. But the album leaked a long time ago, and any time a band with the stature of an Of Montreal has a new album drop it should be a big deal. But the record leaked, and I didn't hear much buzz about it. And know we know why. Or at least, now I think I know why.

Brian: And this thing leaked a long time ago, like months ago.

Alex: Right, and no one really cares anymore. It's time has come and gone and it just hit the shelves. Not good. Another telling thing about this record. I was listening to it while cleaning the other day and about half-way through I almost forgot it was on, and then it ended and The Sunlandic Twins popped up immediately next on my iTunes and I immediately spruced up with the first track "Requiem." It was an instant, “Oh yeah, this is what a good song sounds like” sort of thing.

Brian: And I stick by my personal assessment that Of Montreal is vastly overrated. Their pomposity overwhelms everything else. And I say this as a big fan of Queen and Bowie and Roxy Music. This album will win them no fans, and probably alienate their base a little bit.

Alex: Pomposity is fine, even over the top pomposity, when you can back it up. I feel like their previous few records back it up. This one waves the white flag pretty early and the songs will have to be masked by the pomposity, when usually it’s the other way around. The songs will be the 600 lb. gorilla in the room, instead of Kevin Barnes’s little train conductor hat and thong. Any final thoughts, Brian?

Brian: I need to listen to The Nerves or something. Clear my head.

Alex: I agree. I think I’m gonna watch season 3 of Muppet Babies. I still love you Of Montreal, just not today.

Conclusion: There you have it, proof that healthy talks surrounding common interests nurture positive outcomes. In the spirit of bipartisanship, two seemingly opposed factions reached across the aisle and achieved consensus. NQL: Representative democracy in miniature. Don’t forget to vote!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Shearwater--The Millennium Stage at The Kennedy Center, Washington, DC

Austin-based Shearwater was recently in town to play at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. I had never attended a Millennium Stage show, but knew that every day there was a free show of some kind at 6pm. I called up the ticket office just to inquire as to whether it was necessary to secure a ticket of some kind. The lady on the line asked me what show I wanted to attend. I told her Shearwater. She hit a few buttons on her computer, and came back and said, “Shearwater…Wednesday night…$43.50.” $43.50? I thought this joint was supposed to be free. I told her thanks but no thanks (may have cursed into the phone), and then hung up. I’m not paying $43.50 for a band I could see at the Black Cat for $15. I don’t care if they’re playing at the Sistine Chapel.

The next day was the day of the show, but I had long forgotten about it. I ran into an acquaintance and she asked me if I had any shows coming up. I told her I had planned on seeing Shearwater at the Kennedy Center that night but the tickets were too expensive. She replied, “Uhh, those shows are free.” Hmmm. I again called the Kennedy Center. Sure enough, free show. Here’s what happened. That night there was also a performance of the long-running play Shear Madness in the main concert hall and tickets were, of course, $43.50. The lady on the phone had been confused. This is not the first time this has happened to me. One time in Chicago I tried to see Les Savy Fav, next thing I know I'm at the Oriental Theater watching a bunch of people with French accents singing about some dude named Jean Valjean.

I arrived at the Kennedy Center about forty-five minutes early and watched the band go through sound check. I walked around and took in the beauty of the Kennedy Center. Both outside and in. If you look out the grand windows to the west, you see the Potomac River and surrounding forest area. For all its concrete, DC really is a gorgeous town. Inside the marble building, the halls are lined with a magnificent bust of JFK and other historical pieces of art. Also, if you arrive at the Center before 6pm, drinks are half-priced. Warrants mentioning.

While walking around, I noticed signs all over the Center proudly showing that the Millennium Stage performances are sponsored by Target and Fannie Mae. Well, that’s not quite as bad as the My Morning Jacket show I saw last month at DAR Constitutional Hall that was brought to us by Home Depot and OJ Simpson, but close.

Approaching show time, I took a seat right behind an elderly couple. When the band came out on stage, the older lady pointed at Jonathan Meiburg and whispered to her husband, “Ooh, I wonder if he’s the guilty one?!” (I think they were supposed to be at the Shear Madness show.)

Shearwater is now a five-piece. Minus Story’s Jordan Geiger has joined the band as a multi-instrumentalist. Sounds good to me. With Meiburg sitting at the piano, the band laid into an incredibly stirring rendition of “On The Death Of The Waters”, opening track from this year’s Rook. That pretty much set the tone for the evening, too. I don’t recall the band straying from Rook or Palo Santo. And they were kind enough to hit two of my favorites, “Red Sea, Black Sea” and “Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five”, both from the incredible aforementioned Palo Santo.

I don’t think this band will ever be able to strike a chord with the masses like some of their Matador mates, but they probably know that and are fine with it. Their music is just too majestic, and Meiburg’s voice is sometimes too powerful for their own good. Nevertheless, the overflowing talent is obvious, and they are a fun band to watch.

Speaking of which, now would be as good as time as any to mention how much Shearwater drummer, Thor Harris, looks like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. (For those who aren’t old enough, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer was a reoccurring character on Saturday Night Live from the early '90s when the show was still funny.) Really, he does. The resemblance is equally hilarious and uncanny. And while we’re at it, Meiburg may or may not be one of the Weasley twins.

Shearwater played for about 50 minutes, thanked the quiet and polite crowd throughout, and called it an early evening. I really enjoyed watching how the crowd reacted to the band. Clearly a portion of the audience was Millennium Stage regulars and had not the first clue who Shearwater was. And that’s one of the great aspects of these performances. There is a free show every day of the year from an eclectic range of performers. (I think I saw that a Boy Scout choir is singing next week or something.) The Kennedy Center really espouses the importance of art, and makes it accessible to those who don't have the stature or wealth of an actual Kennedy. Well done. I think we all owe Fannie Mae a great deal of gratitude, don't you?


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Beck & MGMT--Aragon Ballroom, Chicago

Every once in a while we all have an experience that makes us feel a little older. This can happen when we are 10, 30, or 70 years old. And I don’t mean "feel older" in that horrible way that makes Cathy eternally freak out every Sunday in the comics. I only mean that we notice that things are different than they used to be. The Beck concert at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago was such an experience for me.

I took the subway up by myself. I was meeting my wife at the venue because she was coming straight from work. I arrived at the show in what I had been wearing that day--no dress-up for me. This was a Thursday, meaning work again in the morning, so this would be an in and out affair. On the way up to the concert I was talking to some younger guys and we struck up a conversation. "I don’t really know any of Beck's music, but I know that he has been around for awhile and is solid. I like MGMT so I thought I would check it out." I will let this statement speak for itself.

My wife and I opted for the upstairs of the Aragon since it is really just one big room and unless you are there early, you are in a sea of people and rather far back. Nearly all seats were taken in the balcony except for the closest single seat on the upper row of chairs. Sensing possibility, I found a chair hidden in the darkness of the area shaped like an Arabian balcony that overlooks the stage where security stands or presumably sits. The chair matched our row and there was a space missing next to the seat we had, so the security guard had actually stolen it first. I also had to move one of those huge stage fans. With great seats acquired, we sat down to enjoy. Those witnessing my cleverness were in awe and jealous. Sitting is important these days. Unless I am really close and in the frontal energy, I prefer a nice spot where I can sit and see.

Drinks I thought were reasonable at the Aragon. Maybe not so much for beer. (An excited gentleman let the entire restroom know this upon my arrival as he shouted, "Hope y’all are ready fer $7 Miller Lites." Myself, I am never ready for $7 Miller Lites. This gentleman was including his tip in the price.) Liquor drinks were $6, and in this day and age, this seemed like a fair deal, so we got some drinks to sip on with no intention of asking the booze for anything in return.

MGMT was great. They sounded like their album Oracular Spectacular, played songs from the album, and if you like the album, this worked just fine. They didn’t really seem to be having that much fun, though. The guys I met on the subway did not spread their excitement for this band fat enough as the crowd stood and watched for the first half, but by the time they got to the second half of the set, the people were moving and buying into the rock show.

As Beck came on, our area became more crowded. Being next to the aisle and on the far corner, it was a game of angles on whether we had great seats or could not see at all. Luckily, the guy next to me was the kind of fellow that has no problem asking those in front of us standing up or in his way to "fuck off" and move. This was great for me because he did most of the dirty work. The whole "can you dance in your seat if there is someone behind you?" ethical scenario was being played out in full with both sides represented. Cheers, Alan, even though you did make my wife scared to enter into your line of vision at all.

Indeed. Beck came out in baggy black trousers with a big baggy coat and a purple fedora, looking somewhat like a white scarecrow that Fat Farmer John had hung his old clothes on. He started right out with "Loser," either getting it out of the way or to pump up the crowd. Beck was confident, calm, and deliberate the entire night. Gone were the sequins, the dance moves, the puppets, and the dinner tables. The Beck Show Extravaganza had closed for this season. He played his songs. He played them well. He played them back to back, getting a lot of them in. Of course we are there to hear the music. And I do not need the spectacle, nor do I particularly want it. (The best Beck I ever saw was on the Sea Change tour where he just came out and played, baring his soul, and I felt bad for him that he felt he had to encore with a few numbers which included pat dance moves and sing-alongs.)

There were highs to be sure. Live, there is nothing quite like that bottom dropped out, guitar crunching vox sound on his rawer tracks or rap numbers. His set went as one might expect, coming in and out of the genres he has swum in throughout the years. And Beck is a great concert to wonder what song is coming next because of the deep and thick catalog. He played a wide variety of samplings as well as some nice covers (Dylan, Hank, and methinks some Allman Brothers riffs in there somewhere), although not too much from Modern Guilt. And goodness, I do love Beck as a traditional songwriter, so there were a few songs in the setlist that whetted that desire. Beck's band sounded great. His guitarist was fantastic. The commitment to the music instead of show allowed for some great interaction between the band and for some fantastic guitar work. But this no nonsense approach left a little something to be desired. It felt like there was little spontaneity outside of the guitar. As if to say, "Here I am, playing and singing my songs," rather than "Here I am, feeling my songs." Picky, I know, but there is a large difference. I did like the live versions of the songs usually containing samples, and played rather sloppily. Of course, being the Aragon, the sound was absolutely terrible.

All in all, the concert was really good. And Beck is fun to see live. But I still think the best way to listen to Beck is through my stereo. This has not changed since I listened to One Foot In the Grave as a stoned teenager on my car’s tape deck out in a field, in college dancing on a couch to Midnite Vultures, Sea Change on my headphones in a La-Z-Boy, or last week when I listened to Modern Guilt while folding laundry. There is something so personal about his music that translates well when played directly into the days and nights of my life. I have aged, and apparently so has Beck. This concert was all about the songs. Even the stage design was simple (albeit impressive) arrangement of light bulbs. If I am growing old, Beck is good company to be gathering years with. And again, I don’t mean old fogy old. Just "life is moving" old. I have to admit, we left the concert complaining that our ears were ringing. On the way out there was a family of four, the kids being 9 and 12, the parents probably around 35. I asked who the Beck fan was, and it was the dad. Hopefully the guys from the subway will spend a little time with Grandpa Beck now, hearing some of his old stories and tales to be passed on to their children in turn.

--Scott Rudolph

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Everyone Has One...And Yours is Horrible: iTunes Genius

The latest version of iTunes has a new feature called Genius. The idea is to better provide the iTunes listener with a playlist of songs that he or she wants to listen to based upon their selection of one song. You highlight a song that represents a genre of music you feel like listening to, click on the “Genius” button, and an appropriate playlist is provided.

Curious, I decided to give it a try. I chose “Car” by Built To Spill and was told that iTunes Genius could not provide a playlist based on that song or artist and to try again. Hmmm. I did try again. This time with “Modern Leper” by Frightened Rabbit. Same result. And again with my third, fourth, and fifth pick. Some genius. Finally, “Androgynous” by the Replacements got the job done. For the next 1.6 hours I was hooked up with music from the Replacements and everyone that was covered in Our Band Could Be Your Life with the exception of Big Black and any band that prominently involved Ian Mackaye. And for whatever reason, “I Don’t Believe You” by the Magnetic Fields was thrown in at the very end.

Here’s the question: For those who have tried this new iTunes feature, have you found "Genius” to be an appropriate designation? (My experiences so far tell me it should be called iTunes Phil Anselmo.) Discuss.


Sunday, October 5, 2008

My Morning Jacket--McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

Rewind my life a few hours before the show and picture this: I had a dinner of macaroni and cheese after a typical Sunday spent doing my laundry and going to Target. And like most I was dreading the workweek that lay ahead. Something routine and a little sad comes to mind when I think of a day like this. Now take this drab Sunday and insert My Morning Jacket.

I have often heard that My Morning Jacket live is an incredible experience. That combined with my obsession with Tennessee Fire, At Dawn, and It Still Moves was enough to send me to McCaw Hall in giddy, Santa’s coming, peeing-in-my-pants anticipation.

Watching My Morning Jacket was witnessing skilled craftsmen. With each song they would lay a solid foundation, build up, tweak things here and there until it was smooth and seamless, making you ready to settle in for the rest of your life, and then they would tear it down. Jim James twirled and hopped around the stage with such ease. His ethereal voice tethered to a possessed electric guitar. He could do no wrong with this reverent audience. Just before they struck the last chord of “Evelyn Is Not Real,” the entire band stopped playing and stood freakishly still for two minutes, leaving every audience member hanging on, either bewildered or screaming. The eerie turn soul-shredding “Dondante” and Kravitz-like “Highly Suspicious” are two tracks that absolutely came to life on stage. My Morning Jacket somehow melds the modern and the classic. McCaw Hall may have not been the best place for them, however. I expected a great sound from a classical music hall, but perhaps sound engineers didn’t figure in “loud modern rock band” into their design. James’ voice did not project with the crisp clarity I had hoped. My only criticism of the band is that they did not jam enough. The dueling guitars at the end of “Lay Low”, although killer, was only modest in length and sounded just like the record. Why not milk it out a little more, boys?

There is something endearingly campy about My Morning Jacket. They don’t stray far from the stereotypical rock show, with dramatic lighting, fog machines and an animal-like drummer. That may sound like a bad thing, but it’s a time-tested, proven formula. It was the simple act of going to a show that has for me launched My Morning Jacket into another artistic stratosphere. I genuinely feel a little sorry for any bands that I see from now on.

I’m not doing them any justice. You have to be there. You have to buy a ticket and go to the show. There’s no short cut. You can’t load it up on YouTube and know how I felt being there. Every moment that passes now is a second farther from the show and it’s unsettling knowing that the memory is going to become less and less vivid. It’s childish, I know, but I don’t want to let that feeling go. Perhaps as the memory wanes, the myth will grow. Each one of us has that concert we hold as being somehow epiphanic. I’m not necessarily suggesting that My Morning Jacket will be that band for you. So this is more an ode to the power of the old rock’n’roll show and how indelible its mark can be.

--Audrey Wen

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Built To Spill, Dinosaur Jr, The Meat Puppets--Terminal 5, New York City

When I sat down to write this review, I couldn’t decide whether to write a paint-by-numbers review of the show itself or to write one of those “my experience” reviews filled with personal stuff and feelings and that kind of crap. When I read live reviews, I just want to know the answers to a few questions: did Band X sound good, what songs did Band X play, did anything out of the ordinary happen, and what, in general terms, did the reviewer think of the show. I really don’t give a shit about the reviewer’s intimate personal experience. After writing a couple reviews, however, I realize that including personal stuff is more for the reviewer than the reader. It’s more fun to write about the experience than just the music and, after all, the experience of a show is (most of the time) more important than the sound. I could easily name the shows I’ve been to that were the best experiences (quickly, The Hives at the Black Cat, Modest Mouse at the Black Cat, The Arcade Fire at the TLA, and the Futureheads at Barfly). I wouldn’t know where to start to name the shows I’ve been to that sounded the best. This is just a long way of saying that I’m going to write this in two parts. First, about the show and, second, about my personal experience. Hopefully, these parts will create a better whole, like citizens in theoretical Communism. Or Voltron.

I arrived at the awful Terminal 5, located somewhere in New York where no one goes unless they want to a) buy a car, b) film a show at CBS studios, or c) never be seen again, about half way through the Meat Puppets’ set. I realize that the Meat Puppets are a very, very well respected proto-grunge band, but I’ve never listened to them. I’ve never even tried to listen to them. I’m a little embarrassed to say that the only songs they played that I recognized were the ones that Nirvana covered on Unplugged. That being one of my favorite albums, it was kind of cool to see those songs played by the owners. The set was solid and they sounded good, but it didn’t cause me to go out looking for their stuff.

Dinosaur Jr came on about 45 minutes after the Meat Puppets finished. During the break, I spilled some Snapple on my red flannel shirt and went outside to use a pay phone to call my friend to see how Mets ace Bret Saberhagen was doing (answer: because it’s an even numbered year, not well). Like the Puppets, I somehow know very little about Dinosaur Jr I know that Mascis was declared to be God by Spin a long time ago, that he has long white hair, and that he can tear up a guitar. I don’t know a single Dinosaur Jr song. That out of the way, they were excellent. Mascis stood stage left in a corner created by 10 foot high amps (an awesome looking set-up) and traded a little singing with a lot of noise. Most of the time when he sang, he didn’t play his guitar, leaving the rhythm section to fill the void. This was a good way to realize how good the drummer and bassist are - they could have been a band by themselves. Unfortunately, I don’t know the names of any of the songs they played, but I’ll definitely give a listen to their classic period studio output. They were impressive.

I’ve never been to a show when I know exactly what was coming: every song, note, word, etc. Tonight would be my first because Built to Spill was going to play through their masterpiece Perfect from Now On in its entirety. I knew what they would open with, what they would close with, what the seventh song would be, and when was a good time to go to the bathroom (the middle of “Kicked it in the Sun”). After the gear was all set up, lead singer and guitarist Doug Martch grabbed his guitar, walked up to the mic, and turned his back to the crowd to say something to the band. It was kind of cool how everyone in the crowd knew what was coming - when Martch turned around and played those intro notes to “Randy Described Eternity” I think everyone I saw was smiling. Then the familiar drums and bass kicked in and it was on. The tension built until Martch, matched by the crowd, belted out the familiar opening, “Every thousand years….”

They tried to make the show sound exactly like the album and, for the most part, did a very good job. In addition to the normal three members, the band included two additional guitarists (I think one was Brett Netson), a keyboard player, and a cellist. It was actually kind of remarkable how such a dense-sounding album really can be broken down into parts and completely recreated outside a studio. The only real noticeable and consistent difference between the album and the show was Martch’s deeper, 11-years-older voice. He strained to hit some of the mid-90s highs (like the beginning of “Made-Up Dreams”) and succeeded most of the time.

Highlights of the show matched highlights of the album. When the album picks up momentum with “Out of Sight”, the show did too. The emotional highs of “Randy Described Eternity” and “Velvet Waltz” were precisely duplicated, and “Untrustable” was just as good a show closer as it is an album closer. Near the end of “Untrustable” I started to get excited because I didn’t know what was coming next. I imagined that the band would take a break and come back with a few fan favorites. I was only half right. Maybe a second after the last note of “Untrustable” the very familiar intro to “The Plan” sent a jolt through a crowd not expecting a surprise. After “The Plan” they played “Center of the Universe”. Then they started to play “Carry the Zero.” At that point, I kind of let myself get excited that maybe, just maybe, this would be one of those “I was there” nights and the band would play through Keep it Like a Secret too. That was expecting a little too much. “Carry the Zero” turned into a 20-minute alt rock jam starring Built to Spill, the Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr., and 1994. I realize that I’m pretty lucky to have seen Martch and Mascis in a guitar duel, but I might have preferred one or two more Built to Spill songs. Still, it was a good close to the night.

Now for the personal stuff. Listening to Perfect from Now On used to depress the shit out of me. I think that effect can be solely attributed to “Randy Described Eternity”. Something about the opening, about touching that metal sphere with a feather every thousand years, reminds me of my mortality - that I’m probably never going to see that sphere (and if I do, it’ll only be once). On top of that, no matter what I do, I’m not going to be perfect from now on no matter how badly I want to be or how hard I try. And, like most people, I’m usually ok with that. But not in the hour or so after listening to this particular album.

Seeing the show was almost a personal challenge for me - can I do it? Will the show have the same effect on me as the album? The answers to those questions are yes and no. Seeing how much fun the band seemed to be having, seeing Martch smile through what I used to think were some very dark lyrics, made me realize that I have been either overreacting to or misinterpreting them. I was able to enjoy the show happily, completely, and easily - it was uplifting, opposite what I thought it would be. Those feelings have carried over to subsequent listenings of the album. I’ve always known that Perfect from Now On is a great album, but now I can actually enjoy it because, after listening to it now, I don’t want to curl up in a ball wrapped in a warm blanket. I’m ok knowing that I won’t be perfect and probably won’t be able to help wear that sphere down to the size of a pea. But I’ll have my father ready just in case.

--Jim Powers
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