Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Obligatory Mid-year Round-up.

Well, it's that time of year - the time when all pretentious would-be music critics (yours truly inclusive) sharpen their pencils (so to speak) and start to take stock of what the year has had in store for us. And thus far, the year has had quite a lot to offer; more so than the past several years, so far as I can remember.

In any case, you know the drill, so without much further ado, here are the ten records that, at this point, represent the cream of this year's crop so far, arranged alphabetically by artist:

  • Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion: Yes, it's kind of the hipster-contingent frontrunner at this point for album of the year, but it's also a fun, playful, and highly listenable album that is light years removed from their earliest work. It plays out almost like a greatest-hits album in a blender; the Collective borrow elements from each of their previous releases and sew them together into new pieces. Contrary to the impression such a description may give you, however, these sound not like pastiches or tapestries but like the fully-formed songs they are. A fun listen for the more adventurous or open-minded listener, and deserving of the increased mainstream exposure the band has been receiving.
  • Casiotone for the Painfully Alone - Vs. Children: Owen Ashworth's songwriting is more cutting than ever here, his pathos more affecting, and the production more ambitious and ornate than ever - a fact that may represent a point of contention for some long-time fans, but to my ears, the warm sound of the production helps draw the listener into these songs, and Owen sounds at home in this environment. Besides, the cold, harsh lo-fi setting of his earlier material may have been too alienating to really engage listeners in this album that my friend Jess aptly describes as being about "what happens when those barely past childhood have children themselves."
  • Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse - Dark Night of the Soul: Technically speaking, this album has not been released. Not officially, anyway. The project, a multimedia collaboration between the two principal musicians to whom the album has been credited, David Lynch, and several like-minded musicians such as the Flaming Lips, James Mercer, Gruff Rhys, Iggy Pop, Black Francis, and Jason Lytle, among others, was originally announced to a near-instant fever-pitch of excitement and anticipation early in the spring. Soon, however, it was announced that the music would NOT see official release due to a dispute between EMI and Danger Mouse; Burton made a statement that he feared he could not release the album for sale without being sued. Therefore, the art exhibit opened, and the coffee-table book of Lynch's photography was indeed released, accompanied by a blank CD-R, labeled "DNOTS," that the consumer is advised to "use as you see fit." Take that how you will; I'm sure the man who created the Grey Album would never really encourage piracy, right? Anyhow, enough about the back story; the music creates a wonderful sustained mood, without the jarring effect of contrary styles from which various-artist collections often suffer; Burton and Linkous are the sonic putty that holds everything together and smooths over the disparate styles and tendencies. At current, you can stream the entire album from NPR's website; if, however, you would like it in more permanent form, don't panix; with a little searching, I am sure you can find a solution and perhaps even a way to use that pretty little CD-R artifact.
  • Dinosaur Jr. - Farm: Beyond was a solid enough album that picked up right where Bug left off, but I never saw this coming. J. Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph have decided to make this album live up to the title of its predecessor by venturing outside of the usual moods of your standard-issue Dinosaur Jr. album. Rather than settling with what they know, the band has honed their glorious squall into a more pastoral, relaxed record. For the first time, Mascis doesn't just sound like a bored, discontented teenager in his songs; apparently he just needed to wait until he was 43 before his songwriting started to mature. Noise, distortion, and guitar solos galore, but from a slightly more pragmatic point of view and with a more laid-back mood. "Plans" may well be Mascis's finest song yet, and will likely be near the top of my list of my favorite songs of the year come December.
  • Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca: I didn't want to like this record, but David Longstreth didn't give me a chance to hate it. When Bill and I saw this band a few years ago, the willfully detuned and off-key chords, relentlessly lazy and lugubrious rhythms, and Robert Palmer-esque backing band led Bill to proclaim that the band had "broken indie rock." Then came the irresistible David Byrne collaboration on the Dark Was the Night charity compilation, and then came the brilliant single, "Stillness is the Move." Finally, the girls in the band are revealed not to be the props they appeared to be on the Rise Above tour, but rather Longstreth's secret weapon. Gifted with Kate Bush-inspired vocal acrobatics, an impressive range, and some actual inventive pop structure instead of discordant avant-trash, Longstreth and crew have crafted the year's biggest surprise by giving us a big, fun summer pop record.
  • Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest: These past few years Grizzly Bear has proven to be the Little Band that Could, displaying enormous leaps of growth in their soundscaping and songwriting prowess, and readjusting their ambition level accordingly. With this most recent album, Grizzly Bear have seemingly created an opus of incredible beauty, both gossamer and watertight at the same time. Chris Taylor's basslines, Christopher Bear's deft drumwork, and gorgeous four-part harmonies work together to draw listeners into a trance-like state, and the psychedelic influence shines through a bit more than it had on Yellow House. The only question this album leaves the listener with: where does the band go from here?
  • the Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice - Moon Colony Bloodbath: A 7-song limited-edition, tour-only, collaborative concept EP that is long on concept and backstory and short on real action, this is possibly the most controversial work I am including on this list. And perhaps it was inevitable that I should include it; after all, my adoration for both of these artists is a matter of record, and the intense anticipation for this record, not to mention the tribulations involved in actually securing a copy, threatened to overshadow the material itself. Fortunately, the material shines through strongly; the record is richly imagined, the concept and story thought out in some painstaking detail, and while there may not seem to be much of a payoff to deliver on the promise of the concept, I prefer to think that it is deliberately left open-ended so the one can use one's own imagination to fill in the sordid details. Not to mention, it's exciting to hear two such well-developed and idiosyncratic artists push and pull at each other, gently luring the other out of his respective comfort zone.
  • St. Vincent - Actor: Marry Me was a highlight of 2007 and one of the strongest and most self-assured debut albums in recent memory. With her new album, Annie Clark has dialed up the volume, fleshing out the arrangements with lots of prettiness (violin, clarinet, and flute arrangements ahoy!) before blasting them all to hell with squalls of violent guitar noise. The whole thing sounds a little dangerous, unstable, and unhinged, a perception that song titles like "Laughing With a Mouth of Blood" do nothing to refute - Clark's songwriting persona seems to have gone from the slightly creepy menace of "Now, Now" into flat-out terrifying mode. As far as not-quite-resolved tension through compressed layering of discordant sounds goes, it's tough to beat the end of "Black Rainbow."
  • John Vanderslice - Romanian Names: You may have already seen my thoughts on this album, so I will keep this brief. JV has outdone himself in terms of songwriting and attention to sonic detail, and the seeming incongruity between the painstaking sculpting of the sounds with the relaxed songwriting makes the songs even more compelling and appealing. The best album yet in a seven-album career, John Vanderslice continues to be the perennially overlooked and underrated workhorse, the stalwart and remarkably consistent and dependable indie rock nice guy. Between this and Moon Colony Bloodbath, if 2009 does not prove to be his breakout year, then there may truly be no justice in the world.
  • various artists - Dark Was the Night: This charity album was/is an indie rock fan's wet dream. Thirty-one exclusive tracks from some of indie rock's biggest names, all coming together courtesy of the efforts of The National's Dessner brothers to raise money for AIDS relief. There were collaborations, some likely (Grizzly Bear and Feist) and some not (Dirty Projectors and David Byrne); phenomenal new tracks from out of nowhere (seriously, "So Far Around the Bend" by the National?!?!?); surprises in the form of older unreleased tracks (Arcade Fire's "Lenin"); a 12-minute Sufjan cover of a Castanets song; and, as is to be expected in such a voluminous project, a couple of disappointments or missteps (Conor Oberst covering himself, and does anyone else find the Spoon contribution somehow lacking?). All in all, though, this project feels important and all-encompassing when one listens to it, like it's truly an event and not just another various-artists charity collection. Hats off to the Dessners, the Red Hot Organization, and all of the artists who devoted their time and energy to this project.
Curious why you didn't see your favorite album of the year so far on my list? Let me know what I missed! Please discuss below, and tell me what album I need to hear or what album I need to listen to again and re-evaluate! For the record, this is the pool of releases so far this year that I have heard. Note that in my world, Live albums, reissues, and odds-and-ends collections are generally not eligible for general list honors, and an EP needs to be REALLY impressive in order to rank:

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
Art Brut – Art Brut vs. Satan
Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
Beirut/Realpeople – March of the Zapotec/Holland
Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
Andrew Bird – Useless Creatures
Bowerbirds – Upper Air
The Boy Least Likely To – The Law of the Playground
Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone – Vs. Children
Jarvis Cocker – “Further Complications.”
Elvis Costello – Secrets Profane and Sugarcane
Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul
The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
Depeche Mode – Sounds of the Universe
Dinosaur Jr. – Farm
Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Bob Dylan – Together Through Life
Franz Ferdinand – Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Handsome Furs – Face Control
PJ Harvey and John Parish – A Woman a Man Walked By
Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 – Goodnight Oslo
Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard – ‘Em Are I
Rhett Miller - Rhett Miller
Morrissey – Ringleader of the Tormentors
Marissa Nadler – Little Hells
A.C. Newman – Get Guilty
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Beware
Sonic Youth – The Eternal
Bruce Springsteen – Working on a Dream
St. Vincent – Actor
Stardeath and White Dwarfs – The Birth
Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer
Swan Lake – Enemy Mine
John Vanderslice – Romanian Names
M. Ward – Hold Time
Wilco – Wilco (the album)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
V/A – Dark Was the Night
V/A – War Child: Heroes
V/A – Score! The Covers

EPs:

Bon Iver – Blood Bank
The Breeders – Fate to Fatal
Death Cab for Cutie – The Open Door EP
Deerhunter – Rainwater Exchange Cassette
the Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice – Moon Colony Bloodbath
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Chijimi
Sleep Whale – Sleep Whale

Reissues:

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – From Her to Eternity
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – The Firstborn Is Dead
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Kicking Against the Pricks
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Your Funeral… My Trial
Rodriguez – Coming From Reality
Wwax – Like It or Not

Live Albums:

Leonard Cohen – Live in London
The Hold Steady – A Positive Rage
Mark Kozelek – Lost Verses Live
Mark Kozelek – Find Me, Ruben Olivares
My Morning Jacket - CelebraciĆ³n de la Ciudad Natal
Superchunk – Clambake Vol. IV

Odds-and-Ends Collections/Remix Records:

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone – Advance Battery Base Life
Comet Gain – Broken Record Prayers
Franz Ferdinand – Blood
Iron & Wine – Around the Well
The Vaselines – Enter the Vaselines

Monday, June 29, 2009

With Love and Trust and Friends and Hammers: A Flaws mix

So I have received some positive feedback on the Flaws Mix CD mixer, as well as even a few submissions - thank you to those who have participated so far, and I promise to start on your mixes and send you my source material as soon as I'm done with this move! For now, though, in a rare moment of weather-related inspiration while driving a week or to back, I started to devise a summer mix in my head. And so, without further ado, I would like to share with all of you the official Flaws Summer 2009 mix, courtesy of 8tracks.com!



Note that after listening to the mix twice, the license at the 8tracks site requires that subsequent playbacks are shuffled in random order. Now, this frankly irritates somebody like me, who puts a lot of time and thought and energy into timing and sequencing his mixes, even to the point of trying to make the two "sides" more or less of even duration. Therefore, to counteract this grievance, I would like to put an offer out on the table: if, after listening to this mix, you decide that you would like to have it in a more permanent and physical format, I will make and send you a copy of the mix, in exchange for a summer mix of your own.

But, in any case, I hope you listen to and enjoy this mix. And if you're up for it, consider joining up over at
8tracks.com; it will allow you to discover countless mixes, comment on mixes, follow those of whose mixes you are a fan, and of course upload and share your own mixes!

And I'm serious about the physical copy offer... just e-mail me from the link over to the left. And same thing goes with the Mix CD mixer; it's an ongoing project! Hooray for overextending oneself!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

General update/to-do list.

  • Still must write and post reviews of NIN|JA, Band of Horses, John Vanderslice, and Zoop! concerts. If I end up going to see Old 97's tonight, that will be added to the never-ending to-do list.
  • In the next few days I plan on blogging about an upcoming EP from an Denton, Texas band called Sleep Whale. The EP is very good indeed, and I'm excited to share it!
  • Today marks the first day of the Infinite Summer. Are you in?
  • Thanks to the support of everyone, I raised $1125 for the autism walk, besting my goal by 50%. Now I have a ton of cover songs to record. If anyone else still wants in, I will be accepting requests until June 30. Click on the thermometer to your left or go to http://tinyurl.com/thom09.
  • Seriously, should I go see the Old 97's tonight? I have never seen them before, so I'm thinking maybe I should.
  • Oh yeah, I have been vegetarian for nine days now. It's a small, possibly lame milestone, but it's a big change for me and I'm proud of it. I will blog more about it later this week, possibly. (See, I told you this wasn't just another music blog!)
  • Seeing the film Food, Inc. later this week. You all should, too.

We're gonna build read something this summer.

For those who are joining me in taking on the challenge of Infinite Summer, here are some valuable tips and resources that will hopefully help us in our light reading project:


Printable Infinite Summer bookmarks with the reading schedule. (after reading the previous entry, I would probably recommend printing out the 5-bookmark sheet)

Note that while I will likely be reading ahead of the official schedule, I will make every effort in any blogging or discussion in which I may engage to avoid revealing spoilers.

Please comment below and let me know if you are participating!


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

This is how I am repaid: The Decemberists/Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3, 2009.06.06

The Decemberists/Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3
Tower Theater
Philadelphia, PA
2009.06.06

I never wrote about it on this site (mostly because, let’s face it, I was pretty much ignoring this site until just a couple of weeks ago), but the new album from the Decemberists, The Hazards of Love, has ranked highly on my list of the biggest musical disappointments of the year. I was excited for the album, and was prepared to fall head-over-heels in love with it; really, I was. I wanted to memorize every word and to dutifully listen to the entire saga at least once a week. I wanted this to be the album that fulfilled the widescreen ambition of “The Tain.” Instead, I found the album to be tedious, dull, confusing, unmemorable, and, ultimately, underwhelming in spite of its by-design overwhelmingness. Of course, by the time the album came out and I had gotten the chance to bask in its apparent mediocrity, I had already had the tickets for this show for a month. Although I was at first excited at the prospect of seeing the band perform what should have been its magnum opus in its entirety, I swiftly began to regret purchasing tickets for the show, especially as both Art Brut and the Roots Picnic were announced for the same date.

Flash forward to this past Saturday. After a quick dinner at Pico de Gallo and a madcap, Paperboy-inspired rush through the city, Jenn and I entered the Tower Theater and found our seats. I was excited that Robyn Hitchcock was opening the show; in fact, I was perhaps more excited to see Hitchcock than I was for the main act at this point. It must be said that I have not purchased a Robyn Hitchcock album since 1999’s Jewels for Sophia, so going into this show I assumed I would be unfamiliar with most of the material. I also was unfamiliar with the makeup of his backing band, the Venus 3. I had been aware that he had been doing some work lately with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, as well as Young Fresh Fellows/the Minus 5 main man and touring R.E.M. member Scott McCaughey. What I was not aware of was that the Venus 3 was basically a stripped-down version of R.E.M. – I was shocked to see Peter Buck stroll out onto a smaller stage than I could ever reasonably hope to see R.E.M. play, along with Scott McCaughey and touring R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin.

The entire band was in fantastic form, and I had forgotten in the nine years since I had last seen him live just how devastatingly funny Hitchcock was in concert – the absurdity of his ramblings left one simultaneously rolling with laughter and scratching one’s head looking for comprehension. (“Well, it is June, which means that Halloween is in October this year, and this is a wonderful time to be in Philadelphia, because Halloween is coming up soon. Get ready to carve your pumpkins!”) A series of increasingly tiny tour companions/mascots being introduced (a penguin, an alligator, and a cone) presented other moments of surreal, absurd humor that seemed to confuse just as many people as they tickled.

I do not mean, however, to imply that the banter stole the show from the music. Far from it – Hitchock’s music came off as vital and energetic. Opener “I Often Dream of Trains” pleased the fair number of already-familiar fans in the audience before Hitchcock and company veered into a set comprised mostly of ear-pleasing recent material. The Byrdsian jangle of “I’m Falling” was a particular highlight to me, as well as the obvious-but-still-funny ode to media anaesthetization “Television,” Rachel Getting Married centerpiece song “Up to our Nex,” and the twenty-year-old “Queen of Wasps,” which was the only other older song played by the band. Buck’s jangly guitar style was a perfect match for Hitchcock’s whimsical songwriting style, and the newer songs played were good enough that I felt not a twinge of hesitation as I purchased a copy of the most recent album, Goodnight Oslo, and had it signed by both Hitchcock and Buck.

There is no way to build up to this effectively, so let me just cut to the chase and spoil it for you now: the Decemberists rocked it, and they managed to acquit themselves admirably and prove me wrong about The Hazards of Love. Perhaps it was the added effect of seeing the band make the transition from song to song expertly and professionally, perhaps it was the stage presence of Colin Meloy and Shara Worden, perhaps it was the chemistry that I must stubbornly admit that Mr. Meloy and Becky Stark had, or perhaps it was the fact that, as a captive audience being presented with the material at loud volume, I actually listened fully for the first time. Whatever the reason was, the fact is that the album clicked for me for the first time. Where its 60 minutes had previously seemed to drag on for multiple hours, here it flew by and left me wanting more. Where the whole piece had seemed to blend into some bloated, ultimately insignificant blur of disconnected sounds with no real songs distinguishable from the whole apart from obvious single “The Rake’s Song,” here the individual songs took shape and individual identities.

The puzzling thing about this is the fact that there was, to my ears, no difference between the studio version of the album and the live version. The Decemberists at this point are an accomplished and professional enough band to pull off a suite such as this and play it exactly as it is on record – I caught no mistakes, no timing changes, no flubbed lines or bum notes or missed drum beats. It was all perfect. Added to that is the pristine sound of the Tower – even from practically the extreme right wall of the room, there was no echo. The live mix perfectly balanced all the elements, so nobody overpowered and nobody got drowned out. The band took the stage without addressing the audience at all, and did not stop playing, speak to the crowd, or in any other way break character throughout the first set. It was a performance in the truest sense of the word.

And what a performance it was! Mr. Meloy rocked out at several times, taking obvious delight in some of the unexpectedly sludgy riffs that pepper the suite. Ms. Stark, playing the role of Margaret, had the biggest hurdle to clear; I had seen her band, Lavender Diamond, open for the Decemberists a couple of years ago, and I was none too impressed by the band and was particularly not a fan of Ms. Stark. At that show, she seemed to be conveying an image of purity, innocence, and a vaguely hippie-ish sense of idealism that felt disingenuous. Even worse, her singing voice seemed blandly unimpressive and she had no physical stage presence. I was disappointed when I had learned she would be playing a prominent role on this album. Live, however, she displayed at least an improvement in her stage presence; her first entrance as Margaret, dressed in a white bridal gown, saw her executing a provocatively sensual, undulating shimmy up to the mic, swaying in time to the rhythm established by the band, injecting a brazen and unexpected sense of sexuality into the character and the scene. While her voice still left much to be desired, it was obvious that her touring with Lavender Diamond had allowed her to grow as a vocalist.

She was completely out-awesomed on every level, however, by Ms. Shara Worden, playing the queen. In her little black dress, Ms. Worden vamped, stomped, and generally took control of the stage during her too-few appearances in the storyline. While Jenn seemed to think that Ms. Worden’s overacting was unnecessary, I respectfully disagree; to me, the queen is the kind of character that was written to be a scene- and show-stealer, and the only way to effectively play such a character is to camp it up. And camp it up she did – Worden’s larger-than-life performance on “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” definitely stole the show away from Meloy and elicited what sounded to me like the largest applause of any moment during the Hazards set, besides perhaps “The Rake’s Song,” which was performed by Mr. Meloy on acoustic guitar and vocals, Nate Query on electric bass, and the other five on-stage members all (!) playing drums in unison.

Of course, after playing Hazards and taking a well-deserved 15-minute break, the band were back, sans costumes, to play an abbreviated set of shorter, more self-contained, and less thematically and narratively-loaded songs.  After all the restraint he displayed during the main set, Mr. Meloy here perhaps went overboard on the banter, proclaiming himself a charter member of MACOF (Musicians Against the Calling Out of Freebird) and, in one head-scratching moment, declared that the chord change in “Dracula’s Daughter” is “douchey.” (Really, Colin? With the vocabulary you display in your songs, you choose to go there?) The music, however, was top notch, and was a great plate-cleanser after the intensity of the live Hazards experience.

The highlights here undoubtedly were saved for the climactic final two songs of the set – “The Chimbley Sweep,” which saw Mr. Meloy and Chris Funk hand off their guitars to audience members and run into the audience, shaking hands and high-fiving; and a ripping, energetic cover of Heart’s “Crazy on You,” with Ms. Worden and Ms. Stark trading off lines and verses, and Ms. Stark once again coming out of the deal overshadowed. It was an epically huge performance and was executed – imagine this – without an ounce of irony detectable. The encore stated off slowly with a performance of the rather meh Picaresque outtake “The Bandit Queen,” but improved exponentially with a singalong performance of “Sons & Daughters.”

Although I walked in to the theater convinced I was going to have a terrible time at this show, the Decemberists managed to prove me wrong, and I was humbled by the technical precision of their show, as well as by the care that went in to the visual presentation of the concert (the backdrop may have looked like nothing at first, but it really became quite a striking element of the performance). While I had started to doubt the greatness of the band, I am impressed that they managed to follow up a record that got my vote for biggest disappointment of the year with the most unexpected success of the year.

Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 setlist:

I Often Dream of Trains
What You Is
Saturday Groovers
Madonna of the Wasps
I'm Falling
Television
Up to Our Nex
Creeped Out
The Authority Box
Goodnight Oslo


The Decemberists setlist:

Prelude
The Hazards of Love (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone)
A Bower Scene
Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)
The Queen's Approach
Isn't It a Lovely Night?
The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid
An Interlude
The Rake's Song
The Abduction of Margaret
The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing
Annan Water
Margaret in Captivity
The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)
The Wanting Comes in Waves (reprise)
The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)
----------------------------------------------
The Crane Wife 3
Shiny
Sleepless
July, July!
Summersong
Dracula's Daughter
O Valencia!
The Chimbley Sweep
Crazy on You
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The Bandit Queen
Sons & Daughters


Complete set of photos from the show, as usual, can be viewed at Flickr.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Like a god, or a good luck charm, or a vice: PJ Harvey & John Parish, 2009.06.07

PJ Harvey & John Parish/Pop Parker
The Trocadero
Philadelphia, PA
2009.06.07

It is almost 1:00 AM and I am tired, but I feel like I just need to churn this one out right now. I just got back from seeing PJ Harvey and John Parish play the Philadelphia stop on their first joint US tour (possibly their first joint tour ever? Can anybody confirm this?). Harvey and Parish put out a collaborative album back in 1996 called Dance Hall at Louse Point, a collection which often fell squarely within the experimental side of the songwriting spectrum. Although it had its share of good tunes, the album as a whole never felt entirely cohesive to me and just never fully clicked with me. Still, as a PJ Harvey devotee, I have held onto the album all these years and every now and then pull it out and give it a listen.

Its experimental nature, lack of promotion or live acknowledgment of its songs, and relative forgotten status among the record-buying public made it one of the candidates for the least likely side project to spawn a follow-up album. So imagine my surprise when, earlier this year, it was announced that PJ Harvey and John Parish would release their second collaboration, A Woman a Man Walked By. I dutifully picked up the album on release day to find it a curious listen of which I could not quite make heads or tails - it was filled with moments of pure pop songwriting the likes of which were not hinted at on Dance Hall (see "Black Hearted Love" and "Passionless, Pointless"), but its more abrasive or experimental moments were utterly uncompromising, making similar gestures on Dance Hall seem like training drills. The album came out of nowhere with little advance notice, and demanded that you accept it on its own terms or leave it be.

The show last night was opened by UK singer/songwriter Pop Parker, who took the stage with his acoustic guitar and strummed some pretty chords while gently crooning, "Mother, mother, mother, mother..." Just when you thought he was about to sing an utterly unironic, tender ode, he continues, "mother, mother, FUCK!" with a muted pound on the strings. This short, nonsensical song set up the duality present in most of the songs he played during his half-hour set: they tended to comprise chord progressions and melodies that were superficially pretty and pleasing to the ear, but the lyrics, which initially hint toward tenderness and sincerity, show a preference for reversal either into the vulgar or into anxiety and hopelessness. Unfortunately, though I found myself chuckling at the cleverness of many of Mr. Parker's lines, I have found that the songs are not as memorable as they first seemed to be. (Of course, that could just be the mind-erasing effect of seeing PJ Harvey perform directly afterwards.)

Harvey and Parish's set - where to begin? First of all, it needs to be said that PJ Harvey doesn't  just perform, she commands the stage. While she may not fall into the conventionally attractive category, I personally have always found her beautiful, with a sense of confidence, self-assuredness, and power that only adds to her air of mystery and makes her more attractive. She took the stage last night barefoot in a simple black dress, fingernails painted black. Lest it sound like PJ Harvey: In a Goth Mood, though, I should add that she was all smiles through the night - there were several moments, in fact, between songs where she and Mr. Parish simply stood there, beaming at each other, basking in the zealous applause of the crowd of die-hard fans. 

These are the fans, after all, who knew all the songs by heart - the forgotten side project from thirteen years ago. And although I didn't think I had listened to Dance Hall all that much, I was surprised at how much I knew of the songs - the words came right back to me. The stage and the lighting were both as unadorned as Ms. Harvey's stage costume. Under the stark conditions, the sometimes skeletal songs were even more striking. A particular standout for me was "Taut," always a favorite of mine. While the studio version features Ms. Harvey whispering the vocals in a frightened tone that gave the song a terrifying edge, here she sang the song in a more self-aware tone that suggested the narrator of the song was not so helpless as she had previously seemed, adding an additional layer of melancholy and pity to the story.

Harvey and Parish, with a three piece band, including legendary keyboardist and bassist Eric Drew Feldman, ended up playing for nearly 90 minutes, including a lengthy encore break during which they really made the crowd work for it; I had begun to think that perhaps they really weren't coming back out. In typical uncompromising fashion, the encore was somewhat anticlimactic - the band played a John Parish solo song called "False Fire," and ended the evening with the slow, melancholy, and eerie song "April" from A Woman a Man Walked By. Ending the show on such a note left this reviewer with a somewhat uneasy feeling - though they could have gone the easy route and sated the crowd with a reading of "Is That All There Is?", "City of No Sun," or any song from PJ Harvey's back catalog, they chose to end with possibly the least likely song from either of their two albums and leave the adoring crowd wanting more. Judging from the rapturous applause, in which the pair basked for a moment before filing off stage, the crowd did want more - but they were appreciative just to have gotten anything at all from this reclusive pair of talents.

Setlist:

Black Hearted Love
Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen
Rope Bridge Crossing
Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool
Civil War Correspondent
The Soldier
Taut
Un cercle autour du soleil
The Chair
Leaving California
A Woman a Man Walked By
Passionless, Pointless
Cracks in the Canvas
Pig Will Not
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False Fire
April

I had to check my camera, but I did take a few crappy iPhone photos. Vanity forbids me from using them, since my standards are higher, but since I like including photographs with my reviews, I will likely relent. Not tonight, though.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A supposedly fun thing I'll probably bail on.

92 days.
981 pages of prose. small print. 
97 pages of footnotes.


two weeks from today, i will be dropping whatever i'm reading to participate in infinite summer.

who's with me? let's discuss!

Backlog/upcoming show schedule/autism fundraising.

So lately, I've been a busy busy bee, which explains why it took me so long to get the Grizzly Bear review up. In that time, I have seen a few shows which need to be reviewed:

June 5 - Jane's Addiction/Nine Inch Nails/Street Sweeper Social Club
June 6 - The Decemberists/Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3

Plus, I have several shows coming up:

June 7 - PJ Harvey & John Parish
June 11 - Band of Horses/Arbouretum (acoustic)
June 12 - John Vanderslice/The Tallest Man on Earth
June 13-14 - Zoop! (the Mountain Goats/John K. Samson/Peter Hughes)

I am going to try to get the NIN/JA, Decemberists, and PJ Harvey reviews up on the blog next week, but I make no promises; my work schedule has been hell lately, and the rest of my schedule is absolutely hellish this week; on Monday and Tuesday I have two different doctor appointments, and Wednesday is pretty much my last evening I have free to make preparations and pack for Zoop!

And while I have you here, I'd like to talk to you a bit about my autism fundraiser. To your left you should see a thermometer that represents how far along I am in my fundraising efforts for my autism walk. I have worked with individuals with developmental disabilities for nearly ten years, and this is a cause that is important to me. This year, I have set a rather ambitious fundraising goal for myself, and I am hoping that you will consider donating to help me reach my goal.

As a thank you, should you choose to help, I will accept a request for one family-friendly cover song, which I will record and then distribute to all donors on a compilation CD. This is my third year playing cover songs for donations, and so far it is my most successful year yet. Last year, I covered Coldplay, Lou Reed, Shearwater, Okkervil River, Bob Dylan, *NSYNC, and the Most Unwanted Song. Two years ago, this atrocity was unleashed upon the world in exchange for some much-needed funding for autism research:


I would like to assure you also that 100% of your donation will go to the autism fund; the cost of production and distribution of the CD is handled completely out of pocket by me.

And, just to raise the ante, if I reach my goal of $750, Bill and I will collaborate on a sequel/continuation of the Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice's brilliant Moon Colony Bloodbath EP. If I do not reach the goal, this does not happen. The MCB sequel is in addition to the cover song compilation, not instead of.

If you are able to help out, I would appreciate if you donate by clicking on the thermometer to the left or by going to http://tinyurl.com/thom09. If you do not want to donate online, you can e-mail me by clicking the e-mail link to your left and I will send you instructions on where and how to mail in a check. If you donate, please e-mail me your request rather than leaving it in the comments; I think it's more fun when the songs are a surprise for all of the recipients!

The walk is this coming Saturday, June 13, but I will continue to raise money until the end of July. Thanks in advance for your support, and thank you as always for reading!

Keeping up with the motions: Grizzly Bear, 2009.06.02.

Grizzly Bear/Here We Go Magic
The Trocadero
Philadelphia, PA
2009.06.02


When I met Ed Droste from Grizzly Bear last year before Radiohead’s Camden show, I made him wince with just a few simple words: “The first time I saw you guys was at the Knitting Factory in 2005.” With a grimace, Mr. Droste replied, “God, we were rough back then.” While I would not agree with Mr. Droste’s self-deprecating and dismissive assessment of the band’s early live performances, during which they were still trying to find their collective voice, I bring it up because I think it speaks volumes about Grizzly Bear’s evident and rapid reinventon, refinement, and remodeling of its own image. In short, although the lineup is the same, the band that I saw at the Trocadero on Tuesday evening is not the same band that took the stage to open for the Mountain Goats on Halloween of 2005. (It would be unfair to compare the records, since Horn of Plenty is essentially a solo bedroom project from Droste.)

The show, which was my fifth Grizzly Bear show, although it was my first time seeing them in a headlining capacity, featured Here We Go Magic as the opening act, a band that I had heard of (most likely due to their support act slot for Grizzly Bear member Daniel Rossen’s other songwriting vehicle, Department of Eagles) but never actually heard. A quick listen to a YouTube video posted on their website told me that they basically sounded like a less trippy, more whimsical Animal Collective clone. Fortunately, their live show disproved this quick and possibly lazy assessment. The five-piece band did display myriad easily-recognizable influences – among them Animal Collective (the drummer frequently fell into a primal, insistent tom beat that only needed some delay in order to sound like an imitation of Panda Bear’s style) and Radiohead (one of the songs midway through the set featured guitar interplay eerily similar to “Arpeggi” – yet it has proven impossible for me to definitively peg down their sound or to compare them to any particular band. Which is not to say that they were shrouded in mystery; I did not find them nearly that intriguing. In fact, I was not particularly impressed until the band seemed to hit its stride during the last three songs or so of the set. The next-to-last song in particular – the one during which the singer took to the keyboards (sorry, I don’t know band member names or song titles) – was an interesting and compelling song that left me wanting more. For the most part, however, four days after seeing them play I find much of their set forgettable.

As the stage was being set for Grizzly Bear, the excitement and anticipation in the sold-out room was palpable. This is one thing that has puzzled me; while I am obviously a fan of Grizzly Bear and obviously I am happy for them and do not in any way begrudge their seemingly sudden success (yay alliteration!) and ascension into current indie rock royalty, I am not exactly sure of HOW this happened. How did such a reserved, nuanced, subtle band suddenly become one of the it-bands of the year? Surely the support slot for Radiohead last year and the media boost from Jonny Greenwood must have helped, but I am amazed by just how big they seem to have gotten nearly overnight. And my Flickr and blog support this; within 24 hours of my initial posting of the setlist on this blog and the photographs of the show on my Flickr page, both pages registered record-high numbers of hits.

However, this is a review of the show and not of the phenomenon. The setlist yielded few surprises: Very little from Horn of Plenty, a choice handful from Yellow House, and seven songs from this year’s mighty (and mighty pretty) Veckatimest. Having already seen them four times, I knew what to expect: the band sets up with all four members sharing the front of the stage; the harmonies are just as achingly beautiful live as they are on record; Chris Taylor makes lots of endearingly silly faces while singing the high vocals on “Knife” and pulls out his clarinet for some bass tones, always one of the sonic highlights of a Grizzly Bear show.

There is something about Grizzly Bear’s stage presence which I am not sure I can articulate that makes them extremely compelling and exciting to see. They are not a particularly visceral band – even during their rock-out moments, do not expect to see any of the band members jumping or thrashing about. Everything about Grizzly Bear seems to be about control and restraint. As such, apart from Mr. Droste’s slight dance moves during “Cheerleader,” there is not much movement. Every sound seems carefully considered, as if one wrong thread will ruin the overall effect of the tapestry. Yet, as careful and considered and fragile as the music seems, there is still a physicality to the music that lends the performance a weight not present in the records, no matter how close to perfect they may be.

The highlight of this show, besides the absolute gorgeousness that is “While You Wait for the Others” and the magical, rolling melody that makes “Ready, Able” such an irresistible tune was the completely unexpected introduction of special guest Victori Legrand from the band Beach House to song along with the boys on current single “Two Weeks.” Although it seemed to my ears like her microphone was a little low and her presence ultimately didn’t add terribly much to the sonic palette, the response from the audience made this feel like a capital-E Event, and immediately upped the ante for the song. Additionally, the sublime performance of “Fix It” was a personal highlight for me; although I have heard this performed several times before, it has never sounded quite so nuanced and psychedelic as it did Tuesday night. The hushed performance of “Shift” was also very pleasant, and I was happy that Grizzly Bear performed two of my favorites from the first album – unlike other bands who pretend that their back catalogs have ceased to exist (I’m looking at you, the National).

Any gripes or criticisms of the show are minor: it would have been nice to maybe hear some more full-band arrangements or re-arrangements of Horn of Plenty songs; although seven songs from Veckatimest were played, I had already heard four of these (“Cheerleader,” “Fine for Now,” “Two Weeks,” “While You Wait for the Others”) performed last summer, and so it would have been nice to have had more variety in the new selections; and while it felt great to get out of a show before 11:00pm, the set seemed just a tad short. But, as I said, these are minor criticisms thrown in so that the review doesn’t seem completely fawning. These guys grow as performers every time I see them, and they also grow as songwriters and sonic sculptors with every album. On Veckatimest, they seem to have fulfilled the promise of Yellow House and taken that sound to its logical conclusion. I am not sure where they are going next, but I will be happy to follow them.


Grizzly Bear setlist:

Southern Point
Cheerleader
Little Brother
Knife
Fine For Now
Two Weeks (w/ Victoria Legrand)
Ready, Able
Shift
I Live With You
Fix It
While You Wait for the Others
On a Neck, On a Spit
---------------------------------------
Colorado


For another perspective on the show, I encourage you to visit AK’s review on her blog.

To see all of my photos from the show, please visit my Flickr page.




Thursday, June 4, 2009

What Makes You Think I'm Enjoying Being Led to the Flood?: The National, 2009.05.29

The National/Colin Stetson
The Electric Factory
Philadelphia, PA
2009.05.29


IV. Flirting with Disaster 

As you will recall from last time, dear readers*, Anthony, Bill and I (and Bill’s girlfriend, Jess) had decided to fly in the face of disaster and thumb our noses at the National Curse, purchasing four tickets to the May 29 show at the Electric Factory. And predictably… nothing happened. There was no grand disaster. Hell, security didn’t even try to stop me and tell me that my camera wasn’t allowed. It all went so very, very smoothly. Perhaps the third time is a charm? (I decided to forgo the full description of the events leading up to the show itself, mostly because Bill has already posted a thoroughly entertaining, complete, and accurate account on his blog. He did mercifully leave out the part where I made an ass of myself and cracked the windshield of my car, but I just negated that act of kindness in spectacular style. Also, in case anyone is curious as to what my aka acquisitions were:  The Thermals – Now We Can See LP; John Phillips – John, The Wolfking of L.A. LP; Red Hot + Bothered 10” compilation. Record stores are awesome.)

All that was left to do now was wait.


V. The Trick Is to Keep Breathing

Colin Stetson was the opening act. I did not know what to expect, having never heard of him before, but I was surprised to see the stage set up with a lone microphone, a baritone sax and what appeared to be an alto sax. When he came out and began playing unaccompanied, I began to wonder how an act such as he had been chosen to open for a rock band. This is not to say that he was bad – quite the opposite, in fact. He was wonderful. Unfortunately, I don’t really know how to explain his style. Bill described it as “techno played on a saxophone,” but I don’t really agree with that assessment (with all due respect, Bill). If anything, and I know that saying this makes me sound like a pretentious, over-intellectual douche, but his composition and even his playing style reminds me of the work of Erik Friedlander. The compositions, which I am assuming were originals, were marked with a good deal of unorthodox technique; techniques that I don’t know the names for, because I know almost zilch about saxophones and therefore cannot speak about his set with even a pretense of intelligence or knowledge. So I will stick to what I know: the music rocked without being rock music; his combination of sustained mournful tones through circular breathing with the groove of low pedal tones and an almost beatbox-like effect that he employed when playing the baritone created an effect that I had never heard from a sax player. I was kind of almost dancing, even, and everyone knows that the almost never happens. Mr. Stetson only played a four- or five-piece set, and seeing the amount of effort he put into playing the compositions, particularly those for the baritone, I was kind of surprised he played for that long; they obviously required a degree of physical stamina and discipline to which I simply could not relate. Looking around, I was surprised to see how many other people seemed to be enjoying his set. I had expected people to either be indifferently bored or to actively dislike it. Once again, my misanthropy and faux-elitism let me down.




VI. Go Ahead, Go Ahead, Throw Your Arms In the Air Tonight

The National were nothing short of powerful, captivating, and spellbinding from the start. Opening the set with a new song of quiet, controlled intensity, “The Runaway,” was a remarkably audacious move – not only did the band risk alienating fans by not drawing them in with an instantly recognizable song, but they also dared to set the bar almost impossibly high by kicking things off with what they must know is possibly one of their most endearingly majestic and hypnotic songs yet. Indeed, the song was one of the absolute high water marks of the show for me, and is quickly making me very excited for the next album.

The National live are all about presence. Looking at my photos, you will note that Matt Berninger has approximately two “poses” while singing; in essence, if you’ve seen one photo of Matt performing you’ve seen them all. Photographically, this would suggest a certain stasis, a stiffness, a detachment from the performance. In truth, however, none of this is true. While Mr. Berninger may look boring/ed in the photographs, witnessing him perform live, the closest analogy I can think of is a preacher; there is such an intensity to his stage presence, and when he grips the microphone just so and half-hugs himself, it is with CONVICTION. And  his eyes, when he opens them, have that slightly wild, distant look that is often associated with the true fanatic. When he’s not at the microphone, Mr. Berninger stalks around the stage like a feline, pacing back and forth, eyeing the crowd, seeming to focus in on the energy of the room and feed off of it. Unfortunately, anybody who has not seen the National live probably cannot recognize any of this in the photos. Those of us who have shared this experience, know, though. The National, in spite of the brooding, is an affirmation of life, a controlled explosion of energy and emotion.

The band, augmented by three horn players (including Colin Stetson) and keyboardist Doveman, was flawless, in spite of the absence of violinist Padma Newsome. I don’t want this review to turn into a groveling praise fest, but the band were really just that good. I really only have two criticisms to offer. The first is the setlist: it would really be nice for the band to acknowledge that they released records before Alligator. Seriously, “Fashion Coat,” “Murder Me Rachael,” “Wasp Nest”… I would have loved to hear almost any of the songs from Cherry Tree or Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. Or even rearrangements of songs from the first album. And what about a stripped-down reading of “So Far Around the Bend”? As much as I love both Alligator and Boxer, I think some representation of their pre-fame albums wouldn’t hurt. As it is, their current live set makes it seem as if these two albums are the length and breadth of their career. I just think that sticking almost exclusively to this material represents a missed opportunity and almost implies that the earlier work is inferior or unworthy, which is absolutely untrue.

My second complaint: the horn section absolutely ruined “Slow Show,” which is possibly my favorite song from Boxer. It’s a shame. That song needs to be more stripped down.

Still, though, when all is said and done these complaints/criticisms don’t amount to much. The boys put on a memorably spellbinding show, played their asses off, and debuted three songs that, if they are representative, indicate that album #5 could conceivably be their best yet.  If that’s the trade-off, then sure, I’ll endure a curse.

Setlist:

The Runaway (new song)
Start a War
Mistaken for Strangers
Brainy
Secret Meeting
Baby, We'll Be Fine
Slow Show
Vanderlylle Crybaby (new song)
Squalor Victoria
All the Wine
Abel
Ada
Apartment Story
Green Gloves
Fake Empire
-------------------
Blood Buzz Ohio (new song)
Mr. November
About Today

For other perspectives on the show, I strongly urge you to check out Jess’s review over at Crawdaddy or A.D.’s review at Music Maven. Both are very well-written reviews by awesome people whose blogs you should be reading on a daily basis anyway.

My entire set of photos from this show can be viewed at Flickr.

Also, after all my praise of "The Runaway," why don't you check out this awesome, high quality live video of it, courtesy of QTV in Canada?

* - I kind of feel like, no matter how small it may be, I now have something of an “audience” or “reader base.” I hope it does not offend the two or three of you that I refer to you directly; this is a very exciting moment for me. Yes, I am a sad, sad man.