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Shows + 5
Now with words. [just after midnight, June 11]
Waxahatchee with Carbonleak and Kitten Forever – Triple Rock Social Club (Minneapolis, MN) – Friday, April 25, 2014
It doesn’t really need to be said again, but these are malleable songs—too carefully constructed to allow for much in the way of musical digression, but simple enough to make for great revamps. So, the band played the formerly quiet “American Weekend” and “Swan Dive” with POWER, and the formerly jaunty “Lips and Limbs” and “Be Good” with the chords weighted so as to suggest “The Boys Are Back in Town.” You can play these songs with chords, i.e. you can play them any old way. Katie Crutchfield is the foremost songwriter currently bridging the electric/acoustic and solo/band divides, and it’s amazing how she can keep losing herself in songs of such modest framework, infinite amplitude.
Among the opening acts, I enjoyed the very loud Carbonleak, a maelstrom softened by the sweet hum of the vocals, but was particularly taken with Kitten Forever, again, for all the earlier reasons plus one: It’s a rare occasion at a rock club to hear a band that’s not excessively amplified, allowing real live sound to reach the audience. This band’s tradeoffs between songs, when they’d switch instruments but keep the energy going with group chants and the beat of the drumsticks, wouldn’t have worked any other way. Too few punk bands will survive when the world loses electricity.
The Flamin’ Groovies with The Mighty Mofos – Turf Club (St. Paul, MN) – Sunday, May 11, 2014
Who are the Groovies? Their charms couldn’t be more straightforward, but it’s tough to situate them in a manner worthy of their uncommon range. They’re Beatles-esque in the sense that it’s impossible to identify what they do best, but lacking a similarly broad impact and catalog, there’s no audience large and diverse enough to keep alive a popular myth about them. They’re great listeners, AM historians, like the Ramones were, but as they flit between blues numbers and pop songs, there’s no standard template by which to judge their retunings. So they end up ranking among garage bands, cult favorites, obscurant’s prizes, because to be ready for the masses a band has to either be able to make a succinct case for itself or have an unlimited amount to give.
At the Turf Club, I remained confused about how to listen but loved everything I heard, imperfections and all. During “Shake Some Action” the band strained toward the moment, got there, but Chris Wilson shouted the customary wooh not because of any particular thing that had happened, but because of a delirious abundance of rock ‘n’ roll code, unable to be tapped dry when the song’s famousness is so unequal to its high. The Mighty Mofos, still led by an awesome presence called Billy Batson, were the evening’s more unstoppable force, but they also didn’t have a song like “Shake Some Action” to play, so it came out even.
Wye Oak with Braids – Fine Line Music Cafe (Minneapolis) – Thursday, May 15, 2014
“There are no happy Wye Oak songs,” one writer observed in 2011. The fact that Jenn Wasner’s switch to bass guitar lends a kind of joy to the band’s new songs is the only change worth taking to heart in 2014. Otherwise, drummer Andy Stack’s left hand, which formerly keyed bass parts, is freed for a greater variety of song-enhancing textures, to which Wasner contributes as needed, particularly during the anything goes bridge of “Glory,” which plays like a condensed and more purposefully building-to-the-chorus section of Prince’s “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” And that’s it, the changes that find Wye Oak simply reconfigured as a bass and drums duo. They still play the old songs the old way, challenging the assumption that musical change is irrevocable, that a band can just bury its previous identity (remember when everyone thought Bob Mould would never make rock music again, even when Modulate was one-third rock songs?).
This was the phenomenal Wye Oak I’ve known, liberated if they weren’t already. Wasner spoke about how close they’ve come to ceasing as a touring band, and clearly meant it, but I’m glad they found a solution for whatever ailed them, and have instead gone to the opposite extreme, playing long, champion sets. This one included an encore cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” a number of its elements muted (the synth, the drums) or altogether silenced (the yeah yeah yo), the half-light beauty amplified as a result, improbably, set to an intricate new bass line.
It’d be tempting to compare Wye Oak’s excellent fourth album Shriek (whose new sounds require new reference points; it’s the law) to Hounds of Love, an album whose influence I like to infer as often as possible, but the connection doesn’t really ring true this time. Instead, the more I listen to Shriek, the more it sounds like Cocteau Twins’ Heaven or Las Vegas without guitar (and that’s a considerable difference!), particularly in the vocals, but on the night of May 15, Braids’ Raphaelle Standell-Preston was the only singer who reminded me of Liz Fraser. I might’ve followed the association to interesting places while listening to her band’s opening set, but instead I found a new favorite drummer in Austin Tufts and was continually distracted by his live breakbeats. I’m not sure if the band realizes how much their songs are engulfed by the energy of the drums, or if it’s in their best interest to set a different balance, but I was thrilled by the display.
A note on the venue: I’ve been critical, and there’s no excuse for pumping out billowing plumes of stage smoke in 2014, especially when the opening act’s singer has asthma, but the sound remains spectacular, before (Real Estate, Deerhunter) and after (Wye Oak, Kishi Bashi) a recent upgrade of their PA system. [Thanks to Don for the tip!]
The Chambermaids – Art-A-Whirl (Minneapolis) – Friday, May 16, 2014
Pictured above. These local shoegaze favorites played a 30-minute, 8- or 9-song set (I lost count) outside a brewery during an art festival, but I was determined to finally see them in any situation. Bands like this still populate the U.S., most of them not half as good as The Chambermaids, but together confirming that shoegaze persists as a kind of American folk music, played in a traditional style with subtle variation, owing less to luminaries of the early 90s, more to forgotten scenes and bands that serve as pure, untouched standard bearers. The Chambermaids, heavy on atmosphere and mechanics, medium-heavy on song, with Martha Weir’s beautiful, gliding bass lines the anchor of their folk approach, recall Half String more than My Bloody Valentine. It’s the ultimate outdoor music, because no weather can do anything but enhance the sound, and this night of chill blue made it especially compelling. At the end, a train rolled down the nearby tracks and blew its whistle, and the band appeared thrilled, honored.
Sonny Knight & The Lakers – Grand Old Day (St. Paul) – Sunday, June 1, 2014
Ultimate outdoor music, cont’d: A triumphant set from the Minneapolis soul veteran who just released his first full-length album earlier this year. I arrived late, after he’d already begun ceding the spotlight to his amazing band (horn section, drummer), crossing the threshold of endurance to firmly plant the show in city memory. This accomplished, he returned to the stage and, in his choice of words, seemed to be preparing for “A Change is Gonna Come,” but no, the most he can say is that he endures: “I’m Still Here.”
La Sera – Hour of the Dawn
Narrowcast pop moves against the idea of pop as uncanny or uncomfortable, as something that suggests new ways of being in your world. It’s a vision of pop that can scratch itches but can’t cause them.
Tom Ewing is referring here to demographically targeted music. Calling the opposite “broadcast pop” and talking about La Sera’s “Losing to the Dark” is perhaps not a very apt use of the quote, but I’m desperate to convey why I think this awesome whir of a pop song is so important, so itchy, so ripe with intergenerational significance, despite its specificity and lack of universal sentiment. Imagine: A continuum of younger listeners glimpsing what they don’t yet know, their own murky, soon to be demythologized future; older listeners hearing a howl from the dark and straining to understand, or greeting a long-awaited articulation within themselves. In emotional sequence, the song’s sarcastic rage (“what a shame it must be to have to be in love with me”—that hurts) precedes the weary beauty of Concrete Blonde’s “Joey,” whose narrator will banish the alcoholic ex-lover from her thoughts as soon as she finishes singing that she’s “not angry anymore.” Until then she’s losing, says the heaviest song on the very tuneful Hour of the Dawn, which plays as a cleaned up but still potent version of the melodic, metallic, cymbal-laden roar that made Katy Goodman’s earlier Vivian Girls the Hüsker Dü of their moment.
Owen Pallett – In Conflict
Reviews continue to introduce him with his extracurriculars, but he’s been a visionary solo album artist, first and foremost, at least since 2010’s magnificent Heartland. Some have said he just now begins to connect emotionally, an astonishing notion, but understandable in the sense that In Conflict presents a more streamlined set of sounds (Pallett’s violin and ARP 2600; the rhythm section) and brings the listener closer to the man (his voice and words). Still, nothing he does precedes language; he never emotes. The album artwork, small black words and one black splotch on white paper, seems to avoid coloring the music, but in fact it poses a perfect analogy: sounds written on a blank surface, waiting to be read.
Haley Bonar – Last War
It’s great to return to Haley Bonar on somewhat anonymous terms, eight years and four albums after she played at my college and inspired the adoration of one or two of my classmates. She’s still a local act, but with my rooting interest long since expired, I can enjoy her music without the conflict of pride. Which is my way of saying trust me, this is good: tremulous, high energy pop in the style of Camera Obscura, with a particular delirium in the way the guitars derive momentum from something like the sound of sputtering out.
Gold-Bears – Dalliance
An audacious title, if you imagine it’s citing the greatest and loudest of all Wedding Present songs as the source of its noise. That’s appropriate, and should be enough of a hook for me, but this album demands a lot from the listener who doesn’t love it immediately and effortlessly. Take this as a general note on the prospects of vital noisy pop music: Dalliance is so exuberant, its effect shouldn’t depend on the circumstances of listening, but alas, when it doesn’t hit just right it quickly begins to echo in the void of the thrill it’s failing to inspire, with no guarantee that repeat listens will salvage the experience or do anything but continue to diminish it. In case you somehow failed to notice the spirit of the music, a xylophone helpfully tracks the chorus of la’s at the end of “Chest.” Or if you did notice and just didn’t care, the xylophone might be upsetting. However! Dalliance is for the ones who did notice but still needed something more, a xylophone. To be a success it only needs to be everything to just one person, and there’s definitely someone out there who wants an album like this and who’ll find Gold-Bears more palatable than, say, Cloud Nothings. Are you that someone? There’s no way to know, and there’s also no point trying to mitigate circumstance, preparing your space for your first listen. If it happens, it happens…
Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Listening more closely to this amazing album, looking back at what I wrote about the band’s live show, I can see that I should’ve celebrated the lyrics as much as whatever mysterious, wordless transference I thought I experienced. Sometimes noise corresponds to nameable psychic and physical pain, and to ignore that while enjoying its energy is a shitty thing to do. At the very least: “No doubt there was a great deal of identification taking place in the audience (this is a great thing!)” For my own part, I’m lying if I don’t admit that a perceived shift in context finally led me to this band. In high school, listening to them would’ve been my version of “Drinking with the Jocks,” teenage “normal life.” Ten years later, only unambiguous language can tell me I was wrong, and this album has unambiguous language for miles. Its strategies of representation are as thrilling as its sounds, the words inseparable from the music, meaning that, along with Deerhunter’s Monomania, this is the rare rock ‘n’ roll album whose reference to the body is never just rhetorical: “No ass to shake”; “Don’t wanna live without teeth, don’t wanna die without might”; “In the dark of our graves our bodies will decay.” Real teeth, real decay. After that last line, I sometimes imagine the flesh will be fluorescent grey. Body music, for when the body does something other than move.
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