Archive for the ‘Indie-Rock’ Category

Wilco @ Merriweather Post Pavilion: old is great, new is boring

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

Last night, several jazz musicians I really like were active on the east coast: Tim Berne playing with his Hard Cell trio at the Vision Festival in New York, Slava Ganelin with his Ganelin Trio Priority at An Die Musik in Baltimore, and Nels Cline with… Wilco at Merriweather Post Pavilion in suburban Maryland. I went to see the latter, because it was closest (if Berne had been closer he would have been the choice), I had friends going, and ever since Cline joined the band I’ve been a bit of a Wilco fanboy.

This was my fourth Wilco show in five years, so I more or less knew what to expect, and the band delivered. They were pretty on, and for a large venue the sound was pretty good. The wild card was the new material: as I mentioned before, I’m not much of a fan of the Sky Blue Sky songs, and I was hoping that seeing them live would improve my appreciation. Sadly, the opposite happened: when contrasted with their older material, the new songs came off even more lame and stilted than before. Half the fun of Wilco for me is the contrast between beautiful pop melody and all-out joyful noisemaking (Cline in particular adds a lot to this aspect of their sound, of course). Sky Blue Sky’s songs have a complete dearth of the latter, and a lot of them lack the former as well. The most telling transition was one between “Via Chicago” (a perfect example of an effective meshing of melody and noise) and one of the new songs. My heart was thumping and I was grinning during “Via Chicago,” but then once the next song started, I sat down and quickly lost interest.

Oddly enough, then, my favorite song in the set was actually one of the new ones: “Impossible Germany.” This is the one that so surprised me last year, when Chris compared it to The Allman Brothers. Then, and on record, the three-guitar jam that makes up the second half of the song was nicely melodic, if completely inoffensive. But at this show, while Tweedy and Sansone played the interlocking melody straight-up, Cline went and fucked it all up, playing the kind of noisy solo that would have fit much more comfortably on Downpour (his free-improv set with Andrea Parkins and Tom Rainey from FIMAV last year) than Sky Blue Sky. The result was phenomenal, an instrumental passage that combined the white-knuckle tension of the best free jazz solos with the consummate melodicism that marks so much of Wilco’s earlier work.

The other highlight was “Poor Places,” whose noisy denouement transitioned smoothly into the motorik beat of “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” I was shocked and delighted that they would play the latter song at all, given how it’s 180 degrees away from their new material. Sadly it wasn’t as tight as I hoped; the delicious tension of the song comes in large part from Tweedy’s ability to take the core guitar melody and play around with it considerably while still leaving in tantalizingly recognizable bits, but this time around it seemed like he got away from that melody and was kind of aimless. Still, I do love that song, and its Krautrockish foundation has a trancelike effect in concert.

One other thing of note was that Tweedy was, with the exception of “Spiders,” relegated almost exclusively to rhythm guitar, allowing Cline to really take the spotlight and show off his abilities. This certainly added to my enjoyment of the show, as I spend most of my time at Wilco concerts watching him anyway (though the rest of the band are certainly no slouches, this guy is just really entertaining to watch).

The lame Sky Blue Sky songs aside, this was a good concert, and per their norm, they played a long set, including three encores, coming in at somewhere between two and two and a half hours. I have never seen these guys put on anything less than a really good show. The crowd was interesting to me — instead of the slew of hipsters I saw at all the previous shows, this time it seemed like a frat-boy crowd of the sort that would go to see the Dave Matthews Band. Still, they all seemed like big fans and knew all the songs, so I wonder if it was just the difference in venue or location that was the cause. But somehow I don’t think Wilco was much of a frat-boy band until very recently. After all, it was just a few short years (and one Grammy) ago that mainstream music fans at Yale called the show Wilco played there a “disappointing display of musical mediocrity” full of “monotonous melodies.” What a difference four years makes!

The Cinematic Orchestra - “Rites of Spring”

Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

Today, when I haven’t been listening to In Glorious Times, I’ve been listening to a live recording of The Cinematic Orchestra, who released a new album, Ma Fleur, a couple months ago (coming out next Tuesday, I think, in the States). Seems like Ma Fleur has been pretty resoundingly panned, with the BBC calling it “a reeking letdown,” but in the live environment, for the most part the new songs come off pretty well — though admittedly the band have a bit of reputation for tearing it up live much more than they do on record. (Their studio albums that I have, Every Day and Man With a Movie Camera, are laid-back to the point of wallpaper sometimes, though the songs are invariably beautiful and well-crafted.) Some of the songs with the new vocalist are pretty easily skippable, though.

But the real highlight is the encore closer: a five-minute blowout that they call “Rites of Spring,” although I’m not sure if it is actually a reinterpetation of part of Stravinsky’s famed composition or if it’s merely inspired by it. Either way, this thing burns all the way through, like a collision between John Coltrane, King Crimson and Amon Tobin: heavy electronic beats, fuzz bass, chiming guitars and squealing horns all conspire to make this piece way, way more exciting than anything else in the entire set.

Maybe the sleepy Ma Fleur is just a warmup, and the band’s next album will be more like “Rites of Spring,” in which case it would probably take up permanent residence in my CD player for several months.

Travis Morrison: D-Plan better than ever

Friday, May 4th, 2007

So it wasn’t just my imagination that that Dismemberment Plan reunion show was better than any of their other shows I’d ever seen. Here’s the band’s frontman, Travis Morrison, responding in an interview:

STEREOGUM: How’d the reunion feel?

TM: Great. Turns out we wrote some really great songs, and none of us stopped playing music, so we sounded better. Especially the second night of our shows, I was just feeling it like I never have.

Holy fuck the Dismemberment Plan are still amazing

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

I would be remiss if I didn’t post about my 23rd show of the year — the much-anticipated Dismemberment Plan reunion concert at the Black Cat. A quick Technorati search reveals a ton of breathless blog reviews of the two shows these guys did this weekend (for instance here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). And you know what? Even my rather jaded showgoing self can’t help being really, really excited about last night’s show.

In various pre-weekend interviews, the D-Plan’s frontman Travis Morrison had said that he actually felt that the band were better than ever — better musicians, more comfortable with the material despite not having played any of it in three and a half years. I was skeptical, to say the least, but I honestly have to say that last night’s reunion show was easily the best show I’ve ever seen the band put on, and I saw them four times during their prime. The sound was perfect and their performance was shockingly tight, as if they hadn’t just picked up after three and a half years apart. They played all the songs one would expect — “You Are Invited,” “Time Bomb,” “The Ice of Boston,” and so on — playing almost all of Emergency & I and their usual selection of earlier stuff like “Onward, Fat Girl” and “The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich.” The only notable omission was “Superpowers,” though I also wished that they had played “Sentimental Man.”

Setlist aside, the energy at the show was just tremendous. I caught the second opening band, whose frontman said, “We’re going to play a short set tonight, because we’re not stupid.” An apt statement, as everyone there was clearly there for one reason only. People had traveled from all over to see this reunion show, including someone from London and a bunch of people from up and down the eastern seaboard. The crowd was as I remembered from previous D-Plan shows, dancing spastically, pumping fists, jumping all over the place. What was different was the singing: it seemed like every song, the crowd was singing along as enthusiastically as Travis himself was singing into the mike. The band seemed a little overwhelmed by the response, which was understandable — during “The Ice of Boston,” in which traditionally the band asks audience members to join them on stage and dance, the crowd flooded up onto the stage to the point that the band didn’t have enough room to play their instruments, and by the end of the song Travis had given his guitar to some dude, Jason Caddell and Eric Axelson had stopped playing, and it was just Travis singing with Joe Easley tapping out the beat on drums. And everyone in the club singing along, of course.

They played two full encores, although they quipped to the crowd that they were running out of songs that they remembered how to play (they claimed to be making stuff up as they played “Bra” and “Onward, Fat Girl,” but damned if I noticed except for one flubbed line in the former). The band-audience dynamic was unforgettable. And it was all for a good cause. By the end of the year, I’ll probably have gone to many shows that were more challenging, musically ambitious, and whatnot, but I doubt any of them will have matched the atmosphere of this one.

UPDATE: There is now a review up at Pitchfork (complete with crowd shot in which one of my friends is visible, wooo), and I added to the list of blog reviews above.

Aereogramme @ the Black Cat, still screaming

Friday, April 27th, 2007

A small crew of fans came out last night to see Aereogramme at the Black Cat’s back stage. This is a neat little space that’s ideal for folk and acoustic jazz performances (Ken Vandermark played there a couple years ago with his Free Music Ensemble), but for heavily amplified rock, it’s definitely not the best spot. Sadly, Aereogramme’s overdriven guitars and pounding drums overwhelmed the sound system and made for a trying listening experience.

There were still some nice surprises, though. The story with these guys is that they started off as a curious cross between indie-pop and death metal, combining saccharine melodies with crushing riffs and screaming vocals. Their lead singer, Craig B, caught a nasty throat infection a couple years ago, and they went on an informal hiatus before releasing a new album this year, My Heart Had a Wish That You Would Not Go (an emo-sounding title if there ever was one, but it’s actually a quote from The Exorcist). With Craig B rendered unable to scream anymore after his ailment, this new album dumps almost all of the metal influences in favor of a borderline sappy alt-indie sound that’s like a more interesting and heavily orchestrated Coldplay.

Still, a recent collaboration with Isis (In the Fishtank 14) led me to believe that Aereogramme have not completely exorcised the heavy elements from their music, and this show proved that belief right. Their set spanned their entire career, including a couple favorites like “Indiscretion” and “Dreams and Bridges.” The band didn’t shy away from the metal, either, as Craig B’s plaintive vocal melodies often gave way to crunchy riffs and, yes, screamed vocals courtesy of another band member with a presumably more healthy throat. Satisfyingly powerful at times, at others they were hamstrung by the very muddy sound — the drums often overpowered everything, especially the vocals and orchestrations. Also, the densely layered orchestrations were completely sequenced, which was very disappointing; I was hoping for a live violinist or something, or at least for those lines to be played live on keyboards. Instead, they were played back pre-recorded from a laptop. Pretty lame.

Despite the crappy sound, overwhelming volume levels, and stripped-down orchestration, I still enjoyed myself, if only because I was pleasantly surprised that these guys still play their edgy older material in addition to the more heartstring-tugging new stuff.

Zombi @ the Black Cat

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

A couple nights ago I saw Zombi, opening for Trans Am, who I did not stick around for. I’m feeling lazy so I’ll just paste in what I posted to ProgressiveEars a little while ago.

Saw Zombi last night at the kick-off show in DC. I didn’t stick around for Trans Am - after listening to Sex Change a couple times I didn’t find much to like about it, which surprised me given the reviews it’s gotten so far. (I still like Futureworld a lot, but that’s from 1999, and they’ve definitely moved on in some senses…)

Zombi was solid… extremely loud, but solid. The bassist didn’t play much bass, instead sticking mostly to keys, which meant he wasn’t all that exciting to watch, which meant naturally the bulk of the audience’s attention was directed to the drummer. He was a beast. But sometimes I felt like I was just watching a drum solo, because the keyboard textures were relatively simplistic.

For whatever reason I liked them better when I saw them last year and wasn’t familiar with their recordings. Oh well. I’d still recommend that anyone who digs Surface to Air go see them.

Crowd was ok, but I was expecting more considering that Trans Am is from DC. Maybe they all showed up late…

Tomorrow night I am heading to Baltimore to check out the Red Room, a new venue for me — Peter Brötzmann is playing there with a trio of his I’ve never heard, but whose record garnered a rave review over at Outer Space Gamelan. Seriously, that review all on its own made me want to drive an hour to go see these guys. Can’t wait!

The Decemberists @ Strathmore

Tuesday, March 27th, 2007

Last night The Decemberists played a $40 show at the Strathmore out in suburban Maryland. I have a friend who really wanted to see them, so I tagged along. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise — their show two years ago actually kind of put me off of their music for a while, and as a result I skipped them last year when they did two nights at the 9:30 Club — but I’m glad I let myself be talked into it, even considering the rather surprising price tag.

These guys are consummate entertainers, and they were pretty hilarious throughout the show. The Strathmore is a very grandiose theater-style seated venue, and I was wondering how the band would react to it. Aside from several jokes about the audience being calmly seated during the entire set, they took it all in stride and, if anything, were even weirder and wackier than usual, cracking jokes left and right, doing their whole audience participation thing (standard stuff that hasn’t changed since I saw them two years ago), bumbling around the stage, etc. Two years ago I didn’t buy their schtick for whatever reason, but this time they had me sold, and the crowd was completely enthralled. They just seemed very unforced, and it showed in their music as well.

They focused mostly on last year’s The Crane Wife, but having already toured extensively in support of it, they had a noticeable comfort level with the material and stretched out a bit, adding in small guitar riffs and mini-solos here and there to pretty great effect. Their setlist was also interesting, curiously enough opening with the low-key “Oceanside” from the Five Songs EP, and then including a couple songs from each of their older albums. The band’s epic side was in full effect last night: they played almost all of their “big” songs, including “The Island,” “The Crane Wife,” the “California One” medley, and the inevitable, crowd-pleasing “Mariner’s Revenge Song.” Really, all that was missing was “The Tain” and they would have played every one of their grand-scale epics in one show. Nice.

My complaint is kind of funny coming from someone who curates a prog review site: I thought the keys were way too low. The fat chords in “The Island” didn’t shine through enough, and in several other songs some of the subtle flourishes were lost as well. On the upside, Chris Funk broke out a hurdy-gurdy for all of twenty seconds in “Eli the Barrow Boy,” which was awesome.

Two years ago I came away from a Decemberists show not really wanting to listen to their music again for quite some time. This time around, I had the opposite reaction — I went home and listened to a couple songs from Her Majesty the Decemberists, which is probably my favorite of their works (might just be the primacy effect though, they are all pretty damn good). Kudos to those guys for playing in what must have been a pretty unfamiliar venue type for them, and pulling it off better than I would ever have expected.

The Decemberists

Saturday, February 3rd, 2007

DPRP posted a week or so ago a very long-winded, genre-obsessed review of The DecemberistsThe Crane Wife. I am always interested in reading prog sites’ reviews of non-prog albums, although often as not I come away frustrated with the naiveté that is inevitable when reviewers write about an album that is not quite within their area of expertise (of course, I myself do this all the time — and if I start reviewing the contemporary classical music I’ve been listening to lately, watch out!). Anyway, as far as these things go, this is actually quite a good review.

Speaking of The Decemberists, a friend really wanted to see them, so I plonked down a cool $45 for their upcoming show in the DC area, at the Strathmore, a large, swanky (this is the kind of place where you can have “afternoon tea”… to the tune of $18) seated venue. I’m excited, but a little leery — the last time I saw these guys live, it actually kind of turned me off from their music for a few months. I’m not sure why, and I think that’s the only time something like that has ever happened. Maybe it was the impossibly stereotypical hipster/indie-kid appearance of bandleader Colin Meloy (not to mention a large plurality of the audience). Maybe it was the audience participation that I just found forced and silly. Maybe it was the attempt at an improv that was pretty much just awful. Not sure, but hopefully it won’t happen again. Hopefully it won’t happen again with any band — it was a distinctly weird feeling, especially since all in all, I did enjoy the show.

Wonder if this has happened to anyone else? You go to a show you’re excited about but you come away actually feeling more negatively about the band than you did before?

DC sells out (lots of shows)

Monday, January 29th, 2007

The Washington, DC live music scene continues to surprise me. Last year, weird-ish shows like Animal Collective and Joanna Newsom sold out easily; Massive Attack sold out two consecutive shows at $40 apiece. This year, the madness has begun early, as The Decemberists instantly sold out a show at a $40 ticket price (nearly double what they asked for when they played here just a few months ago!), and the line to get tickets for a free Sufjan Stevens at the Kennedy Center numbered in the thousands.

I was in that line for free tickets — they were to be given out at 9am last Saturday, and I got there with a few friends at about 7:45am. When I saw the line of tents alongside the building, I knew we were in trouble. By our estimates, there were somewhere in the range of 1200-1500 people in front of us, with at least another 500 behind us by the time we realized it was hopeless and left just before 9am. Wow.

DVDs: Magma, Los Jaivas, Joanna Newsom

Friday, January 12th, 2007

I’m not generally a huge fan of music DVDs. Over the years I’ve developed a certain way of listening to music that allows me to multitask while still listening fairly actively. This is good and bad, because while it means I can listen to a LOT of music, it also means that the amount of time I spend doing nothing but listening to music has decreased — at some point I would like to go back to doing what I did at one point, dedicating an hour every night to doing nothing but close listening. But back to the DVDs thing: I can’t multitask when watching a music DVD (or any music with a video element). Sadly, this has become a pretty strong disincentive. That said, I’ve watched a few music films lately that completely engrossed me.

A while back I got the new Magma DVD, Epok II, with performances of Wurdah Ïtah, MDK and “De Futura” from Üdü Wüdü. A few nights ago I finally got around to watching part of it — just the Wurdah Ïtah performance. It was excellent — not jaw-dropping, but perhaps the rest of the film will floor me. I really loved the Trilogie DVD from a few years ago (wow, was it really over five years ago when that came out?), so I have high hopes for these new Epok DVDs. Still have not gotten my hands on the first one though, which I need to do as it sounds like folks generally are thinking the first is better than the second.

Yesterday I got the Los Jaivas Alturas de Macchu Picchu DVD, in which they “perform” the entirety of their most famous album at Macchu Picchu itself. The scare quotes are there because this is so obviously faked: the musicians are shown in various settings in Macchu Picchu playing sans any amplification or microphones, so clearly there’s some serious dubbing going on. I have not A/B’ed the DVD with the actual album, but I think (and I could very much be wrong) that it’s not a direct transfer of the album songs onto the DVD. There are some parts which sound slightly different to me, although this is very minor — it is likely a remix rather than a completely different performance.

As befits a DVD produced by the Peruvian government in 1981, the overall look of this DVD is very 80s; a bit fuzzy and definitely a little cheesy by today’s standards, but there are still some breathtaking moments. Also nice are the little bits interspersed between songs where the viewer is given some basic history of Pablo Neruda and Macchu Picchu. All this stuff is in Spanish of course, but reasonably accurate English subtitles are available, and in a nice touch, the song lyrics are also subtitled as they are sung. I didn’t watch too many of the extras last night, but it didn’t look like there are any subtitles for those.

The whole DVD feels like something a lazy teacher would show his students in order to take a day off from working. I’m not sure it’s worth the $25 or so that it seems to be going for from most places, but I’m glad I got to see it regardless.

Finally, and best of all, I downloaded from Dimeadozen a 90-minute amateur video of Joanna Newsom’s performance in Philadelphia this past November. This was a seated show and the camera must have been tripod-mounted as the view is very stable (though the panning is clearly amateurish). More importantly, the sound quality is fantastic and so is the performance. It’s a real treat to see Newsom sitting behind her harp with a mike pressed close in, and watching her fingers fly while her voice works overtime. I feel that on her albums, The Milk-Eyed Mender especially, some of her beautiful harp playing gets trampled by her rather attention-grabbing vocals. Actually seeing her play the harp remedies that to a certain extent, and she is quite a fabulous harpist. She is also, in this show, charmingly genuine, mouthing “wow” at the adoration of the crowd and giggling through her vocals during the encore when the audience cheers wildly at the beginning of a familiar song. Like Ys, this video brought a smile to my face and I watched the whole thing straight through with no lapse in attention. Many, many thanks to the taper and seeder; this is one of the best things I’ve downloaded from Dime in a long time.