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Ground and Sky » Post-Rock
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First off, in the Washington Post music blog, Post Rock, comes a scathingly amusing dismantling of the new album by indie-pop sensation Jenny Lewis (of Rilo Kiley fame): “If you were wondering why you couldn’t find a review of the album in today’s paper, it’s because all the potential reviewers either fell asleep or forced themselves to sleep via a hammer to the cranium by the 43rd time Lewis moaned “black sand” on the album’s bore of an opening track.” Ouch!
Secondly, this video, which is hilarious and painful and embarrassing all at once:
You might imagine that all the metal blogs have been sneering at this. A lot.
Finally, thanks to those who have been asking — yes, I’ll be writing reviews of some of the recent shows I’ve seen, including Extra Life and Mogwai. In the meantime, check out my photos and brief recaps of a couple shows over at Black Plastic Bag: one of a great show by Sigh and Unexpect, and one of the aformentionedMogwai show.
Speaking of Mogwai, looks like they’ve had to cancel the remainder of their U.S. tour because their drummer started having problems with his pacemaker. Bummer for them and the fans, best wishes to the drummer for a quick and full recovery. I’ll particularly miss the updates to the band’s USA tour diary that they’ve been posting on their website — it has been absolutely hysterical. Some choice excerpts:
“People loved Fuck Buttons’ set and it made me wonder how brutally strong the LSD must be in this city. I mean, some guy shouting into a children’s toy while another mentally ill person screams monkey noises into a cheap effects pedal really just isn’t enjoyable unless you’ve been fed an heroic dose of hallucinogenic drugs.”
“The show was really quite good in San Francisco apart from the usual idiots who are afraid to keep their mouth shut for 10 seconds in case they start having an introspective tour of duty into their own minds and then nervous breakdown… [the next] show was a bit of a stinker we thought and the tourettes victims were out in force. One exceptionally stupid man shouted for a song he happened to like halfway through a song we were playing. I do wonder what he thought this would achieve…… let’s stop playing this and start doing requests.”
“Washington D.C. SHOWTIME! Here we are in what is hopefully not going to become Sarah Palin’s new hometown. I suppose there’s a real chance of her becoming VP seeing as the Americans had a cocaine and alcohol cowboy in the whitehouse for the last 8 years.”
Somehow I missed this until now, but there’s a new Sigur Rós album looming on the horizon. The title is not quite as succinct or easy to pronounce (for us poor English-speaking monolingual schmucks) as Von or Takk: apparently this new record, due out June 24, is to be called Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. There’s already a track that can be previewed/downloaded here. I haven’t had a chance to listen yet.
Takk, the band’s last album, was really nice, but didn’t strike the same emotional chord with me as their earlier albums, perhaps because I’ve simply become a little inoculated to their style. But watching the Heima DVD — which is absolutely gorgeous — rekindled my interest in these guys a little bit, so I’m tentatively excited about this new release. In the meantime, this is a total gem: an NPR blogger’s video of his interview with Sigur Rós, which goes painfully, hilariously badly.
In other news, I saw the Progressive Nation tour last night in DC. Writeup is coming soon — I’m behind on processing photos and I shot over 1,000 last night — but the short review is that it was good. Yes, even Dream Theater, who, as readers of this site well know, has not really been a band I’m keen on for some years now. More to come…
This past Monday, I saw my second Do Make Say Think show of the year. The first one was one of the best concerts I’ve seen all year, and their new album, You, You’re a History In Rust, is one of my favorite new records of the year. So needless to say, I was going in with pretty high expectations. Not surprisingly given those sky-high expectations, I was a little bit disappointed.
This time around, despite having exactly the same eight-piece band (I’ve heard that at shows closer to their home base of Montreal, they sometimes play with as many as 12 instrumentalists onstage), they seemed a little sloppy, which especially came through in the new songs with vocals. The singing is pretty rough on the album, but in a charming sort of way; at this show, it was downright bad. Also, they played a lot of older songs that are less compositionally rigorous than the new stuff, and instead focus on establishing a groove or a jazzy rhythm and riding it into the ground. I like that stuff well enough — it has a kind of trancelike effect on me after a while — but it just isn’t quite as compelling as the more song-oriented new material.
The world was set aright, though, after the encore, which consisted of beautiful renditions of three of the best songs from the new album: the gorgeous, acoustically centered “A Tender History in Rust,” the powerful and energetic “The Universe!” and the satisfying denouement “In Mind.” The latter is a perfect example of how Do Make Say Think craft gorgeous melodies and then mess with them just enough to keep you off-balance, but not quite enough to keep you from enjoying the songsmanship (I just made up a word). It starts off beautifully but quickly becomes cacophonous, at first retaining the central melody and even building on it with ecstatic vocals, but then gradually just turning into glorious noise. It’s a fabulous way to close the album and an even better way to end a concert.
So although the bulk of the concert was a little disappointing, the encore made it all worth it. I went with three friends who enjoyed the hell out of the show, and it’s good to see the appeal of this band growing (I’d guess there were 300+ people there that night). Best of all, they seem to be really hard workers, touring incessantly, so hopefully there will be some new material coming sooner than later!
Found this neat list at rateyourmusic: “underknown” post-rock. Of this list of 29 albums, I’ve only heard one (Cerberus Shoal’s Homb) and have only actually heard of three or four! I’ve got some exploring to do.
I found this through DJ Martian’s page — a website/blog full of links arranged in a manner that I found pretty much incomprehensible at first. It’s really best to read this thing through the RSS feeds; there are two, one for the sporadically-updated blog and one for the more regularly updated links (through del.icio.us). Once you figure out how to sift through this in an intelligible way, it’s a very nice source of regular music news.
Over the weekend I saw two big-band concerts: the 10-piece free-improv Instant Composers Pool Orchestra at the Library of Congress, and the 8-piece post-rock collective Do Make Say Think at the Black Cat. These were both excellent shows, albeit very different, of course. I think the latter was good enough that it’s destined to make my top 10 list by the end of the year, easily.
But first things first — ICP Orchestra played this gig of their 40th anniversary tour to a respectably large audience at the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium. I had never seen any of these guys before, but was familiar with Misha Mengelberg, Ab Baars and of course the ubiquitous Han Bennink. They surprised me by playing very accessible music clearly grounded in the jazz idiom — probably a function of the audience and venue. No need to scare everyone away at a free show, I guess. In any case, Bennink was completely nuts. I had no idea he acted out so much, but the dude was ridiculous. At almost 65 years old, it seemed like he had about three times more energy than the rest of the band combined, and in fact he kind of overpowered them at times with his playing (and his vocalizing would have made Keith Jarrett blush). He sat behind a single snare drum and eked all kinds of noises from it, but didn’t satisfy himself there — on several occasions he leapt out of his seat and played pretty much anything on the stage that struck his fancy, including chairs, music stands, the floor, his foot, and so on and so forth. Entertaining, to say the least.
Oh right, the rest of the band. The other nine were just as fun to watch, if for a totally different reason: it was neat to see their interplay, the little nods and hand signals present at any improv show, the way they would split into little mini-ensembles that would seemingly play in opposition to each other before coming together just as spontaneously. Again, for the most part the improvising stayed in relatively structured and melodic territory (and the harmonies that this large ensemble stumbled upon were often beautiful), but it was a pretty rewarding show nonetheless.
One last note about this show: by total random chance I sat next to the saxophonist from DC Improvisers Collective, whom I’d never spoken to but recognized from the one show of theirs that I attended a month or so ago. We had a very brief interaction in which he mentioned that DCIC might be playing as backup for Joe Lally, ex-bassist for Fugazi, something that sounds very interesting indeed!
Moving on, Sunday’s show at the Black Cat got off to a less-than-promising start, as the openers, death-country group Elliott Brood, cancelled with no explanation. But when Do Make Say Think got on stage, all was forgiven. My brief recap at the ProgAndOther list:
I think DMST are the most interesting current post-rock band, and the only one who doesn’t seem to be rehashing the same formula over and over again (don’t get me wrong, I tend to like that formula, but you know…). I too was struck by the diversity of instrumentation, and their compositions really take advantage of that diversity.
The sound at the DC show was definitely at earplugs-needed levels (I put mine in after the first song), but their soundman was fabulous and even at the high volume levels, little things really came through in the mix - especially the violinist. It seemed like a lot of the band’s modus operandi was to develop a repetitive, trancey beat with subtle ornamentation from the guitars, and then a beautiful melody would surface out of the murk, on violin or horns or gently picked guitar. Really gorgeous stuff.
The diversity of instrumentation I reference comes from the fact that many members of the eight-piece band played two or three different instruments over the course of the show. The “standard” lineup seemed to be two guitars, bass, violin, trumpet, sax, and two drummers (although admittedly the horns were used more for color and ornamentation than for melody or lead lines), but when called for, there’d be a third guitar, or there’d be some keyboard or marimba in the mix, or the guitarists would pick up horns to make a muscular four-piece brass front line. Every one of these guys, but especially the three who rotated on guitars and bass, are impressively accomplished musicians, with some of the more intricate guitar picking a consistent highlight throughout the show. However, it was the violinist who held it all together for me. While the rest of the band was jamming along to trancelike rhythms or blissing out to ear-splitting climaxes (one audience member’s good-natured heckle: “do you guys have any songs with, like, big crescendoes?”), she was more often than not playing gorgeous melodies that, thanks to the skills of the soundman, were clearly audible even above the din.
Highlights of the show for me were all the quieter pieces like “A Tender History in Rust” — no post-rock group does quiet and pretty better than these guys — and the polar opposite, the extroverted and energetic “Horns of a Rabbit,” which absolutely slayed. But the whole set was fabulous, and it ended with a good sign: the guitarist said, “See you in the fall,” seeming to indicate that DMST will in fact be touring again soon. This is one band that I wouldn’t hesitate to see again, as their material is much more memorable live than on record (and I like their records).
Let me tell ya, Christina Aguilera (who yes, I am going to see tonight) has a lot to live up to. :-)
The live recording of the moment is a particularly interesting one for me, a wonderful recording of a DC-area band called Twin Earth playing at The Red and the Black. These guys play a kind of sludgy, heavy instrumental psych-rock that sounds like it draws influences from the likes of Acid Mothers Temple, Sonic Youth, chunks of Black Sabbath, and so on. This is a pretty good recording, and the material is fairly interesting if a little too straightforward at times. Twin Earth have no releases as yet, but there’s a few cuts from the aforementioned live recording up at their MySpace page. The dude who recorded the show and put it up on Dimeadozen also recorded the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum show last Friday — a great recording of a great show. In any case, if he is to be believed (he includes with all his torrents very, very extensive show notes and entertaining ramblings), there are a bunch of underground DC bands in this sort of jammy, heavy neo-psych style that sound very interesting — the best-known of these probably being Dead Meadow, whose discography I’m beginning to explore. Maybe I’ll have to stop ignoring the local music scene as I’ve been doing for so long.
Post-rock for the masses came to DC last night, as Explosions in the Sky played to a sold-out house at the large 9:30 Club. I am still having a hard time comprehending how these guys have been selling out nearly all their shows, or how their latest album actually, according to their label’s latest newsletter, “debuted on the Billboard Top 100 Pop Charts at a crisp #76 (right between P. Diddy and Jill Scott)!” So bizarre. The crowd at the show was mostly indie-rockers, with a lot of college students mixed in, and it occurred to me that while Explosions‘ upbeat, major-key post-rock is very accessible for folks in general, it’s also perfect hipster date music. Sure enough, there were a bunch of couples at the show.
My friend and I skipped Eluvium, having seen him at the Warehouse Nextdoor a couple years ago in what was one of my worst concert experiences ever — he actually turned me off from staying to see the band I’d come for, Mono. Unfortunately, we arrived in time for the second opening band, The Paper Chase, who had the distinction of being perhaps the worst opening band I’ve seen since Melomane opened for Wilco last year. Aside from a few off-the-wall guitar solos, this was mostly moronic indie-cock-rock, and the only reason these guys were on the bill is because they’re from Texas, as is Explosions. Not a particularly brilliant pairing otherwise.
All was forgiven when Explosions in the Sky started their set at 8:45, the earliest I’ve ever seen a show at one of these indie clubs in DC (and after very little changeover time after The Paper Chase went offstage). It was a beautiful thing. So, at times, was the music: they played their material very close to the vest, without much variation from the studio albums at all, but they were still pretty powerful. The sound in the louder parts wasn’t great, as the interlocking guitars got pretty hard to hear, but overall it was a decent show, though as with many post-rock shows, it had its share of less exciting moments. The setlist was the exact same as the one they played a few days before in Asheville — I have a fantastic recording of that show — so sadly the element of surprise was lost for me. Oddly, they only played about half of the new album, and didn’t play what I feel is easily the centerpiece song from it, the opening “Birth and Death of the Day.” They played a lot of stuff from the popular The earth is not a cold dead place, and even a couple from Those who tell the truth…, which were noticeably more “rocking” than the more recent material.
Not surprisingly at a sold-out show, a big part of the concert experience was the crowd. The club was pretty packed, and most of the crowd didn’t seem to know when the songs ended — the band mostly transitioned seamlessly between songs — and so people were basically applauding every time the group went from loud to soft. That was kind of annoying. More annoying were the testosterone-laden, probably intoxicated, assholes who kept yelling “YEAH!!!” halfway through every soft section. Did they know anything about the show they had come to? I wonder. Anyway, none of this surprised me, nor did it actually annoy me as much as I expected it to, but it was certainly interesting to see how “post-rock for the masses” played out in a live setting to a packed house. The crowd was very enthusiastic in general though, which was nice to see, calling boisterously for an encore that never came (also not surprising, since they didn’t play one at the Asheville show; maybe they just don’t ever do encores on principle for some reason?).
ChrisX’s comment on my previous post, urging me to invest in some earplugs because I seem to go to a lot of loud shows, is excellent and timely. Last night I saw Mogwai, a band renowned for their crushingly loud shows, at the 9:30 Club. I saw them a couple years ago at the same venue and they didn’t quite live up to that rep, but this time they were plenty loud. It was a more controlled loud than last Sunday’s show, though, which just suffered from idiotic mixing, but it still left my ears ringing. Today, however, I received a pair of Etymotic earplugs, just in time for tonight’s Mono/Pelican show which also promises to feature massive volume levels. I’ve had my eye on the Etymotics for some time — a few years ago I invested in a pair of their ER-6 isolating headphones, which are excellent, so I know they make a good product. Thanks Chris for giving me the little nudge I needed to finally go ahead and order those earplugs…
As for the Mogwai show, it was pretty good. The thing about this band’s recent output is that while it’s all very good, it’s also sort of anonymous. Most of their newer songs just aren’t as memorable as a lot of their older material — it’s still just as exciting and beautiful (and predictable), but it just doesn’t linger quite as long. So I couldn’t identify a lot of the songs the band played, which hurt my enjoyment a bit, but not much. The highlights were “Friend of the Night” — easily my favorite track from the new Mr. Beast — and the surprising selections of “Yes! I am a long way from home” from Young Team and “Christmas Steps” from Come On Die Young. The latter was an absolute killer and the high point of the show. Now, if only they would go back to playing “Mogwai Fear Satan” regularly at their shows…
I’ve struck a new low in concertgoing: I allowed myself to be chased off by opening acts. Tonight I went to see Mono, a Japanese post-rock band who has released one album on Tzadik and two on Temporary Residence. Opening for them were two bands; one I’d never heard of, and the other was Eluvium, label-mates with Mono on Temporary Residence. The first band (the one I didn’t know) was quite bad. I feel like post-rock is a genre with little margin for error: bad post-rock tends to be pretty atrociously dull. This band featured an incredibly boring drummer, a serious problem in this particular kind of music, and just seemed gratuitously and painfully loud. Granted, my impressions should be taken with a grain of salt because I could only make myself stay through two songs before I left the club to make a phone call and wait for Mono.
Well, that was my intent, anyway… when I went back in over an hour later, Eluvium had yet to start. I wasn’t too keen on hearing them (er, him — turns out this is a one-man band), but I figured I’d give it a shot. Well, I did, and I hated it. I’m not sure why. This guy plays a kind of drone music, using lots of delayed guitar loops and the occasional piano interlude, that I found alternately boring and grating, like Fripp’s Soundscapes gone horribly wrong (I couldn’t get Fripp’s phrase “a lot of noise from one guitar” out of my head). I suspect I would like his material much better on record than I did live, oddly enough — I just didn’t have the patience for it in a live setting, particularly since all the speakers in the club were overdriven, resulting not only in painfully high volume levels but also in fairly ridiculously obvious distortion. I kept looking back at the soundman and I swear the guy must have fallen asleep standing up. What the hell was he doing?
Anyways, by the time Eluvium had gotten through four ear-splitting pieces, none of which I could tell apart from one another (except for the fact that two were played on piano and two on guitar), I was in a bad enough mood that I stepped out of the club again just to save my ears and nurse a budding headache. At that point I contemplated my options; it’s a weeknight and the show had been delayed an hour and so Mono wouldn’t start until midnight or later, it seemed. At that point I decided to cut my losses and get the fuck out of there.
It’s too bad, really; under different circumstances I might like Eluvium, and I’m sure I would have really enjoyed Mono. I have their second album and there are some absolutely stunning moments on it. But after those two opening acts I just wasn’t in any kind of mood to enjoy music at all. I couldn’t bear the thought of going back into the club and getting pummeled by another noisy band (even one that I liked). I didn’t put my headphones on on the way back home, and I haven’t even put a CD into the player since getting back (which never happens). I’m sure it has more to do with my mental state than their music, but those two bands can be proud to have turned me completely off from music for the rest of the night. Not to mention make me spend eight bucks and then leave before seeing the band I’d come to see. Ha.
You win some, you lose some. Actually, I’ve had very few bad concert experiences up until now, so I can’t really complain.
So I went to see Slint last night. For those who don’t know, Slint is an almost unbelievably influential band whose two albums, Tweez and Spiderland, released in 1988 and 1991 respectively, are to post-rock and math-rock and such what In the Court of the Crimson King was to prog. I’ve only heard Spiderland and the self-titled EP the band released after a brief reformation in 1994; my thoughts on them are basically that while they clearly lay the groundwork for a vast array of bands — the sound of groups like Tortoise, Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, and even groups like Neurosis, would be completely different were it not for Slint, if they existed at all — the latter-day post-rock bands are better. Spiderland sounds like primitive post-rock, which, I suppose, is what it is, coming some 6-7 years before the major wave of post-rock bands first hit.
Anyway, the band decided to go on a reunion tour this spring, which seems strange given that they are not releasing a new album and are not planning on any more shows after this tour. Smells like a cash cow. But it’s a welcome one — as long as the shows are good, I don’t really care what the motivation is. And the show was good.
Given that there’s no new album coming and this is a one-shot deal, it’s not surprising that the band didn’t play any new material. But they did play for a solid 90 minutes, and played every song off of Spiderland and the EP, and some stuff, presumably from Tweez, that I didn’t recognize. Unfortunately they started the show with what I strongly believe is their best song, “Good Morning, Captain,” which was so damn good that everything that came after it was inevitably anticlimactic. In fact, a good deal of their material is actually a little boring: while Slint were perhaps one of originators of the “post-rock” style of repetitive, soft-loud-soft-loud cinematic rock music, and do those things quite well, what they don’t do quite as well is offer much sense of compositional movement. Their more mediocre pieces tend to be, well, repetitive soft-loud-soft-loud exercises that don’t go anywhere, don’t really change from beginning to end except for getting really loud and then really soft a couple times.
In this sense, bands like Mogwai have clearly built on Slint’s methods in a way that Slint themselves were never able to. But it’s hard to fault them for that — after all, Mogwai didn’t even exist until over a decade after Slint formed. And Slint’s material is strong enough that even 14 years after Spiderland, the best of it still sounds fresh. The better pieces from that album absolutely smoked in a live setting, in large part simply because the massive volume levels made all those dynamic shifts that much more dramatic. Most importantly, the band was incredibly tight (and the drummer in particular was sick!), playing through tricky rhythms and abrupt thematic hairpin turns with an ease that belied their 14-year hiatus.
As a show taken on its own merits, Slint’s was pretty good, but left a lot of people bored. The endless repetition and total lack of stage presence (between every song were a couple minutes of total silence in which the band pointedly ignored the crowd) seemed to turn off fans who were probably caught up in the hype of the band’s reformation but didn’t actually know what to expect from them. But as an occasion to revisit a historical body of work, a collection of songs that have influenced a jaw-dropping array of bands in the years hence, Slint’s show was a delight.