Live: Hardly Pop; Mercury Lounge, 10.24.09 [CMJ 2009]

Eight bands, representing selections from the lineups of Hardly Art and Sub Pop. And thus, short takes on each.

Unnatural Helpers: Like Idle Times, with whom they share members, it’s solid, unpretentious garage rock. Dean Whitmore’s vocals sound like a more ragged Craig Finn circa-Lifter Puller, which is a plus; the sole downside was their 7 PM timeslot. I suspect that this band is best appreciated closer to the midnight hour, with whiskey or beers aplenty chalked up and a mood of revelry in the air.

Dum Dum Girls: From what I understand, singer/guitarist Dee Dee is the sole permanent member of this group. And seeing them twice in one day made me curious as to what sort of project this was: a band with a consistent sound and a revolving lineup, or something more nebulous, like Destroyer or Pink Mountaintops, where the songwriter remains the same but the style shifts dramatically depending on who else is in the band. Also worth mentioning is that this particular rhythm section — anchored by drummer Frankie Rose — is spot-on, bringing a Joy Division-like sense of space together with the girl-group melodies coming from the guitars. It’s a much deeper sound than one might initially think, and I’m curious to see what the next step made by this lineup, or this group, or both, happens to be.

Moondoggies: Solid set. “Night & Day” makes for a fine closer.

The Dutchess & The Duke: Here’s the strange thing. The stage banter was wonderfully profane. Jesse Lortz and Kimberly Morrison seemed engaged in a weird game of one-upsmanship through the night, sometimes bleeding into their songs — and yet the songs didn’t sting any less for the fact that their irreverent beginnings left large chunks of the crowd (myself included) laughing. (Example: Morrison naming each chord as she played it, a wicked grin on her face, as Lortz fumed.)

Golden Triangle: Beach-party madness in a rock club in autumn. The most fun live set I’ve seen this side of Les Savy Fav, I’d say.

Pissed Jeans: Yep, dropped the ball in a big way by missing this band since seeing them around the time of Hope For Men. Mr. Weingarten is spot-on, I’d say. In lieu of more pontification, I’ll direct you to Diana Wong’s photos of the set in question.

Obits: A slow-burning set, opened with their cover of “Military Madness.” Fine stuff.

Male Bonding: It’s probably lazy to quote myself, but: “Male Bonding sound like the offspring of aught-six’s Part Chimp/Oxford Collapse tour. Hence: rad.

Live: Headlights, The Dutchess & The Duke, Dum Dum Girls; Music Hall of Williamsburg, 10.24.09 [CMJ 2009]

Arrived at the Music Hall of Williamsburg a few songs into Headlights‘ set. Last year’s Some Racing, Some Stopping ended up earning an unexpected amount of listening time — it’s a solid, enjoyable pop record, at times reminiscent of Saturday Looks Good To Me, but with less of SLGTM’s overt nostalgia and evocations of fading memory. I haven’t spent as much time with their new album Wildlife yet, from which the bulk of the songs I heard were taken. A wave of organ-emulating keyboard rose over everything, and the evolution of their sound appears to be heading in a denser direction, though still clearly, you know, indie-pop.

This was my first time seeing The Dutchess & The Duke since last year’s CMJ, and it again found them in trio mode. The set was solid — though something about the tone of Jesse Lortz’s guitar seemed a little off — and they did a fine job of evoking the scope of their new Sunset/Sunrise even in a more minimal configuration. (And here’s where I shamelessly link to an interview I conducted with Lortz earlier in the month.)

My first impression of the very buzzed-about Dum Dum Girls hearked back to my impression of Girls At Dawn two nights earlier: that the world of indie-rock seems suddenly abounding with “Girl” bands owing a sonic debt to assorted bands featuring Amy Linton (i.e. Henry’s Dress, The Aislers Set). Abundant reverb, unabashedly retro melodies, and a punk-rooted energy. Admittedly, this is a style I like, so I’m not really complaining. There’s also the matter of their onstage look, which is either the apex of a particular style or a critique of it. It would take until my second time seeing the band for my take on their music to shift — and while I’m tempted to say something like “tune in tomorrow for the senses-shattering conclusion.” Except: no.

Live: Califone; 92Y Tribeca, 10.23.09 [CMJ 2009?]

I’m pretty sure I saw Califone opening for Wilco years ago and was unimpressed. I’m going to chalk that up to an off night on either their part or mine; ever since I heard one of their more recent albums — pretty sure it was Heron King Blues — I’ve been returning to their music again and again. (Hat tip to Todd Dills on that one.) The reissue of Califone precursor Red Red Meat’s excellent Bunny Gets Paid hasn’t hurt, either.

The first (and longest) portion of this set involved Califone providing the soundtrack for a Tim Rutili-directed film titled All My Friends Are Funeral Singers — also, you may note, the title of Califone’s new album Some of the songs from the album appear in the film, while others seem to be meditations on it. The film itself is about a psychic living in a house filled with ghosts — the ghosts are the “funeral singers” of the title, and among their number are a band that looks suspiciously like Califone. (There’s also, memorably and hilariously, a priest with distinctly unorthodox views on the afterlife.) The film itself is well-acted, and smartly works around having to use special effects for its supernatural interventions — though the minimal plot at times felt too familiar.

There was a break after the screen was taken away, and the band returned to play a second set that encompassed material old and new. Witty banter was delivered from the stage, and Tim Rutili’s voice was heartbreakingly raw. And I remained perplexed as to why I didn’t embrace this band in 2002.

Live: Girls At Dawn, Idle Times, Smith Westerns; Don Pedro’s, 10.22.09

The latter part of last Thursday night was spent at Don Pedro’s, taking in an Impose-curated night of noisy rock music. Girls at Dawn took the stage shortly after I arrived, and it took me longer than expected to realize that they were not the three-piece that I took them for; there was, in fact, a fourth member doing some sort of electronics work, and he was dressed as a ninja. This was, admittedly, not a bad thing. Musically, theirs is a sound that applies reverb to a girl-group influence; while not the best band I saw during the festival to owe a debt to Henry’s Dress, they had a good sound going, and I’d gladly see them again.

Seattle’s Idle Times impressed me in part due to their onstage presence: a normal-looking bunch of guys playing straightforward garage-punk. Much like Unnatural Helpers, who I’d see later in the festival (and who share members with Idle Times), there’s something hard to argue with about heartfelt garage rock played with intensity, and that’s what this group brought. (They also do a mean cover.) There was a similar quality afoot in the late-night set from Smith Westerns, if memory serves.

Live: The Press, Diehard; The Charleston, 10.22.09 [CMJ 2009]

The Press came highly recommended via friends of mine, with suggestions that their sound was a more accessible, rock-oriented take on the improvisational/ambient-fueled pop currently beloved in many circles of this city. I’m not sure I agree — the sound I heard recalled, in places, recent Modest Mouse and The Walkmen, albeit with a distinctly Southern-rock solidity. (They are from Atlanta, after all.)

Diehard are friends, so I can’t be all that impartial about their sound. That said, it’s a sound that heavily recalls early-to-mid-90s alt-rock, and thus triggers fits of nostalgia in me for a time when I drove around central New Jersey in a 1985 Chrysler Laser. It’s catchy stuff (a week later, a few of their songs are still in my head), and I’m tempted to revisit the Madder Rose discography to see if the nascent comparison my mind is trying to make is, in fact, accurate.

Brief, Live: “The Long Count;” Brooklyn Academy of Music, 10.28.09

So: I saw Bryce Dessner, Aaron Dessner, and Matthew Ritchie’s The Long Count at BAM earlier tonight. While I’m still getting my head around the piece itself, I had a couple of stray thoughts on the piece.

1. Primarily: the piece is excellent. Dynamic enough for those in the audience who know the Dessners through their work in The National; complex enough so that it didn’t seem out of place in an opera house.

2. I’ve heard music made by the Deal sisters for over fifteen years now, and I had no idea that their vocal range is what it is. For the first part of The Long Count, their vocals are somewhat distorted; in its second half, their vocal appearances hit with a depth and clarity I wouldn’t have imagined.

3. Shara Worden’s vocals mesh with the Dessners’ music scarily well. The Dark Was the Night compilation proved that the Dessners can write well for multiple vocalists, but her approach meshed with their music especially well; it’s a collaboration that I hope extends beyond this piece.

4. I’m pretty sure Antony Hegarty was two people in front of me on line to get in. Dude is tall.

Also worth reading: interviews pertaining to the piece in Pitchfork, Flavorwire, and Brooklyn Vegan. One hopes that an album version will see the light of day before long — this is music I’d welcome the ability to revisit.

Live: The Seedy Seeds; Trash Bar, 10.21.09 [CMJ 2009]

Friends who had heard The Seedy Seeds previously told me after their set at Trash Bar had wrapped up that the space’s sound system had done them no favors, that certain elements of their sound had been lost in the mix. For my part, I still liked what I heard, even knowing that certain instruments weren’t as distinct as they could have been. They’re a three-piece: banjo, drums, and one member switching between electric guitar and accordion. Two-thirds of the band sing, and their music is deeply catchy, energetic pop — somewhere between the Anniversary’s Designing a Nervous Breakdown and circa-’99 Darla Records. It also doesn’t hurt that they have one of the most memorable t-shirt designs in recent memory. And the light-up drum kit was pretty endearing.

Live: Broadcast, Atlas Sound; Le Poisson Rouge, 10.20.09 [CMJ 2009]

Despite a fondness for the bands in which Bradford Cox plays, I’ve listened to both Deerhunter and Atlas Sound far more in their recorded versions than in the live setting. Tuesday’s show at Le Poisson Rouge was my first time seeing the latter, and while I found myself nodding my head to the most direct of the group’s songs, other parts of the set drifted more — something that’s not inherently problematic, but which caused the pieces to feel somewhat lost in the cavernous space in which they were played. (Though given the pillars in LPR’s performance space, I suspect that my take on the show was more informed by the acoustics of the space than the actual music being played.)

I know Broadcast primarily through their first two albums, The Noise Made By People and Work and Non-Work. I knew both to be pop: fractured pop at times, but still…pop. So I wasn’t expecting the set that they had in store, which began with a harsh combination of distorted sounds and a barrage of visuals. The effect was far closer to dälek, or My Bloody Valentine’s “You Made Me Realize.” Disarming? Yes. Though when the group shifted gears into a more pop direction, the effect of relief hit on a physical level.

Brief, Live: Shellshag, Screaming Females; Mercury Lounge, 09.01.09

Shellshag. Noisy, covers-friendly duo. Epic drum fills, and an epic drum tower to close out their set. Also in the set in question: a pretty solid version of Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run,” and a reminder that I really need to delve into the back catalog of This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb one of these days.

Screaming Females. The rhythm section starts out by making you recall the Minutemen, and, hey, there’s some precedent for that in terms of New Brunswick trios. (I’m thinking of Stormshadow, who wrote the best Orson Welles-as-punk-metaphor song ever.) And then Marissa Paternoster’s guitar and vocals kick in, and….damn. Paternoster’s voice can go from a soulful croon to a scream that recalls Rick Froberg circa Yank Crime. And while a lot of the press I’ve seen for the band has discussed her guitarwork, it’s worth mentioning that, at their root, they’re a punk band — guitar heroics are on display, but never in a way that threatens to derail the song. I keep thinking of the Zero Boys reissues that Secretly Canadian did a while ago, and how Screaming Females sound like they could be this lost contemporary of any number of SST Records bands — except that there’s something deeply, compellingly, immediate about their sound.

Live: Dean + Britta, Crystal Stilts; Prospect Park Bandshell, 08.01.09

I think I’m coming around on Crystal Stilts. An abundance of people whose opinions I trust have had good things to say about them in the past, and I’m finding my indifference towards them moving distinctly towards the “like” column. Seeing them live had a dual effect on me: on the plus side, I found myself noticing the presence of more subtle notes in their deadpan pop songs, which in turn made me more appreciative of the music that they were playing, and has prompted me to delve back into Alight of Night and their self-titled 12″. On the minus side — and admittedly, this is a live-show-only qualm — the group’s stage presence can be frustrating. Admittedly, the Prospect Park Bandshell is a space for which the word “cavernous” is an understatement, but nonetheless: with the exception of bassist Kyle Forrester and (possibly) drummer Frankie Rose, the band did a good job of hiding any visible intensity, while nonetheless playing in a way that didn’t sound at all halfhearted. Admittedly, it’s a difficult trick to pull off, but at the same time: it’s hard for me to feel compelled by what I hear coming from the stage if the band doesn’t look particularly concerned about it.

Headliners Dean & Britta were, admittedly, not exactly channeling the early-80s Replacements on stage, but even playing with minimal lighting beneath Andy Warhol’s screen tests, they never ceased to draw attention. The onstage rapport between Britta Philips and Dean Wareham, the drumming of Anthony LaMarca, and Wareham’s tendency to go for the unexpected in his solos all contributed to the group’s ability to be compelling on stage. The set, including covers of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed songs (Reed’s screen test needed no introduction, and got a fair amount of applause from the crowd), never lacked for dynamic range, and the encore of Galaxie 500‘s “Fourth of July” felt spot-on.

Live: Thee Oh Sees, Golden Triangle, The Beets, German Measles; Glasslands, 07.02.09

Was Glasslands humid for this Thursday night show? Yes; yes, it was. I spent much of the show flashing back to younger days spent in basements and VFW halls under similar sweltering conditions, and occasionally wondering whether my beard had made things much, much worse.

German Measles were on first. I recognized a couple of the guys from Cause Co-Motion! in the band, and while there was a similar limitless energy present, German Measles took that more into the realm of punk-with-lunatic-frontman; stylistic touchstones would include the Nightingales and (this probably goes without saying) The Fall. It made for an enjoyable set, though some of the riffs played between songs suggest that these guys have a melodic side that’s merits exploration.

I’ve been hearing good things about The Beets for a while now, and their set didn’t disappoint — it made for the highlight of the night. Three guys in the archetypal guitar-bass-drums configuration, the guitar in question resembling Glen Hansard’s well-worn instrument from Once, and blown-out harmony vocals on virtually every song. Catchy, energetic noisy pop (as opposed to noise-pop); they’re playing the last Oxford Collapse show later on in the month along with the previously mentioned Cause Co-Motion!, and that’s a pretty good indication of where their sound fits in. The trio played behind a banner featuring illustrations of masked figures and someone getting shot in the face; it proudly declared that they hailed from Jackson Heights. Something tells me that this is a band who laughs maniacally in the face of the “Billy Burg, Meet Jack Heights” ads that abounded in northern Brooklyn a year and change ago.

Golden Triangle were on third: three dudes, one with a mustache that was either amazing or totally fake, and three ladies. And while the intensity that they brought to their set was comparable to the two bands that preceded them, their set seemed equally suited to a loft party as it was to the DIY space in question. (This is, I realize, not a huge distinction, but I nonetheless feel the need to make it.) The band seemed comfortable in their use of multiple vocalists, exploring a fair share of dynamics over the course of their set while never losing energy or allowing the pace to slow.

I’m a relative latecomer to the John Dwyer camp: I’d heard some of his work prior to Thee Oh SeesHelp, but it had never resonated much with me. I picked up Help on the basis of Christopher Weingarten’s review, and it’s been running through my home stereo ever since. “Garage rock” would be the most basic description of Thee Oh Sees’ sound, but it’s garage wrapped in feedback and folding in some esoteric elements. (It’s not unlike how, say, Black Mountain borrow from both classic rock and from the Krautrock artists who were making music at roughly the same time.) Live, it was cathartic and relentless and catchy as hell. Yes indeed.

Live: Lightning Dust, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy; Santos Party House, 05.20.09

-The Part About Lightning Dust-
Something about space and silence. Back in my zine-editor days, I remember interviewing Ted Leo, whose live setup at the time involved an electric guitar and very little else. We got to talking about Billy Bragg’s Back to Basics, and how that album — that sound, really — was defined in part by the aggressively lonely sound of an unaccompanied electrified six-string. It’s a powerful and memorable sound, one that’s as much about the notes and voice as it is about the overwhelming silence surrounding them. Alternately: it’s negative space as an aesthetic choice. It makes for an odd kind of genre, but a list of artists incorporating this element into their music would also include virtually everything Alison Statton has done, particularly Young Marble Giants and the first Weekend recordings; Antony and the Johnsons’ The Crying Light; and Lightning Dust.

Many of the songs on Lightning Dust’s debut, recorded by the duo of Amber Webber and Josh Wells, place Webber’s vocals at the center of deliberately minimal arrangements, sometimes just keyboard and drums. It’s effective, and it makes for haunting pop music; when the group increases the tempo, as on “Wind Me Up,” it’s a dramatic shift. The live version of the group on this tour expanded the lineup, with between four and five musicians onstage for their set; indications seem to be that the second Lightning Dust album, Infinite Light, will feature a fuller sound as well. That said, the core of their sound was definitely present, and given Webber’s distinctive voice, it would be difficult for it not to be. (Much of what I wrote towards the end of the first paragraph could also apply to the Black Mountain songs on which Webber handles lead vocals — “Heart of Snow” especially comes to mind.)

The other class I’d tend to group Lightning Dust in is a relatively arbitrary one. This month, many of the sets that have stood out to me didn’t necessarily do so by way of virtuosic playing, but rather via a striking, idiosyncratic take on pop: Ringfinger, earlier in the month; also, Angel Deradoorian’s group Deradoorian. Given the repeated blurring of stylistic lines between pop icons and more underground-oriented artists, it’s a fine thing to still hear music that’s both undeniably pop and undeniably hailing from the outsider camp.

-The Part About Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy-
Continuing in the theme of seeing musicians whose work I’ve long admired but whose live set I’ve never taken in: Will Oldham, here playing as part of a five- and six-piece group whose sound veered from style to style, from garage traditionals to Rolling Thunder Revue-era Dylan to something not unlike mid-70s Van Morrison in its compounding of soul and country, tautly played. What struck me the most about seeing Oldham sing was his vocal control: he would lean into the microphone, sometimes from the side, and sing out some pained sentiment with precision. The vocal tradeoffs with Cheyenne Mize, who also handled fiddle duties for the night, were arguably the high point of the night, and it didn’t hurt that much of the set list came from The Letting Go, probably my favorite work in Oldham’s impressive discography.

A high point implies its opposite, however, and as much as the set’s best moments moved me, there were also a few points in which the trio of voice, upright bass, and drums ventured too deeply into restraint. Alternately: I distinctly remember wondering, “Wait — does this mean the next Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album is going to bear a significant Quiet Storm influence?” more than once over the course of the set. That said, “Cursed Sleep” pushed and pulled and wrenched in all the right ways, and the band left the stage pre-encore following a hushed, moving take on “I Called You Back.” Listening to it delivered plaintively by Oldham and echoed by Mize, it seemed reborn as a beautiful ode to both fidelity and resignation. And the way that its actual meaning subverts the seeming triviality of its title into something both miraculous and mundane is both bittersweet sting and revelation on each listen.

Brief, Live: Pow Wow!; Permanent Records, 05.15.09

So: buoyed by some fine press and an interest in good pop music, I headed to Permanent Records last Friday to take in an in-store from Pow Wow!, whose New-Jersey-to-Brooklyn transition was one to which I could relate. I entered a song or two into their set, and immediately liked what I heard: organ- and bass-driven pop songs, energetically played. My initial thought was “the K Records version of Get Happy!!“; thinking back on it later, I’d tend to agree with the second part of that, but would shift my indie-oriented point of reference to something closer to Chisel’s Set You Free. Either way, I liked what I heard; not revolutionary, but well-played pop songs and a sound that could evolve in a number of interesting directions.

Brief, Live: Iron & Wine; Abrons Arts Center, 05.17.09

Iron & Wine fall into the category of artists whose music I’ve enjoyed for years but who I’ve never seen live. I had a ticket for one show at the Knitting Factory circa Our Endless Numbered Days, but ended up having to pass due to a prior commitment, and the progressively larger venues they’ve played have seemed at odds (to me, at least) with the intimate qualities I like the most about Sam Beam’s songwriting. (Still kicking myself for missing the Calexico tour, though.) This tour, which found Sam Beam playing the relatively intimate Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, made for an odd starting point: the set list abounded with rarities, and Beam would occasionally pause mid-song if a line or chord hadn’t gone as planned. The overall effect, though, was charming, and I was reminded of exactly why I’d been drawn to Beam’s music from the beginning. And given just how forceful his vocal delivery was on many of the songs, it looks like my “well, maybe I won’t get tickets for the show at the Bowery Ballroom/Webster Hall/etc” mindset was, in fact, completely wrong. Highlights included “The Trapeze Swinger” and “Sodom, South Georgia,” both of which were searingly played and sung.

Also: Matthew Perpetua makes a fine point here about not always picking up on Beam’s lyrics on an initial listen.

Brief, Live: Cinemasophia, Jean on Jean, Ringfinger; Maxwells, 05.06.09

Cinemasophia: Quasi harmonies bolstered by a massive sound: shoegaze density with some postpunk precision thrown in. Also: some “this is our first time in New Jersey” banter, which was pretty charming.

Jean on Jean: Solid indiepop, performed solo; that I can’t think of much to say here shouldn’t suggest that I didn’t like the set.

Ringfinger: Also in the solo performance camp: Tracy Wilson singing to prerecorded music in a stylized replica of her living room and, in a moment that recalled the times I’d seen her previous bands, climbing atop a chair to deliver her vocals. Striking and pop music; sometimes beautiful, sometimes wrenching, sometimes both. Wilson commented at the show that it had been thirteen years since Dahlia Seed last played there, and it had been nearly a decade since I’d last seen any band of Wilson’s play; it’s a fine thing to see her back on stage.