Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Live Review: Arcade Fire

May 20, 2007

Chicago Theater

Chicago, Il

Knowing that it may be some time before the 'Fire come to town again, the girlfriend and I decided to take a little post-finals vacation to the Windy City to see them at one of the nation's most beautiful theater's. One speeding ticket and several hours later, we arrived in the cold and rainy city only slightly bleary but excited throughout our bodies. Its no secret that the Arcade Fire are one of my favorites right now. Funeral still ranks as a recent classic, and Neon Bible is holding its own as one of the year's best as well. Then there's the matter of their live shows, which can be quite similar to a religious experience when the band is really giving it their all. Expectations were high, and anticipation was even higher. Your's truly could no longer stand not knowing how Neon Bible would translate from the living room speakers to the theater.

After nearly snoozing through the end of Electrelane's 45 minute set, which unfortunately came off even more like an amateurish Stereolab live than on record, and an even more uneventful intermission in which the house speakers pumped some really lame adult rock/folk artist, it seemed all too appropriate, and necessary, that the Arcade Fire took the stage and opened with "Wake Up".

It should be noted that the Chicago Theater has a great sound system, and marvelous acoustics to boot. At a previous Arcade Fire show, at the 2005 Austin City Limits Festival, I wondered if it were really necessary for 9 people to be on stage. Instruments and backup vocals were occasionally lost in the mix, not to mention the sea of fans singing, nay, screaming along with every word. The Chicago Theater, on the other hand, had no problem accommodating the band, which has now swelled a bit larger to 10 members, and their massive sound. The crowd was much tamer too, for better or worse. For my money, its not an Arcade Fire show if you can actually hear them singing, but then again it was a nice change of pace to actually hear Win's vocals, and I must say that, at times, his voice really has a presence, which is good considering Regine seems to have settled into more of a role in the backseat. Don't let my lame pun fool you though. Regine is rarely idle, her energy certainly keeps the car running, if you know what I mean, especially during "Antichrist Television Blues", where her musical contributions are slim but her stage presence is captivating.

It could be said that since Win has become the face of the band, Regine must be the backbone, but that statement, while not entirely inaccurate, fails to capture the importance of the rest of the band. Regine, Richard Reed Perry, Will Butler, Tim Kingsbury, Sarah Neufield, and four others whose names I have sadly not learned, are more like vertebrae, each providing a special function, or two, that is vital to the survival of the band as we know it. Neufield and her partner in violin crime (sorry for not knowing the woman's name) were especially clear, stressing the tension in Funeral songs like "Wake Up" and "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)", and bringing the Neon Bible to life.

But ultimately this tour comes down to one man only, Win Butler. Like it or not, he is the voice of the band, and with fewer call-and-response songs and less Regine it is up to Win to ultimately make or break each song. Fortunately, he did a fine job. Sure, he sounded a bit winded towards the end of "Antichrist", like he wasn't able to keep chugging along with the songs frantic pace, but he more than made up for it during songs like "Intervention", "Windowsill", and "My Body is a Cage", which was easily a highlight for this reviewer. Those three songs stood out because Win made them. If his voice falters, so do those songs.

There were other highlights too. Every song, if you want me to be dead serious, but nothing more so than "Wake Up", which in roughly 5 1/2 minutes reminded me how much I love this band. Though the crowd as a whole may have been mellower than in shows past, you could still feel the energy growing with each note played. When the song reached its end the crowd gave a composed but generous applause. It was an odd moment for this fan who is used to seeing crazed teens and college students flailing about like they're witness to the second coming of the Beatles, but it was fitting of the moment. A mature, yet euphoric applause, for a mature, yet euphoric band.

Keep Reading...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Live Review: Animal Collective

May 20, 2007

The Granada

Lawrence, KS

OR, Everything I Learned About Animal Collective I Learned in Kindergarten

Thinking about “Sweet Road” in a recent Crayola commercial, I thought the 5/20 Animal Collective show could best be discussed through observations straight from the coloring book.

Lesson No. 1: “Sometimes it’s OK to color inside the lines.”

A fellow Animal Collective fan said of a Here Comes the Indian-era show, “They didn’t really play songs.” Avey Tare has said that at that time the band was improvising more and more, yet they were concerned about relying on improv in a live setting. Perhaps that is why, all of the chaotic chanting aside, the band relies on a more structured set these days. This structure in many ways seems to have worked its way into the new material as well.

Fans of 2002’s Here Comes the Indian or 2003’s Sung Tongs will see the band building on the more traditional songs found in 2005’s spectacular Feels. Often the band worked to balance the frenetic chaos of its trademark sound (chanting, tribal drums, etc.) with more typical song structures. Perhaps one song early in the show epitomized this tightrope act: we are greeted by three-to-four minutes of a traditional song arc, followed by several minutes of feverish, foot-stomping chants. On one track about a “girl with the flower in her hair,” Tare sings the wistful opening verse over minimalist backdrops. As he segues into the next verse, a wall of sound crackles over the lyrics, obscuring them. Still the framework remains, a spider web quivering under all the noise.

Thankfully, both Avey Tare and Panda Bear can sing. And, as one discovers when the sound is stripped down, their lyrics ain’t half bad, either. Bringing vocals to the foreground (a transition started with Feels) could be an intriguing move for the band. Of course, who’s to say they won’t pile on the reverb or other noise in post-production? (For those who still haven’t heard the acoustic version of “Flesh Canoe,” check it out. Alas, if only Avey Tare and Kria Brekkan had made an album of songs like this one, as opposed to Pullhair Rubeye.)

An aside: I would be remiss to discuss the show without commenting on the new material, as this new material constituted 90% of the concert. That said, this is Animal Collective we’re talking about. What I heard in concert may sound nothing like what makes it onto Strawberry Jam. Maybe the basic songs will stay the same, but they’ll layer more sounds/beats. Maybe they’ll sing the lyrics in a made-up language, a la Sigur Rós. Maybe they’ll play the album backwards.

Lesson No. 2: “Even if you don’t have a 164-pack with built-in sharpener, you can still create a masterpiece,” OR, “Even if your crayons aren’t sharpened, you can still make do.”

I expected a troupe the likes of Broken Social Scene to drag onstage, carrying any number of bongos and banjos and clothed in tribal garb. Instead, out walked Panda Bear in his Adidas shirt; Avey Tare in his sideways cap. At least the Geologist was wearing a light strapped to his head, which I’d like to think is more about achieving that whole “miner look” than for any practical purpose like, say, seeing the controls. Thankfully the crowd answered the Collective's calling. The girl with the paper mache Panda Bear head certainly proved her loyalty, not to mention the group at the front dressed as various animals and err, Lady Liberty?

But hey, these guys aren’t here for a costume party (no offense, Flaming Lips). They’re here to make some amazing music. And they don’t need anything but a drum and a keyboard and some electronic doohickies to do it.

Lesson No. 3: “You can always borrow someone else’s crayons if they have colors you don’t.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the incorporation of electro/dance beats into the mix. That’s right: think Animal Collective Dance Party. During this part of the show many fans were scratching their heads, looking at one another in disbelief, and then promptly dancing like ecstasy-riddled fiends. During one song the Collective toyed with rhythm: the beat would draw you in and then fracture, leaving you thumping along to an unpredictable, yet infectious rhythm. Hey, many of us aren't the greatest dancers – now we have an excuse.

Minutes later I thought I’d wandered into an Islands show, as the band transitioned into a calypso-infused tune. I saw much hands-in-pockets, head bobbing, shuffling in place action that climaxed with a tribal dance song that I have a feeling will be my next “Purple Bottle.” All I can say is that the guy wearing the 80s sweatband probably never thought the accessory would be put to such good use.

Lesson No. 4: “Don’t act like you like my picture and then toss it aside.”

This final lesson may have little, or nothing, to do with Animal Collective. Still, it needs to be said. Whether it’s the band or the lights guy or the venue manager or whomever, the Granada has to stop blue balling its audiences when it comes to encores (read: Joanna Newsom’s 12/10/06 show). I completely respect an artist’s choice not to play an encore. I paid my $12 and got way more than my money’s worth. That said, I do not understand how someone could allow a crowd to cheer in the dark for ten minutes or more, only to turn the lights on after we’ve screamed ourselves hoarse? I admit that little part inside me wanted to believe that after the room cleared a bit, the Collective would return and say, “Now that it’s just us and all you REAL fans…” They didn’t, and that’s OK – but come on guys, do you have to be such teases?

Keep Reading...

Friday, May 11, 2007

Which Came First, the Music or the Misery?

Driving home from work yesterday, I had to turn off Joanna Newsom’s phenomenal album Ys. I had once thought the thirty-minute commute a perfect opportunity to delve into the album. Perhaps this time I delved a little too deep. At one point in “Sawdust and Diamonds” – I believe it was the line “And though our bodies recoil from the grip of the soil, why the long face?” – I started to choke up a bit.

This got me thinking: how can some albums take on such monumental, life changing status that they become torturous? Distressing? Unbearable?

Case in point: Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The album encapsulates our journey from birth to death beautifully and harrowingly. In the opener, “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1,” the protagonist reflects on his father’s suicide attempts. Or more accurately, his father’s inability to realize those attempts: “Each one [was] a little more than he would dare to try.” We traverse the album’s often bumpy, unforgiving terrain, and see how one could be driven to such a dark place. We see bliss and sorrow intermingle in the titular track, when Jeff Mangum reminds us that one day we will all die. In the meantime, he implores the listener, “Let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see.” We see the haunting vision of “Holland 1945,” perhaps the band's finest example of combining boisterous music with melancholy subject matter. As in life, Mangum wants us to feel the joys and horrors and everything in between.

Few albums can bring me to tears – you haven’t claimed me yet, Ys – but Aeroplane is an album I cannot listen to now without feeling, well, pretty bummed out. Perhaps I’ve brought this on myself. Once, in a drunken stupor, I told my husband that I wanted the album played at my funeral. (Hey, he understands getting worked up about the album. I can distinctly recall him being heavily intoxicated at sunrise and screaming the lyrics to “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2-3” whilst throwing full beer cans at our apartment building. The phrase “I love you, Jesus Christ” never sounded so compelling.)

Many of us turn to music when we’re down, whether it’s to seek comfort or wallow in the mire. So it’s no surprise that when we are in a good mood, we would want to avoid somber tunes, no matter how amazing those tunes might be. Thus I gravitate to Takk over Agaetis Byrjun or even Neon Bible over Funeral. When I need my Neutral Milk Hotel fix, On Avery Island is a much more upbeat alternative, that is until we get to that bit about “carving holiday designs” in one’s flesh.

In some cases my album avoidance stems from my wanting to keep that album sacred, special. Like, “We’ll only listen to Aeroplane on the night of our first child’s birth,” or something like that. Maybe it’s not wanting to ever completely “crack” an album – or at least not wanting to wear it out entirely. Thankfully these complex, often mysterious albums can stand up to repeat listenings. This is particularly true of Ys, an album so dense there’s likely far more to cry over than I’ve unearthed to date. For now I’ll keep pondering the question Rob Gordon poses in High Fidelity: “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

Keep Reading...

Monday, May 7, 2007

School's Almost Out

That's right, only one more week left until I can start barraging you daily with useless crap all over again. Excited? Didn't think so. Well, I'll do my best to get your interest back, I promise. Until then, here's what Nicole and I have been listening to all semester long. When our schedules get back to normal, be on the lookout for some more album reviews (that Blonde Redhead has been hogging the Album of the Week to itself for quite some time), concert reviews (Arcade Fire in Chi-town), and perhaps an on the road blog while yours truly is in Minneapolis for a few days.
And dear readers, if you have any finals, good luck.

Until next time. Enjoy!

Nicole seyz:

Best Spring Music Mixtape
(Burn it for your friends, gain instant popularity)

"Sleeping Lessons" - The Shins
"Cato as a Pun" - Of Montreal
"Cast Off Crown" - Deerhoof
"Time to Get Away" - LCD Soundsystem
"The Well and the Lighthouse" - Arcade Fire
"And She Would Darken the Memory" - The Twilight Sad
"Spring and Summer By Fall" - Blonde Redhead
"A Paw in My Face" - The Field
"Take Pills" - Panda Bear

Top Five Songs to Listen to on Umpteenth Day of Depressing Spring Rainstorms
(Bottle of Captain optional)

Of Montreal - "The Past is a Grotesque Animal" ("Let's tear this fucking house apart.")
Blonde Redhead - "The Dress" ("I love you less, now that I know you.")
Peter Bjorn & John - "The Chills" ("Your tongue is sharp, but I miss the taste of it.")
The Shins - "Split Needles" ("This is what you get for pulling pins. Another hole inside the hole you're in.")
LCD Soundsystem - "All My Friends" ("Well if you're worried about the weather, then you picked the wrong place to stay." That keyboard conjures images of rain, doesn't it? )

Most Anticipated Summer 2007 Releases
(We'll see which ones make the cut come next progress report)

Clientele - God Save the Clientele (5/8)
Interpol - Our Love to Admire (7/10)
Architecture in Helsinki - Places Like This (8/7)
New Pornographers - Challengers (8/?)
Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog (Single due 7/10, Album 9/?)

SonicRyan Sez:

A Trio of Favorite Albums:

Peter Bjorn & John - Writer's Block
The Twilight Sad - Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters
The Arcade Fire - Neon Bible

10 Songs:

Of Montreal - "Grondlandic Edit"
Arcade Fire - "Ocean of Noise"
Blonde Redhead - "Top Ranking"
Peter Bjorn & John - "Up Against the Wall"
Explosions in the Sky - "Catastrophe and the Cure (Four Tet Remix)"
Deerhunter - "Lake Somerset"
The Besnard Lakes - "Because Tonight"
LCD Soundsystem - "New York, I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down"
The Shins - "Phantomb Limb"
The Twilight Sad - "And She Would Darken the Memory"

Biggest Surprises Thus Far:

Hearing "Black Mirror" on the radio.
Deerhunter - Cryptograms

Getting A Little Tired Of:

Lily Allen - (Thankfully I'm not alone. Even she admitted to being tired of her songs.)
Amy Winehouse - (Why is she so popular? Is it because she looks like a goth-punk chick but happens to front a soul band? I don't care if the Dap Kings are her backing band. Why not just listen to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings then?)
Waiting For a New Radiohead Album: (Though it should be noted that the last time they made us wait four years...wait a tic, they've never made us wait four years before. This one better be good, guys.)
Summer Festivals - Yes, I'm going to one, and really want to go to another, but what ever happened to playing clubs and theaters? I know, these festivals are usually a lot of fun, and who doesn't like getting heat stroke while spending a weekend on various drug cocktails? I guess I'm just old fashioned and pine for the days when rockin' out all sweaty like to bands in un-air conditioned venues was the norm.

Summer Summer Summer Time (Albums I'm Looking Forward To, That Is):

Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
See Nicole's List

Keep Reading...