Posts Tagged ‘Folk’

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Grouper – Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill

October 17, 2008

What a pleasant surprise that two of 2008s best releases are somewhat stylistically similar. Both Gregor Samsa’s Rest and Grouper’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill are introspective melancholy masterworks that deserve great praise and attention, but the latter might be both more difficult and rewarding.

Grouper is actually the work of a single individual, Portland Oregon’s folk/noise aficionado Liz Harris. There is very little information available on the artist. But this album will surely spark interest and cause a greater population of listeners to continue searching, in vain, for more information. But until the inevitable day when she hits it big, pretty much all that listeners will have to go on is her distinctive style which she articulates quite extensively on her studio albums, the latest of which is Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill.

As far as style goes on prior releases, Grouper’s genre is hard to pin down, perhaps most appropriately described as creepy atmospheric music, but on Dead Deer, Harris’s style is reduced to a singular approach. Almost every song consists solely of Harris on guitar and vocals, but the trick is that both of these instruments are multiplied. A very thick layer of distortion covers both like a blanket, causing them to resonate out into the atmosphere, and the vocals are occasionally doubled for harmonic effect, although their lyrical content is almost completely indecipherable.

This is probably the album’s most frustrating quality; the vast majority of Liz Harris’s vocals here are impossible to understand, too muddled under the thick distortion to decipher. What little is understandable is not passively heard. One has to concentrate on the vocals of the songs to realize their content, which mostly involves sleep, water, and dissociation from reality. However, the effect the distortion has on the lyrics is outweighed by what the production does for the music, which in turn matches these lyrical preoccupations quite well. From the opening chords of Disengaged, the production ruminates of stormy waters, the sparse melodies threaten to lull the listener into a deep sleep, and lonely, sad, and yearning chord progressions carry along.

All of these qualities, especially strung out over an entire release with little stylistic diversion, would presumably come together to make a very cold, unwelcoming album, but in fact the opposite is true. The production actually does the album’s atmosphere good, causing chords to echo out into the darkness like a flickering candle. In theory this should be a very creepy sounding album, but it is instead both startlingly melancholic and warmly emotional.

Perhaps what makes it so affecting are its subtle intricacies. Songs often times match their titles, namely the aforementioned excellent opener Disengaged, but even more recognizably the longest piece on the album, Stuck, whose progression is in constant conflict with itself and cannot seem to move on. Also very atmospherically distinctive and appropriately named are the barren Wind And Snow, and the following Tidal Wave, the album’s two most important songs, and opposite sides of the same coin.

These more texture based pieces work in good conjunction with the album’s more memorable melodies, namely the easy pick for best song Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping, the faster paced Fishing Bird, and the fractured title track. But the highlights don’t stop there. At first glance Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill seems like an awfully samesy album, but upon repeated listens the subtle differences between tracks flesh themselves out and each song becomes its own entity. Perhaps the most startling piece on the album is the quiet Invisible. Harris lightly sings, once again barely interpretable, “Invisible/I’ve become invisible” over her most simplistic, almost childlike melody on the album.

It is here that we realize that Dragging A Dead Deer up a hill is an album filled with secrets that will most likely never be fully understood. Even the title and art seem to be extremely important to the overall product, and yet there is no evidence as to what they mean. It is hard to say whether this was intended to simply be a collection of songs or a sort of narrative either literally or symbolically based off of the album’s creepy title, but in any case Dead Deer has an eerie, unexplainable cohesion. In this way the album’s form matches the style of its songs. It is easy to feel the presence of what is there behind the music when considering all of its subtle intricacies and almost tantalizing questions that are constantly asked but never quite answered, and for this reason, the music itself is that much easier to cling onto and appreciate. Because of all of these elements, Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill proves to be one of the most complex and rewarding albums of the year.

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Shugo Tokumaru – Exit

September 30, 2008

Prepare to have your definitions of Japanese pop turned inside out. If your perception of the genre has previously been restricted to products of MTV Asia, sub par anime, and j-pop pretty boys/girls, then prepare to get knocked off your barstool. Jack of all trades Shugo Tokumaru’s third solo album is the record that he has been destined to make since 2004’s mini pop masterpiece Night Piece. But both Night Piece’s nocturnal atmospherics and the following year’s psychedelic excursions of L.S.T. were highly themed, and it would only seem like a matter of time before Tokumaru would make an album like Exit, a full on pop album. Immediately significant is the first song, the first by Shugo that could constitute as a pop hit. It is here that all of his finest talents convene for one hell of a single. He has a great sense of the melodic hook, and his advertised multi-instrumental talent still ends up being the focal point of both Parachute and the better portion of the rest of the album. Silly melodic flourishes and gentle harmonies dress each piece, and the album is said to use over fifty of the one hundred instruments that Tokumaru claims to be able to play. This is only one of the many features of Tokumaru’s albums that have caused critics to label him a pop innovator. He is certainly this, but more in the traditional sense. The time signature switchups and chord progressions that the musician utilizes are definitely out of the ordinary, at least for traditional pop, but nothing here feels out of place, and every song is a whimsical, poppy gem splashed with childlike innocence and Eastern style. Also notable are his vocals, light, easily maneuverable, and completely appropriate for his music, and although his lyrics wont be understood by non-Japanese speakers, his emotion transcends language barriers. Highlights are not few. The first three songs, Parachute, Green Rain (continuing his tradition of songs named after various forms of precipitation) and Clocca are extremely memorable and easy picks for singles. The musician also finds room for straightforward guitar pop throughout, making the acoustic guitar his main instrument of choice as gently exemplified on Sanganichi. Also highly memorable are the last three songs. Hidamari is a gentle lullaby spectacularly detailed with lush instrumentation that manages to not be overbearing in any way. La La Radio is possibly the most ambitious song on the album. It transitions from melancholic to fast in catchy in about the most effective way imaginable. The album is capped off by Wedding, an instrumental piece that might have felt at home on Night Piece four years ago. What is truly amazing is that it feels completely at home here as well, which is a good indication that Tokumaru has amassed a solid repertoire of songs and styles throughout his three albums that can truly qualify him as a distinctive figure in music.

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Animal Collective & Vashti Bunyan – Prospect Hummer

September 18, 2008

There was likely not an artist more appropriate to collaborate with Animal Collective than Vashti Bunyan, but that does not make her appearance any more likely. After releasing her 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day, Vashti went quiet for nearly thirty five years before making music again. Why she returned to the business is up for grabs, but in any case she is essentially the mother of psychedelic folk and her presence is vastly appreciated. I can imagine that both artists were humbled to work with one another, which makes the understated end result of the Prospect Hummer EP that much more satisfying. The EP is only four songs long but hits with the power of a full album, with it’s own unique tropical sound and a highly effective progression. The song Prospect Hummer is its main feature, being the most prominent and melodic vocal track. A light acoustic guitar riff echoes back and forth over a tiny beat, over which some signature Animal Collective touchups are presented, and all this would have been enough to make the song a winner as an instrumental, but the true beauty of the song is in Vashti Bunyan’s vocals, which have lost none of their beauty through the years. When Vashti whispers her final lines over the fading relaxed tune, the result is pure magic. The other songs are more than slack though. The opening vocal track It’s You and the instrumental Baleen Sample more resemble Animal Collective’s earlier free form style, with rhythmless washes of sound that are fluid but deeply affecting. After Baleen Sample comes to an end, one would think that the conclusion would have been reached perfectly, but the final song, I Remember Learning How To Dive, is the real culmination of the album. There is nothing hidden with this song. It is an innocent, joyful recollection of a learning experience. The beat is once again tiny and the melody is simple and touching. Bunyan takes it away with her reserved but emotional singing, and the instrumentation is straightforward and nonintrusive. It is one of those songs that is both relaxing and deeply touching. But all four pieces of the puzzle here are essential, and Prospect Hummer is a unique EP of aural poetry.

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My Musical Weekend

July 26, 2008

So last weekend was a big weekend for me. It was a musical weekend, especially. On Saturday I went to the Pitchfork music festival, and then on Sunday I saw The Hush Sound at The House of Blues. I want to take this time to talk about the Pitchfork Music Festival. I purchased a single day ticket for it a couple months back. Looking back on it, I probably should have bought a three day pass, because some pretty cool bands played on every day. I would have really liked to have seen Public Enemy, Dinosaur Jr., Spiritualized, M. Ward, Boris, and Apples in Stereo. But I did what I did, and I went on Saturday. I had a great time, and listened to lots of great music.

But first I would like to say that for the better part of my day, I was crammed in close quarters with many people. Some of them were nice people who were fun to talk to, and were polite, and just wanted to see these bands perform and listen to their good music. However, at any concert, there are going to be jackasses. There are going to be tall people that stand in front of you and refuse to stop bobbing their heads, there is going to be a mosh pit to your left, and there is going to be someone smoking pot in your general vicinity. However, the Pitchfork Festival is a big event. There is bound to be a special breed of crowd there. That night we had a seemingly endless supply of jock assholes who refused any spot except as far to the front of the arena as they could get, and if it meant pushing people, it didn’t matter. Some people like me and countless other people who I had fun talking with, even in close quarters, waited five hours for their spot up front for Animal Collective, only to be fucked out of it by people who just couldn’t accept anything less than the front row. In fact, a guy who I was politely conversing with about Wilco ended up pushing me to the side after The Hold Steady left the stage, forcing me to spoon with him just so he could be in front of me. His neck obscured my view of a good portion of the Animal Collective set. In short, the better part of The Hold Steady Set and the hour before Animal Collective were miserable, because of these people.

These people were terrible. They were the worst part of my day. But although they were jackasses, they couldn’t have ruined my day. I’m not going to give much more mention of them, at least not in great detail, because they really aren’t worth it. I’m not going to remember the hipster jackasses ten years from now, but I will remember the performances of the day. Also, although these people were bad, I did make the choice to be so close up. I sacrificed my bodily comfort and the opportunity to be with my friends to be so close. Was it worth it? I don’t know. I think it might have been. In any case, it was a learning experience.

And please, PLEASE, next time you are at a concert, exercise common courtesy. That is all.

I packed everything up that morning for the trip downtown. I did not bring a backpack like one of my smarter compatriots did. Instead I brought a raincoat. It might have been a good idea, because it did rain and the coat stopped me from being wet, but it also caused me to be very hot and was extra weight for me to hold in my hands for a lot of the latter part of the day. In any case, I packed light, and most of my things were in the coat. Wallet, phone, ticket, glasses case, Moleskine notebook, pen, inhaler, a single sealed water bottle, train schedule. I picked up a couple things along the way, namely the weekend train pass and a pair of sunglasses that I found at a thrift store. But for the most part, I was traveling light. I had breakfast with a friend in town in the early morning. Then, we went to the train station, met up with our other friends, and took the 10:18 train downtown. We arrived in Ogilvie Transportation Center around 11:30, and met up with some friends that were already downtown.

After walking towards Union Park, eating lunch, and doing a little light thrift store shopping, we arrived at our destination. Union Park is a very good place to have a festival. There were three stages, stages A, B, and C. Stage B was off at the opposite side of the park as A and C. I honestly never saw any bands play there because I just didn’t know or care about any of the bands that were there. But stages A and C were the largest, and they were relatively close together. For this reason, the shows were scheduled so that one would start every hour on the hour at one of the two stages, and then that band would play for an hour while another band would set up at the other stage.

The first band we caught right as we got in the door on stage C was Caribou, whose specialty is long jam oriented guitar rock. This set was definitely a highlight of the day. The guitarists delivered some fun, happy, generally memorable shoegazey tunes. The most impressive parts of the set were the drum breaks. Dan Snaith is the mastermind of the live set, and he switches back and forth between guitar, drums, and synthesizers. The drummer was already impressive on his own, but when Snaith switched over to drums as well, the audience became quickly captivated in the massive rhythms. Especially memorable was a point in the set where all four band members were playing drums at the same time, one of them pulling out a lone cymbal, standing up, and bashing it will the full strength of his body. It was a rhythmic tour de force that is probably the greatest drum performance I have heard since Mike Portnoy’s cacophony at the Dream Theater concert. Although Caribou seems to be known widely as an electronic act, this performance was quite organic. The songs were all psychedelic swirls of beautiful noise on bass and guitar, with the occasional hushed vocal before the drum explosions. All in all, this was quite a memorable set and it got the audience very excited.

After Caribou ended, we all trudged over to the Boost Mobile tent in the cool rain. The tent was decorated with birdcages containing fake birds that made fake bird noises, as well as mattresses and beanbag chairs surrounded by headphones with iPod Nano’s. It was essentially a resting tent. Although I didn’t realize it then, when I crashed on a beanbag chair somewhere on the edge of the tent and aired myself with a complimentary fan, it was to be the last time I would sit down for at least seven hours. After resting ourselves, we stood up and tried to find some friends near the Chipotle tent. I realized soon enough that I wasn’t hungry and didn’t want to distract myself from the festivities.

I broke off from the group and headed over to stage A, where The Fleet Foxes were playing. The crowd was pretty huge, but I nestled myself right next to the stage where I could not actually see the Fleet Foxes, but could hear them just fine and view their performance on the massive screens surrounding the park. The Fleet Foxes were actually quite good… A new folk band that prides themselves on strength in harmony rather than any particular tricks. Lead guitarist/vocalist Robin Pecknold was the focus of the show. At times, he was the only member of the band playing on a given song, and his ability shone out over the audience visibly as well as audibly. His voice almost reminds me of Jim James, and his guitar playing was quite earnest. Although I really only caught the last half of the set, it was well worth dropping in for. Before that Saturday, I had never even heard any of Caribou’s or Fleet Foxes’ music. These are two bands I am very thankful to have seen live, and I look forward to getting to know them further.

After Fleet Foxes ended their set to a warm applause, people started to leave the area, and I closed in. I ended up pretty damn close to the stage, maybe fifth row, in order to wait my turn for Vampire Weekend. I figured this is where I would stay indefinitely, until I felt like going to another stage, perhaps for !!!. But I was certainly not giving up this spot for Vampire Weekend. In the audience I met two lovely girls also from the suburbs who I shared some interests with. It should be known that for as many assholes as there were in that crowd, there were about as many nice people, but it’s the jackasses that make themselves noticed. A black guy with a fauxhawk and his ugly girlfriend palmed a couple nice girls faces when the Vampire Weekend set started and wreaked havoc. I’m surprised security didn’t pick him up. Anyway, Dizzee Rascal was playing his set while we waited an hour for Vampire Weekend. To be honest I really didn’t pay attention. I like rap, but not really British grime rap. He seemed like a distraction to me.

And what do you know, Snowball was helping set up! Snowball is the guy with the bass in his hands here. He is the brother and professional groupie/sound dude of Blake Sennett of Rilo Kiley, whom I have seen twice. It was good to see him there.

When Vampire Weekend finally got on stage, the crowd response was pretty good. A lot of people like the band, even some of the jocks who were waiting for The Hold Steady. Vampire Weekend was by far the most debated set of the day among my group of friends. Some more positive notes from people like me were that they played very well and seemed to be enjoying themselves quite a bit. Despite the fact that they were far from a headliner or an album band, they did end up playing the full extent of their self titled debut, due to the fact that they don’t have a hell of a lot else to play only having one album out at all. They did play a new song, and it sounded good. However, some people argued to the contrary. A couple friends thought they played sloppily, and that the homely charms of the album didn’t quite translate effectively to the live set. Truth be told, what I enjoy most about the album is its understated production, and when playing live, they seem to cast these simplicities away for a more stadium friendly agenda. Which is fine, at least in my opinion. However, it takes some elements away from the album. For some reason, I always visualized the band having a violin and cello player on stage for the strings portion of M79, but the strings part was instead given to the keyboardist, who played half the notes instead of all of the notes on the solo. The song was also slowed down. Probably what makes it my favorite song on the album is its speed and high energy. At any rate, I thought that Vampire Weekend played well, and they were one of my favorite acts of the day. Simple yes, but also fun.

After Vampire Weekend got off the stage, more people started to leave, and I inched in once again. At this point I’m in the third or fourth row. It didn’t occur to me that !!! were actually playing at stage C at this time. I decided I would rather wait at stage A until Animal Collective, even though I’m not really a big fan of The Hold Steady. It just seemed like a good place to stay. I don’t know if this was the right decision, but it is what happened. !!! sounded like fun, although many people around me expressed their distaste at them. But then again of course they would, if they were choosing the Hold Steady over them. One of my good friends was there, and she said that they were really awesome. Even from far away and viewing them on the big screens, it seemed like whatever energy that was lost in translation for Vampire Weekend popped up there. There was clearly a ton of dancing going on both in the audience and on stage, and the band’s presence was undeniable. I couldn’t really hear them so well, but if they sound anything like they look, I’m excited to get to know their music.

After !!! left their stage, two hours of relative boredom commenced. The Hold Steady are a band with an appeal I can understand, but I found myself wondering when their set would end as soon as they started. Yes, their guitarist played quite well, and they write pretty catchy guitar rock, but their vocals and melodies are boring to me. Of course, I wouldn’t have said this to anyone in the audience. I was right on the edge of the mosh pit, and it was filled with huge shirtless men who would have kicked my ass for questioning the unstoppable drunken masters of The Hold Steady. And the band did look wasted, but they didn’t let their BAC bog them down. The band’s riffing and lyrical rambling was what it is known to be, so although the act was not for me as a matter of taste, I can’t deny that they played well and had fun doing it.

After The Hold Steady played their encore and finally left the stage, everyone’s mind was on Animal Collective. This was when the crowd got downright miserable. Pretty much everyone had no room to breath as close up as I was. There were tons of rude people, but to my front and to my right there were a lot of nice people to talk with about the bands that day and their experiences on Friday. Time passed very slowly. Anticipation was high. The members of Animal Collective set up their elaborate stage while Jarvis Cocker played his set on stage C. I remember wondering why anyone would ever choose to see Jarvis Cocker instead of staking out a spot for Animal Collective. He did his shtick. He died on stage. Then he left to scattered clapping, then went back on for an encore. I’m not going to pretend to know his repertoire. I really don’t. I had one Pulp album, and it was This Is Hardcore, and I liked it. But he just didn’t have much live appeal to me. His band played with close to no enthusiasm whatsoever. At least he was quiet.

When he was done everyone cheered, less at him than at the concept that he was done, and that Animal Collective would now go on stage. And they did, immediately.

What I kept on telling everyone I talked to about the show after it ended was that I had never experienced anything like that in my life. And what I realize is that if I had experienced anything like that, that wasn’t another Animal Collective show, they would have failed at their job. From the moment they walked on stage to the moment they walked off, the entire show was a sensory overload. Animal Collective’s live set is pretty representative of Strawberry Jam’s ideas. That is, crushingly loud, thick, and supersaturated with sound and light. I now have a bootleg of the show, but it doesn’t seem to do the experience justice. Part of what made the show so striking was that I could barely even process what I was hearing, and when I could, it was confusing and scary. But also beautiful.

The band didn’t even say anything before launching into a new song, the marching Chocolate Girl. It was with this song that the band laid down their plan for the rest of their set. Avey Tare stood in the middle, a bouncing spider monkey of all trades, at times taking to a soundboard, strumming an untrimmed guitar, drumming, and shrieking into his microphone. Panda Bear was on stage left, mostly keeping to his soundboard but occasionally drumming, his skinny legs swaying back and forth under the body of his sonic vehicle. The Geologist was on stage right, completely reserving himself to behind his soundboard, but possibly having the most energetic stage presence of the bunch. His head bobbed back and forth, a small head light tied to his forehead, making him look like some kind of overgrown, bearded Angler Fish.

Although I didn’t recognize most of the songs (Animal Collective have a habit of playing mostly new songs at their shows), and although there is really no way of knowing who is doing what onstage when almost all or sometimes all of the members are doing their work on soundboards, I still had to ask myself how much of what went on onstage was improvised. Most of it seemed psychedelic and free form, but the coordination that the band exercised was impressive. Especially memorable was Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s rhythmic vocal duet on House, as well as the sidestep of Fireworks Essploding. It was good to hear the wealth of new material, but I also had my fingers crossed for some of the crowd favorites such as Peacebone and Fireworks, and we got them both, as well as the beautiful cascading synthesizers found on #1 presented in Daily Routine.

Animal Collective’s set was easily the night’s most impressive performance, and I found myself the more emotionally affected by them than any of the other artists. I am very glad I saw them, and it seemed like they brought out the best of the audience. They were scary, confusing, and beautiful all at once, but I don’t really think my words can do the set complete justice, so I’ll stop trying to describe it. I don’t have any pictures of Animal Collective, unfortunately, because my phone was running out of juice and I knew I needed to contact my group of friends after the show, and I did not want to jeopardize my chances of not being in contact with them afterwards, so I shut my phone off during the show.

So anyway, that was the Pitchfork festival. Quite an experience. I am very glad I went, and glad that I saw all of the bands that I did. I imagine that Lollapalooza will be a similar experience, but more extreme and long. Well, I’ll worry about that as the week progresses.

Me and some other friends also saw The Hush Sound on Sunday, which was also a nice experience. It felt much more toned down than Pitchfork in the sense that it was much more subdued and small. It was at the House of Blues. Most of the crowd consisted of pudgy, preppy, prepubescent girls and oh so cool, emo, prepubescent boys. Yes, The Hush Sound attract a crowd that is somewhat below them, but that is alright. No one in the crowd really got in my way, because they were all pretty short. A relatively tall girl pushed in front of me once, but I coughed on the back of her neck for a while until I got tired of that, after which I sidestepped into a better position to see the band and talk with one of my lady friends who I spent most of the show with.

The opening bands were so horribly, painfully emo. The first band was called The Morning Light.

Okay.

Ready?

You see? They just kind of fade out. They were pretty ghastly. My friend thought the keyboardist was kind of cute, but then he talked into the microphone and revealed to the audience that his testicles clearly hadn’t left his body yet, and she subsequently found him a little less cute. Their focal point was their extremely physically expressive drummer who reminded some of us of Lanky Kong. Their singer’s voice was very annoying. The other opening band was called The Cab. They were also very emo, but they were a little better than The Morning Light. The band chilled, the rest of the audience bounced, and we chillbounced.

The Hush Sound themselves actually played very well. They played all of their popular songs (Honey!), plus a couple slightly more obscure ones (Wine Red!), to make a very well rounded set. They did not offer much different than their albums do, but they seemed to have a lot of fun up there, and they got the audience involved. The only complaint I had was that the guitarist really needed to turn his volume up. But beyond that, The Hush Sound are a great band and have already made their new album one of the best of 2008 simply because of its superb songwriting, with no other gimmicks. Honestly, that’s how they succeed. From writing great, catchy tunes. You owe it to yourselves to hear these. They played the hits, and did a couple interesting things, particularly a cover of The Beatles’ Back In The U.S.S.R., and another retro 50s type of song where the members of the band switched instruments. But really, the reason that I saw the show was to hear their songs that I love so much. I love the Hush Sound, and I am very glad my girlfriend got me interested in them and made them so personally important to me. That and the fact that I had a great time with my friends at the show is more than good enough for me.

Yes, quite a musical weekend indeed. Very good times. I expect to have lots more of these as I get older. With even more chillbouncing.

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Wilco Concert

February 18, 2008
I saw Wilco live at the Riviera two nights ago. The Riviera is a nice venue. I saw Rilo Kiley there a couple months ago. A friend and I stood outside in the cold from five thirty until seven when the doors opened, and up by the very front on the floor next to the stage until eight thirty when the band played. There was no opening act.
In a nutshell, this very well could have been the best concert I have been to. Neil Young may have been a religious experience, and Dream Theater had more energy, but I definitely had more fun with Wilco than anyone else. Although I would consider myself a fairly new Wilco fan, only having listened to them for a year or two, I would still say that I know them well enough to recognize a lot of their songs, and enjoy the stuff I don’t recognize. With that said, the setlist was pretty solid. The first ten songs or so I recognized immediately from the bands more popular albums, A Ghost Is Born, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Summerteeth. They got a lot of the crowd pleasers out of the way first, but they didn’t run out of steam. They should have, though, because they started to play the more obscure stuff near the middle of the show.
The deal with these Wilco shows in Chicago is that they are trying to play every song on each of their studio albums throughout the five nights. This does not mean they won’t play any repeats throughout the five nights. But it does mean that they have to dig back into the back catalogue, including the Mermaid Avenue albums, and play some of the really obscure stuff. They played many of Wilco’s most popular songs, especially in the first half. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Handshake Drugs, Hell Is Chrome, A Shot In The Arm, and Heavy Metal Drummer all made their appearances to booming crowd approval. In general, they spread out their setlist evenly between albums. The most attention was given to the bands double album Being There. And an unusual amount of material was played from their first album, the country styled AM. By the time they hit a lot of said obscure songs on Saturday, they had a counter weapon to keep everyone on their toes.
Andrew Bird.
That’s right, the whistler, fiddler, and folk singer closest to our heart showed up and played with Wilco for seven songs, starting with the crowd pleasing singalong Jesus Etc. His appearance was relaxed. He donned a stylish pink scarf. His presence was subtle, but ultimately appreciated, and he got a tremendous response from the audience despite how quiet and underspoken he was.
But in the grand scheme of things, Mr. Bird was peripheral (as much as we love him!). The core members of Wilco are as wonderful as ever. Jeff Tweedy has an unspoken bond with his Chicago audience that is clearly present, and his audience is completely vocal about their love for him. Although Tweedy is quiet and reserved on stage, he knows how to have fun and give the audience what they want. Upon straining some of his highest notes, he gives the audience a wink of recognition before his sharp ascent. Nels Cline is an amazing guitarist. His stage presence is perhaps the most felt out of the entire band. His towering figure spastically moves, sways, and convulses randomly as his fingers fly up and down his fretboard. His solos can be incendiary, but he has a certain control that is also appreciable. On many of the songs played a steel guitar on his lap with great restraint. Bassist John Stirrat and jack of all trades Pat Sansone are also particularly energetic on stage when they feel the need to be, and Mikael Jorgensen is the icing on the cake, the always present detailing that gives the live sound it’s density. But what pushes the band over the edge in their live performances is without a doubt drummer Glenn Kotche. By three songs in, he was sweating like a pig and slamming his kit as if it was the last chance he would ever get. His energy is always outward, and he makes the band’s live repetoire what it is. And there is nothing quite like seeing his cacophonous freakout during Via Chicago.

There is something to be said about watching a band play whose members would clearly rather be no where else in the world than where they are at that moment. This is the way that Wilco presented themselves on Saturday, and when a bands energy is that positive, and the audiences enthusiasm is equally as high, the energy bounces back and forth between both parties. Wilco were playing on a Saturday night in their hometown, so they were already enthusiastic about the performance, and even the more low key songs were greeted with enthusiasm from the band and audience alike. About midway through the show, a drunken idiot pushed past me in the middle of Heavy Metal Drummer, and proceeded to make his way even farther to the front of the crowd, at which point he was greeted with resistance from the fans in front of us. He was talked down by a big burly guy, who Jeff Tweedy eyed lightly throughout the song, smiling. Afterwards he complemented the big guy on how beautifully he handled the situation, at which point he and the drunken idiot were clearly buddies, playing it up. He said that we shouldn’t beat up the drunken idiots of the world, and that we should be their friends. It’s funny that even the drunken idiotic Wilco fans are nice enough.

The crowd was very nice, much nicer than the crowd that was there for Rilo Kiley. Wilco fans seem to be, for the most part, in their thirties or even forties, and really there weren’t any horrible people, except one guy behind me who was completely smashed and maybe high, who wouldn’t stop clapping his hands and hitting my hair. I can’t blame him though. It’s a big target, and I can imagine anyone who stands behind me in a concert would be pretty pissed off. But we met up with a friend there, and stood next to a nice knowledgeable couple and later on a cool guy from New York who I had a good conversation with.

What we came to the conclusion about is that Wilco is possibly the greatest American band active today. Their music feels genuinely American. They know how to add texture and a classical folk feel to their music through acoustic guitars and pianos, and yet they know how to tear through their music live and make their music more rocking and abrasive than one might expect. I don’t think I really knew how much I liked Wilco until I finally got ahold of the band’s live album, Kicking Television. While the songs do stand alone on their studio albums, it is really impossible to get an accurate picture of what the band are really like unless you hear, and ideally see, them live. Highly recommended.

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Alcest – Souvenirs D'un Autre Monde

January 10, 2008

The past few years have been very good to shoegaze fans. Not in terms of number, but in terms of singular, unique albums that actually add something to the genre, which has been an elusive breed since the days of old when My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride pioneered their immensely popular and unique styles. 2005 saw the self titled debut of Serena Maneesh. 2006 also had a winner, Asobi Seksu’s Citrus. We have yet another winner this year with newcomer Alcest’s Souvenirs D’un Autre Monde, roughly translated from French as “memories of another world.” Such a title is appropriate for an album that, like any shoegaze album, is flooded with details and dreamy soundscapes. Yes, I know, you have heard it all before. It’s another garden variety shoegaze album that doesn’t really try anything different, isn’t it?

Actually, that might be true. Much like it’s guitar effects, shoegaze is a genre with highly distorted boundaries which are often pushed for the sake of trying something new instead of making quality music. When rabid experimentation is not present, excessive imitation is often the alternative. Souvenirs doesn’t really do either, and it succeeds just by being a pretty album. Alcest is essentially the work of one man, Frenchman Neige, whose roots are with such French black metal acts such as Peste Noire and Mortifera. A lot of people seem to be pinning Souvenirs as a black metal album, but if it is, I’m going to have to read into exactly what Black Metal is, because this is as much of a pure shoegaze album as I have ever heard. But what is strange is I can’t trace the roots of it’s sound back to any shoegaze bands of old. The closest it gets to is to Ride, and even then the resemblance is only vague.

In this way, Souvenirs is unique but not really engaging in a sense that although this sounds new, the style is fairly familiar. That is to say, big distorted guitar sounds arranged with sweeping melodies, glowing seven chords, simple beats, lots of cymbal crashes, and glazed ethereal vocals. Even shoegaze fans will admit that the trick has been overused. Some figure that if they drown a simple chord progression in distortion that it will somehow bloom and be beautiful, but really, you need a nice melody to really make something work. Neige knows how to write pretty, simple melodies, but he also knows how to play the shoegaze cards as well. Perhaps the most interesting fact in respect to Alcest’s style is that Neige claimed to have not listened to any shoegaze music prior to making Souvenirs. Whether or not this is true is debatable, but in any case, this album has a strong, grounded core of memorable, pretty melodies. The fact that it works in the shoegaze context only makes it all the more unique.

However, while his melodies are simple, Alcest manages to cover a wide range of melodies within single songs. Of the six songs on the album, not one dips under the six minute mark, and most songs are segmented into smaller, distinguishable movements. This keeps the songs interesting, but at times hard to pin down, much like Sigur Ros’ progressive post rock. And yet, while every song is bathed in electricity, they all feel organic too, and typically have an acoustic guitar and piano at their core. The two songs that impressed me most in this respect are Ciel Errant and Tir Nan Og. Ciel Errant is a lovely little acoustic guitar based ballad that somehow reminisces of The Smashing Pumpkins just as much as Sigur Ros or Ride. Tir Nan Og is the real winner though. The gentle piano leaps and acoustic guitar strumming in conjunction with a simple rhythm makes it sound like as much of a rural folk song as a dreamy urban shoegaze song. A perfect way to clinch the album.

Whatever Souvenirs D’un Autre Monde is, it’s beautiful, and you can expect more of this, because according to http://www.alcest-music.com, Alcest has signed to the Prophecy Productions label for a five album contract. Yeah. This wasn’t a one time shot. No matter what direction Alcest takes with any albums in the future, I’ll remember this one as one of the best of 2007.

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Youtube Corner Pt. 7: Neil Young Concert

November 13, 2007

Last night I saw Neil Young at the Chicaco Theatre, on the first of two nights there, and it was really nice. The concert came in two portions, one half solo acoustic and the other half full band electric. I really enjoyed both portions almost equally. In the acoustic portions, Neil played his pianos, guitars, and harmonicas with great feeling, making each note as heartfelt as we expect him to. But the man knows how to rock out and do ten minute long guitar solos (on Old Black, no less!) with heavy distortion. I recognized a ton of the songs he played, which was something I was worried about not happening. He has such a massive discography that I expected him to do more obscure stuff than the hits, but he played a ton of his best songs and didn’t just dwell on the new or obscure. Really wonderful concert.

At one point during the acoustic half, he kind of broke off into a completely unrelated story about crawfish and his experience in the second grade. It was funny and distinctly Neil Young. After that, he went on to play one of the most beautiful acoustic renditions I have ever heard. It was Mellow My Mind off of Tonight’s The Night, and he played by himself with a banjo. It has been echoing in my mind for the past day. This is a very similar version of the song played back in 1976, at Budokan, and is completely flawless. My ears are in love. Enjoy.