I first heard Imagine Dragons in late January on XMU on XM Radio. “It’s Time” was introduced with a small warning by the DJ that the band was probably going to be a big deal at some point in 2012. It was a far better than average pop-friendly radio song with a great hook. At that time, the band hadn’t even released their Continued Silence EP. I downloaded the album as soon as it was released — I like to be ahead of the curve (read: I like to be the asshole telling you about this great new band of which you’ve never heard) – and shared it with my wife, who was smitten… if you couldn’t tell by her guest bl-ggery here.
Hmm. What’s interesting about this picture?
As time went on and my wife and I grew older and greyer (second children will do that. It’s an alarmingly accelerated decline), Imagine Dragons just kept popping up. She’d been pushing the album to any of her friends that would listen. It’s tremendous alt-pop music, but worthy bands just don’t necessarily get a fair shake. We expected very little out of their career trajectory. My three-year-old daughter could pretty much sing along with each of their six songs, for whatever that’s worth. (She’s actually a very good judge of the next big thing. She knew all the words to Gotye before he became big, too.) Anyway, I felt similarly about Remy Zero’s career trajectory. And whatever happened to Remy Zero? (Okay, so they provided the theme from Smallville, and appeared on a number of soundtracks, which is something, but did you honestly remember the name of the band that opened Smallville?) Their third album The Golden Hum was an alt-rock masterpiece and a highlight of that barren musical landscape immediately post-2K. The album was so well received that after that album they broke up.
But back to Imagine Dragons… their songs started getting more and more airtime on XM after the release of the EP. And then the bomb drops. Their music starts showing up movie trailers for major release films like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Frankenweenie,” in commercials, American Idol promos. Glee justcovered “It’s Time” in the season opener. This band was anonymous five months ago. But why the meteoric rise? What’s the secret? And why am I no longer special for knowing the band Imagine Dragons?
I pondered these questions as I crammed into Altar Bar on Thursday to catch my first Imagine Dragons show. Imagine Dragons, who were opening for Awolnation, a band whose fame they’d eclipsed over the duration of one little tour. At the beginning, relatively unknown. At the end, the main attraction. And yes, we left after Imagine Dragons. I was hungry and wanted to go drink. It was my birthday after all. (Happy birthday to me.)
You’ll be happy to know that I’ve solved the success of Imagine Dragons.
If you’re familiar with the band you’ll know that Dan Reynolds, the lead singer, beats on a bass drum at the front of the stage while he’s singing. If you’re not familiar with the band, I just told you by not telling you. Nice, right? There’s been a swell of lead singers who are more than just frontmen, but most of these guys are firmly contained within the straightjacket genre label “indie-rock.” Rarely do they branch out into pop-music proper.
For pop-music Reynolds is a kind of novelty. He’s an affable, humble chap on stage. He (and the rest of the band) seemed positively overwhelmed by their rapid success. (They’re even still setting their own stage and doing soundchecks.) Reynolds comes off as a less-glam, more everyday Brandon Flowers (The Killers). That they’re both Mormon probably has much to do with the favorable comparison in presentation and personality. But all of this might be irrelevant if he didn’t beat a motherflippin’ bass drum. Singer-only frontmen maintain an air of otherworldliness. They must do this to justify the fact that they only sing and often barely do that. Their gift is their stage persona. See Bono, Mick Jagger, et al. Nobody cares that they don’t play an instrument. But these are the greats, the once-in-a-generation rock gods. Their bands, however, are just guys with instruments. Follow this logic with me. If you saw Bono and Larry Mullen walking down the street together, who would you be more comfortable chatting up? Larry Mullen, of course. He’s no god. He’s just a guy that plays in a band fronted by a crazytown rock god.
There are so many different bands and kinds of music and distractions that without something unique to call their own, a talented band will more toil in anonymity than reach any measure of commercial success. Critical success, perhaps, but not commercial. Reynolds’ drum breaks down the barrier between the singer and his fans. He’s a singer, but he’s also just a guy that intermittently gets taken up in the moment and decides to unleash fury on some mylar (the material of which drum heads are most likely made – the more you know, eh?). When he’s singing and suddenly takes up the mallet, there’s a swell of excitement among the crowd. The anticipation of the drum beating is unmistakable. For these songs he gets the loudest applause and the most crowd love. For someone first seeing or listening to Imagine Dragons, the communal adulation at these shows will sell records. It is a novelty, sure, but it is also greatly entertaining and displays the dude’s sincere passion for the music. Because nothing says sincere passion like a winded, sweaty human beating a bass drum with all the fiber in his being.
I have some reservations about the band growing too big for these more intimate live shows. Imagine Dragons doesn’t embrace arena-rock in the same way the Killers do. Their sound, while poppy, and occasional quite possibly rocking, might get swallowed up by larger crowds and venues. The bass drum might lose its prestige as the centerpiece of their show. In a small venue, the drum commands the room. And if the bass drum loses its prestige, it’s on Dan Reynolds to make up the distance.
Oh, and there’s also the music… because there’s probably (just maybe) people into Imagine Dragons that haven’t seen a live show. Valid argument. Again, the element that sets their music apart… the bass drum. Beating a bass drum with a mallet rather than using it in a drum kit creates such a distinctly different sound and cadence. Take the drum out of Imagine Dragons what do you have left? Solid pop-music but no live drama. And no drama means no trailer spots, no commercial gigs and no more meeting Hermoine at the VMAs.
The magical thing about “It’s Time” is that Reynolds’ beats nary a drum. But how many of these A+ pop songs can he write? The perfect pop soundbite. Maybe he only needs one to launch a career, but that won’t speak to the longevity of the band. It’s the B-sides where a band proves its worth. And, so far, it’s on the B-sides (being any song other than “It’s Time” at this point) that the drum carries its weight. See “Radioactive” or ‘Demons.”
In conclusion, and because I’m out of words for today, a picture of Emma Watson. Just because she’s the closest thing we’ve seen to Audrey Hepburn since Audrey Hepburn.
I’d been a fan of G.O. since the days you could only order their music from their website. Hell, it might have even been a MySpace page. No guarantees on that. I knew nothing about the band other than that it was two dudes. One did the beats and one did everything else. I’d not seen them live, clearly, and thus had no idea what kind of crowd frequented a Ghostland Observatory performance. I didn’t know anyone else that listened to G.O. Do you know anyone that listens to G.O.? Probably not.
Ghostland Observatory, photo by Ben Rowland (www.benrowlandphotography.com)
So I’m hanging out in my usual place in the Mr. Small Booze Tank (just the back half of the venue) and I’m seeing people wandering around with glow-stick necklaces, glow stick bracelets and, yes, even old fashioned plain old glow sticks. So instead of a traditional boring recap, I will retell my experience through my Tweets.
Who brings glowstick nunchuks to see Ghostland Observatory?
Now that you’ve read the tweets, I’ll present my pictorial recap that might help make sense of the sudden acceptance of the glowstick phenomenon.
But, yes, the show… Ghostland Observatory is comprised of the beats guy in the cape (Thomas Ross Turner) and the singer/guitar/frontman guy (Aaron Kyle Behrens). Their music has been described as “electro-dance soul rock.” Hence why I was confused about being at a rave. I’d always focused on the electro and rock part of the sound that didn’t necessarily require glow thingamabobs.
Here’s a video of a 2007 performance that gives you a good idea of the dynamic, laser show included.
Aaron Kyle Behrens is a game frontman. He called out to the audience a couple times during the show, discussing how they were creating a shared energy. And truly it was an energetic crowd, one of the most lively I’ve seen at Mr. Smalls. Behrens encourages the give and take between performer and audience. As the only foregrounded member of the band, G.O. shows are a conversation between Behrens and the rave-like crowd. Rock the microphone and dance. Rock the microphone and hammer away on a guitar. Basically there’s a lot gyrating, like a street performer, begging for attention. But he doesn’t have to beg for the attention, there’s no competition and all eyes are already on him. Turner remains in the darkness behind his bandmate, surrounded by his wall of synths and computers. For much of the show, all you can see of Turner is his hands. It was hard to tell if this was an intended result or just a happy lighting coincidence (but considering the elaborately choreographed light and laser show, I’d guess the former). As a result Turner appeared to preside over the show like a god, pulling the strings, manipulating us all with his omnipresent powers of electrofunkery.
Ghostland put on a show that broke the barrier between crowd and performer. Ghostland not only hosted the party, they were the party. Before the show I couldn’t help but listen in on groups and their conversations. At the bar, flying solo, this is what you do. The dynamic of these groups followed similar patterns. One person knew Ghostland Observatory before the show and/or had seen them before and dragged a bunch of people along with the promise of a good time. So it seems that I wasn’t alone in not knowing anyone that listened to G.O. The stunning thing about this show was, in fact, that by the end you couldn’t tell the difference between the fans and the people that just got dragged along to enjoy the spectacle.
In their ten-year-long effort to purge “the shrine” aka my old high school bedroom, my parents occasionally drop off boxes of my old “stuff.” So far I’ve received boxes of baseball cards (one of dozens), books, magazines, Super Nintendo and Genesis games, CDs, Transformers and now cassette tapes — a big ole shoebox full of cassette tapes, almost all of which are dubs. Plenty of the cassettes are completely free of label. So it might take me some time to go through them all. But I’ve found three labeled tapes, three labeled mixtapes, in the lot. I’ve created Spotify playlists for each. I’ve not “bettered” the mixes in any way. The awful tracks remain, blemishes on my taste (and lack thereof) as a teenager. What you see here is the track order as they were created from 1993-1996. Enjoy these time capsules (or not), these (ugh) plastic windows into my teenage schizophrenia.
The Mixtape Project: Volume 2, Stuff #1
Unless my mixtapes were thematic I always called them “Stuff” and then numbered them sequentially. I spent more creative juices coming up with titles for the thematic mixes (e.g. Caffeine) so I should get a bye for not wasting energy with these titles. Out of all ten or so “Stuff” tapes, only #1 survives. Or at least, it’s the only one that still has a label. I may find more as I go through all of the unlabeled tapes in this box. A handful were lost when someone stole my car in college. So it goes.
If I could have opened every mixtape with “Big Sky” I would have. Reverend’s Rockabilly burner brings all of my favorite mixtape-opener elements: 1) instrumental; 2) 3 minutes or less; 3) also opens a favorite album (1994’s Liquor in the Front).
“Another Day” – Dream Theater
After a burner, I always liked to drop the pace. So far I’m going paint-by-numbers with “Stuff #1.” Reverend. Check. Dream Theater. Check. Prog melodrama (featuring a killer sax solo/outro) may have been a jarring switchback after Reverend, but considering I listened to an EPIC CRAP-TON of Reverend and Dream Theater during these years, I’ll allow it.
“Pain Lies On the Riverside” – Live
Jackin’ the pace back up. If you’re a Live auto-hater and you auto-hate “Pain Lies On the Riverside,” FOR FLIPPING SHAME. Live might have eventually sucked donkey balls, but Mental Jewelry was a great rock album and this was a legitimate jam.
“Dela” – Johnny Clegg & Savuka
The first monkey wrench. Some people went through their Afro-pop phase with Paul Simon, but Johnny Clegg and I cruised that savannah with the top down and the Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World album on repeat. I recently learned that this song played a prominent role in the movie George of the Jungle. I have no comment. Don’t ask me again. I don’t know anything.
“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” – Simple Minds
Staying in the 80’s, I maintained mid-tempo with a low-hanging Simple Minds track. At this point, I’d stumbled into the Simple Minds backwards through their underappreciated 1995 record Good News from the Next World and then Glittering Prize, their 1992 greatest hits collection. I’d retrospect this one into “Up on the Catwalk” or “All the Things She Said,” but, like I said, they were new to me at the time… and thus this song wasn’t yet burnt out.
“Pass the Hatchet” – Roger & the Gypsies
Does anyone still listen to the Desperado soundtrack? Man, what a record. And such a slice of my 1995 moment. I was smitten with the movie and Salma Hayek, the soundtrack and, well, Salma Hayek. (I was 17 when this movie came out.) I loved throwing these curveballs onto different “Stuff” records because songs like this introduced a style of music I’d not yet discovered. This song and the Get Shorty soundtrack opened a gateway to the Stax instrumental funk/soul sound of the 70’s.
“Sister Havana” – Urge Overkill
When I think over forgotten gems of the 90’s I think of “Pain Lies On the Riverside” and “Sister Havana.” Prior to Saturation, Urge Overkill released three relatively meh records and after Saturation, they released another couple of records to which nobody listened (they were actually pretty good, including 2011’s terribly named Rock & Roll Submarine). But for a fleeting moment in 1993-94, UO killed it, which is really better than not killing it at all. In the end, they’ll just be remembered for playing the Neil Diamond cover “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. Is that fame? Fame by association perhaps. Maybe they could make a comeback by doing a “Cracklin’ Rosy” cover.
“Cancion del Mariachi” – Antonio Banderas & Los Lobos
Two points to mention here. 1.) See all that was said about obsessing over Desperado above. 2.) 2:00 filler. But, you know what? No apologies. It’s a damn fine song. Whatever it is.
“Jessica” – Allman Brothers Band
I think I said something earlier about opening mixtapes with instrumentals, no? I took it one step further. I opened Side B with a instrumental too. This must be the best mixtape ever. Now I own this record on vinyl and it still gets plenty of airplay. My daughter doesn’t quite know what to make of it though. Hell, I originally owned Brothers and Sisters on one of those pimped-out gold Original Master Recording CDs.
“I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” – Buckshot LeFonque
This is Branford’s acid-jazz collective / collaboration with hip-hop producer extraordinaire DJ Premier. This self-titled record served as my gateway to Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, et al. I’m not sure the entire record aged as well as this track, for which Branford and co. built music around a recording of Maya Angelou reciting her poem of the same name. It’s a remarkable cut that works as an individual piece of jazz/fusion and as a aural worship of Maya Angelou. I, of course, cannot help myself and follow this with…
“Holler If Ya Hear Me” – 2Pac
I loved me some sonic mixtape whiplash. The best 2Pac song from the best 2Pac album. The albums released after this, including all of those released after his untimely death, catered to a broader audience and really lost track of the raw production and lyricism that populated his first two records. Don’t tell me you “just loooooove 2Pac” if you don’t looooooove Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.
“Low Rider (En Espanol)” – War
I must have thought I was being innovative, tracking down a version of “Low Rider” en Espanol. 2012 me isn’t all that impressed with my musical fascination with “Low Rider” in any language. I am impressed with my ingenuity, however, since I don’t even know where I even found this track.
“Mama Take” – Chicago
So I liked Chicago quite a bit. Even all the later schmaltzy stuff that makes some people think of Air Supply. “Mama Take” comes from their twelfth studio album, 1979’s XIII, otherwise known as intersection of critical and commercial distaste. I will not admit to seeing them four times in concert. The disco-era had begun to seep into the band’s jazzy sound on this record. Thus, hate. It’s not that really that bad (IF you like Chicago). If there’s a moment, however, when “Stuff #1” leaves the reservation it’s the transition into Chicago from (Latin) War and then into…
“As I Lay Me Down” – Sophie B. Hawkins
I guess I needed one of those pop songs that you’ll always remember even if you forget the name of the artist that recorded it. Must have been my token female artist for the mixtape. If you don’t take yourself too seriously, this is still a good song. If you hate 90’s pop nostalgia, and/or fun, you’re going to rage on this choice. By the way if you want to witness the person most tired of this song, watch Sophie B. perform this song in 2011. The recording method doesn’t help, but damn. I bet she’d rather be doing a Neil Diamond cover too.
Well, I was workin’ on my farm ’bout 1982, Pullin’ up some corn and a little carrot, too When two low-flying aeroplanes, ’bout a hundred feet high Dropped a bunch o’ bales o’ somethin’, some hit me in the eye…
So I cut a bale open, an’ man was I surprised Bunch o’ large sized baggies, with big white rocks inside So I took a little sample to my crazy brother Joe He sniffed it up and kicked his heels, said, ‘Horton, that’s some blow!’
“Recipe for Love” – Harry Connick, Jr.
I dunno. Just… I dunno.
Bombay Vindaloo – Dream Theater
The Good: Dream Theater never recorded this track in the studio and it only appeared on the Live at the Marquee album. So it’s got some rare-track fan cred and serves as a great closing track to the mix. Slow build, another instrumental…
The Bad: 2nd Dream Theater track on the record. After the Harry Connick, Jr. song followed by a 2nd Dream Theater I clearly ran out of ideas and just started phoning this one in. I’d have rather dropped “Another Day” from Side A and left this one right where it is.
Unlike “Caffeine” this one at least makes a lot of mixtape sense… until the end. Without docking points for the Desperado rehash (filler clemency), it’s a damn good mix of the moment. September 1995. I can’t fault too many of the song choices. I’ve noted my beefs. The moment begins to wear thin by the time the mix hits “Low Rider.” Meh. But bonus points for being a curio, I suppose.
As a dynamic mixtape that borrowed the rules of mixtaping, the rise and fall is strong. I never held too closely to single style and quarantined the oddities to the B-Side, where they generally belong. Side B might be a little too retro with the Allman Brothers, War and Chicago… and I needed to refrain from doubles. It’s a stylistic concern that should have been addressed. No doubt. I would have thrown another hip-hop song on the Side A for balance and slotted in some more contemporary rock that wasn’t another Reverend double up. Dispense with the doubles. Pfft. Lazy teenager.
By the way, at some point last week I saw M83 at the Carnegie Library Music Hall in Homestead. And I’d do a write up, but, really, the statute of limitations has expired for that hard-hitting journalism. I’ll just post my “Random Shit on Stage Picture.”
In their ten-year-long effort to move me out of my old high school bedroom, my parents have occasionally dropped off boxes of my old “stuff.” So far I’ve received boxes of baseball cards (one of dozens), books, magazines, Super Nintendo and Genesis games, CDs, Transformers and now cassette tapes — a big ole shoebox full of cassette tapes, almost all of which are dubs. Plenty of the cassettes are completely free of label. So it might take me some time to go through them all. But I’ve found three labeled tapes, three labeled mixtapes, in the lot. I’ve created Spotify playlists for each. I’ve not “bettered” the mixes in any way. The awful tracks remain, blemishes on my taste (and lack thereof) as a teenager. What you see here is the track order as they were created from 1993-1996. Enjoy these time capsules (or not), these (ugh) plastic windows into my teenage schizophrenia.
The Mixtape Project: Volume 1, CAFFEINE
I drank my dad’s cold coffee when I was five. It should come as no shock that by the time I reached high school I was naming mixtapes “Caffeine.”
I played AC/DC Live a lot. It was and still is the only AC/DC album I’ve ever owned. Any AC/DC album cut sounds odd to me. I can’t think of another band for which this is true.
“Judgment Night” – Onyx and Biohazard
Frankly I’m shocked this is the only song on this mix from the Judgment Night Soundtrack.
“Sabotage” – Beastie Boys
Check Your Head was my first real exposure to the Beastie Boys. Looking back I can’t remember a time before the Beastie Boys because this song opened the floodgates for obsession. An omnipresent MTV staple, friends called friends to tell them when the video was on.
“Bring the Noise” – Public Enemy and Anthrax
The Public Enemy only version of “Bring the Noise” is good, but without the Anthrax guitars, it’s not “Bring the Noise.” For a brief period, and likely due to Judgment Night, all of my favorite rap songs had heavy guitar.
“Batdance” – Prince
My parents were convinced the lyric “Get the funk up” was actually “Get the fuck off.” At the time I didn’t know what it was but I couldn’t convince them otherwise based on the lack of a parental advisory warning on the album. I continue to love this song shamelessly.
“Battery” – Metallica
I was listening to “Battery” between games at the Harmarville Hoops 3-on-3 tournament and waiting for the next game on a court. I had this song blasting in my headphones, but a dude broke his leg on the hoop base right in front of me. I heard the snap over everything else. That *snap* still haunts me. And I can’t hear “Battery” without thinking about it.
“Mama Said Knock You Out” – LL Cool J
I suspect that when I’m old and senile and every other detail has disappeared I will remember the lyrics to “Baby Got Back” and “Mama Said Knock You Out.”
“Great White Buffalo” – Ted Nugent
So my parents used to work for Ted Nugent, running a farm in Southwestern Michigan. Yes. I grew up on a farm. Moving along. I have a sneaking suspicion that my first concert was a Ted Nugent show. If all you know about Ted Nugent is “Cat Scratch Fever, you may be impressed with “Great White Buffalo,” a track originally written during the Amboy Dukes days. Or you’ll just consider it crappy 70’s guitar rock. And you’d probably be right either way. Footnote: I don’t care about anyone’s politics here. This is about Ted Nugent playing guitar.
“Scalped” – Dick Dale
Thanks to “Miserlou” appearing in Pulp Fiction I bought CDs from five or six different surf guitarists. Dick Dale’s essentially the beginning and end of this conversation for any0ne interested in the microgenre. Dale released this album in 1994 and it was just as righteous as his old stuff.
“Drum Trip” and “Ecstacy” – Rusted Root
For a period of two years here in Pittsburgh, Rusted Root might as well have been the Beatles. They were local celebrities and everyone recognized them. Hell, I sat across the aisle from them at a U2 Popmart show at Three Rivers Stadium. I was obsessed with the drums that opened the album When I Woke and segued into “Ecstacy.” Thus the two came as a pair to close out the first side of this mixtape.
“Another Day” and “Take the Time” – Dream Theater
That there are only two Dream Theater songs on a mixtape called “Caffeine” that I made sometime in 1995 is somewhat of a miracle. Including “Another Day” as the leader on Side B is just pure laziness because I liked the lead in to “Take the Time.” Have an original thought, 1995 self.
“Coma” – Guns ‘n Roses
That I’d blow ten minutes of quality mix time on this song is a mystery. Rule #6 of mixtape creation, don’t waste ten minutes on a song that’s not m’f’ing epic. I don’t remember ever really liking this song, but apparently for a fleeting moment in time, my G’nR fix came from this 10-minute burner off of Use Your Illusion I.
“Don’t Ever Tell Me That You Love Me” – Huey Lewis
I went all the way back to Huey Lewis’ debut record for this kinetic New Wave popper. It’s not shocking. As you may well know (faithful reader), I’m obsessed with Huey Lewis and he used up almost all of his energy on that debut, self-titled record.
“Slam” – Onyx
Man. Before DMX came along and made every rapper look like wussies, Onyx sounded hard. Their style was brand new in 1995 (and still never really duplicated). I’m disappointed in my extremely obvious choice of Onyx songs, but it’s hard to beat “Slam.” And don’t neglect their undersold, underappreciated second record.
“Superstition” – Stevie Wonder
A great song. But out of left field much? Did I even listen to Stevie Wonder in 1995? I certainly don’t remember even having one of his albums. I must have gone raiding my parents’ stash. Hell I don’t even really listen to him now.
“The Girl Tried to Kill Me” – Ice T
I’ve always been on team Ice Cube in the battle of the Ices, but out of all the early Ice T tracks, this is the one. And the only one I would have ever picked for a mix. Also note the guitar. Kind of a running theme in these rap song selections.
“Scandalous” – Psycho Realm
From the soundtrack to Mi Vida Loca. The movie sucked. But the soundtrack deserved more press. The bands you knew phoned it in, but the groups you didn’t know and don’t remember provided some interesting tracks — Psycho Realm (before B-Real got his hands on them), Shootyz Groove and Funkdoobiest included. This was Psycho Realm’s first recorded track and reeks of a solid Cypress Hill tribute band.
“Gentleman. Let’s broaden our minds… Lawrence!” Another choice cut from the Batman soundtrack to conclude the tape. Another mixtape staple, “Partyman” showed up whenever I needed to wrap up a short remainder. You’d be surprised how many times you need a three-minute song for filler.
Rock, rap and Batman… and then there was Rusted Root, Huey Lewis and a moonlighting Stevie Wonder – who must have stumbled onto the tape looking for the (now lost) Soul Mixtape because he fit the required time stamp. Unfortunately this mix hit a short time before I discovered electronic music. What this mix desperately needs is some Prodigy and some Gravity Kills… but alas, both were yet undiscovered.
Side A starts strong. Four tracks I could legitimately put on a similar mix today. “Batdance” puts a kink in the method, but it could have survived had I followed Prince up with something less jarring than “Battery.” Three pairs of tracks from the same album = lazy. The Rusted Root pair works since they blend into each other. I shame my sixteen year old self for not venturing out into the depths of the CD library for a few more deep cuts, like Psycho Realm’s largely forgotten track on the B-side. Speaking of the B-side…
Side B’s a damn mess. A ten-minute track. A pair of unlinked songs from the same Dream Theater album. The Ice T song feels out of place. Stevie Wonder? Why not just throw some goddamn Bee Gees on there if I wanted to derail the tape entirely. If not for Psycho Realm and Onyx, I’d just rewind Side A over and over again.
Yeasayer’s second album, 2010’s Odd Blood, remains one of my favorite recent rock albums. Side A contained four songs that made the first cut for my 2010 Best Of list. Leading up to this show on Tuesday I had the record on repeat, all over again. And I found these songs just as fresh as I did upon release, the perfect balance between experimental electro-pop and indie-rock.
Their latest record, Fragrant World, comes out on August 21st. I’ve listened to a stream of the record and the band has taken the next step in fully embracing that electronic undercurrent that existed as only a twinkle on their debut. The album is more experimental, a little more elusive. A record like this takes time to digest, thus I’ve withheld judgment until I can get my hands on the record proper. The thing needs to simmer.
I had these thoughts about the new record in mind as I made the trek out to Millvale for the Yeasayer/Daedelus show. How much of the new stuff would Yeasayer play considering no one would know the material? A band will sprinkle a new track into a live set here and there, but being this near the release date, would Yeasayer treat the show as a Fragrant World tour?
I park myself in the boozers section at the back of the venue. This is where Mr. Smalls sequesters those with the liquor from those freewheelers without. Buying a Magic Hat #9 upon arrival has become my tradition. This is also where concert-goers can find a television in front of which to idle. The MLB trading deadline had come and gone that particular day so I found myself drawn to the television because I wanted to see how Travis Snider, the new Pirates’ recruit, would fare in his first game with the team. Beer, baseball, Android Twitter and shortly thereafter, Daedelus, an electronic artist in which I’d only been marginally interested when I was actually into electronic music. It was a veritable cornucopia of multi-tasking and attention deficit.
Hello, did you know I spell my name with an ‘e’ where an ‘a’ should be? The more you know…
If you’ve attended a minor electronic music show, you’ll know it’s like watching professional golf from the 7th tee . It’s just a guy standing behind a box. Daedelus is a talented guy but I was distracted by baseball… and that’s just how it goes sometimes. Travis Snider, by the way, hit an infield single with his first at bat before being plated by a Neil Walker grand slam. You were concerned, I’m sure. Long story short, I was more impressed with his paisley ascot and the magnitude of the dude’s chops than I was his ability to command the crowd. He dresses like a host for BBC’s Masterpiece Theater.
Round of applause. “Yeasayer’s coming up next.” More applause. Daedelus exited stage right, chilled at the swag table.
I went back to watching the baseball game and Tweeting nonsense. It’s the fourth inning by now and AJ Burnett hasn’t given up a hit against the Cubs. To be fair to the Cubs, they are the Cubs (a AAAA lineup), but good for AJ, nonetheless.
Obligatory nondescript shit on stage picture.
Yeasayer arrives on stage at the end of the 5th, all business, their entrance prefaced by a mix of someone saying “Pittsburgh” over and over again. Without any hesitation they launch into an electronic-heavy song I didn’t immediately recognize. A new song, of course. During shows I like to make notes about the setlist for my write-ups. After the third song, I put my phone and it’s notepad away. Three songs. All new. The crowd’s into it. There’s a nice beat, creative synth, etc. But the show’s growing flatter with each new song. I’d never seen a show start with a handful of songs plucked from an album that hasn’t yet been released. And not once did the band address the crowd. I know some people crave that band/crowd interaction because they want to experience a band’s personality, but I just don’t consider it necessary. If they’re cool with chatting the crowd up, then that’s a bonus. But we came to hear music and music they were going to play. Beirut, The Twilight Sad, all business, no problem.
If you see this guy, tap it.
I get my second beer, a Rogue Dead Guy. AJ’s still throwing that no-hitter in the 6th. Yeasayer finally plays their first “recognized” song. I’d tell you what it was but as I said, I gave up on the notes. If I’m tossing out names, I’ll say it was “I Remember” from Odd Blood and move on from there. The crowd jumps into full-on sing mode. Muscle dudes in tank-tops are bobbing, likewise, the PBR sippers. A lively reaction for a mid-tempo rocker from a crowd starved for familiarity.
After only a couple more familiars, Yeasayer continued with the new tracks. Still no introductions, chatter or whimsy. And I realize why it’s sometimes useful for a band to address the audience. People have more fun at shows when they know the music, there’s an intimate connection with a song you love and have listened to a few hundred times. Fans notice subtle differences, and the choices a band makes in its live set provide some nice watercooler conversation around the old blogosphere. The crowd’s being treated to some great music but when that familiarity’s not there, the song doesn’t register and therefore no connection. Even minimal interaction with the crowd could have created some grounded anticipation. Instead those new Yeasayer songs just washed over me without leaving any particular lasting impression. During a Swell Season show a few years ago, Glen Hansard prefaced each song with a one sentence synopsis like “So, I wrote this when I had my heart broken by a pretty girl from London,” which was pretty much his backstory for every song. Even this would have offered the evening some shape. Even now, one day later, as I try to remember details about their set, I’m grasping at air.
With “Ambling Alp,” sanity is restored and I can’t help but think that we’re being treated to a band at the height of it’s powers, bolstered by fan expectation for the third album, an album that, due to its more experimental nature, can never really succeed in the same way as Odd Blood. The more ambitious sound lends itself to close examination rather than immediate gratification. It is a stark contrast to what has come before it, e.g. “Ambling Alp” and the still unplayed “Madder Red.” And then as I’m thinking all of these self-proclaimed profundities about the liquid awesomeness of this band, they hop off-stage, concluding their set.
I check the baseball score. End of the 7th. Was that a short set? Or was that just me?
Why would I crave you again? Bah. I do. I want one.
The band returns a minute later, concludes their set by playing the remaining necessaries and then vacates, once again, all before the conclusion of the 8th inning. On one hand, I’m disappointed. The first album remained ignored. I felt like the entire act came and went faster than a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger. During those Odd Blood Side A tracks, I saw a crowd ignited by music, wanting more more more from this band, and the band responded by dancing to the beat of their own drum, almost oblivious to the audience’s cravings (speaking of cravings, I could go for a Jr. Bacon right about now). The concert-going experience proved to be analogous to my early feelings about the new album. I’m excited for the prospect of growth. I desperately want to know what this band can do, but I’m conflicted; I really want to hear “Madder Red” and “O.N.E.” and “Ambling Alp,” but Yeasayer seems content to tell me that I’ll like the new stuff better. And while that might be true, I’m just not ready to open my heart to a new record.
On the other hand, the show ended early enough that a bunch of guys, myself included, sidled up near the televisions to watch AJ try for the no-hitter and talk Pirates baseball. Something that, quite frankly, has never happened in all of the years I’ve lived in Pittsburgh. Burnett lost the no-hitter with two outs in the 8th. Many Wrigley faithful, with very little to cheer about on the home side, stand and applaud. I throw the gathered gents a nod and wander out into the night, chewing reluctantly on my conflicted thoughts about the concert, the new Yeasayer tracks and a near no-hitter because I know that my Wendy’s has already closed.
The Cubs’ lineup card. That has to be a welcome sight for any opposing pitcher.
I’ve said it before. Why do guys in madras shorts constantly date girls well above their pay grade? I spotted at least another three, maybe four guys wearing madras shorts at this concert.
Why was Mr. Smalls showing the WGN feed of the Pirates’ game? This bothered me for hours. But do you really go up to either bartender to be the dick that says “Hey, you know the local feed for this game is on another channel.” No. You don’t. Because they get your beer and you don’t jeopardize that relationship.
Daedelus spells his name with that random ‘e’ and not the, you know, according to the Daedalus of Greek mythology that fathered Icarus. So my bad about all those misspelled Tweets, dude.
I will save this picture on the off chance that one day I can build my DREAM house and find this architect and this decorator and tell them to make me a dining room like this. I think it's one of the first formal dining rooms I've ever really liked.