Yellow Ostrich/Los Campesinos! @ Brillobox 6/24

More often than not lately I buy tickets to shows just because I want to see the opening act. I went to see Hospitality and stayed for Here We Go Magic. I make the easy agreement with myself that if I’m not enjoying the show, I have my own 100% permission to bail, no guilt. But I don’t bail because more often than not I find something in the live act that I’d not heard previously on the studio recordings. So it went, most recently, with Here We Go Magic. I’d always liked the band, but heavy rotation wasn’t in their past, present or future. Now I have Here We Go Magic’s debut record in the easy-to-access stack of vinyl next to the turntable.

Yellow Ostrich, Mistress

I’ve been following Yellow Ostrich since I heard John Richards spin a track from their EP Fade Cave on KEXP in 2009 (stream the radio station on www.kexp.org). Smitten, I downloaded both the EP and full length Mistress without hesitation.

Side note: listening to KEXP is the always the worst thing for my music budget. On any given day I’ll hear three or four new bands that I buy or toss on my wishlist. It’s a disease. Also, I trust John Richard’s taste in music more than my own. Dude is absolutely infallible. By the way, I’m listening to him now as I write this and just threw the new Exitmusic release in my to-buy list. And now he’s playing the Cure. If I were more awesome, I’d be John Richards. But I digress.

Sunday, Yellow Ostrich opened for Welsh pop-punkers Los Campesinos! (though none of them are originally from Wales), a band I perpetually enjoy but never love. A few tracks have really grabbed me.

For example, this track from Hello Sadness made my Best of 2011 list.

[tube] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOseg2IktAE[/tube]

Yellow Ostrich did not disappoint. I put up a little write up for the band’s new release on my intermittent 30Hz Recommended posts and wrote the review for Spill Magazine. From that review:

“Strange Land is the intersection of the familiar with the surreal. Frontman Alex Schaaf, a mad musical professor, under the moniker Yellow Ostrich, recorded the Fade Cave EP and The Mistress at his home in Wisconsin. In 2010 he moved to New York, released The Mistress on Barsuk Records and found himself a legitimate full-blown three-piece band, adding multi-instrumentalist Joe Natchez and drummer Michael Tapper. The songs on The Mistress are minimalist, vocal loops and solo instrumentation mixed into something raw and personal. Schaaf’s journey from the familiar (Wisconsin, working solo) to the surreal, the strange (New York, bandmates) influences everything on Strange Land, an album that embodies the schizophrenia of a man caught between two worlds.”

Alex Schaaf

Alex Schaaf

Schaaf and co. didn’t disappoint. Their live orchestration was tight and Schaaf’s performance made it clear that he pours his soul into his music. Every song sapped his energy and only the promise of performing the next one revived him. I’d been most curious how the full band would handle Schaaf’s compositions from his earlier, solo work from Mistress and Fade Cave. Both “Whale” and “Mary” sounded very similar to Schaaf’s solo mad-scientist recordings but with more depth. A live performance with more musicians, inevitably, has that effect. Just hearing the live version of the fragile “Whale,” in particular, made the show worthwhile. That was the song that caused me to buy the small Yellow Ostrich catalog back in 2009 and it still stood out as a unique and brilliant song among the new material.

Whale (recorded live at KEXP in 2011):

[tube] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NfWDmDPKKDE[/tube]

After the Yellow Ostrich set, as I have made a habit of doing, I hung out by the swag table to buy a record and chat. Schaaf hung around for a few minutes receiving some much deserved fan adulation. I only chatted him up for a few minutes about his abbreviated two week tour with Los Campesinos! that concludes in Miami of all places. He lamented the termination as the band must then spin their van back back down the long road from Florida to New York City while Los Campesinos! hops on a plane back to the UK. He seemed like a genuine guy with an easy sense of humor.

Los Campesinos!

Los Campesinos!

Los Campesinos! bounds on stage. I knew very little about the band’s makeup. Suddenly there’s a flood of musicians on the tiny Brillobox stage. If you’ve been to the Brillobox venue here in Pittsburgh, imagine a cluster of seven musicians on that miniature platform that’s more like a soap box. Led on stage by lead singer Gareth (an apparent well of infinite enthusiasm despite claiming to have been exhausted by taking to a Southside pub for the afternoon football match), the band launches into their opener and the crowd immediately begins fist-pumping and bouncing and screaming lyrics. Easily the most energetic crowd I’ve witnessed at Brillobox and probably the loudest show. Seven bandmembers, seven instruments play loud but the cacophony somehow doesn’t overcome the long, rectangular space. Their brand of indie-pop is raucous with a post-punk twist. Think Built to Spill with Joy Division and a dash of the Clash and Belle & Sebastian.

Between the two- or three-song blocks, Gareth once pauses to berate the crowd for being “so damn nice” (and he follows this by clarifying “And that’s not a good thing”) and mocks the gathered for cheering whenever he says “Pittsburgh.” “It’s such a silly American thing, all this irrational civic pride” he says and from there on refers to Pittsburgh as “the place that shall not be named.” His banter is good-natured and very British, which allows him to get away with saying pretty much anything he likes. He has the shiny, happy hipster crowd of 120 eating out of his hand. By the time the band plays “You! Me! Dancing!” the venue erupts and I’ve got to wonder what the show sounds like to those gathered in the bar downstairs. The floor bounces and the united patrons scream the chorus in perfect synchronicity.

“You! Me! Dancing!” off Hold On Now, Youngster (2008) is just pure joy. I couldn’t find a live version with decent audio. A shame.

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nj6SO_yKMe8&feature=list_related&playnext=1&list=AL94UKMTqg-9CDeaGmzyVa06JZTtdb_KWj [/tube]

It’s one of those live music moments you’ll want to bottle and remember every time the song plays. The band milks the live show for everything they’ve got. It’s no wonder they’ve built such a positive reputation for their shows.

Every time I hear Los Campesinos! I’ll still have that live performance informing all of those studio recordings. And now the previously flat music has a life and vigor that didn’t exist previously. If this tour happens to stop in your town, just go. Hang out, have a drink and enjoy some great music the way it was meant to be heard.

Notes:

Modelo EspecialIf you’re at a bar noted for its selection of microbrews and craft beer do not stride confidently up to the bar and order “the cheapest, shittiest beer you’ve got.” When a great beer, on tap, costs $5, it’s just weird. I really wish I had a picture of the guy that hopped up on the bar stool, made this request and then sat there sipping a can of Modelo (which, btw, was the cheapest, shittiest beer they had).

If you go to these shows in Pittsburgh and you see some asshole standing by himself using Twitter as company before a show, it’s probably me. Feel free to say hello, unless you just hopped up on the bar stool next to me and ordered something “cheap and shitty” because I’m probably Tweeting about you.

I paraphrase everything. Don’t think that just because I’m using quotation marks around a phrase spoken by the lead singer that I’m repeating anything verbatim. Because 1) I’ve been drinking. 2) I’m not recording the show because I see the guy that stands there recording everything on his phone and he always looks like an asshole. Just enjoy the show, dude.

Yellow Ostrich frontman Alex Schaaf recorded a re-imagining of Radiohead’s Kid A using two pianos, two violins and two cellos. It’s pretty fantastic. Listen and download here: Schaaf’s Kid A

Also, for reference, a picture of the Brillobox stage.

Those Darlins at the Brillobox, Pittsburgh

Photo by Hugh Twyman

Here We Go Magic/Hospitality @ Brillobox 5/15

Pierogi races at the Pirates baseball games

If you don't come to Pittsburgh, you won't get to see the running of the pierogis. I'm just saying.

The prelude to attending the Here We Go Magic and Hospitality show Tuesday night at Brillobox is a tale born from one of the best features of social media. In recent months I’d made a hobby out of reading tweets promoting a band’s upcoming tour schedule and if Pittsburgh happened to be absent from the schedule I’d send a return tweet with an obligatory “What do you mean you’re not coming to Pittsburgh?”

A few months ago I received one such tweet from Merge Records (@mergerecords) regarding Hospitality’s upcoming tour. No Pittsburgh. So I immediately fired back. Moments later I receive a tweet from Merge Records. “Happy now, @30hertzrumble?” with additional tour dates, including Pittsburgh. Clearly I thought that was pretty neato and bought a couple of tickets to the May 15th Hospitality show headlined by Here We Go Magic. I probably would have gone anyway, but the communication with the label solidified my attendance and quick ticket purchase. I didn’t have anyone else offhand that particularly wanted to go, but for the amazing low price of $8, I couldn’t buy just one ticket. In the weeks that followed I plugged the show a few times through Twitter. Two damn fine bands for less cash than the cost of a movie ticket. Each time I received a retweet from either Hospitality (@hospitalityband), Here We Go Magic (@herewegomagic) or Merge Records.

Fast forward to last Thursday. I still had a spare ticket. With the one-month-old baby at home, the wife and I had been swapping solo nights out (as she so effectively described in her moonlight-entry on my bl-g regarding the Imagine Dragons show) and I only have a few gamers remaining in my rolodex (gamers are friends that would attend anything, for whatever irrational reason). As I creep briskly into my thirties, those gamers are dropping like flies as time demands increase, not necessarily for their lack of gaming will. Point being, I corresponded with my general go-to gamer for this kind of stuff with this tweet:

 

A few minutes later, Here We Go Magic checked in on the conversation with this:

 

I told “Bert Macklin” that he had to attend now because the band knew about him. He did his due diligence, found a song he liked by Here We Go Magic and made a not altogether unfounded crack about the band sounding like Polvo. A band, quite frankly, I’d completely forgotten about. Here We Go Magic doesn’t ride their guitars quite as feverishly as Polvo but there’s some, if not a heap, of connectivity there.

Polvo, for your edification:

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZNIEp0uih8&feature=related[/tube]

 

…and just when you think the conversation has ended, we received this tweet:

 

“Bert” and I weren’t entirely sure about the legitimacy of our names being on the guest list for the show, but we still asked a few last minute people to see if they wanted to journey out to the Brillobox for a live show and while many were willing, ultimately I found no “date” to accompany me. We met at Brillobox and down a few libations from the bar before heading upstairs to the venue. After handing over the tickets, I asked the girl with the clipboard if, indeed, James Patrick and “Bert Macklin” were on the guest list. Sure enough– the 1st and 2nd names on the list. (Side note: apparently they’re not avid Parks and Rec viewers.)

Hospitality had just begun their set. The band sounded tight, and the more I listened to Amber Papini’s vocals the more she began to sound like Nina Persson. She’s got some of the same range and raspy qualities of the Cardigans’ frontwoman and I didn’t pick up on this at all from the album recording. Though they appeared a little rigid performing, the music played big and easy in the space for just a three-member band. If there’s any justice, Hospitality gained a few dozen fans and sold a few more records after their set.

Here’s Hospitality performing, my favorite track of theirs, “8th Avenue”:

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsTTDezmQtA&feature=relmfu[/tube]

 

Before Here We Go Magic we engaged the swag-table girl in some friendly banter, inquiring about which band member ran the Twitter account and proffered guest-list admittance to the show. She refused to answer our inquiries, thereby leading us to believe that she may, in fact, have been in charge. After all, she knew too much. She knew of our Twitter exchange and knew about the supposed “dates” we unsuccessfully procured. Curiouser and curiouser.

Here We Go Magic arrived on stage and played a lively, rollicking Krautrock-inspired set of tracks. They embellished the free spirit and eclectic influences in their music. Most succinctly, Here We Go Magic sounds like a melding of Paul Simon afro-beat and Krautrock, but they are anything and everything- varying wildly in pace from song to song, mellow to raucous to pysch-folk and something like a jam-band instrumental. Early in the set, vocalist Luke Temple repeatedly requested that their instrument output be turned up, so much so that the sound may have outgrown the room. This really didn’t work against them. This lent the poppier, more radio-friendly tracks from the new album such as “Make Up Your Mind” (Art Garfunkel via Can?) and “Collector” (from the middle album, Oingo Boingo via Amon Düül II?) extra disturbance, roughing up the edges with reverb and distortion. The standout performance, however, may have been the driving and melodious “Tunnelvision,” which also happened to be my favorite Here We Go Magic track (so I might be biased). It’s just one of those songs that can play on repeat, forever revealing new depth. “Fangala” (based purely on crowd reaction at the show) appeared to be the most widely recognized, provoking a listless crowd to relative hysteria and synchronized clapping.

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fer4JUpYWV0&feature=related[/tube]

(Normally I’d have played a clip of a live performance of the song, but I love the video too much too ignore. It was made with no post-production effects. Nail scratching and paint on Super 8mm film. Like a music video directed by Stan Brakhage.)

While there was a definite schism between the old and the new, the songs weaved together seamlessly, but the differences made me the consider the identity choices a band makes along its path from anonymity to, well, wherever it is they’re headed, whether it be pseudo-success playing for small but devoted fans or the cover of Rolling Stone. Even if that choice is to be twenty different things all at once, it’s still a choice. If that band chooses to start playing now obscure German rock from the 70s and then slowly try to bridge that into the mainstream, it’s a choice as much as it is a guiding “muse.” But at the same time, a band must grow in order to survive. Criticism solely based on a change or choice that doesn’t alter the inherent qualities of the music is not only lazy, it’s rubbish.

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5hgCN_PuO8[/tube]

I had a point at the end of that thought, but it became lost and diluted as I surfed through Krautrock videos on youtube and thoroughly mismanaged an evening of potentially spectacular fiction writing. It had something to do with some of the negativity regarding stylistic choices I read in the Pitchfork reviews of new albums from Here We Go Magic (which is clearly their most consistent and accessible offering) and Silversun Pickups (which Pitchfork just trashes left, right and inside-out).

Anyway, the end of this evening is thus: “Bert” and I never discovered precisely who tossed us on the guest list, we had a great time at a show we perhaps otherwise might not have attended. Here We Go Magic or Hospitality aren’t selling out arenas, but the bands are actively engaging followers via social media and by doing so, they’re breaking down that divide between artists and their fans. And for each person that they or their swag-table lady retweets or messages, they’re creating a relationship that fosters loyalty, spreads word of mouth and inspires certain writers to devote an evening of the precious time to promoting a couple of bands that you might not have previously known.

 

Odds and ends:

At Brillobox, a bar/venue notorious for it’s hipster problem, I noticed relatively few at the show. It makes me wonder if they hopped on the St. Vincent bus and rode on out of town. I’ll check back after my next show at Stage AE to see if they’re trickling back. Though I have to wonder what kind of hipster following Childish Gambino might encourage.

When Here We Go Magic left Pittsburgh on Wednesday they picked up a hitchhiker somewhere in Ohio that turned out to be John Waters. No goddamn joke. DClist has the story covered. I won’t say any more about this other than I hope the story gains the band extra airplay.

(Courtesy @AvtarK - aka the swag-table lady)

That Here We Go Magic hasn’t painted their van to look like the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine, seems like a lost opportunity. Also, that the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine wasn’t called the Here We Go Magic Van also seems like an egregious oversight.

The Here We Go Magic Mobile

The Here We Go Magic Mobile

 

 

Imagine Dragons @ Brillobox 4/12

Guest bl-gged by Mrs. 30Hz…

I was due to have a baby on April 8. I elected to have my very healthy and beautiful baby girl induced on April 1 for a variety of reasons, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that at least one of those reasons was so that I could attend the Imagine Dragons concert at the Brillobox on April 12. Yup, that’s right. I planned a baby around a concert. (There were also medical reasons why I induced as well, but this is a blog about music, not the messy birthing process. Ugh.) Listen, potential haters, my husband claims bl-gging is a form of therapy and if there’s anything a new mom needs it’s therapy. So I took this opportunity to attend a show and participate in guest bl-gging, aka “therapy.

Imagine Dragons - Continued Silence EPI fell in love with Imagine Dragons about eight weeks ago. I’d listened to their six-song EP for about the twenty-seventh time on my iPod at work one day when I decided to see if maybe, just maybe, they were going to come within 300 miles of Pittsburgh. My husband claims Pittsburgh isn’t such a destitute concert destination anymore, but I’m not sold yet. Imagine my shock when I learned the Dragons would be IN Pittsburgh on April 12 at Brillobox. A small indie band (that I wanted to see) coming to Pittsburgh precisely when I needed them to come to Pittsburgh. Unheard of. I purchased two tickets, cleared babysitting duties with my visiting mom and informed my husband that come hell or high water we were having this baby in time for me to attend this show.

Despite delivering my child, our second, in plenty of time to recover before the show – life threw an awesome curveball and my mother, through no fault of her own, was absolutely unavailable to babysit on April 12. Great. My husband immediately offered up his mother, and while she is a great choice, I declined.

Begin explanation:

My husband attends countless concerts, sporting events and movies at night without me and has an absolutely wonderful time doing so. I have no problem with this. Seriously. I encourage it. The man is a part-time stay at home father so I consider these outings an absolute necessity in an effort to maintain his sanity. However, the main reason Jay has such a wonderful time on his nights out is because he does not have to spend one second worrying about the kids or about getting home at a reasonable hour for the babysitter. I wanted a piece of this luxury. And so, at the risk of seriously pissing him off, I told him his butt was staying home while I went to the concert. If I hadn’t just finished carrying around another child for 9 months he might have told me where to stuff it. But he didn’t. Because he’s part saint.

I quickly coerced another mom-friend into attending the show with me. This was my first time to Brillobox and I have to say, what an awesome venue. Great sound and the “feel” of the place was exactly what I wanted for my intimate indie-band show. And I loved the wallpaper in that place. I can’t help it, I’m a girl. I notice these things.

TeamMate perform at the Brillobox, note the wallpaper. Photo by Wick Photography (wickphotography.com)

Imagine Dragons started on time – a big thank you to them considering my finite time out of the house as a nursing mom. I was shocked when they came on stage. Sorry if I offend anyone, least of all the band themselves, but surely I can’t be the only one with this reaction. For those of you who haven’t heard their EP, let me give you some background. The songs are generally upbeat indie-pop. Guster meets Yeasayer or Hot Chip. “On Top of the World” and “Round and Round” both cause rampant chair dancing in the car (I can’t call it car dancing because I just think of models at the auto show, but I digress). My two-year old is partial to “My Fault,” despite its more somber tone, although her true favorite is “Radioactive,” a minimalist-ish song with simple lyrics and pounding bass and percussion. I’ll admit it. Once she started singing the chorus to “Radioactive” under her breath in the car, I was hooked.

Anyway, back to the point. Imagine Dragons looks like a grunge band, flannels and all. Being from Vegas, I anticipated some leather and glam- not a band that got lost on their way to Seattle. Preconceptions aside, their lead singer is the perfect frontman and struck a great report with the young Pittsburgh crowd. And man can he club that bass drum. Yes, the lead singer plays an enormous bass drum through almost every song as he sings. A bigass bass drum people! There is really no better sight than watching a lead singer belt out a chorus while slamming a bass drum. Not something you see every day. Certain songs include a serious round of man-on-drum love. I hope that bass drum has a name. If I find out that the drum remains unnamed I’ll be very disappointed.

Where do you even buy plaid in Vegas?

Sadly the baby’s schedule didn’t let me stay for the Jezebels… a regrettable misfortune. I’m pretty sure Jay is still ashamed of me for not attending. Still, what a great event for my first night out after the baby.

Regarding nights out after having a baby, I have to admit I’m a little taken aback by the shocked responses by so many of my friends when they found out I attended a concert less than two weeks after having a baby. I’m confused. Does having a baby mean my love for going out and listening to great music abruptly dies? I have to confess I don’t understand why people in my age group, specifically parents, only seem to attend concerts of mega-artists such as U2 or Jimmy Buffet (so help me I do not understand this country’s obsession with that man) is in town. I recently saw a magazine ad that really ticked me off. It said “Before I have kids, I will do _____” When did having kids become a death sentence worthy of a “bucket list?”

Baby does not equal death

I ripped this from another blog (Just Thinking) that spent more time pondering this absurd notion of the Baby Bucket List. Click the image to go right to her post.

It is entirely possible that you can raise children to enjoy music other than Radio Disney. As both I and my husband have noted on this blog, my daughter’s favorite bands include The Knack, The Cars, The Killers, The Black Keys and now Imagine Dragons. I’ll overlook her love of Huey Lewis— an obsession for which I am wholly not responsible. (If you’ve read any of this bl-g, I’m betting you know the guilty party.) Even better – when we attended a Kooks concert last fall, Jay and I actually felt guilt when they played “Junk of the Heart” – at the time, her absolute favorite song in the world– that she was not present to hear it live. Then we couldn’t decide if she’d come to understand that “tunes” came from real people playing instruments and that led to a much longer debate about what she actually thinks is happening if she thinks about it at all.

As a parent, I get a lot more out of attending a concert these days than just the live music. While I can appreciate the “big” show that a band like U2 puts on, I much prefer to hear bands live and in small venues. They remind me just how good they are at what they do (despite a considerable lack of appreciation), how much better music can be live, and that there is passion in this world beyond the crazy parents, crazy politics and crazy callers on sports radio shows. I love that about concerts. Some of my friends recently said over dinner that they were hoping their daughters became doctors or lawyers. People still predominantly think this way, that there are only two “successful” career paths. I’m a lawyer and I think this is complete rubbish. I enjoy my job (more often than not), but that doesn’t mean they will. Jay and I regularly comment that we would be ecstatic if one of our daughters turned into a passionate musician, artist or chef. I want my kids to dream, to know their passion. I want them to… wait for it… imagine dragons.

Until next time, reader(s). Here’s one of the better Imagine Dragons live clips on Youtube and it’s still not a very good capture of the band. If you’re going to shows, get some video loaded up, people. I’m just not very tech savvy.

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3LkQ3BUjWI&feature=fvst[/tube]

The Twilight Sad @ the Empty Bottle, Chicago 3/2

The Twilight Sad @ the Empty Bottle, Chicago
March 2, 2012

The Empty Bottle bar

If I hadn’t been riding in a cab to the show I would have had to double check my directions. After arriving at the Empty Bottle in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village I couldn’t believe that a band like The Twilight Sad would venture from Kilsyth to Chicago to play in a corner dive bar. If I hadn’t seen the band’s bassist lingering around the swag table (which flanked a Ms. Pacman cabinet) I’d have called the whole operation into question. No punches pulled, the place is a dive, though a dive in the best possible sense – a local joint where you’d go to see your cousin’s band play a set of Ramones’ covers but only because of the $3 Shiner Bocks. The walls held together by thousands of staples, the wallpaper comprised of the impressive shards of posters documenting past acts.  Tattoo-sleeves on the bartender. Multi-colored Christmas bulbs dangled above the stage. Chiaroscuro spots at the side of the stage, that would in due time, obscure all of my attempts at in-concert photography.

Micah P. Hinson warmed up the early crowd with some standard-fare singer-songwriter angst, albeit wearing white Buddy Holly specs which at least provided a topic of conversation while my party warmed up the back end of the bar.

Young Prisms

The penultimate band, a Bay Area export by the name of Young Prisms, provided a pleasant smattering of Jesus and Mary Chain covers, which actually turned out to be their original material. The perfect opening act – familiar and unmemorable but with some potential to become an “I-saw-them-way-back-when” band. The curious footnote about the Young Prisms’ set, which proved to be a harbinger of things to come: we couldn’t tell if the supposed lead singer was actually singing. I changed my viewing angle of the stage so that the microphone wasn’t blocking the lead singer’s mouth. Yes, indeed, she’d been singing. News to us.

More about the venue. Imagine an L. Place the bar along the long upright and a two-tiered riser for concerts in the short end. The stage at the crux and a brick column flanked by doorways directly in front with room for about two dozen spectators between the stage and the column in a crowded mass. With Stella in hand I pushed near the front end of the bar in anticipation of the Twilight Sad. Though it wasn’t really anticipation per se since they were already on stage testing and honing levels without much fanfare. And then they paused. James Graham huddled over the microphone, wilting inside himself. A pause before synth and haunting distorted bass reverb commandeered the Empty Bottle. Graham’s body seethed with intensity as he brooded the opening of “Kill It in the Morning,” the concluding track on their latest No One Can Ever Know. No translation necessary. Not that deciphering his thick Scottish accent proves necessary to getting lost in the music or understanding Graham’s cryptic lyrics – but because it was almost like he wasn’t singing at all, despite the clear intent and focus on consuming the microphone. The swell of synth and percussion near the end of the song resonated with the largely idle crowd, causing the first head widespread lost-in-the-music head nods and air drumming. With the vocals drowned out by a wall of reverb, I relocated to the two-tier risers, figuring on improved sonic fidelity.

The Twilight Sad (not at the Empty Bottle)

“Don’t Move” followed but instead of reverb distorting their sound, percussion overshadowed the mix. Only when drummer Mark Devine launched the recognizable opening drum cadence for “That Summer, at Home I Became the Invisible Boy” did a song resemble an album recording. Graham belted the repeated chorus “Kids are on fire in the bedroom” clearly and intentionally, the minimal reverb finally allowing an aural connection to the singer but these connections seemed localized to songs from their prior albums. Fan favorite “Cold Days from the Birdhouse” and “Reflection on the Television” succeeded due to a more minimal, precise mix of vocals, drums and guitar. “Cold Days” in particular offered Graham’s voice a chance to come into focus. He lingered on particular passages, slowed the tempo, played with our expectations and highlighted a sadness in the song’s chorus that isn’t wholly apparent on the album version.

But this highlight came too late in the show, perhaps, to hook anyone unfamiliar with the bands catalog. Those already familiar with The Twilight Sad and their music would have reveled in the chance to witness Graham, in the way the prior music generation witnessed Ian Curtis’ localized intensity, his ability to command a two foot space on a stage and thereby an entire room. The orchestration sustaining his performance on stage, eyes closed, lost in the synth and reverb. Songs from the “No One Can Ever Know” album, as great as they are on the album, amplified too large for the space and drowned even Graham’s confident vocals. Poor Stephanie Hodapp of the Young Prisms’ never stood a chance.

Still trying to find that sweet spot, that spot that allowed each component of music to flourish, I nestled into the small crux of the “L” next to the brick column directly in front of the stage and located a semblance of fidelity just as “And She Would Darken the Memory,” a favorite track from Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, concluded. Even the accent-clouded lyrics of the chorus “And their friendly faces with put on smiles” emerged through the din with a measure of intelligibility. Sigh. Once the Twilight Sad left the stage after their curious closer, “At the Burnside” – a song noted for its notorious “wall of sound” comprised of wailing guitar, piano and percussion – I reported my finding to my party, now nursing their final drinks at the rear of the bar. They shrugged and we wandered out into the snowy Chicago evening. We caught a cab and I spent the entire time questioning what went wrong, my voice too loud for the silent cab. I began the process of turning down the volume on the synth and reverb still echoing in my head. I questioned the choice of venue and the sound engineers but never the band. Not even once. The performance was there and showcased brilliantly in fits and spurts. But in the end, I decided that maybe this venue, this corner dive, was precisely the place that the Twilight Sad could be precisely themselves, baring their damaged souls but still hiding among the reverb and causing everyone else to question, exactly, what it all means.

Fanfarlo w/ Gardens & Villas @ Mr. Smalls 3/25

Fanfarlo w/ Gardens & Villas @ Mr. Smalls 3/25

Why isn’t Fanfarlo a bigger deal? They play a brand indie-pop of reminiscent of early Arcade Fire,  Talking Heads with some Beirut-style horns mixed in for good measure. I understand the criticisms leveled at them for being derivative. Sure, we all want something new, something thrilling because it’s never been done before. But at the same time, I’ve got to level with you– it’s all already been done in some form or another. To be overly brief, all art is derivative. Even the first cave paintings were inspired by real life; Death of  a Salesman didn’t just spontaneously appear in the mind of Australopithecus. Why then are some critics so offended by similarly sounding music? Fanfarlo is the first modern band I’ve heard that has really nailed the mid-tempo Talking Heads groove. Most bands sound bored or restrained when dealing with that middling pace, but Fanfarlo legitimately understands what made the Heads such a pleasure.

Replicate

There’s something called the Pleasure Principle. We seek pleasure in order to avoid that which might harm us. It’s in our very nature to feel comfortable with familiar music in the same way we’re going to avoid jumping out of a three-story building, just to see what happens. Fanfarlo won’t be knocking on the pearly Pitchfork gates anytime soon but they’re a tight-sounding quintet that has a lot of fun playing music. So in short: Arcade Fire? Good. Talking Heads? Good. Beirut? Good. Joey Tribiani’s Trifle Logic proves true. Fanfarlo. Good. See below for reference.

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5v_BE6lFE0o[/tube]

I’d love to tell you more about Gardens & Villas live set but quite frankly I missed the entire thing because I had to get my daughter to bed. The my wife is 9-months pregnant and largely incapable of dealing with a highly-energized (nearly three year old) daughter. So it goes. I bought their solid 2011 debut album on vinyl to make peace.

Fronted by the Swedish Simon Balthazar, Fanfarlo started minimal, opening with a personal favorite track and the first song on their latest album Rooms Filled With Light: “Replicate.” Thanks to Youtube user pghmusicreport for uploading video from this show.

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiKd7Ku_NR0[/tube]

The sparse orchestration of the track allows for a cross-section of the sound. Isolated violin. Keyboard. Bass. A couple of songs in, Simon finally began some chatter and mistakenly suggested it was the band’s first trip to Pittsburgh. He was immediately corrected by Cathy (violin, keyboard, vocals) and his drummer Amos who pointed out someone in the front row who had done some drawings of them at that prior show at the Brillobox. Quick wit, from a drummer. I texted my wife to tell her about the drummer with the quick wit. She didn’t believe me.

The band played tight but chatted loosely. Later in the show Cathy again corrected Simon who had incorrectly pronounced the name of the opening act (Vill-ahs rather than the correct Spanish pronunciation Vee-yas). And they had another good laugh at Simon’s expense. Amos later apologized for taking the last small white Fanfarlo T-shirt from the swag booth. Bassist Justin Finch praised some sing-a-longers (specifically the tall guy in the black hoodie) who knew all the words to their songs and then (without pointing fingers) chided those that sang-a-long but didn’t know the words (“It’s actually quite distracting and you should study up before next show.”) All in good fun. I prattle on about their stage prattle because it’s part and parcel with a band that’s up there having fun with their music even though the actual performance goes pretty strictly by the book. There was very little deviation from the recorded versions of the songs. I wouldn’t expect new-ish bands to do much free-styling.  Simon, however, seemed to cut loose a little bit on “Harold T. Wilkins” — the standout track from their 2009 debut. Video again courtesy of pghmusicreport.

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_tNMZOoL48[/tube]

So maybe they’re not the most original or the most innovative band. They’re comfort food for the ears and an inherently likeable UK-based quintet that spins carefully orchestrated indie-pop . In these days when a single Pitchfork review can mobilize entire legions of potential fans and bloggers in either direction, it’s a shame that Pitchfork review unfairly labeled Rooms Filled With Light a waste of time. I doubt I have the pull to override even a fraction of the negativity but I’m going to do my best. Listen to Fanfarlo. Support the tour. And learn your lyrics.