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Foals and Esben and the Witch at the Paradise Rock Club

Foals live from 2008 - no camera at this show!

I’ve been meaning to write about Foals’ sophomore LP, Total Life Forever, for months now. It’s an interesting progression from their excellent 2008 debut, Antidotes, which ranked near the top of my best albums for that year. Total Life Forever abandons the prevailing notions that they’re a math-rock band solving equations—notions I never agreed with, given my decidedly American view of that genre with Don Caballero as its despot—and instead applying those Battles-esque guitar patterns to more personal, original material. Foals successfully avoid the sophomore jinx of their dance/post-punk peer Bloc Party, so I was excited to see how new favorites like “Blue Blood,” “Black Gold,” “Spanish Sahara,” and “What Remains” came off live.

Recent Matador signing Esben and the Witch was the lone opener for the show. Even with just a few singles to date, they’ve been lavished with praise and ultra-irritating buzz words like “Balearic” and “witch house.” Their Pitchfork-approved single “Marching Song” is quite good, but unfortunately their live show was a letdown. Their attempt to replicate the subtleties of their recorded output on stage relied (from what I could tell) too heavily on sequencers / tapes to bolster the ghostly vocals, heavily gauzed guitars, and periodic drum circle pounding. There’s a critical difference between staring at a band in awe and thinking “How are they making that noise?” and staring at a band and wondering “Are they making that noise?” When I saw M83 six years ago, there was a similar disconnect—I’d say 50% was pre-recorded, then Anthony Gonzalez and company hyper-strummed their guitars over top of it and made strained faces. I’d rather a band build up their sound from scratch than rely on a tape/drum machine to fill in the gaps. That’s what makes Battles’ live show so engrossing. Esben and the Witch’s songs may rely on an uneasy mystery, but the performances shouldn’t.

Whatever the sources, Esben and the Witch’s ultimate output drifted between the early gothic incantations of the Cocteau Twins, the druggy landscapes of Bardo Pond, and the psychedelic ramblings of Pocahaunted. Cocteau Twins might be the most intriguing comparison, but I thought more of their reliance on a drum machine than any vocal similarity with Liz Fraser. Cocteau Twins got away without having a drummer, but Esben and the Witch kept finding ways to circumvent it—having singer Rachel Davies pound away on a single drum and cymbal, bringing over the other two members for a relatively simply drum circle, bringing in drum machine loops. If they found a patient drummer capable of both tribal force and minimal touches—slowcore drummers like Codeine’s Doug Scharin and Pinebender’s Dennis Stacier come to mind—the other three members can focus on filling in the gaps of their sound. It may even be the case that less would be more for their haunted soundscapes. A work in progress in either case, but that should be expected from a band without a full-length.

All of this criticism is predicated upon the still-standing notion that “Marching Song” is worth hearing when Matador releases a 12” of it on October 12 in the United States. Its atmosphere is far more carefully cultivated on record, and the lengthy b-side “Souvenirs” stretches its echoes out to chilling effect. I can’t recall the last time I disliked a band’s set but still wanted to hear their recorded material, so Esben and the Witch isn’t a lost cause by any means. You can also catch them at Matador at 21 this weekend, you know, if you’re a total jerk and got tickets to the shindig.

Unlike Esben and the Witch, Foals’ songs are designed for the live setting. There’s no studio trickery or Line Six pedals behind their interlocking pieces, only quick fingers and strong foundations. Singer/guitarist Yannis Phillipakis’s idiosyncratic stage presence and hairstyle may get the brunt of the attention, but bassist Walter Gervers is their secret weapon. The slippery basslines of “Blue Blood” and “Total Life Forever” validate the Talking Heads comparisons, while the simpler lines for Antidotes singles “Cassius” and “Balloons” anchor the group’s trademark high-fretboard noodling. Between Gervers and solid drummer Jack Bevan, Foals are built from the back-end.

Foals’ set covered both albums with an emphasis on Antidotes. “Blue Blood” opened the show with a slight lack of energy, which was the case for a few of the Total Life Forever songs—the mellow ballad “2 Trees,” the languid beginning of “After Glow” in particular. These lulls confirm that the back end of Total Life Forever sags in spots and it may take more gigs for the group’s new range to translate live. The mesmerizing arc of “Spanish Sahara,” the album’s seven-minute advance single, proves it can happen. (Even acoustically!) Less surprisingly, the Duran Duran energy of “Miami” and Talking Heads funkiness of “Total Life Forever” each thrived on stage. I give them full points for skipping current single (and album weak point) “This Orient,” but “What Remains” and “Black Gold” would have been wise choices.

Antidotes may have less original songwriting than Total Life Forever, but Foals absolutely own those earlier songs on stage. Practice made perfect for the four prominent singles from Antidotes, since “Cassius,” “Balloons,” “Olympic Airways,” and “Red Sock Pugie” more than made up for the lulls. Foals continue to tweak these songs by extending outros and honing riffs. The percussive violence of “Electric Bloom” ended the main set, then the encore contained two more Antidotes favorites. “The French Open” hit a noticeably higher volume at its peak, while the precision tuning of “Two Steps, Twice” became epic as Yannis found his way up to the balcony of the newly renovated Paradise and then, rather suddenly, over it, returning to the stage to cue the song’s climax.

It makes sense logistically for these bands to tour together—they’re both English, Esben and the Witch get exposure early in their career without having to headline, Foals get associated with a stylistically disparate act gaining critical appeal—but the difference in approach still baffles me. Call me a rockist dinosaur all you want, but I enjoy seeing bands pull it off. Foals certainly do just that, nailing every instrumental trick, but more importantly, they surpass the recorded versions of “Spanish Sahara,” “Balloons,” and “Two Steps, Twice.” Merely replicating your recorded material is worth seeing once. (Ahem, Pelican.) Continuing to evolve it is worth repeat engagements. Esben and the Witch are much earlier in that process, but evolving your songs before being able to pull them off seems like a recipe for amorphous disaster.

Ten of Ten

Here’s the completion of my ten. Next post will be bottom five.

6. The Wire : I finally caved to the whims of numerous friends and media outlets who insisted that this show was the greatest thing in the history of mankind. Having watched the first season, I understand where they’re coming from. It does so many things that I wish 24 would do: fleshes out supporting characters, avoids contrived plot twists, develops fruitful side plots, casts aside any notion of caricature, and most of all, maintains some sense of realism. I also understand the trade-off—The Wire is not as pulse-pounding as 24, except for a few occasions—but as the last few seasons of 24 have demonstrated, pursuing the big thrill gets in the way of the long-term payoff. I’ve started season two, but since I’m only through one episode right now I can’t comment on the further trajectory.

7. Foals – Antidotes: The advance of Antidotes, Foals’ debut album on Sub Pop, sat in a poorly marked folder on my hard drive for what seemed like ages. I remember digging the first track, “The French Open,” but getting annoyed by “Cassius” and not giving the rest of the record a chance. My annoyance threshold for modern dance-punk is decidedly small, particularly in the vocals department, but giving Antidotes a full listen made me appreciate its place in the recent surge in the genre. My issue with Bloc Party—my initial reference point for Foals—was how they tangled up their Gang of Four fetish with a vague approximation of that band’s political platform, which came across as a modern-day version of U2’s “Let’s change the world” mindset. Foals is thankfully smart enough to avoid U2 as a reference point, reminding heavily of pre-Mirrored Battles in their arrangements and early Q & Not U (and Bloc Party at times) in the delivery. Having David Sitek of TV on the Radio produce the album was a smart move, giving depth to an already elaborate framework. While the Battles-aping “Two Steps, Twice” surges once the chorus hits, the comparative ease of “Olympic Airways” does the best job of putting my occasional unease about the genre to rest.

8. Michael Azerrard – Our Band Could Be Your Life: According to the inscription on the inside cover, I got my copy of this book for Christmas in 2001 and probably read it over that winter break. My initial read caused me to fill in some of the major gaps in my collection; I remember tracking down Mission of Burma, Dinosaur Jr., and older Sonic Youth while making a mental note to eventually hit the other bands I’d missed. That mental note has come to fruition in the last few years, with the Minutemen, the Replacements, and Minor Threat coming into my collection. Hell, I even picked up a used copy of the first Butthole Surfers EP a few weeks back, even though I’d vowed to ignore their existence after the Touch & Go affair. Re-reading the chapters on those bands has been quite rewarding, if somewhat less informative now that I’ve been focusing on 1980s American post-punk.

9. They Live: Comcast’s OnDemand listings are usually the dregs of cable movies, but after reading an entry into The Onion’s AV Club’s New Cult Canon series, I was thrilled to get another chance to see it. I admittedly drifted for the first thirty minutes of the film, but once the plot is exposed, They Live holds up as a far more scathing companion to Repo Man’s social criticism. Elsewhere in the New Cult Canon, Clerks gets scoffed at, perhaps rightly so, but I’m far more interested in seeing what they think of Primer, one of my favorite films from this decade. Perhaps they’ll even say what Shane Carruth is up.

10. The Photographic - Pictures of a Changing World: Every now and then I enjoy chiming guitars and gradual swells in instrumental rock form. Now is one of those times. The Photographic isn’t breaking any ground here—Explosions in the Sky is the biggest touchstone—but they pull it off and that’s enough for a few listens.