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Bottomless Pit at the Middle East Upstairs

One of my biggest concert-going regrets is passing up a Silkworm concert in Chicago back in November of 2004, less than a year before drummer Michael Dahlquist’s death from vehicular manslaughter the following July. While that tragedy could not have been anticipated, my fondness for Silkworm’s tremendously consistent catalog has grown by leaps and bounds since then, amplifying the ache of a missed opportunity. I’d also passed on my first chance to see Andy Cohen and Tim Midgett’s new group, Bottomless Pit, when I brushed off their opening performance for Magnolia Electric Company until the show had sold out. Had I known that their debut LP, Hammer of the Gods, would be such a revelation, I would’ve bought tickets long in advance. This time I took no chances; those tickets had been sitting above my laptop for months.

Former Codeine drummer and Come guitarist Chris Brokaw opened the show with a mix of acoustic and electric songs. I always enjoyed his vocal contributions to the latter outfit, especially “Shoot Me First” from Near Life Experience and “Recidivist” from Gently Down the Stream, so my attention was understandably piqued by a few of his more straightforward songs. Considering how frequently he’s played in town, especially at the nearby P.A.’s Lounge, I don’t have an excuse for waiting this long to see him perform. Next time I’ll yell out for one of those Come songs and pick up that limited vinyl pressing of his 2005 album Incredible Love.

My trip to the ATM down the block caused me to miss Brokaw sitting in with his fellow New Year members the Kadane Brothers, but the rest of the duo’s set was impressive enough without him. Despite owning Bedhead’s Transaction de Novo and having seen The New Year (with Silkworm/Bottomless Pit guitarist Andy Cohen) play a show with Crooked Fingers in Champaign, their music has never quite clicked, but I think this show finally won me over to their brand of melancholic minimalism. I credit a chair at the back of the Middle East Upstairs for allowing me to appreciate their subtle melodies and songwriting craft. I’m now planning on grabbing The New Year’s self-titled third LP when it’s released this fall.

During the Kadane Brothers’ final song, the members of Bottomless Pit (photos here) gradually ambled on stage and joined the melody of that song before seamlessly segueing to the excellent “Leave the Light On” as the Kadanes left the stage. Even without piano punctuation from its recorded version, “Leave the Light On” was a powerful opener, swelling with Midgett’s baritone guitar leads and Cohen’s nervous Telecaster twitches. Cohen’s “Dogtag” followed with its emotional “We saw our connection there / On the way down” chorus. The dynamic between Midgett and Cohen came to the forefront during the material from their new Congress EP. While each member usually takes the melodic leads on their own songs, Midgett’s exquisite “Red Pen” peaked with a dueling solo and Cohen’s “Fish Eyes” features similar interplay between the high-end of Midgett’s baritone guitar and Cohen’s Telecaster.

Even with a one-song encore, Bottomless Pit’s set seemed all too short. I needed more moments like Cohen’s raised voice on “Greenery,” Midgett’s enthusiastic delivery of “Sometimes you gotta take control” in “Reposession,” and Cohen’s pick-less guitar in “Dead Man’s Blues.” The consolation prize for such tantalizing economy was a copy of the Congress EP, which certainly merits its own post.

Polvo at the Middle East Downstairs

Along with Pavement, Seam, Rodan, and Archers of Loaf, Polvo pushed me further and deeper into indie rock obsession during high school. Naturally, all of them broke up before I moved off to college, thereby preventing me from the hit-or-miss experience of a vintage Polvo show, but their current reunion / reformation finally rectified that situation. There’s something about their music that seems particularly tantalizing in a reunion context, since they were too fidgety and strange as a band to trot out the greatest hits and leave it at that (see: Pixies). Not that they don’t have greatest hits—“Feather of Forgiveness,” “Vibracobra,” “Can I Ride,” “Every Holy Shroud,” “Gemini Cusp,” “Tilebreaker” and a number of others immediately come to mind—but I had no idea what they’d actually play and even less of an idea of how they’d play it.

New Radiant Storm King (photos here) seemed like an appropriate opening act, since I mainly know of them courtesy of a split single they did with Polvo back in 1994. This show was the first time I’d actually heard them, however. Their genial banter was a good fit for their 1990s-styled indie rock, although in a strange twist the songs from their next record sounded better than their older material. I’ll check out that record whenever it comes out and catch them again the next time they play Boston.

Birds of Avalon blended drifting psych-rock and cocksure 1970s hard rock with promising results as the middle act. Some of the psychedelic aspects felt too aimless, like they simply ran out of meaty riffs to fill the songs, but I can see them putting together a cohesive show and/or album in the future.

In an interview about Polvo’s upcoming shows, bassist Steve Popson calls it a “reformation” rather than a reunion. I hadn’t seen this comment before the show at the Middle East, but damn if it doesn’t make a ton of sense in retrospect. I’ve listened to Polvo’s albums—well, maybe not Shapes*—enough to sleepwalk through every note with ease, but Polvo (photos here) threw obstacles in my path at every turn. Switching drummers to Brian Quast brought more heft to the songs, but also forced the rest of the band to relearn and, in many cases, rewrite the old songs. Some songs, like the encores of “Tragic Carpet Ride” and “Fast Canoe,” stayed relatively true to the originals, but “Fractured (Like Chandeliers)” and “Every Holy Shroud” took pleasure in casting aside their old structures. (Note: the linked clips are to various reunion performances; I only took pictures of the Boston show.)

Each guitarist sang one new song, with Dave Brylawski’s contribution sounding like a restrained version of one of his Shapes tracks and Ash Bowie’s recalling more of the Exploded Drawing era, and I think there might’ve been a new instrumental track. Given the proliferation of new material within the old songs, like an alien bridge section of “Every Holy Shroud,” it’s hard to tell where truly new material started and where improvisation of old material ended. The set list also included “D.D.S.R.,” “Bombs That Fall from Her Eyes,” “Thermal Treasure,” “Title Track,” and “Feather of Forgiveness,” but nothing from Cor Crane Secret.

It’s unclear whether they’ll record a new album this year, but this reformation should certainly be filed alongside Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr. in the worthwhile category. I’m rarely as afraid of my peers that a reunion will soil a band’s legacy, since I’m not all that concerned about critical legacies affecting my personal enjoyment of a group, but I was surprised that seeing Polvo reformed made me appreciate them more.

* Side note: After I took a picture of a distant set list so I could zoom in and read the titles more easily before they started playing, the guy behind me asked if I could read the list. After I started relaying song titles, he decided he didn’t want to know, so I said, “Oh, they’re actually just playing all of Shapes.” He said, “I wouldn’t mind that.” This is why I don’t make friends at rock concerts.

A Week's Worth of Shows

Considering that I’d only attended one show this calendar year prior to May—Junius at Great Scott back in March—seeing four shows in eight days was a minor miracle. I would’ve seen five if I’d ponied up for Wye Oak at Great Scott, but after buying tickets for Polvo in June and Bottomless Pit in July, I felt like a night watching the San Jose Sharks’ hapless playoff plight might be a welcome respite for my wallet.

Stars of the Lid and Christopher Willits performed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, kicking off my week of concert-going. Aside from the middle-aged woman who sat next to me and chided me for taking non-flash photos of Willits’ set, it’s hard to imagine a better setting for both acts. I was unfamiliar with Christopher Willits’ work, but his heavily processed guitar work reminded me of the melodic micro-glitch of Accelera Deck’s Pop Polling. These detailed soundscapes coincided perfectly with Willits’ projected videos, particularly one focusing on weeds coming out of sidewalk cracks. The videos from his 2006 album Surf Boundaries emphasize a push into the processed shoegaze of Guitar’s Sunkissed and M83’s Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts, but Willits didn’t utilize anything beyond his guitar and laptop for this set.

Stars of the Lid came out with three string players and accompanying video projections from Luke Savisky. Much like their recorded material, it’s hard for me to relate what made Stars of the Lid’s live performance so awe-inspiring. On record, I’m astonished by how much emotional resonance they can create with such a reserved sonic footprint, but live this footprint was expanded significantly by the string trio, who interacted with and often surpassed the subtle drones created by Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride. Willits joined them for the set closer, which may or may not have been “Even If You’re Never Awake (Deuxieme),” and although his contributions were remarkably subtle, the song still swelled to a previously unforeseen breaking point. The video projection raced at a breakneck pace to mirror this fever pitch, but soon everything returned to calm. Stars of the Lid certainly deserved an encore, but clapping furiously for one seemed downright strange after the nature of their set. The band caved, playing my personal favorite from last year’s And Their Refinement of the Decline, “Tippy’s Demise,” a song tailor-made for their live line-up. I’m admittedly curious about how Stars of the Lid would have sounded at the Staerkel Planetarium back in Champaign, IL, but this performance gave little reason for jealousy.

The following Tuesday I caught Foals and The Ruby Suns at the Middle East Downstairs, narrowly missing local opener Pray for Polanski’s set. I hadn’t heard anything about The Ruby Suns, but watching them set up made me nervous; three people manning a stage full of instruments, including the ever-foreboding flute. The end result was a sunnier, less interesting version of the Berg Sans Nipple’s rhythmic pop. Whereas the Berg Sans Nipple derives from a Nebraska/France axis, the Ruby Suns claim both New Zealand and California as home. Despite all of the instrument-switching, most songs ended up sounding like they were comprised of vocals, a bass line, a heavily flanged keyboard or guitar part, and either faux-tribal drumming or electronic club beats. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Pitchfork loves this stuff, since it seems close enough to Animal Collective to merit their affections, but I don’t anticipate checking out their recorded material for comparison’s sake.

I had high hopes for Foals’ set after seeing a few live clips on YouTube and they did not disappoint. Playing most of their Sub Pop debut Antidotes (minus album closer and personal favorite “Tron”) and their pre-album singles “Hummer” and “Mathletics,” Foals did an excellent job mixing up the arrangements of these songs by adding extended intros and making up for missing production magic with more brute force. Prominently coifed singer/guitarist Yannis Philippakis had considerably more stage presence than anticipated, although some stage chatter veered toward Boston-oriented pandering. While I didn’t come away from the performance finally grasping why they’re routinely called a math-rock band—tricky high-end fretwork may be a prominent signifier, but there’s simply no math involved in their 4/4 signatures—it’s hard to deny that they’re certainly good at what they actually do: cosmopolitan dance-punk.

Local indie pop/rock group You Can Be a Wesley opened up The Acorn’s first Boston show the following night at Great Scott. I hadn’t heard of the band prior to seeing the bill, but their set showed promise, if not a fully realized whole. After the fashionably empty set from the Ruby Suns the night before, I was glad to hear something genuine. Vocalist Saara reminded Acorn bassist/guitarist Jeff DeButte of Joanna Newsom, a comparison I can only assume is accurate given my steadfast avoidance of that harpsichord-wielding singer/songwriter. The music itself would benefit from a bit of road-testing, since many of the songs were flush with extraneous parts and could use some paring down, but the vocal melodies were strong. Joanna Newsom fronting a Chapel Hill indie-pop band, maybe? Worth keeping an eye out.

I’d been looking forward to seeing The Acorn since I first heard that a Boston date was in the works for their spring tour. Glory Hope Mountain was one of last year’s best surprises and has remained close to my listening pile since its release. Unfortunately, The Acorn were out of the 2LP pressing of the album, so I’ll have to suck it up and order the vinyl from Paper Bag. As for their performance, the six members did an excellent job of fleshing out the details of their recorded work while bringing more “rock” elements to fundamentally folk songs. The highlight was “Flood Pt. 1,” as its choral exuberance and pounding rhythms were a perfect fit for the end of their main set. The up-tempo rock of “Spring Thaw” from their Tin Fist EP (which I got on my trip up to Montreal last winter) closed out the evening, just before the band were treated to tour-ending shots from the Great Scott. Unless you live in the Ottawa area, you’ll probably have to wait a while before the Acorn makes it to your town, but in the meantime heed my latest recommendation to check out Glory Hope Mountain.

The Night Marchers and the Dynamiters closed out my week of shows at the Middle East Upstairs. Montreal aggro-punks CPC Gangbangs were supposed to be on the bill, but they apparently had some problems getting into the country (I’d imagine there are very strict tariffs on importing gangbangs), so The Dynamiters were moved up the bill. I hadn’t realized that they featured members of the Selby Tigers, a band I was not particularly impressed by when they opened up for Sean Na Na in Chicago, but thankfully those members have found a better gig. The Dynamiters slightly recalled the more straightforward rock moments of John Reis’s previous work in Rocket from the Crypt, but their alternating vocal turns and garage rock riffs kept me from lingering on that comparison. Their relatively short set left me wanting more, particularly after a set close that ended after less than a minute.

I’ve listened to The Night Marchers’ debut LP See You in Magic a few times, but so far it hasn’t clicked on the level of past Reis efforts like Rocket from the Crypt, Hot Snakes, or Drive Like Jehu. Yet having seen RFTC and Hot Snakes, I figured that Speedo’s status as a consummate showman would surpass any of the weaker material, an assumption that didn’t quite come to fruition. “In Dead Sleep (I Snore Zzzz),” “Bad Bloods,” and “Jump in the Fire” throttled as well as Reis’s past bands, but passing on album highlight “I Keep Holding On” in favor of some of the 1950s-flavored mid-tempo numbers was downright curious. Reis’s stage presence was in classic form, but there just isn’t enough greatness on See You in Magic to stretch over a headliner’s set. Unless you’re a diehard Reis devotee, you may want to wait until the band releases a follow-up to help expand their set list.

Download Festival

I hadn’t even heard of the Download Festival until this week, but shortly after seeing a commercial I found out how to get complimentary tickets. Three and a half bucks in Ticketmaster charges to see a bill of former indie bands I won’t pay full price to see anymore? Sure, I’ll suffer through an all-day outdoor/indoor festival.

Since the festival’s web site didn’t list set times for the bands, we got there early. Oops. Door prizes? Well, we got free corporate schwag from the festival’s numerous sponsors, but we also had to see an unlisted local opener (the Adam Ezra Band) who played jam band lite, a “real” jam band (Apollo Sunshine), and a hair metal revival act (Bang Camaro). I can just imagine the festival executives shaking their heads over the prospect of an outdoor festival without a reasonable draw for local stoners before having an epiphany. “Shit, we could book those bands early on! We don’t even need big names! We can still meet our drum circle quota!” Phew. As for the hair metal revival, I’d be fine with its existence only if the Jersey shoreline split off and became a sovereign nation under the despotic control of the Jon Bon Jovi / Bret Michaels administration.

Just before Band of Horses started playing, I heard a familiar racket coming from the Volkswagen “garage rock” display, in which they had set up amps, guitars, and drums for the kids to play. Prior to this point, it had been the kind of aimless jamming that I’d expect from this scenario, but this time it was some local band playing their youthful attempt at Les Savy Fav worship. It’s hard to dismiss the value of context for this situation—if I’d heard this band at the Middle East, it would be par for the course, but after seeing Bang Camaro’s wretched party metal, it threw me for a loop. Thanks kids.

Band of Horses played a solid mix of songs from their forthcoming album Cease to Begin and last year’s Everything All the Time. While none of the new songs hit quite as well as “The Funeral,” the new tracks seemed more fleshed-out instrumentally than their older counterparts, incorporating piano and pedal steel effectively. Wolf Parade followed with an even greater prevalence of new material, returning to only “I’ll Believe in Anything” and “Shine a Light” from Apologies to the Queen Mary. I tend to only listen to three or four Wolf Parade songs before getting bored or sick of ’em, so having two of their five new songs qualify as great is essentially on par from the last record. Their set seemed short (play “Fancy Claps,” goddammit), but the stage banter was humorous enough to excuse their early exit.

The rest of the show was in the concert shell, so we took our seats and waited for Neko Case to start. I’ve tried getting into the New Pornographers and simply found them too peppy for my liking, but Neko’s voice carried well and Kelly Hogan (a guest vocalist on a Silkworm record or two) did some excellent back-up vocals. I enjoyed her songs enough, but can’t remember a single one of them.

I saw the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play in City Hall Plaza last summer, so this setting was hardly alien for a band I first saw open up for three other bands at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. Karen O came out in something that looked like a metallic owl costume, then stripped down to her leopard print leotard and pranced around the stage. Yep. Just another day for her. Their set list again ignored “Y-Control” from Fever to Tell and seemed to go a little long, especially with a false start of “Maps” in its standard electric version before switching over to an acoustic take, but on the whole it brought some energy back after Neko Case’s set. They need some songs to bridge the gap between “Maps” and the rest of their set, but that’s what third albums are for, right?

I knew that I’d heard Guster, since they were once the subject of a “guess this song” question at team trivia (we were not successful), but I couldn’t remember what they sounded like. The people in front of us had no idea either, so we exchanged guesses like “light rock for dudes who like Dave Matthews Band” and “Wilco lite” (followed by “Isn’t that Wilco lite lite now?”) before their set started. As it turned out, we were fairly accurate, as Guster’s overwhelmingly bland adult-oriented rock blared out into the amphitheater. The polarization of the crowd was humorous enough—while the vaguely indie people around us left to smoke, nearly everyone else stood up and hugged their girlfriend, bro, or both. Whether that’s a conditioned response to bongos is unclear, but I zoned out until the headliners.

I’d only seen Modest Mouse once before, back in 2000 with a then-unknown Shins started off the bill, but they might as well have been separate bands except for Isaac Brock’s drunken ramblings. I don’t think the band played anything prior to Good News for People Who Like Bad News, with the majority of their set coming from their newest record. I was intrigued to see how Johnny Marr and Brock would mesh as guitarists, but their respective styles didn’t truly spar until the set’s elongated closer, “Spitting Venom.” Marr’s smooth leads worked well against Brock’s raw tones as they stretched the end of the overwhelming highlight of We Were Dead… longer and longer. They waited a few minutes before heading out for the obligatory encore, after which point I bolted to the parking lot to avoid becoming a permanent residence.

I can’t complain too much about spending less than four bucks to see the five worthwhile bands on the bill, but I imagine that I’ll avoid outdoor shows that aren’t sponsored by sunscreen companies for the rest of the summer.

The Twilight Sad and A Northern Chorus Live

I caught this show courtesy of Bradley’s Almanac, a far more user-friendly website than this one (lists upcoming Boston shows, posts audio bootlegs of shows, and gives away tickets and CDs). Aereogramme was initially the headliner for the show, which piqued my interest, so I checked out the other two bands to see how early I’d like to go. But by the time the ticket giveaway started, Aereogramme’s visa problem had forced them to delay their visit to Boston until the end of April. I liked what I had heard of A Northern Chorus and The Twilight Sad, so I was glad to move the show from game-time decision to no-risk night out with my random drawing.

I find it hard to think of adjectives that aren’t variations of “nice” or “pleasant” for A Northern Chorus’s opening set, which is unfortunate because I remembered enjoying every song they played. The Canadian six piece coupled violin and cello with frequently effects-laden guitars, but most of the set limited the crescendos in favor of tasteful introspective indie rock, reminding me of a more up-tempo incarnation of early Very Secretary. I hesitate on using “nice” or “pleasant” since those are effectively synonyms for “bland” or “inoffensive,” but ANC’s songs are well crafted enough to hold my attention. Can’t say I’ll go out of my way to see them headline a show, but I’ll gladly watch them open for a band I like, perhaps even when they open for Aereogramme’s make-up performance at the end of April.

Immediately after their set I chatted with Brad of Bradley’s Almanac, who was successful in determining my identity through a lone tidbit; “Guy with Pentax SLR” is apparently specific enough. I somehow managed to get on the topic of Juno—it doesn’t take much—and learned that he’s a fan, so any affections I have for his site should be doubled now. Ironically, talking to Brad distracted me from my lone between-set task of picking up a free Northern Chorus CD from the merch table. Oops.

The Twilight Sad had an air of future stardom, a claim I rarely make and a status I have almost no interest in predicting. (This show was a week before Pitchfork ranked them in the Best New Music category.) I credit the stage presence and vocals of James Graham for much of this air, since his vague disinterest and occasional menace were surprisingly captivating and his vocals ring out clear, even when yelled a bit. The band has a few great songs already—“And She Would Darken the Memory” and “Walking for Two Hours”—and those came across quite well in the live setting, giving Graham a chance for minor histrionics and secondary percussion duties. It’s hard for me not to think of them as the shoegazer version of Idlewild, which is an admittedly lazy comparison based primarily on the shared Scottish accent, but the Twilight Sad have a similarly anthemic quality. The band needs a second guitarist/keyboard player/accordion player, however, in order to fully replicate the depth of sound on their recordings. They certainly were loud enough, but the bass player’s tone was horrible for most the set and the guitarist wandered through lazy arpeggios during a few songs’ verses. Hell, they may not even need to worry about that, since I have the sense that, in true Idlewild fashion, the aesthetic will soon take a backseat to the songwriting and vocal charisma. I’ll pick up Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters when it’s available on vinyl, but their second record should be pivotal in terms of the band’s development. Keep an eye on them in any case.

I did take some pictures of both bands, although the set for A Northern Chorus turned out considerably better than the set for The Twilight Sad. I tried setting the white balance to the Middle East Upstairs’ lighting conditions, which worked out far better than I expected, but I personally prefer the cast of a certain color from the house lights.

Battles Live at Great Scott

Here are my pictures of Battles. This may be a spoiler.

I haven’t given Battles’ Mirrored an official mention, but the album has quickly made it into the small handful of 2007 records already penciled into my year-end list. If you haven’t seen the video for the single, “Atlas,” do so right away. The song may take a few listens to click—I’ve learned through extensive market research that chipmunk-pitched vocals are, at best, an acquired taste—but I can’t think of any songs from this year that top it. When I saw that Battles were headed to Great Scott in Allston, I almost frothed at the mouth. Given the band’s enthusiastic performance in the video and their reputation as a stellar live act, I gladly pre-ordered my ticket.

It turns out that I’m not alone in my enthusiasm for the band or their new material, as one of my friends sent me a disappointed e-mail the day of informing me that the show had sold out. Great Scott isn’t an enormous venue, so I wasn’t too surprised, but I’ve always been baffled by which Boston shows sell out. Hopefully Battles will come through again when Mirrored is officially out and play a larger venue.

Part of the reason for my pre-order was a prior commitment to playing poker at MIT, a commitment that ended up going longer than I expected. I can’t scoff at winning a poker tournament, but it did prevent me from any of Amoroso’s set and most of Major Stars’ set. What I saw of Major Stars’ performance was excellent, though—incendiary psych-rock jams that did not want to quit. They seem to fit in far more with the aesthetic and audience of P.A.’s Lounge, so hopefully I’ll be able to catch them there over the summer.

Battles’ move to the stage compelled the audience to crush forward, and unfortunately I was just off of the Ian Williams’ corner of the stage, preventing me from taking easy pictures or hearing much of Tyondai Braxton’s vocals. Neither of those aspects limited my enjoyment of their set, however, as they started with the glitching drone into galloping grooves of “TIJ” and never let up. When “Atlas” became recognizable from its loop-heavy opening, the crowd went nuts. Song’s a hit, folks.

Having seen Ian Williams perform with the three-piece incarnation of Don Caballero, I knew of his guitar-playing trickery, but watching him do finger-tapped leads on guitar (then loop them on his EchoPlex) and high-speed keyboard parts at the same time dropped my jaw far more than even that performance. Whereas Don Caballero sounds endlessly complex on record and revels in that aspect live (particularly in the nameless new band Damon Che recruited to replace Williams and Eric Emm), Battles manage to bundle all of their tricky parts into a cohesive whole. John Stanier’s combination of brute force and technical precision is the lynchpin for the band’s success, but there’s no weak link in the band.

Battles avoided almost all crowd banter and only played a one song encore before ending for the night. Some may view this stance as a kind of standoffish rock star pose, but I’d argue against it on the strength of this performance. They did almost everything I’d want out of a performance; played (most of) their best songs, performed with a visible enthusiasm, avoided lulls between songs, took strong studio recordings and reshaped them in the live setting with a new energy, and didn’t play too long. After bumming around so I could purchase the “Atlas” 12″, I drove home completely pleased with their performance.

Slight Tangent Number One: I’m amazed by how many people in Boston have digital SLRs at shows. Between the Isis show, the Do Make Say Think show, and the Battles show, there has been a consistent number of SLRs in the audience, almost all loaded with flash guns and battery packs. It’s been a while since I’ve taken concert photography regularly, but I have to assume that it’s the drop in price for entry-level digital SLRs (I mean, even I have one) which is causing this increase. I’d gotten used to coming to shows late and hanging out in the acoustic sweet spot of the venue, but I guess that trend will be coming to an end if I’d like to put any emphasis on my photography. Crap.

Slight Tangent Number Two: I ran into Mike Fournier after the show and chatted with him a bit. In case I haven’t mentioned this, I’m fairly sure he’s my doppelganger. I had coffee with him a few months ago to talk about the Juno documentary, and at the time he was sending the final proofs for his book on the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime into Continuum. Now the book has been released and is available from Amazon, awaiting both my and your purchase. I genuinely like the concept of the 33 1/3 series, even if some of the choices of albums may not cater to my particular tastes, but this book should be a worthy pick-up for anyone even slightly interested in the band or album. Now all Continuum needs to do is green-light my theoretical tome on Juno’s A Future Lived in Past Tense and we’ll be all set.

Isis and Jesu

I missed seeing Isis last May when I opted for paper writing over show going, but there isn’t too much guilt about heading out on a Saturday in March aside from missing a late NCAA game. Jesu (pronounced “yayzu”) managed to get their recent visa problems worked out, so I managed to see two bands that had records in my top 20 of 2006. Zozobra was the other opening act and were alright for a more scream-heavy metal band, but naturally I preferred the closing instrumental song to the rest of their set.

Jesu quickly topped the finest moments of Zozobra’s set with an absolutely crushing rendition of “We All Faulter” from the self-titled record. I cannot stress how loud this was from my vantage point twelve feet away from the big speakers; my scalp was vibrating for almost the entirety of the set and my teeth started to hurt. Most of the sonic details of the songs were relegated to background tracks running off a laptop, but Broadrick and his rhythm section filled in every possible gap underneath the occasional melodic twitch of those feedback loops. His voice sounded excellent live, a soothing, meditative presence amidst the punishing heft. Jesu only played five songs (“Silver,” “Conqueror,” “Friends Are Evil,” and “Transfigure” filled out the set), but since almost all of these reached toward the ten-minute mark, it felt complete. I might have preferred if Broadrick had recruited a second guitarist or keyboard player to replicate the details from the studio rather than opt for the laptop route (cough, M83, cough), but since the end result still strayed heavily from the studio versions, I’ll let it pass.

Isis treads a very fine line in their live performances; their recent songs are based on interlocking parts, which all need to be heard live in order for the songs to take shape, but the band also needs the bulging riffs to carry the necessary weight and energy. I was a bit surprised at how well they accomplished both of these without sounding too much like spot-on re-enactments of the records, a practice I’ve been wary of since seeing a textbook, but somewhat lifeless Pelican performance last summer. It was great seeing who was doing what on the songs and how. Aaron Harris didn’t reveal any major surprises, but his drumming held the songs together during the drifting sections.

The set list seems to be typical for this tour, which is a bit frustrating seeing as it avoided most of my preferred Isis tracks (“Garden of Light,” “So Did We,” “Weight,” “Carry” “Syndic Calls”) in favor of half of the new record, although “Holy Tears,” “In Fiction,” and “Not in Rivers but in Drops” all killed. They did play “Celestial” as an encore, which came as a surprise since I’d heard that the band hadn’t taken kindly to recent requests for the song. I hoped that they might stick around to play “Garden of Light,” which would have been an excellent closer, but no dice.

Beyond the two excellent performances, I was also able to pick up a few of the recent vinyl releases that had either eluded me or been overpriced at Newbury Comics: Jesu’s Silver and the Isis/Aereogramme In the Fishtank collaboration. The former was only $15 (as opposed to $20 plus shipping from Hydrahead’s store) and the latter only $12, so grab them from the shows if possible. Both bands had wide arrays of clothing, but since my t-shirt drawer is reaching critical mass, I decided against further merch pick-ups.

Appleseed Cast and the Life and Times

Ever since I missed the majority of an epic Penguins–Flyers playoff OT tilt (the 5/4/2000 5OT classic) because of a National Skyline show and, more brutally, the Illinois comeback against Arizona in the 2005 Elite Eight because of a Slint reunion show, I’ve been wary of sporting events coinciding with major shows. Fortunately this show only caused me to miss out on a predicted Duke loss to VCU in the first round of the NCAA tournament, not the greatest game in the history of sports, so things worked out fairly well.

I managed to catch the last three songs of Caspian’s set, which piqued my interest in their upcoming full-length. They managed to shed most of the Explosions in the Sky comparisons when they stuck to more violent, riff-oriented post-rock on penultimate song of their set, but the set closer was more of a slow burn crescendo into a drum circle. Drum circles, eh? The only one of those I remember enjoying was XBXRX, since it comprised half of their eight-minute-long set and did not involve their guitarist climbing on my shoulders and riding me around the Fireside Bowl. Despite this tangent, I’ll gladly see Caspian headline in the future and hope that The Four Trees gets a vinyl pressing. (I e-mailed the band and learned that they also hope the album gets a vinyl pressing, but nothing is guaranteed at this point.)

Harris played next, enjoying a hometown show with their parents in the audience. Aww. Their MySpace lists Braid and the Dismemberment Plan as logical comparisons, but I thought more of their emo peers circa 1998 or so; a bit of the Get-Up Kids keyboard-laden enthusiasm on a few tracks goes a long way. They succeeded when their enthusiasm didn’t overwhelm, but the keyboard player ruined his otherwise excellent contribution to their set with some rap-shouting in the middle of the song about parking spaces and dumping urine on the roof of a car. Nothing against the lyrical concept, mind you, but “rap-shouting” is perhaps even sub–drum circle.

I went to the show to see the Life and Times and, much like the previous five times I’d seen them, they didn’t disappoint. No “The Sound of the Ground,” but “Mea Culpa” and “Muscle Cars” both have great new intros and blow away their solid recordings. The sound was considerably more balanced than the last show at T. T. the Bear’s, meaning that I could hear both guitar and bass at the same time. The only bummer of the night was when Allen played a few bars of the Jesus Lizard’s “Mouthbreather,” not the whole thing. I don’t know how well that song would have fit into the muscular shoegaze of the rest of the set, but risking potential audience alienation is a decent price to pay for goddamn “Mouthbreather.”

I saw the Appleseed Cast in Champaign at the Cowboy Monkey in 2003 and largely enjoyed their set and this performance didn’t stray too much from that memory. Unlike the Life and Times, who got to the shoegaze aesthetic through a math-rock emphasis on rhythm and riffs, the Appleseed Cast came from a more strict second-wave emo approach (defined by the first two Sunny Day Real Estate records in my view) and their set vacillated between instrumental jams with post-rock dynamics and relatively catchy emo songs with shoegaze overtones. Amazingly enough, the kids seemed to be more into the yearning songs with vocals.

I was pretty stunned to learn that the next show of the tour (Friday night) was in Poughkeepsie, New York—i.e. roughly where I grew up—since shows of this particular standing rarely came through town when I was in high school, but hopefully that one went well despite a poorly timed Nor’easter. If you can catch any of the remaining shows of the tour (and there are plenty), I recommend doing so.

Three Bands at Great Scott

At the behest of a message board cohort, I saw three completely unfamiliar bands at Great Scott in Allston on Saturday night, a rare occurrence for nowadays. The Swimmers, an indie pop/rock band from Philadelphia, played first. I should have known by the press quote heralding their “strident cheerfulness” that the law of diminishing returns would be in full effect, but I watched most of their set before turning my body and my attention toward the third period of the Bruins–Hurricanes game. All I could think about with regard to their music was the slew of promotional CDs I received six, seven years ago containing a similarly nondescript blend of enthusiasm and instantly forgotten songs. It almost frustrated me that I couldn’t remember a specific band name for comparison’s sake, but that ultimately seemed more appropriate.

The Young Republic, an eight-piece from Boston, occupied the middle slot. With two violinists, a keyboardist, a bassist, a drummer, a flautist, a pedal steel player, and a singer/guitarist, there was certainly enough going on, but the lead vocals and guitar tended to dominate the mix to the detriment of the whole. Most of the songs hit the intersection of Glossary’s alt-country and Belle and Sebastian’s layered indie pop, but occasionally they’d veer into ill-advised guitar freak-outs which boiled down to hyper-strumming high on the fret board with little regard for tone or texture.

When I went to get specifics on the band, I was pleasantly surprised by their MySpace page. No, not by the music, but by the presumably self-penned press blurb. I almost missed reading completely ostentatious one-sheets, but given the number of participants onstage, I’m not particularly surprised that they chose this route. I’ve highlighted my favorite parts.

Outside of Boston, they have enjoyed success courtesy of college and public radio, internet blogs and their parents. From Dylan veined folk songs to Gram Parsons country to Beatles inspired rock n’ roll, The YR takes each tune and deliberately and delicately adds instrument upon instrument, with keen ears for harmony, color and counterpoint to create music that aims more towards the 60’s pop music giants (Wilson, Lennon, McCartney) and the luminaries who overshadow even them (Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky) than their indie rock contemporaries. They are at heart, a rock band, but it is perhaps a willingness to stretch into new musical territory that sets them apart from the rest of the pack. “She’s Not Waiting Here This Time,” the centerpiece of their latest effort YR 7 calls for a full string orchestra, twenty voice mixed choir, a trumpet soloist and a classical percussion section along with the full time players. A sprawling eight-verse folk song at its core, it may be the most ambitious and complex DIY recording project to date and a sign of things to come for the band.

This section of their press kit beautifully documents this inflated self-worth:

They study music with passion and are unafraid to write, arrange and perform with a skill that has been greatly devalued by most current rock acts. Their original sound is based off traditional folk and rock styles infused with classical sophistication and sensibilities - they can handle most genres. As popular indiedom passes through their periphery in flaming whirlwinds of dust and smoke, the young men and women of The Young Republic pay little mind to this fleeting fanfare as they concentrate on their own extraordinary work.

This tangent obviously goes beyond the show report, but I don’t understand why bands feel the need to write about themselves in this way. Bands can and should be inspired by music beyond the boundaries of contemporary indie, but being so adamant against the acknowledgment of the influence of your peers is ridiculously off-putting. I remember seeing a flyer for a Mercury Program show in Champaign which had a long paragraph not only listing their influences, but heralding their importance in contrast to the band’s own genre, something like “Though lumped in with the burgeoning post-rock crowd, the Mercury Program draws their influence from the avant-jazz of the 1960s and ’70s, particularly the works of….” Sure. You’re too good for post-rock. We get it. Go play another post-rock song, dudes. I could tell that the Young Republic liked bands outside of the contemporary scene, much like the Mercury Program wears a lot of its direct jazz lineage on its sleeve, but neither band transcends its timeframe enough to merit such open contempt for the reality of their condition. It’s a fine line to walk—no one wants to list only the latest, “greatest” acts—but being so self-conscious only serves to underscore your own limitations.

Back to the actual show. Mako closed to a thinned-out crowd. Picture Morrissey fronting a heavy-ish ’90s alt-rock band (they say Hum, but I wasn’t feeling that comparison) and that’ll cover it. There seemed to be a fundamental disconnect between those two elements that wasn’t reconciled before I left halfway through their set to venture back to Somerville (a thoroughly frigid hour-long walk), but I kept thinking about how easily Shudder to Think’s Pony Express Record could have been a complete disaster. I can imagine Mako putting out a solid record in a few years (unlike the other bands, they haven't released anything to date, so it's still very early), but the material I heard just seemed too disjointed. I wonder if the need for immediate coherence is an effect of the MySpace era of instant consumption.

This particular line-up did little to persuade me to drop eight bucks on unknowns more regularly, but if I do it’ll probably be at the more experimentally oriented (and perhaps more important, much closer) P.A.’s Lounge. I may very well have reached the point in my concert-attending career when I give up on seeing unknown acts entirely, but I’m still hoping to be proven wrong one of these days.

Pinebender at Great Scott

I had a brief internal debate between seeing Mission of Burma at the Paradise and Pinebender at Great Scott, but the higher-ranking band on my best of 2006 list won out. Having seen Pinebender in three cities in Illinois (at the Fireside Bowl in Chicago with Engine Down and Taking Pictures, at the Prairie House in Bloomington with the Botanists, and at that hookah bar in Champaign with Denali), I know quite well that they come off better live than on record, earning their “drudge” sub-genre with a loping pace and stomach-churning baritone guitar.

Blanketeer opened up, but since I had a chance to talk indie-rock shop with notorious baby killer Scott Peterson, I didn’t pay too much attention to their keyboard-centric blend of indie lite. I remember talking about how rare it is for me to sit through the entirety of an unknown opening band’s set nowadays, but Blanketeer’s MySpace page made them seem innocuous enough.

I moved to the front of the stage for Pinebender’s set, which started with “Simp Twister” from Things Are About to Get Weird. Hearing this slow-burner gradually rise above the din of the crowd until it finally kicked in and grabbed people’s attention was quite amusing, since Pinebender’s affection for high volume levels noticeably ended a few conversations. “Begin Here” and “Mask Tree” were the pre-“Parade of Horribles” highlights. I can’t underscore how well that song comes off live. Both guitarists get lengthy solos, but drummer Dennis Stacer’s vicious beat is the band’s secret weapon. As much as the fourteen-minute-long song should be always the set-closer, I wanted them to play another one so I could request the twelve-minute-long“There’s a Bag of Weights in the Back of My Car.” They didn’t. I talked to Stephen for a while afterward and insisted that they should play four song sets from now on, and he said that they consider doing so from time to time. I also asked if there were any plans to press the other albums on vinyl (Things Are About to Get Weird just got a super limited pressing on double vinyl—grab it soon), but it seems unlikely.

The Big Sleep headlined with their metropolitan brand of post-rock, primarily recalling a looser version of Trans Am’s Futureworld. I specified metropolitan with either Brooklyn (their actual home) or Los Angeles in mind, since there was a certain trumping of style (aesthetic) over substance (songs) that I couldn’t fathom coming out of the Midwest. Vocals occasionally stumbled out over the Krautrock grooves and wiry guitar riffs, but it was effectively an instrumental set. Unless they pull Scott McCloud from Girls Against Boys on board, they should drop the vocals. Enjoyable enough, but not something I need to listen to at home.