It is distinctly possible that this post will be the end of me. And, you may not want to read this review, either, come to think of it. (See a few weeks back for the first of my unreadable reviews...)
I was actually kind of hoping it would write itself. These things sometimes do -- and when the Bellmer Dolls closed out their set on Saturday night with a cover of Harry Nilsson's "Jump Into the Fire" with assistance from a whole slew of people including members of The Choke, Preacher and the Knife and Golden Triangle, I thought to myself, "Oh, it would be brilliant if Shearwater would play their cover of Brian Eno's 'Baby's On Fire.' This fucking review will write itself."
Sadly, Shearwater did not play "Baby's On Fire." And this review, in hindsight, most definitely did not write itself.
But that's okay, actually.
I have another way to open it. Let's start over?
There's an old, wizened black man who sings soul music in the Columbus Circle subway station. If New York City is heart of the world, then he sits squarely in its broken core, perched atop an old amp that cranks out backing music that sounds like it's coming through all the way from 1964. I generally kind of hate waiting for a train there; I despise being uptown, and it always seems like it takes longer for a train to arrive there than in any other station -- I don't know why, but it does. Perhaps it's due to the fact that, I kid you not, the base of Central Park is some kind of Bermuda Triangle of train traffic. It's where multiple lines split and mutate and take off to Queens or the hinterlands uptown. It's where class and race divide more distinctly than they do at other subway junctions in town; trains that creak through Brooklyn double back and circle around to Queens after gliding through a handful of Manhattan stops; trains that germinate in the bowels of the financial district also head that way; in the meantime, the A train just keeps plowing up the west side, hitting every formerly undesirable (yet now "up and coming") neighborhood in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Oh, please don't let me get distracted talking about the subway. I can go on and on -- as you can see.
The man who sings soul music in the broken heart of the world was just the salve I needed Monday night, as I stood in the train station and cried, my heart kind of broken too, after seeing Michael Gira and Shearwater at the Florence Gould Hall. I'd been kind of inconsolable through the last five songs or so, and managed to make little pleasantries with people after, but I was crying all over again during the walk past the Plaza Hotel all the way to Columbus Circle, and was now letting tears roll down my cheeks, not really caring if the opera patrons and tourists and students and people just trying to get home after staying too late at work saw me -- anyway, it was more likely that, like me, they were all drawn in by the busker's luminescent and crumbling voice.
Pinkie gave me a few bucks (I hardly ever carry cash!) to tip the man who sings soul music in the broken heart of the world -- it seemed almost perfunctory, but was certainly not given out of mere obligation. He really was amazing; I hope you'll have a chance to hear him sometime -- try a weeknight at Columbus Circle, but I make no guarantees.
It was actually the perfect ending to the day, to the evening -- even if I was a terrifying emotional wreck -- but I should start at the beginning.
I know I've ranted about my job here and there recently, but really, you know there's nothing like trying to get things tied up when you're about to head out on vacation. I was literally fixing the table of contents on the hugest book I've edited to date when I should have been headed out the door to get uptown in time. So then I was a little frazzled and running late and kept Pinkie waiting in the lobby of my building, which, naturally, also made me feel bad; I changed into my heels before I realized we were walking a few avenue blocks, which made me cranky. To top it all off, I was a bit out of sorts in general, convinced I'd forgotten to tell someone somewhere to take care of something while I was out of the office. (I'm not a control freak, really. I swear!)
By the time we made it to the hall, I was a bit rough around the edges, but otherwise fine. The interminable wait for the N train had calmed me down somewhat, though we did get a bit disoriented somewhere in the vicinity of Central Park South, near the carriage horses -- I hate going uptown!
So, of course, the first person I saw as we went in was former member of Shearwater and Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff; we used to see each other all the time in Austin, naturally -- and even though he's in NYC all the time now, it seems, we totally never cross paths. So it goes. But, of course, he had to see me in my frazzled state, which was vaguely embarrassing. There were lots more familiar faces inside, though, and even if seeing Shearwater in NYC will never be like the nights in the front room at Emo's with Joanna and Summer Anne and Dylan and Phil and Dorothy, that eight-piece string section kind of totally made up for it.
Then again, this isn't the same Shearwater, either, the string section aside. We've all grown up and moved into different directions, and the band I believed from the very beginning is poised, with Rook, to further cement a reputation as a culty tour-de-force that will achieve gobs of critical acclaim, but never be wildly popular.
Which is a shame, really. But something tells me that the wide world isn't exactly ready for frontman Jonathan Meiburg's gorgeous falsetto vocals, stunning stage presence and byzantine story-songs -- not to mention the one-two punch of Thor Harris on any number of creepily beautiful percussive instruments and Kim Burke on bass, who, as ever, placidly, wickedly and beautifully keeps the whole performance on track.
But enough of my useless prattle -- you want to know about the actual show.
I'd never had the pleasure of seeing Michael Gira play a solo set before, and there's no way to describe how I felt during it all, except to say that he scooped out all the bullshit of my day -- of the past few months, even. I've recently been listening to the Angels of Light record Everything is Alright Here, Please Come Home a ton lately, and a massive dose of Gira's brand of the blues -- even if just for four songs -- was incredible to see and hear. He's the kind of performer who demands attention the moment he steps on stage, even when he hasn't yet sung a note. And he's aging handsomely -- his voice has mellowed to into an even bigger, booming instrument over the past several years. A song in his hands is something dredged up from the depths of the darkest corners of his, your, my soul and brought up into the light. The imperfections of his voice suddenly become the sharp edges of a perfectly cut diamond, almost too painfully beautiful to hear. An inopportune broken guitar string isn't a catastrophe -- far from it: Gira finished the song acappella without missing a beat, his voice both filling the room and crawling deep into my chest, pouring into the empty spaces I didn't even know were there to begin with. (Though, to be fair, perhaps the catastrophe was that the time spent switching out the broken string, however, robbed us of one more song.)
Gira, naturally, was quite possibly the best lead in for the latest incarnation of Shearwater -- we used to talk about how they transitioned from airy-fairy folksy to just plain evil over the course of a few years, which culminated in the incredible live shows that followed the release of Palo Santo. The band's a little less evil now, but no less intense. (I think this is most notably due to the absence of the taut and mercurial energy brought to the stage by former bassist/keyboard player/manic tambourine shaker Howard Draper. I didn't quite realize, though, how much I missed Howard until the second half of the set -- "Red Sea, Black Sea" really isn't quite the same without his demented turn on the tambourine over the chorus.)
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. The first half of the show was, as promised, Rook, played in its entirety with assistance from a string section, trumpets and harp. Though I'm currently quite enamored with the new album and think it is, quite clearly, the band's strongest and most challenging work to date, there were a few problems with this part of the set -- and there's a distinct possibility that I (and Pinkie) were the only ones bothered by these kind of nitpicky details. The sound mix left a little to be desired, though this could have been due to the problem of amplifying so many instruments on stage at once. The piano was too muffled while the drums were, at turns, too sharp and then completely inaudible. (I wanted to run down to the stage and throw the piano lid open; it seemed a shame to keep a grand closed in a hall that intimate ... perhaps when open it drowned out the strings?) This all wasn't terribly distracting once I got used to it, but compared to the mix, say, at the band's stunning set last summer as part of the city's River to River festival, the sound was pretty muddy and grim and, as Pinkie noted, a little too "adult contemporary" at times.
And, I'm not entirely sure that the projections, which relayed the story of the album's songs in some prettily-shot short films directed by Kahn and Selesnick (who also did the cover art for Rook) and starring multipercussionist/hammered dulcimer wrangler Thor as the archetypal last man, really worked for me. That is to say, I'm not sure that the music really needs this embellishment, and at times it was even a little distracting when I was trying to focus on the band's actual performance. If I didn't know better, I'd accuse them of precious pretentiousness, or even of using the projections as a crutch as they get used to the new lineup and new songs on tour, but I don't really feel that's the case -- and I even think that under better circumstances, all the parts of the whole may work well together. And, truth be told, we're very much looking forward to seeing Shearwater at a proper rock venue in June (not that seats aren't great, mind you, but they make the rocking out a little difficult) after they've had time to work out the new material on the road over the next month or so.
The second half of the show, on the other hand, more than made up for the slight weaknesses in the first bit; at the risk of slipping into yet another moment of over-sharing, I felt like revisiting Palo Santo and assorted b-sides (especially some of the older ones that the band played for years before recording them -- like my long-time favorite, the sinister and lovely "Mountain Laurel") was just what I needed after that ultra-fantastic Bellmer Dolls set a few weeks back that totally threw me for a loop and the deep-down blues that opened this show. I was perfectly primed for an emotional purge of the highest degree, and thus spent the last five songs or so completely in tears -- of fierece pride, for this band, who I love so much and of pain, too -- for my dead past that still haunts me when I least expect it to.
A few weeks back, I mentioned my little private aerie that I lived in after leaving my fiancé, before I moved to Brooklyn -- it was always really, really perfectly cold there (the air conditioning was new, and really worked) and I had ice blue bedding and there was tons of natural light that filtered in through porthole windows 15 feet up, and it was kind of like living in a ship sailing to the Antarctic. There were many, many nights I would come home from work in the spring and summer of 2006 and just blast Palo Santo (a clandestine promo of the Misra version of the release, mind you -- a burned CDr with a hand-written tracklist), ensconced in my perfectly cold studio flat, freezing out the parts of my life that I wanted to forget; consigning them to the furthest, most compartmentalized places of my brain and heart as dusk fell, making everything purple and dim until it all went black. And I felt that chill again as Shearwater moved backward in time for about half an hour, hitting the high points of that album. I'd almost very nearly forgotten that it -- that they -- got me through that terrible summer and fall, when I was so miserable and disjointed (really -- go read the posts from that time -- they're kind of ... frightening) as I tried to recover from the awfulness that had been the past five (ten?) years of my life.
I had to practically flee the venue when it was all over for fear that I would start crying all over again on some unsuspecting acquaintance -- I wasn't nearly as successful at avoiding post-show conversations this time around as I was a few weeks back, but I didn't regret most of them, as I had a chance to catch up with a few people I miss seeing because, uh, they kinda don't go to shows in basements in Williamsburg. Ever.
Speaking of basements in Williamsburg, I'm actually kind of sad to report that the Bellmer Dolls' residency at the Charleston has come to an end (though, they've got shows planned for the end of May and early June already, so we'll survive until then, I suppose!) -- as predicted, it was pretty freakin' legendary. The Choke were actually much better than I expected -- or more accurately, they're much better live than the tracks up for offer on their MySpace would lead you to believe; unfortunately, the performance does start to wear thin after a handful of songs, but what they may lack in sophistication and nuance, they more than make up for with some of the biggest doses of enthusiasm than I've seen in quite some time.
The jury's still out on Golden Triangle, though. Were they fucking amazing? Really terrible? Somewhere in between? What can you even compare them to, really --- save maybe if Throwing Muses were on K Records instead of 4AD? (Something tells me that about 14 people will understand that reference ... ) How about if we say the following: when it works, it really works (the psycho girl-group action that prompted Pinkie to mention the cold, unison vocals of Lansing Dreiden project LD Section 1), and when it doesn't (the falling-apart improvisational messes that reminded me of what I hate most about "Brooklyn" bands), it kind of feels like you're being beat over the head with affected oddness. That being said, Golden Triangle is definitely a band we'll keep our eye on in the future. And, if we could dispense any advice here, it would be to practice more -- until those falling-apart moments are an intentional part of the performance, and not an unfortunate side affect of your relative inexperience. (Really, it's not cool to leave your audience waiting for five minutes between songs without some kind of explanation. We understand technical difficulties; it's the silence that comes off as amateur-ish.)
As for the Bellmer Dolls, how could they not please after all this time? We're glad to report that after three Saturdays of shows in a row and a week on the road with Secret Machines, they hadn't killed each other (always good ... ) and were tighter than ever. The new songs are really filling out nicely and we can only imagine they'll be really great recorded. Highlights of the evening included Peter donning a black sequined dress thing that was either a kurta or a caftan -- or maybe just formerly belonged to a really, really big lady -- for the first part of the set, and then an absolutely hideous J. Peterman ca. 1994 caftan for the delightfully unhinged encore of "Jump Into the Fire" -- the song with the hottest bassline and the most ridiculous drum solo and the best naked male pain hollerin' of all time. Which makes it wholly appropriate for cover treatment by our dear No. 1 crushes, even if they've sworn off ever playing it again. (The only thing better would be some Wolfgang Press, perhaps -- hint, hint!)
In summation, I would just like to ask: why is it that no one falls in love with bands anymore? It dawned on me as we rode the local late-night A train back to Brooklyn after seeing Shearwater that over the past few years, we -- the music consumers of the world -- have become grabby, drunk party girl sluts who want to make out with every guy in the room, and take no joy from it -- just a killer hangover once the party's over. And the more I hear hundreds of new bands that just leave me cold -- the more I want to remind everyone about the virtues of falling in love. Try it. Go see new band, let them seduce you. Go to every show, talk incessantly about them, tell everyone you know to buy their music, drag friends to shows, put them on mix cds. We are all the tastemakers now, don't squander this gift.
As a sidebar, I'm writing this on a plane back to Austin (not surprisingly, Matador's Gerard Cosloy is also on this flight!) and I'm listening to the XM radio (thanks, JetBlue!!), which is a dream for a musical omnivore like me. I've listened to a slew of my favorite top 40 hits, some big band standards, 50's do-wop, Interpol, a Lizst symphony during takeoff, Spiller's "Groovejet," Lil' Wayne's "Lollipop," Jonny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood -- and now some Vaughn Williams followed by Tchaikovsky and Chopin followed by some dance remixes! I think the dude sitting next to me, busily hacking away on a Powerpoint for a prototype of a fascinating-looking consumer electronics device of the future, must think I'm nuts, flipping between genres the way that I have for the past two hours -- especially when I was trying NOT to sing along with Flo Rida and Lupe Fiasco and Chris Brown and Gnarls Barkley and, god help me, the dreadful yet catchy Ting Tings. But the most notable thing I've heard so far is Miley Cyrus' "See You Again." And I've heard it THREE TIMES on three different stations. I admit, I was pretty much a mere spectator when it came to Ms. Cyrus before now -- I'd actually never heard her music and hadn't felt particularly compelled to seek it out, but now I totally understand what the big deal is -- she's a little girl with a grown-up woman's voice singing about teenage longing -- a trope that's infiltrated popular music since the advent of recording. (And possibly before? This might take more research ... ) Think of Judy Garland, Timi Yuro, April Stevens, etc -- she's on par with where they all were at fifteen, even if the songwriting is a little weak (then again, most of standards we cherish today aren't exactly the pinnacles of intellectual lyricism either ... ). And what's more, Ms. Cyrus has what Shirley Temple Black's mother called "sparkle," so how could she not be wildly popular -- especially heading into an economic depression as we are?