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More Shows, September to November
—and two recorded works.
1. La Roux – First Avenue (Minneapolis, MN) – Monday, September 29, 2014
I’d always dreamed of seeing a pop star at such a manageable scale, but most are too famous. What I long for when I listen to Madonna, for example, isn’t a private relationship with her recordings, nor an arena show shared with nearly the entire world, but something in between, something closer to the controlled fantasy that a music video creates. That’s the rare place Elly Jackson occupies as a live act, and as a member of the audience I was right where I wanted to be, too, a lucky extra, part of the plural shadow that lends significance to the lights on the screen.
The music struck the right balance, too, freed from the artificial soft-loudness of the recordings and yet incapable of being too loud. Whether derived from the chiptune arrangements of Jackson’s 2009 self-titled debut as La Roux, or the more lush instrumentation of this year’s Trouble in Paradise, the songs, played with impressive disco flair by a full band, were united in the way they sounded satisfied, at last, by their level of amplification. Each of the false endings of “Silent Partner” was a thrilling provocation, magnified by Jackson’s pugilist stance and the “It’s A Sin”-type thunder coursing through the room every time she hit her drum pad. Later, I told my companion, “You’ll never hear “Bulletproof” so loud ever again. Enjoy it.” But my admonition went without saying.
Midnight Magic opened.
2. Perfume Genius – Triple Rock Social Club (Minneapolis) – Tuesday, September 30, 2014
It was hard to tell if the deliberate, grimacing way in which Mike Hadreas makes words come out of his mouth stemmed from nerves, an inability to hear himself, or some aspect of performance, and thus harder to tell if his first two songs were a botch and/or something closer to the birth of an icon. He grew visibly more comfortable from there, but remained shy, and periodically teased stage banter that he never produced.
His songs are synonymous with the moments that inspire them, I once wrote, and thus can’t exceed the moment’s length. That means they make for strange live translations, since the audience can’t necessarily hear every word and demands unambiguous context and buildup before a song can earn its climax. That demand is at odds with his process, which sheds extra weight as a rule, but he made a few concessions, repeating the rushing, drum-aided part of “Hood” for anyone who wanted to revel in its sudden intensity as more than a surprise.
But there was really no need to over-embellish, as Hadreas composed a 22-song setlist of startling juxtapositions, and showed his body of work to be already much larger than three half-hour albums would suggest. He’s the Mary Margaret O’Hara of the 2010s (and her “Body’s In Trouble” is a natural choice for a cover). Songs like “Grid” and “Queen,” which add a new language of rock theatrics to Hadreas’ music, succeeded according to how piercing their most high-pitched sounds were, and so the screams, shrill synth and vocal sample of “Grid” bested the too-soft eruption of “Queen.” The thrill of these songs is in the feeling of Hadreas pushing himself into uncomfortable areas of performance and still owning the room anyway. When he pulls back to what looks like a safer mode of expression, the ballad, the dirge, the hymn, he still allows a profound discomfort, less physical this time.
Matteah Baim opened.
3. Tennis – Fine Line Music Café (Minneapolis) – Tuesday, October 7, 2014
So began the month of vocals stranded miles underwater, at a venue whose sound system I’ve praised more than once this calendar year. As much as Alaina Moore has eschewed crisp recording of her voice on Tennis’ albums, it’s still the focal point of the band, more than Patrick Riley’s guitar or her own keyboards, so to not be able to hear her was very bad news, especially given the prevalence of still unfamiliar new songs. But her presence sufficed; once maligned, Tennis have gradually broadened their sound and come to be recognized as the fine pop group I’ve considered them since their debut, so their very existence constitutes a major pleasure. The new Ritual in Repeat is a lovely album, it turns out, but as they played its songs, fulfillment of promise was the last thing on my mind, maybe because the mix masked it, or more likely because I’ve always found Tennis exceptional and not just promising. Older songs like “Pigeon” and “It All Feels The Same,” which have nearly opposite energies but escalate with equally potent drama, stood out as highlights.
4. Dum Dum Girls with Ex Cops – Fine Line Music Café (Minneapolis) – Wednesday, October 22, 2014
The Fine Line’s mixing problems continued two weeks later, through the opening act and Dum Dum Girls’ first five songs (which mirrored side A of this year’s Too True), until multiple requests from the audience for boosted vocals resulted in a vastly improved side B, and the Dum Dum Girls show I hoped for but didn’t get at the Triple Rock six months earlier. The setlist was improved, too, a full album followed by back catalog approach that still managed to shortchange Only in Dreams but made more sense as a survey of the band’s current passions and already rich history.
Ex Cops, premiering a yet-to-be-released new album, suffered the brunt of bad sound, and so I couldn’t track the significance of quite evident changes to their sound since 2013’s excellent True Hallucinations, like the transfer of primary vocal duties from Brian Harding to Amalie Bruun, and attendant shifts in mood and average note length. Last year’s “Separator” made an appearance, and its pop charms were just as valid in a lethargic new rendering, albeit a bit smothered by drums that hammered too hard, as if unaware that the song had traded in its original grandeur.
5. Slowdive with Low – Fine Line Music Café (Minneapolis) – Friday, October 31, 2014
364 days after My Bloody Valentine’s local appearance, Slowdive comes to town. And now with Swervedriver scheduled for St. Paul in 2015 and Ride booking a North American date, I’m checking off names from my roll call of legends at an unanticipated rate. In summary: At some point I went from thinking I was born too late to knowing I’ll be able to see all my favorite bands anyway. How’s a person in his late 20s supposed to start grappling with impermanence, these days?
“No orchestra ever got this spine-chillingly good, frankly, hearing all the shifts and shadings and melancholy energy,” Ned Raggett wrote in his excellent survey of the 90s, and that’s just how I’ve always felt, and just what I’d say to anyone skeptical that rock clubs contain musical experiences, first and foremost. He was writing about “Catch the Breeze,” the eventual highlight of Slowdive’s Minneapolis set (which otherwise excluded material from their early masterpiece Just for a Day), and one of many times when the band traded the recordings’ hushed beauty for volume and then still found a way to make the post-chorus rush of guitars a shocking, dynamic moment. Like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive foregrounded their rhythm section and reminded that the greatest inaccuracy of “shoegaze,” as a term, is the way it foregrounds guitars. Unlike My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive value drama as much as texture, so the guitars never sought the ceiling to their noise, and that made for a night of endless thrills.
Earlier, Halloween enthusiasts Low played the kind of distant and frustrating set for which any truly great band is due, on occasion. Over-committed to a group costume that had them taking the form of a black-haired ZZ Top, the band conveyed neither mystery nor irreverence, but nothing at all. They made some good noise but I wanted to see faces, not beards.
6. Allo Darlin’ with Reverii – Icehouse (Minneapolis) – Saturday, November 1, 2014
I could start by listing Icehouse’s limitations as a rock club, but a few months after A Sunny Day in Glasgow stopped by, it again housed one of my favorite shows of the year, so why bother? And yet I have to mention it, because of the way Allo Darlin’ triumphed by pushing against these limitations and refusing to settle for the sedate, seated audience the venue is designed to deliver. Currently touring album #3, Allo Darlin’ have reached the point in their career where most bands either pack it in or find a way to secure their longevity through something more than dumb luck, and for this band that means making sure they never play a sub-par set. Dinner tables crowded the floor directly in front of the stage, and when, partway through the night, Elizabeth Morris’ request to have them moved got no response from management (she registered her disappointment with three devastating words: “That’s a shame”), the band simply rewrote their set and won the crowd anyway, first with Weezer-quoting “Kiss Your Lips” and then a cover of “You Can Call Me Al.” A previously unseen irresistible energy sparked the audience to move forward and disregard the furniture, and the band secured mention in the long, long footnote of legendary Minneapolis nights.
The night won, the band confidently returned to a smaller energy for the encore, which began with Morris’ solo “Tallulah” (referencing The Go-Betweens album, not Tori Amos’ “Talula” as I’d entertained, and swapping The Maytals for The Replacements, of course, but it all comes out the same). The other guys joined her for a final song, and because Allo Darlin’ express their band-ness and music love in everything they do, they ended with the kind of life-on-the-road song that mythologizes even as it demystifies the band lifestyle, and dedicated it to the very young, up-and-coming Reverii. I liked this opening act quite a lot, even though their calculated Pavement-esque disarray and sense of grandeur via U2 guitar and My Morning Jacket/Band of Horses vocals have yet to cohere in a meaningful way, beyond the arbitrary beauty of six guys deciding to pool their collective enthusiasms in a project that’s thrumming with still-vulnerable potential energy. Nothing really stuck except the attitude and intangibles: a snowballing feeling of inspiration, a willingness to be weird, an eagerness.
7. The New Pornographers – First Avenue (Minneapolis) – Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Supergroups: incapable of evolution, vulnerable to atrophy. But if they can overcome the latter then the former hardly matters. Last month’s New Pornographers show has already merged in my mind with one they played at the same venue years ago, but the important point is that they’ve merged under the column labeled 2014, not the one labeled 2007. Full review coming soon.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart opened, and emerged, memorably, during the instrumental bridge of “Spanish Harlem.”
8. Stars – First Avenue (Minneapolis) – Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Fresh from a screening of the new Pulp documentary and flush with ideas about how best to appreciate a rock show, I felt myself at a special advantage to enjoy Stars’ performance, and I did. Full review coming soon.
9. Paul White – Shaker Notes
Here’s Paul White’s first full-length solo work since producing one-fourth of Danny Brown’s Old last year, and yet if he’s gotten as many words as Rustie this year, I have no idea where they’re being written. The subtle, slinky Shaker Notes doesn’t have a lot to do with White’s extra-curricular beatmaking, but anyone who found his work on Brown’s “Lonely” to be eye opening should hear the way he dreamily turns its energy inward on “May This Be Love”-channeling “Running on a Rainy Day.” Working with rhythms that would prove impenetrable for any but the most adept vocalists, White makes great use of his independence.
10. Mykki Blanco – Gay Dog Food
In which Moesha speaks out when The Ladies of Eminence forbid her pregnant classmate from participating in their debutante ball. For ten minutes, Blanco seems to revel in the chance to elucidate her concerns with an ostensibly impersonal audio clip, a luxury retreat from speaking in her own voice and being so, so tired of having to explain herself (“I’m gettin’ money,” etc.). For the perpetually mislabeled artist, whose words curdle with exasperation, the need to amplify the broad sympathetic feeling implicit in her self-defense sometimes requires an impractical, untested process. And so it is that Gay Dog Food, with all its stitched together chunks of data, follows an unmistakable logic. Blanco has yet to release a proper debut and yet all her works have taken the form of carefully drafted aural postcards, as if she’s nowhere to be found between releases. “I’ve had such a crazy two years,” she begins.
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