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Initial Forays Into 2015
—and last year’s last show.
1. Alvvays – Turf Club (St. Paul, MN) – Thursday, December 11, 2014
Young guitar pop band plays not much more than its 33-minute debut album, but no matter, these songs go on forever, golden melodies anchoring a brief and smeary night of live music. It’s rare that a band like this has, from its beginning, a lead like Molly Rankin, wholly unconstrained as a singer and writer in her melodic expression. Even better, they reemerged while the drummer played a very familiar beat that became, lo and behold, “Out of Reach” by The Primitives, the band I’d somehow failed to consider as Alvvays’ most obvious ancestors.
2. The Vaselines – Cedar Cultural Center (Minneapolis, MN) – Thursday, January 22, 2015
After decades of lesser bands politely interpreting their pop lessons, I worried that a 21st century Vaselines show would be only cute, not dangerous or perverse, but it can be all of this and more, it turns out. Frances and Eugene still don’t seem to live in any world but their own, so that even the most formidable outsider is rendered an eager fan in their presence. I hadn’t played Way of the Vaselines in a number of years so the set’s parade of hits allowed for continual surprise, right up to the encore’s “Son of a Gun,” which mimicked its own tale of sudden, fleeting sunshine.
3. Bob Mould – First Avenue (Minneapolis) – Friday, January 30, 2015
The first time I ever heard the name Bob Mould was in the sentence “Bob Mould is God,” or perhaps simply “a god,” which my sister quoted and attributed generally to our burgeoning 90s indie rock heroes (we only knew he was in Sugar and didn’t quite get what it all meant). Who actually said it? Dunno, but it’s funny now to think that this line has been circulating for 20 years at least, because it would still be an efficient way to introduce the subject of Mould to a young music fan, and because it applies equally to his present activities. The first night of Mould’s local two-night residency found him doing power trio versions, with the great Narducy and Wurster (a gymnast landing a vault, every time he hits), of songs pulled from his last two juggernaut LPs and their mirrors in the Hüsker Dü and Sugar catalogs. So, we got an opening trilogy of Flip Your Wig favorites, followed by newer songs that almost match them for blasted melody. Later, Mould’s glasses fogged up and he moved his body around the stage as if unconsciously, and I was never so certain that an artist had retreated to the unthinking space inside his songs. “Something I Learned Today” played, still, like youth’s first knowledge of its own ancient power, and “Chartered Trips” went further into mantra and noise, with its ending refrain given such primal, hypnotic utterance that I would’ve liked to hear it sampled and looped for one of Mould’s DJ sets. He once said that he outgrew the feelings told on Zen Arcade as soon as they’d been recorded, but last year’s Beauty & Ruin convinced me of his ability to inhabit those old psychic states, and the live performance was further confirmation.
Noted: The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen played between the opening and main act, and the void that opened up as the first bars of “What Jail Is Like” faded to silence was immediately filled by Mould’s emergence.
4. The Chambermaids and Lou Barlow – Turf Club (St. Paul) – Thursday, February 12, 2015
The first night of Barlow’s local two-night residency as an opening act found him doing solo acoustic versions of songs pulled from every band he’s ever been in, I think. So, we got Folk Implosion’s “Mechanical Man” and Dinosaur Jr’s “Imagination Blind,” right off the bat, and later a one-two punch of the peak and low origin of his craft, respectively: Sebadoh’s “Soul and Fire” (a live staple in an impressionistic rendering, and its magnificence a guarantee, so that I was free this time to pursue “where is the song?” rumination, to wonder which notes make the song itself), followed by Deep Wound’s “Let’s Go to the Mall” (written at age 15, rescued per Barlow’s avowed affinity for malls and recent Mall of America trip, played with quiet menace, no noise, and requiring a descent into teenage id that was perhaps kept from the awesome depths of Mould’s performance only because the lyrics are too dismally funny). In between he even found time for “Not Too Amused,” written and too infrequently played live by Sebadoh bandmate Jason Loewenstein. I wish all the Barlows of my life could find the time to come to town and just play whatever.
The Chambermaids debuted some new material and played a few old favorites, “China Blue” sounding especially full and classic, the tempo slowed just barely so that its brightness, amid such turmoil, was even more of a surprise than usual. It’s hard, again, to describe this band’s effect, since they betray so little of it, but that’s exactly what makes me think “shoegazing” has never been a useless term.
5. Björk – Vulnicura
“Show me emotional respect.” That’s all there is to say, really, but in case you missed the memo, the person to whom an album is primarily attributed should be understood as its author. Scouring the liner notes for production credits and coming up with conspiracy theories about the division of creative work will lead you off track more often than not. Anyway, Vulnicura is the great new album by Björk (emphasis on those last two words), its music contained by a specific emotional event while also synthesizing and throwing beautiful shadows on the rest of her solo career, from “Hyperballad” to “Bachelorette” to “Cocoon” to “Cosmogony.” I don’t expect to hear a better album this year, nor a better song than “History of Touches,” three minutes of a body’s night panic and solace, the music suggesting a slightly less turbulent space just above or outside the glowing bed. Elsewhere among the album’s flawless opening quartet: the distorted voices that open “Lionsong” seem constantly on the verge of normalizing in a Queen-like harmony, but never get any less weird; a violin pattern at the center of “Black Lake” sustains for 30 seconds but could go on for minutes without losing the thread of the song, so certain is she in the deployment of radical techniques to heighten her music’s effect. Did I mention there are five more songs after that?
6. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
One song is called “A New Wave,” and, don’t laugh, the thing that makes this album an outlier in their catalog, in more than just its temporal remove, is the way they seem to be reaching back to new wave for riffs and other anthemic parts, then weaponizing them (a word I only use because of a line in “No Anthems”: “A weapon not violence / A power, power source”). “Price Tag” makes me think of “I Ran,” every time. But even though close attention shows No Cities to be very different from anything they’ve done before, the overriding sense is still that of a band returning to do what they do best, compressing their magic in a super-abundant half hour. Sleater-Kinney require the definition of “music” that another trio, Gaytheist, once helped me formulate, “instances of distinct beings achieving moments together.” The album has so many of these. I’m seeing them live tonight, and without overthinking it or overloading the event with personal significance, I’m hoping only for moments.
7. Idlewild – “Collect Yourself,” “Come On Ghost”
A six-year hiatus should have freed my favorite band of the 00s from my needless R.E.M. comparisons, but I’ll never learn. So I’m noting, with disbelief, that they’re now the same age as R.E.M. at the time of Up. “Collect Yourself,” the lead track from forthcoming Everything Ever Written, launches with a two chord blast that initially gave me bad flashbacks to The Pretty Reckless’ “Make Me Wanna Die,” but then settles in with a groove and riffage that sound pretty good when I think of the song as their “Lotus,” worthy of no one’s ire. Second preview track “Come On Ghost,” similarly, sounds a bit shapeless until I begin to track its details per the topographical fluctuations of New Adventures in Hi-Fi. “It’s easy to forget that to console you gotta think like an old soul,” Roddy Woomble sings, and with these previews of their return I’m now ready to make the leap for this no-longer-young band.
8. Jens Lekman – Postcards #1-6
Six songs in, Lekman’s project of spontaneously written and recorded tracks, once a week throughout 2015, begins to look like it will add up in a major way. He calls the songs postcards, not as metaphor but because that’s exactly what they are, life updates, pertinent information, questions and requests, set to music. Right now it’s February and he’s still making plans for the year, plotting tour dates (“I’m thinking two weeks in May,” he shares on “Postcard #5,” the highlight so far; always open-minded about the vocabularies admissible in his rhymes, he sings an e-mail address for anyone interested in hosting), and the way these plans evolve and become lived experience, or don’t, will lend all kinds of significant shading to the complete 52-song set. That’s the itch I’m feeling, anyway.
9. Dystopian Violet – “The Mask,” etc. | Jeremy Jay – “High Note,” Hand in Hand, etc.
“A musical palette that could and should yield box sets,” I wrote hopefully a few months ago, and now there’s quite a bit of musical activity in Jeremy Jay’s world, with two albums on the way. Like Lekman, he’s planning for the year, floating out ideas from the cold months. Dystopian Violet is his new band, still shrouded in mystery, or maybe that’s just my limited view from the States, but “The Mask” (and another one, possibly called “The Stranger”) arrives with a more familiar snap and glow than the solo work, which continues to venture into stranger, more haunting, drum-less spaces. “Hand in Hand” is a suite of fragments and textures, helpfully tagged as “soundtrack,” with Jay trying on voices, from expressive innovations to a charmingly blank affect. Another song I heard has a vocal that I imagine tracking an arc, from a cruel, detached tone to something truly mournful, alerting the listener to the apparent crisis in the sparing words: “Seven seconds lost,” etc.
10. Kim Deal – “Biker Gone” / “Beautiful Moon”
If you haven’t been keeping up with Deal’s singles series, now numbering five discs and ten songs, here’s a good starting point. She hasn’t attempted such a sustained and dramatic interaction of the four basic elements since single #1’s “Walking With a Killer” (see “Biker Gone”), nor such sweetness and firelight flicker since single #3’s “Are You Mine?” (see “Beautiful Moon”). This time you can have it all, on one platter.
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