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Shows, February to April
1. Sleater-Kinney with Lizzo – First Avenue (Minneapolis) – Saturday, February 14, 2015
Two months later, and I’m still there. I don’t want to speak for the other writers on this site, but if you’re wondering why we so often publish concert reviews so long after the fact, I think it’s partly because we know that these things never end. It’s impossible to process what goes on at a concert, really, so I sometimes don’t even try, preferring instead to return to each one as time allows and to see what rises from the well of memory.
I moved to Minneapolis in 2005 having just claimed The Woods, by my sister’s old favorite band Sleater-Kinney, as my own, and holding the thought of seeing one of the band’s shows pretty much at the forefront of my mind, a much more inspiring prospect than attending college. But, as it happens, they’d just played here a few months before, and would end up taking a decade-long hiatus before returning. By the time they came back, on Valentine’s Day 2015, it was such a big deal that even Greil Marcus was there. And, like I said, I’m still there, especially in the passage of time just before the band came out, when my earplugs silenced everything but the thin, high shimmer of some ambient soundworld on the P.A. and, with fog rising from the stage and the lights glowing through like a misty sunrise, the stagehands appeared to be assembling the dawn, with those same repeating notes as their celestial guide. No joke, it was so eerie, so serene.
And then the band came out and played this moment’s fulfillment, its exact opposite, humane and graceful and awesome energy as denial of the lifeless landscape that preceded them. “Get Up” and “Good Things” tugged me most violently toward the past, and “What’s Mine is Yours” and “Jumpers” thrilled me most, moment to moment, but I preferred to not get sentimental and dug the new stuff too. Plenty of bands have reaffirmed their vitality with lean, taut new work, but usually that’s synonymous with rough, spontaneous rebirth, nothing like Sleater-Kinney’s most compact and intricate declaration of their art yet. If any complaint can be leveled against No Cities to Love and its tour, it’s that every return, every song, needs at least one flaw and these have none that stick in any meaningful way. But I won’t be caught lamenting perfection, demanding a more appealing alternative, when nothing less than admiration, and hopefully something better, will suffice.
The great and/or soon-to-be-great Lizzo opened, but the recently departed David Carr was already representing Minneapolis, in spirit, so she only had to represent herself. As emphasized by her Slits- and Bikini Kill-blasting hype crew GRRRL PRTY, she also suggested the extensive lineage of the main act, and though she’s on a totally different time-table than Sleater-Kinney ever was, I might put her somewhere near a Call the Doctor, ready to bottle everything she’s got with only slightly more judicious editing than she showed on the stage.
2. Julia Holter & Spektral Quartet – Amsterdam Bar & Hall (St. Paul) – Monday, February 23, 2015
The quartet played an old Mos Def phrase reworked for strings, a gorgeous arrangement of James Blake’s “I Never Learnt to Share,” and then brought out Julia Holter who, in a new role as, primarily, Voice, descended further than anyone since Julee Cruise, into the mysteries of romance, nighttime, inhabiting spaces, metamorphosis. She kept speaking of “becoming”: becoming the sea, becoming the sand. She imagined “Marienbad” to be about humans wanting to become statues, and then remembered it’s the other way around. Meaning was as topsy-turvy as ever, but the music was precise. As often as a classical presentation confounds me, it just as often transmits structure where diaphanous pop can’t quite, so I finally understood “Marienbad” as a five-minute symphony in three movements. The main event was Alex Temple’s Behind The Wallpaper, which played like a surrealist version of Bright Lights Big City, Holter narrating night moves in the second person, observing the sickly glow of mundane environments. “It looks like the shower head has a disease,” she sang with just the right degree of detachment. Sometime after 3 a.m. eternal, in story-time, an ambient passage punctuated the monologue, and green lightning flashed on the stage.
3. The Twilight Sad – 7th Street Entry (Minneapolis) – Monday, March 2, 2015
Whether James Graham treats a performance like a boxer treats a match, or whether the way his eyes rolled up into his head as he stood tensed, awaiting each vocal entrance, bespoke actual possession, I can’t say, but either way it looked like a singer in top form. The only possible comparison is Michael Stipe, for his energy, the quality of his melodies, and the generosity of his response to what the band is playing. My favorite moment is still when “And She Would Darken the Memory” fully commits, and what I’d long sensed as a listener I finally witnessed, Graham bracing against the salvo of the guitars behind him, then letting them light a fire in his lungs. Don’t let anyone tell you this band isn’t fun.
4. The Dodos with Springtime Carnivore – 7th Street Entry – Saturday, March 7, 2015
What the interloper remembers: One song sounded like Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia,” sped up, but there was no equivalent chipmunkification of the vocals. Meric Long’s mellifluous moaning persisted, and this was essential, the way the vocals sounded like they were moving a great weight, because the impression of physical labor is key to Dodos’ effect. If the singer yelped, it would be too clear they’re just having fun. Still, and I know it’s dumb to give notes like this to a band that has its sound all worked out after six albums, but I hope one day this duo’s rhythm syndrome rubs up against some old Method Actors recordings, or that they cover The Weirdos’ “Helium Bar.” For all the efforts of Logan Kroeber, the dynamo on drums, the band ran in place, one step away from strict liberation.
It was music wrought by (but only rarely practiced by) Radiohead, very moody but mystifying in terms of what the artist is going on about. On the other hand, there was no mistaking the feelings communicated by Springtime Carnivore, springy and carnal and rooted in melodic gifts. Greta Morgan and band didn’t play their best song, “Foxtrot Freak,” but its parenthetical title defined everything they did play: “(Something in the Atmosphere).” I find Morgan’s brand of gentle, 70s-tilting pop music only slightly less ingratiating than the ones practiced by Tennis and Jenny Lewis. And, in all fairness, Tennis carry with them all evidence of formation and have the advantage of the steady reveal, and Jenny Lewis makes herself a personality with almost supernatural vocal clarity, while Springtime Carnivore is somewhat handicapped by its anonymous, fully formed, reverb-heavy arrival. The self-titled debut’s notes of weird Americana were dispelled by the show’s heavy pulse, and, now that I think about it, Morgan is likely a strong beat and a production overhaul away from radio, whether country or pop I wouldn’t presume to know. She mentioned the preceding day’s audition to have one of her songs featured in a Huggies (!) commercial. I wish her the best of luck.
5. The Juliana Hatfield Three with Whatever Forever – Turf Club (St. Paul) – Sunday, March 8, 2015
Because it lacks any overt sonic signature, I remember Become What You Are, rare in its alterna-rock era, as a songwriter’s album, a great one. But that’s unfair, because even if it had an identifiable, dateable guitar sound, I’d overlook it. The album’s a foundational moment in my vocabulary development, and thus pure language. It must’ve been the first time I’d heard of spin the bottle, or thought consciously about my relationship with my sisters. Everything here is formative. The singer tries to understand what she sees on the streets—a dying bird, a lady talking to herself—and it’s the sound of youth making its first attempt at adult thought, ending up with sentiments that resonate and endure in spite or because of their naïveté.
So when Juliana Hatfield reassembled her Become What You Are trio for an anniversary tour and new album, I had to wonder what adult situations had sent her reaching back for the lens of youth. The album, Whatever, My Love, populated with self-conscious breakup songs, seemed to answer that question until the knowledge that many of the songs date back to the 90s squashed it. Maybe she’s just responding to what her audience wants, after all, though judging from her Turf Club appearance she’s running as perpendicular to the demands of nostalgia as ever. “I’m so happy to be past all that,” she said (of her “miserable youth”), and later proposed an “It Came from the 90s” package tour headlined by herself, Eve 6, “the “Sex and Candy” band” (Marcy Playground, of course!), the idea of which couldn’t have been further from what she was undertaking in a small club, a quick roll through songs so good, so unfettered that they efficiently stripped away any past context and re-announced their original qualities. The recordings didn’t lie: the guitar/bass/drums format had a sound that didn’t strain for descriptors beyond “amplified,” but the interplay was sharp, the melodies and words even sharper. Some rough spots intervened but band chemistry prevailed, with “Mabel” its most abundant source.
Whatever Forever were a complementary opening act, in sound as much as in name, and, even with Tweedy as competition over in Minneapolis, were probably the best family band playing in town that night.
6. Swervedriver – Turf Club – Thursday, March 12, 2015
A night of uncommon sensory delight, despite a very modest presentation relative to recent My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive shows. No frills, just reams of golden sound in a small room, the music’s saturation with melodic, ear- and brain-warming detail never fuller in the work of any other band, shoegaze era or otherwise. I hadn’t yet heard their terrific new I Wasn’t Born to Lose You, from which most of the setlist came (they must prefer leaving Ejector Seat Reservation as a lost classic: only “The Birds” was resurrected), but the songs made me see shapes I’d never seen before, generated winds I had to lean against.
7. Laetitia Sadier – Treehouse Records (Minneapolis) – Friday, March 20, 2015
During a brief seven-song set at the local record store before a rehearsal in St. Paul, Sadier’s midday cosmic attunement was like a bolt from a different time, a different place, but then she said that such an impromptu gig would need to planned three years ahead of time in France, so maybe we have the right sensibility here after all: relaxed, open to possibility.
8. Twin Shadow – First Avenue – Monday, April 13, 2015
Out with it: Twin Shadow played my favorite live set of 2011, as an opening act at the cramped Triple Rock. At the time they came off like an alluring, semi-anonymous update of Prince’s Revolution, toiling in the underground, and that image has shrunk in memory to an even more perfect vision, a muscled, neon-lit, fashionable rock quartet bobbing with hypnotic constraint, like a GIF of an 80s cartoon band. Now it’s two albums later and the slickness of this year’s Eclipse had disguised even from me the idea that Twin Shadow could any longer be anything but the name of George Lewis, Jr.’s final, lone ascent to presumptive pop stardom, the culmination of a three-album arc he’d planned all along. But it turns out Twin Shadow is still the same guitar-led rock group I remember (“We’re called Twin Shadow,” Lewis said, declining to introduce the players), albeit one transformed by an ambition that’s always a small step ahead of reality. As carefully as Lewis programs jumps in clarity, charisma and immediacy between albums, so that he constantly casts himself in a process of becoming, he must know that the narrative he’s creating is entirely imaginary, even elevated by this fact. But when the band mimics a level of success it hasn’t yet attained, the music becomes a bit murky, bombastic. The big choruses of “Run My Heart” worked because of the desolation of the verses, and “To The Top” soared because of the implied “from the bottom.” But I can’t help feeling it would have been even more poignant to hear it played back at the Triple Rock, to watch the band grow at a pace slower than the desires of its heart.
9. His Name Is Alive with The Murder of Crows – 7th Street Entry – Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Four years after celebrating its 20th anniversary, His Name Is Alive embarks on a 25th anniversary tour, which makes as little sense as the idea of a group like this one celebrating anniversaries in the first place. But Warren Defever and his current, younger crew summarized a rich history of experimentation and strange, delicate pop songs so handily that I almost could’ve believed the band has an overt narrative. After an opening quartet of songs from last year’s shred-happy rock opera Tecuciztecatl, the band pivoted and worked backward, first landing at gentler but no less adventurous early songs, Mouth by Mouth’s “Where Knock is Open Wide” a highlight, then further scraping away sonic decoration and finally eavesdropping on the crystal, private voice that was the project’s original hallmark. Andrea Morici took over Karin Oliver’s tones and phrases with uncanny resemblance, but the band’s collaborative nature remains evident, so no need to accuse Defever of casting new vocalists with the cruelty of James Stewart in Vertigo. Morici can toss him aside and re-center songs on herself at her own pleasure. And then the band moved forward again, expanding perfect old miniatures like “Cornfield” with the unlimited palette of the present, the “light and warmth” of the vocal tossed into a long, roiling outro.
Throughout the show, Defever made some concessions to ceremony, orating and storytelling sans microphone, passing around his collection of tambourines for audience accompaniment, playing an old Elvis Hitler song, and ending the night with what he named as the first song he ever wrote. This one was in a style that even I, non-songwriter that I am, once attempted on my dad’s dried out, permanently detuned guitar, rhythmically plucking and inflecting only the outer strings, then adding words. And yet this one was great, a haunting blueprint for the project’s early years, so close and fragile even before Morici’s vocal was the only sound that remained.
The Murder of Crows, a side gig of Low’s Alan Sparhawk with violinist Gaelynn Lea, appeared to be in rehearsal during its instrumental assembly, a project still in search of a voice, but then the voice arrived, Lea’s that is, and an unnameable beauty took hold. In clear, mournful, reverent phrases, Lea sang her personal showtunes at the end of the world and called it folk music. The cover songs weren’t exactly successful, perhaps by default (a guitar and violin version of “Heart Shaped Box” will entertain only the people playing it, no one else, and “The King of Carrot Flowers,” without studio resources, ends up sounding incomplete), but the originals, few though they were, revealed this as a project due for expansion.
10. They Might Be Giants – Electric Fetus (Minneapolis) – Saturday, April 18, 2015
We’re gonna need a bigger store. It was the year Record Store Day outgrew the infrastructure of a country that prematurely decided 15 years ago it didn’t want record stores anymore, but the songs were good.
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