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Four Months in Reverse
—to the tune of “5ive Gears in Reverse.” All shows Minneapolis except where noted.
1. Julia Holter with Circuit Des Yeux – 7th Street Entry – March 1, 2016
Ask John Grant. All the Album of the Year honors in all the publications in England have little effect on an artist’s profile in the U.S. There was a brief moment at the end of 2015 when it seemed like Julia Holter, album poll winner at Uncut and Mojo, was destined for bigger and bigger venues, but instead here we are at the Entry, the smallest club I’ve seen her play. I usually prefer a little more distance from her pop music, because part of the thrill as a listener is the feeling of stretching forward into its strange atmosphere, but it’s not as if immediacy obscures her compositional talents or the novelty of her sounds. Let’s just say Have You in My Wilderness is the first Holter record that didn’t surprise me. Among its songs, the live version of “Betsy on the Roof” was the biggest revelation, with the drama of its fadeout refrain matched to the image of a singer adrift at her keys, watching the sky.
So much of the effect of Holter’s music depends on triumphs of timing, and her performance revealed that this is a feat of musicianship and rhythm but also one of acting. She nailed the nature sound punctuations of “In The Green Wild,” strung along a time signature as intricate as she’s ever used, simply by being the trees, the leaves and the women. It’s a similar process of acting that allows her to cover a song like Dionne Warwick’s “Don’t Make Me Over” despite not sounding in the least like a soul singer. As is her custom, Holter talked enigmatically, almost flippantly throughout the show about the meaning of her songs. Is “Betsy” about a cow, or not about a cow? I have no clue, but the takeaway was that any of her songs is just as likely to be about one thing as it is about the opposite.
Go see Haley Fohr perform the next time she’s in your town: she’s perfected a technique and her Circuit Des Yeux project is an essential live act. Call it trance music, to name not a genre but the process by which Fohr shuts out the world and guides herself to extreme expressions of selfhood. In short, overdriven guitar begets vocal exorcism. At one point I thought I saw a middle finger extended along the neck of her guitar like a necessary negation of the audience. If that’s the method that enables such a complete and generous performance, so be it. The listener who seeks envelopment has to accept the terms, the push that precedes the embrace.
2. Eleanor Friedberger – Turf Club (St. Paul) – February 26, 2016
Friedberger and the four members of Icewater, the opening act that also served as her backing band, got to the venue late, so the first half of her set doubled as a soundcheck. No one in the audience minded, and the whole situation underlined how intimate and low-stakes her shows have become a dozen years after Blueberry Boat. She’s probably played a thousand of them by now, and is three albums in to a solo career in which memories of The Fiery Furnaces don’t figure very prominently. “He Didn’t Mention His Mother,” the lead single from New View, has the kind of melody Aimee Mann might’ve given a proper studio treatment at her peak. Relative to that, Friedberger’s take is closer to a moderately dressed-up demo, and one gets the sense that, at this point in her career, underplaying her genius suits her just fine.
3. Parquet Courts – Triple Rock Social Club – Thursday, February 18, 2016
4. KING – Icehouse – February 12, 2016
Minneapolis, music city, loves to take ownership. Local media had recast KING as a Twin Cities success story (sisters Amber and Paris Strother graduated from a Minneapolis high school in 2004 before pursuing music careers in L.A.) by the time they played their first show here. On the radio a few hours before the debut, they humored the narrative, then turned to their love of the Cocteau Twins, whose music reveals new layers every time they listen. That’s the effect of debut album We Are KING, less so the live versions of the ten of its songs that made up the band’s set. These were stripped down to just vocals, a keyboard and a handful of recorded beats. Without the recordings’ detailed production to soak up the listener’s attention, the weight fell on the singers’ harmonic interplay and Paris’s funky improvisations at the keys. The blurry boundaries of the album dissolved, and the hooks stood out in sharp relief. A beautiful night.
5. Martin Courtney with EZTV – 7th Street Entry – February 7, 2016
The weekend’s musical highlight came when I was walking downtown and glanced through a window to find Martha Reeves and the Vandellas performing on the Dakota’s stage, not twenty feet from where I stood. Life is but a dream.
A few nights later, Real Estate frontman Martin Courtney was out with a new quartet playing the entirety of his first solo album, Many Moons, followed by a couple extra moons: the one on which Neil Young’s still in love with you; the Echo & The Bunnymen one that’ll come too soon. The solo material is a notch below Real Estate quality, obviously, but the big surprise was that where I feared and expected a certain staid quality, the songs were actually vibrant to the point that the live versions couldn’t avoid having rough edges.
If Real Estate had a frivolous youthful phase and hadn’t been born haunted by maturity, they might’ve once sounded like opening act EZTV.
6. Lower Dens – 7th Street Entry – January 23, 2016
I ditched local radio station The Current’s birthday party in the Mainroom (The Cactus Blossoms were on the stage, harmonizing nicely for another Everly Brothers homage) and crossed over to the Entry for my second Lower Dens show in six months. They were down a member but had become so comfortable in the 80s pop mode of last year’s Escape from Evil (from which only “Sucker’s Shangri-La” was left off the setlist) that it hardly mattered. Even 2010’s “I Get Nervous” got dressed up anew with a heavy electronic pulse. One might almost have forgotten that Lower Dens started their career in a much different place, but the end of the set made a few nods to their evolution, Jana Hunter’s presence as frontperson being once again the uniting feature. Solo a cappella “All The Best Wishes” gave way to Bowie tribute “Five Years,” for which the band eschewed the kind of slinky reinterpretation that characterized last year’s “Maneater” cover. They avoided sacrilege and played it straight.
On the way out back through the Mainroom, Tommy Stinson was up on stage, nicely suited and leading a band toward tonight’s version of rock ’n’ roll glory.
7. Joanna Newsom – Fitzgerald Theatre (St. Paul) – December 17, 2015
I’ll leave this one as a birthday gift but, before I do that, Newsom’s exceptional taste is always worth noting. During the audience Q&A at the set’s midpoint, as she tuned her harp, she named “the new Björk record” as her favorite of 2015, and “Money Trees” as her favorite Kendrick Lamar song.
8. Deerhunter with Atlas Sound – First Avenue – December 14, 2015
It’s important to see bands live and let them shatter the neat narratives their albums and publicity materials offer. You might believe Deerhunter have entered some kind of contented middle age, free of the desire to have everything they do count as punk rock gesture, but when it comes to the live show they’re as loud and volatile as ever. I entered the scene in 2010, quite a while after the dangerous halcyon days that some fans still cruelly pine for, but this was the best and most fearless performance I’ve seen them give. “Nothing Ever Happened” was the proof, of course, but even better were “Take Care,” a more massive-sounding slow dance than Beach House have attempted, and “Don’t Cry” in full “Leather Jacket II” regalia. And not to be forgotten as the King of Comedy, Bradford Cox stopped the show during the encore for a ten-minute skit in which he offered $20 to the audience member who could correctly identify some movie dialogue (someone finally guessed The Killing of a Chinese Bookie but not before Cox called himself a nihilist, among other emceeing digressions).
What of Fading Frontier, the new album I failed to devote any words to upon its release? Last autumn’s afternoon light was unusually kind to its songs, and they were kind in return. A Sunday drive down leafy, residential Xerxes. A Monday walk among Marquette’s gleaming alley of skyscrapers. Someone accused the band of “pleasant tunefulness,” but pleasant tunefulness could be your life. If Fading Frontier is the latest chapter in the love story of Bradford Cox and Lockett Pundt, then “Breaker,” in which they blend their voices and, in the video, their faces, is key. It’s a climactic moment in the band’s career, but happily free of any sense of finality. Cox still leans on his lead guitarist, in every sense of the word. At the show, it was an arm draped on a shoulder during Pundt’s “Rainwater Cassette Exchange” solo. Cox’s relationship with drummer Moses Archuleta always looks tense, by comparison, and his demand for a redo of the launch of “Snakeskin” came across as an insult to the Deerhunter member who’s always working hardest for the least amount of glory. I can never tell if this band’s here for good or a minute away from blowing up.
For his opening set as Atlas Sound, Cox, caught in some trick of the lights that seemed to halfway dissolve him, let a lot of unfamiliar material blur together, but phrases and songs surfaced and I caught a short poem’s worth:
time was … I’m not a bitter man
Cold As Ice
don’t ask why
crawl to the sea … I was a young man, I had energy
Shelia (no one wants to die alone)
It was the real-time equivalent of a similar poem one could, if so inclined, find threaded through Deerhunter’s catalog (I was 16 / to get older still / I don’t wanna get old, no / my hair is falling out, for example). All of Cox’s lyrics start from an acknowledgment of age and aging, and that impulse has only strengthened even as he leads an ostensibly more comfortable life. “Amber waves of grain are turning gray again,” he sings on Fading Frontier, and if he’s talking about his hair, he at least seems calm in the assurance that this kind of thing has happened before. Absolved of youth and specialness, he carries on.
9. Yo La Tengo – Pantages Theatre – November 7, 2015
Something about the music, so massively quiet, made me feel like drawing. I had in my possession a ticket envelope, a red pen and a fitting subject, a stage scattered with objects, like a theatrical rendering of Yo La Tengo’s rehearsal space. My messy sketch survives, showing ten music stands holding ten paintings: a white kitty, an old concert poster for The Clean, some ghostlike cactus creatures, the abstract cover image for the band’s newest record, two kawaii faces saying “nnn-nnn!” to each other, etc. An arrow with the words “guitar shine” indicates the spot on the wall that caught the light reflected from Dave Schramm’s guitar.
Among these pictures, Yo La Tengo played what must have been the quietest show ever heard in the Hennepin theatre district, unless Young Marble Giants somehow played the Orpheum in 1980. The presentation seemed at times almost avant-garde, like a soft challenge to the location, some kind of seance rock designed to rustle free the final echoes of last century’s Lovin’ Spoonful show. And the band accomplished this not just by focusing on the gentle cover songs and revisions of Stuff Like That There, though that project, their best in a decade, did show off its methodological virtues as they similarly tamed some of their loudest or grooviest songs (“Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” “Ohm,” “Autumn Sweater”) for breathless but still hypnotic versions. The latter song remains the band’s most reliable conduit for re-interpretive magic. Its instrumental breakdown was just light drumming, creaking guitar and a repeated knock-knock on the wood of the upright bass. They followed it with one more song, “By the Time It Gets Dark,” and then the night ebbed away.
10. Janet Jackson – Target Center – November 1, 2015
It was my first time seeing a pop star in a big arena. All was illusion, so I remember context much better than I remember the details of the music. Highlights:
a. The pre-show DJ played, apparently by accident, a few seconds of Jazmine Sullivan’s “Let It Burn,” then cut it short. I loved no song better that November, and though it might’ve cut against the accumulating energy of the DJ set, I so wanted to hear it.
b. Janet expertly lip-synced a few Kendrick Lamar lines as bits of his “Poetic Justice” led into “Any Time, Any Place.”
c. To celebrate Janet’s local history (the one that those five syllables in the middle of “Escapade” so joyously speak to), Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis came onstage during the encore (if her surprise was feigned, it at least seemed as genuine as those moments on the records when she catches them recording her conversation) and introduced Mayor Betsy Hodges, who proclaimed it Janet Jackson Day in Minneapolis (if her humbleness was feigned, etc., etc.). (Four days earlier it was Marlon James Day in Minnesota. What a week.)
d. Janet pointed to heaven as the medley containing “Scream” sampled his voice, but otherwise there were no overt tributes to brother Michael. “Broken Hearts Heal,” the Unbreakable highlight that evokes him as Janet sings of how “we danced and sang our way through most anything,” would’ve made a great addition to the setlist, but only five new songs made the cut. That was a shame, as I hadn’t familiarized myself with Unbreakable out of any sense of obligation. It’s that rare post-peak legacy album so great that you hope it’ll supplant the classics on the setlist.
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