12 February 2007

Review: Midlake|St. Vincent|The Czars

Bowery Ballroom, 9 February 2007

There was an interesting article in last week's New York Times Magazine about designer dog breeds, a strange mathematics of genes where 1 + 1 = 3 and basset + beagle = bagel. Lately it seems like so many musical acts are trying to pull off the same magic and this was on display Friday night at the Bowery Ballroom. What was ostensibly a chance to check out Midlake and confirm that my lusting after their sound on their album The Trials of Van Occupanther was warrented turned into a 3-band mini-festival of stylistic mashup. The neverending calculus of subgenres and musical oneoffmanship provides for some interesting bedfellows. Each act trying to distill the strengths of one addend and add it to those of another.

First up was The Czars whom, within 2 verses of their opening number, I pegged as the unlikely pairing of Billy Joel + Pink Floyd. These guys went the trendy route -- just a duo: piano/vocals with a guitarist accompanying behind him. These things can work and they can't, but it helps if you can sing and you can play and these two could do both. The vocals were particularly strong, and in a universe where that often isn't the case, it was noteworthy. Even when the songs were crammed to the legal limit of lyrical cliches (which was the case on more than one occasion), the power and earnestness of that voice was enough to get me past it. After a while, with some hit-or-miss attempts at humor in his words, I wasn't sure if the lameness was intentionally coy or what, but it didn't matter. With that end being held down with some surehandedness, the fate of the band's good-or-not verdict fell into the guitarists fingers. He was up to the task. This guy obviously took his guitar playing and his guitars very seriously -- watching him play, I saw many lonely hours in a dorm room getting intimate with his axe. But it paid off, especially in his use of effects which consisted mainly of heavy, heavy reverb or heavy, heavy distortion or both. This added some extra oomph to what otherwise might have been bearable but boring love songs. The first tune -- that one that had me feeling the Floyd -- was interesting in that he used an e-bow to get some wild out-there noises and was allowed some room to weave in a dreamy outro. The room was fractionally full and many early-risers were more interested in their conversation and drinks than the music. That goes without saying, of course, but what was kind of neat was the way the music seemed to invite in the din, almost making it a piece of furniture in the room. It was certainly the weakest set of the night, but that's not taking away anything from these guys, definitely worth checking out in some bar or as an opening act.

Post-Czars, I got into that "watch 'em set up the next act" act and tried to guess at what might be coming down the pike. But nothing prepared me for St Vincent (= Norah Jones + Jimmy Herring (seriously)). It's rare that I would become instantly smitten with a musician or band, but that happened after about 15 seconds of St Vincent which is an aka for Annie Clark, solo and in no need of accompaniment whatsoever. It was especially interesting to experience her cold right after my Cat Power experience on Monday. Everything that Cat Power wasn't (she was a whole lot of other things, but there as plenty she wasn't), St Vincent certainly was. Starting with her clothes -- an off-beat take on the quintessential little black dress -- right down to her sense of humor that was actually funny, occasionally hilariously so, both inside and out of her music [n.b. her myspace page lists the following influences: Sarah Silverman, Woody Allen, John/Alice Coltrane amongst others and under "Sounds like" avers "Hand claps and wry smiles"].

Oh yeah, and there was music. It wouldn't be an overstatement to say Ms. Clark was a virtuoso. She had a pair of big, beautiful Epiphone jazz guitars and she treated them both like her pet Labradoodles -- with love, affection and complete control. Fluttering fingerpicking up and down complicated jazzesque lines, she was dazzling to a note. She made sure we knew she was from Texas (or the "United States of Texas" as she called it) and yet her act was much more Paris on the Seine circa Roaring Twenties than Rio Grande turn of the 21st century. Her skills and style coming to fruit in the Lone Star State are about as likely as a finding a butterfly in Antarctic, but there you go. In fact, the EP that I had no choice but to plunk down a fiver for on the way home (she indicated that her full-length might be on its way this summer; already on my must-buy list) is called "Paris Is Burning."

Was it jazz-infused pop or pop-inflected jazz and does it matter? No it doesn't, St. Vincent was phenomenal. The set was one big grin from ear to ear whether she was crooning something sweet and soulful, ripping up some serious shredding on her guitar or moving over to a keyboard. There wasn't a clunker in the bunch. Somehow she fused a sardonic wit with serious chops without any jarring weirdness. She finished a rollicking revenge tale and moved over to her keyboard introducing the next song as "Marry Me" and then pointed out how that wasn't necessarily a strategic set pairing. The latter tune featured one of many memorable lyrics: "Marry me, John... let's do what Mary and Joseph did, without the... kid." Call her Annie, call her St. Vincent, she is the complete package was a total revelation to me. Her songwriting was both intricate and interesting and simple and start at once. I had to remind myself on several occasions how truly amazing her ability to sing and play two complementary yet complicated parts simultaneously was... which isn't to mention the specially miked wood block on which she whammed out an echoing rhythm on select numbers. I haven't enjoyed a musician utterly blind like this in who knows how long. I don't think I was alone, that chit-chat from the Czars set turned into nothing short of awed cooing between songs, a giddy kind of silence. You owe it to yourself to check her out, you'll either be just as smitten as I am or I question your taste in music and beyond.

So, here we are, two hours into the night, headliner yet to take the stage and it has already been $13 well spent. From the beautiful nakedness of St Vincent's solo stage the cozy stage was suddenly crammed tight with equipment, threatening to pop its top button and rip the inseam as a small battalion of roadies lugged piles of amplifiers and a phalanx of keyboards front and center. Now I had the opposite game to play: I knew what these guys sounded like, I'd obsessed over their CD for about a month straight and the melodies linger deep in my subconscious -- now I tried hard to figure out how they could bring that magic to the live stage. Would they be able to pull it off? Would the smiles of the night continue? The small touches of the set-up time -- the paper mache Occupanther mask from the album art was situated on one of the keyboard tables and a projector was set up with a drop-down screen appearing behind the stage -- indicated that it would.

The obvious question to ask, so many paragraphs into this interminable reviews is: what mixed breed is Midlake peddling? Is the algebra as easy as Midlake = Fleetwood Mac - Stevie Nicks or is there something deeper going on there? I've delved deep into the album and I watched them go America soft-rock poetic for a good 80 minutes Friday night and I really don't know, nor do I care. All I know is that they absolutely killed it, through and through, taking the daunting prospect of a sold out Bowery Ballroom (this while playing rooms fraction of the size in Philly and Boston on nights sandwiching this deep-winter Friday) and flipping it into a consummation.

Midlake is a quintet where everyone has a keyboard in front of them. The drummer's keyboard was of the laptop variety and controlled short videos and bizarro movie clips through the projector for each song. Pretty standard fare for a pop act these days, but a nice wrinkle nonetheless with their pre-modern dramatics that synched up with the music pretty well... there was even a homemade video or two in there which echoed the Flaming Lips in a way. The other four all spend legitimate periods of time laying down on a wide variety of keyboard tones, from the piano player sticking mostly to the piano to some deep, evil electronic bassishness from the bass player. The two guitar players did a nice mix and match between 6 & 12 strings, acoustic and electric. The point here being that the sound that was called for at each moment was achieved in a constant flow of pure pop precision.

A heavy fraction of the show was taken from Van Occupanther, as you might expect, with probably the first 30-40 minutes being from the album. I wouldn't have had it any other way, especially with the skill in which they pulled it off. The stage presence particularly through this opening stretch seemed to indicate that achieving near-perfect renditions of the material was no easy task. The look on their faces, especially the front man, Tim Smith (I think he's the lead guy?), was almost one of sheer stress. It didn't show in their playing though. It's not that the songs are incredibly complex on their face, but they do have a certain level of subtlety that pretty much makes the sound -- without it, the music pretty much falls apart... something that didn't even come close to happening Friday night.

As the set went on, though, they loosened up that top button and the guys seemed to open up a bit between songs. Like they withstood the initial onslaught and realized they were still in the game... not only in it, but winning it handily. We can *do* this. This middle section of the night opened up for some older material from their debut "Banman and Silvercork" -- including "Balloon Maker" and ""Some of Them Were Superstitious") as well as at least one in-progress new number, "Children of the Ground." These showed both a little prodding and malleability to that pastoral Midlake sound at the same time it revealed a tidy limit to where they were going. This was somewhat comforting -- Midlake's sound is self-contained and somewhat perfect in the universe they have carved out for it. These guys are virtuosos of a different sort -- they don't awe in technical mastery of an instrument, but rather excel as a band. There were no highlight moments, no "wow" stretches -- they nailed the material, "Roscoe," "Bandits" and the rest of them. Here's a very short taste of the "Head Home" that ended the set (I can't shoot more than a minute without feeling awkward, but this came out pretty good):

Lush, dense harmony -- three-part vocal harmony and sweet, pitch-perfect harmony of guitars, bass, keyboards and drums -- dig deep inward tunnels toward dreamlike otherworlds. Some bands thrive on gobbling up more and more of the musical spectrum with each step, a group like Midlake has quite an attractive patch of real estate and would do good by seeing what kind of homestead they can achieve therein. To listen to Midlake, on CD or live in concert, is to allow yourself to travel to a slightly alternate reality. The rich storytelling, the harmonizing acoustic guitars, the occasional spaced-out keyboard romp or raunchy electric guitar -- it evokes some of the more beautiful, (very old) Genesis [a personal preference]. This is the kind of music that requires listen after listen after listen -- it draws you in and becomes a part of you and thus the live show was a natural extension of the romance. I would be curious to hear the opinions of someone who went into the show cold. What is it like to walk in from the street and find these five guys on stage, doing nothing that spectacular or out of the ordinary and yet holding sway over hundreds of rapt devotees? For me, it was stumbling out onto Delancey slightly buzzed -- the happy feeling of a great meal and one too many glasses of wine, great music flowing through my veins warming me to immunity from the Saturday morning chill.

Well, I've name-checked Fleetwood Mac, America, Flaming Lips and Genesis, looks like we've got ourselves a lovable ole mutt on our hands. Listen to Midlake. Check out St. Vincent. Designer breeds and mutts all the same: big, fat, wet indiepop doggie kisses.


Jacob said...

I must agree with nearly everything you've said. Annie Clark has not left my mind since I saw her the first time two months ago. I paid to see her as she was rollin' through a second time two nights ago. She manages to ease into your heart and dazzle the music skeptic inside you at the same time. This is the very same skeptic who says original music just isn't made these days.

Also, Midlake has been in heavy rotation the last couple of months for me, and to see them live does drive home the point that somebody out there's making music that matters. Great post my friend!

neddy said...

Thanks for the note. I'm looking forward to catching her again, soon as well... I think she's back in April w/ John Vanderslice who I'd also like to check out.