Archive for March, 2010

Forget the main act

Arp + Scout Niblett – 92Y Tribeca – March 13

Saturday night’s show may have been headlined by Vetiver, but the action took place before they took the stage.

The evening started with a performance by the impressive one-man act, Arp. Named after a famed analog keyboard, Arp is Alexis Georgopoulos and his fuzzy layers of guitars and synthesizers. After a warm introduction by the coordinator at 92Y, Alexis unceremoniously walked on stage without so much as uttering a word.

Arp's Alexis Georgopoulos

As he began to play, a series of videos were projected onto the screen behind him: a sunset gave way to a misty mountain, followed by clouds and the rolling waves of the ocean. Initially, I thought the images were merely there to help invoke a trance-like state, but eventually I realized that they sometimes corresponded with the songs. Suddenly when the video of cars driving down a freeway flashed onto the screen, the beat and the guitar drops out, and I realized that the sounds we were listening to did in fact sound like traffic noise.

Forget stage banter. Alexis hardly paused in between songs, and his vow of silence was not broken even as he motioned to someone to dim the stage lights. Now, barely a silhouette, he faded into the swirling images in the background.  The large parka and hat he wore further obscured his presence.

To create the sound that might otherwise be produced by a handful of musicians, Alexis methodically loops different instrumental segments together, gradually building up his songs over time until the combination of all his tracks crescendos into a melodic cacophony of sound.

Alexis may not have directly revealed anything about himself over the course of his performance, but his evocative music and carefully chosen images invited audience members to project their own opinions and memories into the mix. Arp’s music is so hypnotic that I  forgot about the miserable trek through the rain and gale force winds that left my soaked.

If Alexis’ tacit persona complimented his music, Scout Niblett’s candid banter emphasized hers. Scout’s music feeds on her emotional output. At times, she sings demurely, but then in the very same song, she cranks up the volume on her guitar and rocks out. It truly is a sight to behold. I initially attempted to see Scout about two years ago, but the show ended rather disastrously when, in a Cat Power-like breakdown, Scout admitted that she was ‘too wasted’ to play and stumbled off stage without so much as getting through a single song. Though I was sorely disappointed at the time,  I also resolved to give her another shot, and I’m glad I did.

Scout Nibblet (aka Emma Louise Niblett)

With just drums and a guitar, the music may be minimal, but it is far from dull. Scout’s lyrics are surprisingly blunt, and her delivery is almost primal in its sheer intensity. Scout is absolutely mesmerizing on stage.  She is who Joanna Newsom would be for Halloween: a strange mix of bewitching, sweet, scary, and aggressive. She is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. She may start singing quietly, but more often than not, she works herself into a fury. As her voice becomes increasingly raw and desperate, the music mirrors her sudden outpouring of emotion. The drums start furiously crashing along and Scout’s riffs become more pronounced and aggressive.

Take a listen to “Calcination,” one of the songs from her new album, The Calcination of Scout Niblett.

After playing a number of songs on the guitar, Scout switched to drums for a while and gave her drummer a break.

Upon sitting down at the kit, Scout broke into “Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death,” which to the delight and shock of the crowd,  went a little something like this:

We’re all going to die.
We’re all going to die.

We don’t know when.
We don’t know how.

We’re all going to die.

Here is a particularly creepy (and somewhat graphic) video on YouTube that effectively deals with the subject matter at hand:

After a few minutes on drums, Scout switches back to the guitar, and then it begins. After playing a new song – “Duke of Anxiety” – for about twenty seconds, she suddenly stops and – slightly off mic – says, It doesn’t sound right! Let me start over. When she then proceeded to forget the lyrics to the same song, I started to worry that this would be a repeat non-performance, but luckily, she pulled herself together and pressed on. Ironically, the song opens with the lines: Why would you think, that you make me drink? I’m a drunk … Reasons I don’t need Just like you.

Scout concluded her set with “Nevada,” a particularly rocking song from her 2007 release This Fool Can Die Now.

Following the rousing performance, the old man beside me turned to another girl and said, Wow! That was great, right? She really rocks! She’s really PJ Harvey meets Nirvana.” The whole evening, I had watched him with curiosity, trying to gauge his reaction to her. Here I thought he had come to see Vetiver, but he adamantly proclaimed that he had come to see Scout and knew nothing of the main act.

After two satisfying performances, I decided to call it an early night. Vetiver may be a solid band, but their live show is a bit too sleepy and predictable for my taste. (1) Thanks to Scout’s killer performance, my adrenaline gave me the strength necessary to head back out into the elements.

(1) I’ve also already seen Vetiver 2-3 times, so I didn’t feel guilty for skipping out.


Catching up with The National

The National – The Bell House – March 13

Sometimes, it’s nice to plan for shows in advance so as to avoid last minute conflicts, but other times, it’s best to make plans as you go. Three days ago, I didn’t know that the National were playing a couple of shows at the Bell House (conveniently located 7 blocks away from my apartment). Last night, I found myself not at Union Pool seeing Scout Niblett as I had initially planned, but sitting outside the Bell House in the rain, hoping to find a way into the sold-out show. Luckily, I was approached almost right away by a well-dressed man who asked me for my name and phone number. Ten minutes later, I got the call that my name had made it onto the guest list. Success.

I admit I hadn’t heard a thing about the opening band, Buke and Gass. Part of me was worried that they’d be terrible. That happens sometimes. Someone owes someone a favor, someone’s friend wants to play. It gets messy. That said, I was pleasantly surprised. Buke and Gass is just two people – Arone Dyer on vocals and ukulele and Aron Sanchez on bass and percussion.

Buke and Gass

Despite their modest appearance, their sound is surprisingly big and heavier than you might expect from a woman who exudes little kid charm. Arone wore her hair in two messy buns and seemed positively elated to be playing – to the extent that she giggled between nearly every song. If all this is sounding a bit too twee for you, you’ve got the wrong impression. Buke and Gass exert just the right amount of sass, thanks largely to Arone assertive vocals and the duo’s carefully texturized sound. Suffice it to say that I’m looking forward to hearing more from these guys.

As you probably already know, The National’s previous album, Boxer, garnered a considerable amount of praise when it was released in 2007. It made the coveted number one spot on many end-of-the-year lists. Just knowing that the National were about to release a new album had me excited, but an intimate show at the Bell House? How fortuitous.

The National (Photo: Keith Klenowski)

As promised, The National played a number of songs from their upcoming album, High Violet, which officially drops May 11th.

alleged High Violet cover

Though it was the first time I heard any of their new songs, many of the themes expressed in earlier albums (madness, brains, melancholia) seem to crop up in their new material as well, as was evidenced by the very first song.

This is the happiest song on our new record. It’s called “Sorrow,” joked singer Matt Berninger. In between sips of his chilled white wine, Berninger continued, Last night we were nervous, so we came out and had an awesome show. Tonight we’re confident and usually when that happens we take a dive, so we’ll see…

The band followed up “Sorrow” with two additional new songs before breaking into a string of older songs, including “Mistaken For Strangers” and “Secret Meeting, which elicited enthusiastic responses from the crowd.

Compared to the older songs (especially those on Alligator), the newer songs seem more toned down, which is probably for the best – at least for the time being. Though he was able to conceal it for the most part, Berninger is in the process of finding his voice again following his recent decision to give up smoking.  I quit smoking a couple of months ago, so if I coughed on you, it’s not a disease. It’s my lungs regenerating. Sorry.

Despite Matt’s difficulty nailing some of the more aggressive parts of the songs, he certainly did not lack energy. He frenetically paced around the stage and certainly made the encore memorable by rushing into the audience during “Mr. November” and singing the desperate chorus with anyone and everyone he could grab with a good pair of lungs. As he stood on top of first an amp and then a dividing wall, towering over everybody, it was clear that he certainly had the rock star act down. But the thing I love about Matt is that he still manages to be self-deprecating and soft-spoken when he speaks between the songs. I love this discrepancy between his softer side and his sheer recklessness. It’s as if he takes on another persona once he starts singing – especially with songs like “Mr. November,” “Abel,” and the end of “Secret Meeting.”

With as many as ten people playing along at times, the sheer sound produced on stage was impressive, and the addition of the trumpet and trombone pack a special punch.

With a playtime that clocked in at around an hour and forty minutes, this is what a concert should be, and hopefully more will be in the works. After all, they do live in Brooklyn.

Set List
*Anyone’s Ghost
*Little Faith (Chrome Horse)
Mistaken for Strangers
Secret Meeting
*Afraid of Everyone
*Bloodbuzz Ohio
All The Wine
Apartment Story
*Conversation 16
Daughters of the Soho Riots
Fake Empire

*Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks
Mr. November
*Terrible Love

*asterisks designate new tracks to the best of my knowledge.

For a great set of photos from the first night’s show, go here.

Also, check out a recent live performance of the new song “Terrible Love:”

Fifth graders re-do Phoenix

What were you singing in fifth grade chorus class? Well, the fifth grade chorus from PS22 on Staten Island sings a range of popular songs, including some by Lady Gaga, Journey,  Coldplay, and more. Their most recent video on Youtube is a rendition of Phoneix’s hit song “Lisztomania.”

Man. I mean I enjoyed singing songs from Disney’s The Lion King when I was in fifth grade, but I kind of feel like I missed out now. The chorus is directed by Gregg Breinberg.  As of February, the group’s vidoes had over 13,000,000 views on Youtube. Apparently, Passion Pit also had the chorus sing backing vocals on three of the tracks from their debut album, Manners. Quite impressive for a group of ten and eleven year-olds.

Joanna Newsom revisited

Photo: Annabel Mehran

Joanna Newsom has always been one of those artists that I liked… but only in theory. Sure, she’s beautiful. Yes, it’s awesome that she plays the harp. I’ll concede that her lyrics are intriguing. And fine, she clearly has talent and a unique outlook. But her Voice? (1) Yikes. I just couldn’t handle it.

That said, I admit I was curious to hear her three-disc extravaganza, Have One On Me, so I decided to check it out when it streamed on NPR Music. After twenty minutes of listening, and I couldn’t believe my ears. I used to recoil at the sound of her Voice, but you know what? I didn’t immediately reach for mute. I can now truthfully report that I actually listened to the whole thing – not in one sitting of course. I’m not that dedicated to the cause. Like its predecessors, Have One On Me is certainly not for everyone. Heck, I’m not sure if it’s even for me, which is one of the main reasons I set out to write this review.

OK, so before I begin, there’s an important distinction I’d like to make. There’s Joanna Newsom’s voice and then there’s her Voice. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been turned off by her capital-V Voice in the past, but Have One On Me marks a significant departure from her previous two albums in the voice department. Have One On Me is a whopper of an album, filled with excessive songs that keep twisting and turning, as if determined to last forever. With the exception of “On a Good Day,” the shockingly short opening track on disc two, Have One On Me showcases extremely long songs. Hitting the eight or nine minute mark is the norm – not the exception. The title track, for instance is a bit trying. It is overly theatrical, heavy on the harp, and seems to contain more of that signature baby Voice. Clocking in at around 11 minutes, “Have One On Me” lacks focus and is simply exhausting to listen to. Joanna seems to be meandering more in her lyrics and with her voice.

Of course, Joanna’s stylistic choices throughout the album are certainly interesting. In addition to being rather lengthy, her songs are a bit odd in that they rarely have a chorus. Instead, the lyrics wind on and on and almost seem more appropriate for an epic poem that a traveling minstrel might have performed sometime during the 13th century.

Joanna’s triple album opens with “Easy.” The song introduces a romance that seems almost medieval due to Joanna’s delivery, the lush instrumentation, and her beautiful but rather old-fashioned diction, laid out in poetic lines. To me, the music conjures up an image of a woman in the forest singing out to a knight nearby who can’t quite hear her. The word ‘easy’ in the song refers to the ability to love, but I can’t help but think about its relevance to the album as a whole. This Joanna is  easier to digest, and many of the themes introduced in the opening track continue to pop up throughout the album, lending it some kind of a cohesiveness despite its expansive length.

“’81” continues the fairytale-like feel present from the very first song and references both the Garden of Eden and spring. It is naive and hopeful in its declaration: “I believe, regardless. I believe in everyone.”

“You and Me, Bess” is also rather pleasant. It features a trumpet and hardly any signs of her grating Voice make an appearance.

Then there’s “In California,” which features Joanna cawing. Yes. Cawing. Like the bird. This kind of act may be ok for seasoned Joanna Newsom fans, but it’s asking for a bit much for my untrained ear. Yes, I know you’re weird. Fine. There’s no need to keep looking for ways to prove it. I sometimes wonder if Joanna Newsom has some permutation of Lady Gaga syndrome and exhibits a certain sound just for show and for shock value. But it’s not that simple. She is certainly not a spotlight hog and has spent a considerable amount of time staying under the radar since releasing her last album. Time Out New York’s Sophie Harris summed it up well by saying:

The news this past month that she was poised to release a triple album was delightful and disorienting; it was the musical equivalent of “I’m pregnant! Due next week! And it’s triplets!”

“Jackrabbits” is sing-songy  romantic lullaby that gets a bit psychotic at the end there with repetitive line “I can love you again.” I can almost picture her saying it with a crazed look in her eye and a meat cleaver raised over her shoulder.

“Autumn,” the fourth track on disc three, marks a definite change of pace. Where the majority of the previous songs focused on love and seemed pretty hopeful over all, a heavy-handed allusion to autumn indicates decay and increasingly dark days. (2)

“Kingfisher” keeps her Voice at bay and instead showcases the more dulcet tones of her voice. Clocking in at over nine minutes long, “Kingfisher” is a pretty good representation of the album. It has it all: the harp, the medieval sound, and compelling (if not a bit over-the-top) lyrics. (3)

In fact, if you’re pressed on time and cannot dedicate over 2 hours to listen to the three-piece album in its entirety, you could kind of just listen to “Kingfisher” and call it a day. It’s a pretty solid track, as is the album’s conclusion – “Does Not Suffice.”

Photo: Jesse Chehak

I really wish I could sit down with Joanna – be it at a coffee shop or at a clearing in the forest – and ask her about the evolution of her albums and more importantly, her Voice. Upon reflection, I think what most bothered me about her Voice was that I associated it with a gimmick she used to get people talking. It seemed too over-the-top and contrived to be real.

Has she really improved as dramatically as it sounds? Is she now more willing to trade in her trying Voice for something that appeals to a wider audience? Which does she prefer: her Voice or her voice? Is one more genuine than the other? Does this new voice denote a loss of authenticity or has she just dropped a rouse?

Hmm… what do you think?

(1) Yes, I intentionally capitalized ‘Voice.’ More on that later.

(2) Or, in Joanna speak, “violent love” and “silent, dove-gray days.

(3) “I had a dream you came to me, said you shall not go me harm anymore,
and with your knife, you evicted my life from its light lighthouse on the seashore.”

A varried line-up and a delightful evening at the Rouge

Efterklang + Daníel Bjarnason + Samamidon – Le Poisson Rouge – March 3

It’s rare that I enjoy every artist on the line-up, but Wednesday night’s show at Le Poisson Rouge hit all the right notes. Sure, I was a bit bummed out that Balmorhea had canceled (due to “urgent family matters”), but the last minute replacement for the opening slot, Samamidon, was a welcome addition to the roster.

Samamidon is one of those artists that I’ve seen scheduled to play countless times in the area, but I’ve never gotten around to actually checking him out properly. His performance tonight made me regret not making more of an effort to see him in the past. Sam unceremoniously took to the stage, picked up a ukulele, and began playing.


Sam’s pleasant demeanor and warm voice make you feel like you’re hanging out with an old friend whom you’ve known for years.  Perhaps it doesn’t hurt that he sounds a lot like Alexi Murdoch or even a bit like José Gonzalez.  Sam rotated instruments, playing the banjo and guitar in addition to the ukulele, and he was accompanied by drums. The sound was minimal, but it was the perfect start to the evening. Whether he was telling a story about animatronic dinosaurs or singing a cover of an R. Kelly song (“Relief”), Sam captivated the quietly seated audience. (1) He closed the evening off with the lovely song “Wedding Dress.”

Samamidon is scheduled to release an album at the end of the month, entitled I See the Sign. Download a free track from it here.

Next up was Icelandic composer/conductor Daníel Bjarnason… or more accurately, I should say Daníel Bjarnason and his sixteen-piece orchestra. I’m still not quite sure how they fit so many people and instruments on stage, but it was marvelous. A piano, violins, viola, cello, upright bass, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, oboe, clarinet, french horn, suspended gongs, and a full-size harp all decorated the stage. It was truly a sight – and a sound – to behold.

Daníel Bjarnason

Daníel’s music is beautiful, but often a bit creepy – discordant screeches were built into the first song the orchestra played. At times, just a few musicians play at a time and the sound is minimal and harmonious, but there are also sudden moments when all the instruments jump in at once, each jostling for attention to be heard through the pandemonium.  During one such moment, I know I’m not the only one who visibly jumped a little, and when I looked over at Sam, I could detect a small smile creeping over his face. To get a taste for yourself, head over here and stream a few songs.

Playing Radiohead in between sets was a bit of an odd choice, but I suppose Efterklang is pretty much Denmark’s Radiohead. I love Denmark – don’t get me wrong. They just aren’t really known for their music (or their food for that matter). Before Efterklang had even started to play, I immediately had a big grin on my face as they walked on stage. They were dressed boldly and brightly – reds, purples, greens, and blues from head to toe.

Efterklang (Photo: Rasmus Weng Karlsen)

Many of the songs the band played were from their new album, Magic Chairs, which came out just a few weeks ago, including “Alike,” which does remind me a bit of Radiohead.

In addition to the obvious – the music, I love Efterklang for their charming stage presence. All of the guys in the band seem so genuinely excited to be playing –  as if they can’t believe that they’re on stage in New York. Even lead singer Casper Clausen was in high spirits despite having been to the doctor earlier in the day for his throat and almost calling off the show. Luckily, despite this setback, Casper’s voice was in fine form, and he still had plenty of energy to march around on stage. For more punch, Tim Cronin of Camera Obscura joined the band on stage to play the trumpet throughout the evening.

The set may have been relatively short, but the energy was all there. Following the one-song encore of “Mirror Mirror,” the audience applauded generously, and the guys from Efterklang stood on stage grinning, pointing at the crowd, and enthusiastically clapping as if we were the ones who had just put on the show. The effect was utterly charming.

Do yourself a favor and head over to 4AD to check out some sweet videos of Efterklang performing songs from Magic Chairs.

(1) Hear and watch Samamidon performing “Relief” at a show in Dublin here.

"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."

- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being