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Sure, turn on the fog machine. Just make sure some light shines through, ok?

Frightened Rabbit – Webster Hall – April 28

The British accent may not always be obvious when paired with music, but the Scottish accent? Now that’s an entirely different matter. It’s virtually inescapable. For better or for worse, it is destined to be a central element to the music, and Glasgow’s Frightened Rabbit is certainly no exception to this rule. Singer Scott Hutchison’s accent is so strong that I can’t help thinking about the three or so stereotypes I associate with Scotland. OK. So really, I just think of Mel Gibson wearing a kilt with his face painted.

Frightened Rabbit (Photo Jannica Honey)

But then I catch a snippet of a some lyrics, and I am jolted back to the present. In reality, Frightened Rabbit’s aesthetic has less in common with vibrant, green rolling hills than it has with a bleak, grey landscape that is covered in thick blankets of fog. And yet, there is still hope – especially on their third album, The Winter of Mixed Group. The occasional ray of light still manages to filter through the heavy atmospherics. In “Not Miserable,” Hutchison reflects on recent tragedies and then repeats the assertion contained in the song’s title. Of course, denying misery is certainly not the same as proclaiming happiness, but hey, at least there are some swathes of colour mixed into the sepia-tone melancholia and grey-scale mediocrity. Speaking of oppressive grey clouds…

We’re very excited to be here. Fucking volcano, Hutchison exclaimed as the group walked on stage and took their places in front of the starry backdrop. We’re glad you’re here, too, a fan yelled in response. Frightened Rabbit kicked off the evening with “Skip the Youth” from their latest album, which is a good representation of their sound. This uncharacteristically long song (6:19) is by turns gentle and raucous. This is the kind of band who – in the course of a single day – may very well play croquet together in the morning and follow it up with a field trip to the rifle range. With their roaring guitar riffs, intense drum lines, and desperate vocals, these guys mean business. Their energy is infectious and requires more from the audience than just a benign toe tap. Without so much as a prompt, the crowd becomes assumes an active role in the show, clapping along with “The Loneliness and the Scream” and later to lending backing vocals on “The Twist.”

The set list for the evening offered a compelling mix of tempos. They sandwiched faster songs between slower songs so that right when you begin to feel tired from the day’s work, they pick up the pace again and breathe new life into your weary body.

Take a listen to “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” another track from the new album:

Before concluding their set with the fantastic “Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms,” Hutchison again expressed their excitement to play at Webster Hall. Apparently, when they last came to New York in 2007, they played at a series of smaller venues to sparsely populated rooms (including this Brooklyn basement), but on Wednesday night, the house was packed.

After their 12-song set, they played three more songs for the encore, including a moving solo acoustic performance of  “Poke,” followed by energetic full-band productions of “Living in Colour” and “Keep Yourself Warm.”


Windy city invasion

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone + Magical Beautiful – Mercury Lounge – April 27

Ahhh, Chicago. Home of our president, the Bears, and more importantly, the two bands that are the subject of this post. With two separate shows on the agenda on Tuesday night, things got started early at the Mercury Lounge.

Magical Beautiful (Photo Leslie Deckard)

I had never heard of the opener, Magical Beautiful, but when I saw a melodica propped up on Alance Ward’s drum kit, I figured it was probably a good sign. Experts in sound manipulation, the four members of Magical Beautiful did some interesting things on stage. At times, it was hard to tell where one song stopped and the next began. Often, one song seemed to flow into the next without so much as a pause to separate them. The only indication would be a swift change of tempo.

Another focal point of the band is lead singer Tyson Torstensen’s strange voice. Delivered mostly in monotone (but with occasional reaches to a higher octave), Torstensen’s voice seemed like it would have been a good fit for one of those Soviet pop songs. OK, so I don’t know much about Soviet-era pop music, but I did have fun imagining Magical Beautiful being commissioned to play it. Torstensen’s vocals are often indecipherable and chant-like anyway (case in point – “Wings in the Sky.”) Who’s to say there isn’t propaganda embedded within their lyrics?

Believe what you will about long, unwieldy band names. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone has a nice ring to it. It’s descriptive, fitting for the music, and it rhymes. Sure it’s not neat or succinct, but then neither are Owen Ashworth’s songs.

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone's Owen Ashworth (Photo Hannah Persson)

I’ve seen Casiotone for the Painfully Alone a few times now, but Monday night was the first time I saw Owen playing with a band, which made for quite the change. On one hand, it was good to hear the music more flushed out. In addition to the usual – a keyboard and some pre-recorded tracks, the stage was flanked by a guitar, bass, trumpet, trombone, and drums for the majority of the Casiotone set. But on the other hand, I have to say the show was a bit less personal. Owen writes such intimate and honest lyrics that it’s a bit strange to have other people there on the stage to partake in the music. There were also fewer entertaining breaks between songs. Traditionally, one of my favorite things about Casiotone shows is hearing Owen’s anecdotes, but there was little time for that on Tuesday night (perhaps due to the double booking and time constraints). Luckily, Owen’s songs each paint a vivid scene, and the lyrics in his songs are much more entertaining than most artists’ banter. In fact, the lyrics are so personal and confessional in all their awkwardness that I feel as if we are friends even though we’ve spoken only briefly. Even though I haven’t never had my mom in on me with a boy or bought a matching outfit for an estranged friend, I find myself identifying and emphasizing with the songs.

Owen played a combination of newer songs and a handful from 2006’s Etiquette (“Nashville Parthenon,” “I Love Creedence,” “New Years Kiss,” and “Bobby Malone”), which were all crowd pleasers. Sadly, there was no time for an encore despite the fact that the audience would have gladly stuck around for more.

Be careful what you wish for, Chris Chu

Morning Benders + Holiday Shores + The Luyas – Music Hall of Williamsburg – April 24

Oh hi. Fancy that. You’re here. With a modest introduction and an amiable request to have the lights turned down low, The Luyas singer Jessie Stein immediately took control of the stage and charmed the audience. Apparently, the Montreal group was eager to try out a new toy – bare light bulbs rigged up to strips  that were outfitted to turn on and off according to the drum beat. But the light show was short-lived and only made an appearance at the very beginning and end of their set. I’m sorry if you’re epileptic. We just have this new thing, said Jessie after just one song (“Canary”).

The Luyas (Photo Danielle St-Amor and Stacey Ho)

Speaking of strange, new things, get a load of Jessie’s main instrument:

the crazy hybrid instrument, "Darth Vader"

Yes, there are 12 strings there, and yes, there is a screwdriver under those strings that seems to act like a capo. It looked like a made-up instrument, and apparently it was. According to the Blogothèque site, the ‘magic guitar’ was made by Dutch instrument maker Yuri Landman. It fit Jessie’s whimsical, child-like personality well.

But Jessie is not the only thing The Luyas have going for them. I can honestly say that each of the four members were quite skilled. The French Horn, played by Pietro, was a nice touch; Matthieu was great on the organ, and Steffy… man. That’s what a drummer should be. He didn’t find it necessary to mercilessly beat his kit. Far from it. He knew when to pull out of a song altogether and when to add the slightest amount of percussion to allow the other instruments to be in the spotlight. Guest appearances by the xylophone were also delightful.

The Luyas wrap up their 3-show tour of New York tonight at Glasslands, and I think it would be in your best interest to be there. For more on The Luyas, once again check out their sweet Take-Away show.

Next up was Florida group Holiday Shores. Due to “last-minute situational things,” two members of Twin Sister  joined them on stage. (Perhaps the other two members were over at Bruar Falls setting up for their later show…?) Holiday Shores makes fun surfy-pop music. Take a listen to the infectious  “Phones Don’t Feud.”

Despite the fact that it wasn’t the normal spread of people on stage, Holiday Shores had great energy. They also kept themselves busy. The guitar player would walk up to a free-standing symbol and begin to play it, with the guitar still around his neck, and lead singer Nathan Pemberton also alternated back and forth between guitar and keyboard, often within the same song.

Holiday Shores

Even with a four-song warning, the group left the stage rather abruptly, but I suppose that had other things to attend to over on Grand Street.

Then there were the Morning Benders. I suppose their extensive touring with the likes of indie heavyweights like Grizzly Bear, Broken Bells, Death Cab for Cutie, Ra Ra Riot, Yo La Tengo, Au Revoir Simone, MGMT, White Rabbits, and Yeasayer paid off. (That’s a crazy-impressive résumé!) All three of their New York shows were sold out this week. (It will be worth your time and effort to bum a ticket from somebody to see them on Wednesday at the Mercury Lounge. They’re about to leave town again.)

Morning Benders (Photo Brooke Sheridan)

The Morning Benders set was celebratory and once again, energy-packed. They expressed their happiness to be back in New York multiple times. It’s not the same other places, admitted Morning Benders singer Chris Chu. The group showcased a number of songs from their recently released sophomore album, Big Echo, in addition to playing a few older jams and even a brand new song called “Go Grab a Stranger.” (1)

As if following a dress code, the four members of The Morning Benders each wore wrinkled, light-colored button-up shirts. These ruffled, but well-dressed fellows were certainly out to charm, and they effortlessly worked the (mostly-female) crowd. The Morning Benders sing about things like growing up too fast, friendship, and love – all with a pitch-perfect harmony and just enough rock and reverb to appeal to the guys, too.

Their set was relatively short, but their finale was certainly memorable and well-executed.

Feel the magic. Check out this fantastic video for “Excuses” from a Rough Trade shoot.

Much like in the video, the band elicited help from the audience to help sing the harmony parts on “Excuses” for their grand finale. Soon into the song, Chris stepped off the stage and into the ecstatic audience, where he led a sing-along from the all-to-eager fans. (2) It was impossible not to smile. It was one of those finales that just leaves you feeling good about life. It was a beautiful moment and a worthy conclusion to a fantastic evening of music.

After climbing back on the stage to say goodbye, Chris exited not by way of the staircase to head backstage, but by simply hopping off the front of the stage and walking back into the audience, where he was greeted with hugs and high fives like a sports star after a big game.

(1) A funny and surprisingly prophetic title in light of the events that would later unfold.

(2) He totally got pinched in the ass at one point, but didn’t seem to mind.

Union Hall now hosts house parties, apparently*

Inlets + Sparrow House + A Weather – Union Hall – April 23

In a strange turn of events, the band I was most familiar with at Friday night’s show was the first opener, A Weather. I fell in love with Cove, their debut album back when I drove in the spring of 2008. That CD didn’t leave my car’s stereo for a couple of months. Portland’s A Weather makes  sweet bedroom pop that is neither overly cute nor annoyingly upbeat. The vocals during the show were a bit low in the mix, but generally speaking, singers Aaron Gerber and Sarah Winchester compliment each other wonderfully.

A Weather

Their music is straight-forward. You’ve got a guitar, bass, and drum kit. Nothing more, nothing less. But the simplicity is refreshing and lovely, and it really gives the vocals a chance to shine. (1) For the most part, they stuck to songs from their new album, Everyday Balloons, but they also played “Spiders, Snakes” from Cove.

As the small, underground room filled up, the din from the crowd got more and more distracting. Union Hall is an official bar and concert venue, but on Friday night, it felt more like I was attending a house show. Since the evening was celebrating the record release day for Inlets’ Sebastian Krueger asked some friends of his who were not on the bill to play a few songs between sets.

I hadn’t thought I knew a thing about the second opener, Sparrow House, but before the show even started, I saw front man Jared Van Fleet hanging out in the lounge area, and he struck me as vaguely familiar. I often play the guess-which-people-in-the-audience-are-in-one-of-the-bands game, but for whatever reason, that possibility didn’t even cross my mind. I was too busy trying to place him in some other scenario. A party maybe? Friend of a friend? Then he walked on stage. But as it turns out, I was more familiar with Sparrow House as I had thought. Scrolling through my i Tunes, I realized that I had two songs from an early EP, and each had a timestamp of 2008 for the last play date. Crazy. (Apparently, Jared Van Fleet is also the guitarist/keyboardist in Voxtrot.)

Jared Van Fleet of Sparrow House (Photo Emily Daniels)

It’s a shame that the room was so loud. It was so difficult to hear Sparrow House, that I have little to write about in the way of a review. From what I heard of it (and the sound guy did eventually turn up the mic), Jared had a lovely voice. It just wasn’t suited to the rowdy environment. At one point during the set, the girl behind me turned to her friend and said, Wow this is the beautiful kind of song you put at the end of an album. Not something you play on a Friday night. And that’s pretty much how it went. Jared struggled to be heard over the din and eventually invited a friend to join him on bass. After a curt signal from the tech guy, Jared played a ‘short one’ and turned the stage over to another one of Sebastian’s friends.

When Inlets walked onto the stage, Sebastian had the foresight to tell everyone to ‘shut up,’ which helped quiet the crowd to some extent. Early in the set, they launched into “In Which I, Robert,” one of the more upbeat songs in their catalog. Thanks in large part to its emphasis  on mesmerizing woodwind melodies, Inlets’ long-awaited debut album Inter Arbiter is atmospheric, rich, and a bit spooky. Sebastian has a distinctive voice that is reminiscent of Zac Pennington’s (of Parenthetical Girls). This is definitely an artist that will be worth keeping track of.   I just hope that next time, he invites all his mellow friends. (2)

Sebastian Krueger of Inlets

Be sure to check out the Take-Away show Inlets did a while back. Below is half of that show, “Roots and Sidewalks,” performed in a park outside of Manhattan.

*Ok. So not really.

(1) Apparently, Aaron and Sarah are dating, which could explain the natural chemistry between their voices.

(2) That said, I did turn around at one point to find Beirut’s Zach Condon standing about a foot away, so no complaints there.

"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