If you’re off to see Bob Dylan in concert these days, you’re most likely there just to see the man in person: an item to cross off of your amazing-people-to-see-before-you/they-die list. I managed to catch him in Johnstown, PA last year for the first time. As probably my favorite singer-songwriter, I wrote his name in large bold letters at the top of my itinerary. His band was in full form, reminiscent of Dylan’s Hawks (a.k.a. The Band) circa 1966 in their (in)famous Royal Albert Hall performance—and rightly so. In the past 15 years, Dylan’s voice has become exponentially deeper and more ragged. He can sing even more poorly now than he did 40 years ago. But Dylan has always had a well-known affection for early American blues music, a style whose locomotion has always been fuelled by gravelly timbres and attenuated musical imperfection. I imagine Bob must be relatively happy with how he’s aged. He was frequently called “ahead of his time” during his emergence in the early 1960s; now that he’s well past retirement, Dylan has become physically what his musical persona (and influences) has always invoked: an angry, bitter, world-weary old man. Aging appropriately into his inspirations, his new leathery, sandpaper-like voice matches perfectly the electric rock and roll music that he has been harnessing since the release of 1997’s excellent Time Out of Mind. Hearing a younger Dylan playing over music as heavy and aggressive as the stuff on Tempest and Modern Times might give some credence to the foolish folkie who called him Judas 47 years ago, but that heckle would sound just as silly today as it did back then. Rock and blues music shouldn’t be about the means by which an artist carries their baggage with them, it’s what’s inside that really matters. Lately Dylan has stripped away the confessional narrative of his early-to-mid-period songs, instead channeling his pathos into a hefty set of ditties consisting of self-contained but brilliant-on-their-own stanzas over loud, blues-ridden rock music. The man has morphed into soothsaying scribe, amassing a great deal of ever-so-quotable quatrains, every one of them like holes in a coarse cheese grater as he growls and croons the kitchen utensil in jagged rhythms over our collective souls. Dylan has thrown his baggage down the express lane packed with only the finest soot-covered linens.
“Well, my back’s been to the wall so long it seems like it’s stuck
Why don’t you break my heart one more time, just for good luck?”
So the last decade and a half has seen a renaissance for Dylan as a recording artist. But I am here for a concert review, and so must ask: have his live performances done his albums justice, and how was his performance at Merriweather Post Pavilion? I am disappointed to say that the rumors are unfortunately founded in truth. Don’t expect a Dylan show to be extraordinary, because it won’t be. Dylan’s concerts have two primary attractions: his band, a primo musical force that will get your feet thumping. The other is that you get to say that you were within viewing distance of Bob Dylan. The man’s actual performances can be—and usually are—spotty. In the flesh his voice is even harsher, but that ain’t the problem. It’s that Dylan usually garbles and glosses over his words when it comes time to bellow. I don’t know if it’s because he’s sick of having to sing them (Bob has played over 2,500 live dates on his appropriately-titled Never Ending Tour since 1988, with no signs of stopping) or because he can’t physically enunciate the hundreds of lines he’s written over the years, or whether he has become distanced from some of the songs that he wrote so long ago. This can lead to a sometimes alienating and confusing show. Should I be angry at Dylan for not trying hard enough? Can I blame him? It would be impossible to put myself into his shoes. No one knows what it’s like to be Bob Dylan except Bob Dylan. Touring for years on end must be a debilitating and monotonous experience, so should we expect Dylan to give it his all every time he plants his head towards the microphone? The answer to this can only be satisfied by understanding what the listener expects out of the relationship between the artist and the audience. As a Dylan fan should I expect some sort of connection to bloom each and every time he goes on stage? Should the performer perform for the audience or at them? Given the often personal nature of songwriting, should I even expect this? Do these songs still mean anything to Dylan the person? However you decide to answer those questions, Bob has seemed to take a passive, laborious approach to his performances.
I was much closer to the stage during the Americanarama Dylan show than I was in Johnstown, so I spent much of the time listening at ease and observing Dylan’s general physical appearance and body language. The show opened with the pessimistic anthem “Things Have Changed” as Bob stood out front and played harmonica. After an energetic rendition of “High Water (For Charley Patton)” he retreated back to his piano and stayed there for most of the show. I usually couldn’t tell which song they were playing until he reached the chorus or until a recognizable hook appeared; the songs felt more evocated by his band than by him. The sadness and anger that sparked him to write so many great songs seems to have been lost to time. Dylan shows nowadays are more of an intellectual exercise slash nostalgic relapse into recognizing Dylan as a gargantuan figure of 20th century music. I sat there and stared at the man for more than an hour, I figured out each song after some hesitation, and listened to them with a distinct appreciation for their greatness, but not necessarily for the performance that was happening. There was a man standing beside me during the show, and in between songs he would yell out an oddly matter-of-fact phrase which I think sums up the feelings we have when he see him: “Yeeeeeaaaaaah, Bob Dylan!” That is correct, sir: you are near Bob Dylan, and he is near you. Revel in the glory even if you’re tuning in to mish-mash.
The most enjoyable tunes were the newer, already-electric ones: “Love Sick,” “Duquesne Whistle,” “Soon After Midnight,” and “Thunder On the Mountain.” It was also a pleasure to hear him play the harmonica, around which he can maneuver with some versatility. His band felt a little reserved this time, seemingly just going through the motions. During “Tangled Up in the Blue,” people threw blue neon glow sticks into the air with each refrain of the chorus, to my bewilderment. They finished the set with “All Along the Watchtower” (which he’s played over 2,000 times) then came back and played “Ballad of a Thin Man” for the encore. As they locked arms and bowed to the audience, he took off his hat and gave a look of reverence and anxiety. Bob hasn’t given up; he’s either just worn out from burning in the spotlight for so long or he’s constantly touring because he knows how to do nothing else. Go see him if you haven’t. You won’t be blown away, but at least you can say to your friends: “I saw God, and he’s a 72-year-old Jewish man from Minnesota.”
The Flaming Lips (or FLips) shows have long been regarded as one of the heights of modern live music experience. It’s as if the punks never disrupted the heyday of prog, but instead stole all the nerds’ self-serious theatrics and twisted them for their own gleeful mischief. Wayne Coyne and crew kept the trippy visuals, bizarre props, lights and laser show that rival or surpass the sheer mind-blowing bombast of Prog rock at its height but cut down Prog’s excess with the efficiency and viscera of punk. They’re singing about prog subjects of space and aliens but there’s little to no intellectual detachment to be found. Instead, the band relies on fearless intimacy, energy, and emotion to make their songs about robots both good and evil are just as affecting as their more terrestrial love songs. They’re punks who read Asimov, proggers that grew up on Butthole Surfers, freaks who don’t accept any boundaries – societal or personal.
Unfortunately, the first opening act, Tobacco, doesn’t understand that simply being a “fearless freak” isn’t what gives the FLips staying power. Tobacco, the lead singer of Pittsburgh’s Black Moth Super Rainbow, and his boundary-pushing weirdness couldn’t distract me from the flat electronica being played over the 80’s workout and porn videos on the outside screens of Stage AE. Sure, it was fun to watch the videos, the “stage dancers” in masks who alternated between apathetic posing and half-assed exercise routines, and ask, “what the hell is going on?” but that’s about all I got out of the performance. There was little substance beyond a kind of musical sideshow act. It was a packaged “experience,” something to tell people about – “They were playing porn! Porn! During a concert!” – and then quickly forget. It was all viscera and shock, weirdness for the sake of being weird. It was a literal “freak show” with all the hackneyed characteristics of those shows of yore; the sights and sounds provoked and disgusted the eye and ear but stopped before reaching the brain. But maybe I’m being too harsh. It could be that chilly synths just don’t translate to a show before the sunset like a horror movie that’s so haunting at night and so laughable in the daylight. And I do admit that the performance did make me think but, unfortunately, not about Tobacco’s music. I wondered what keeps me coming back to the Flaming Lips as the stretch their music to novelty. Why do I get excited for a new album after unending jelly skulls and fetuses (fetusii?), youtube trickery, musical endurance races, and publicity stunts? What’s Wayne’s secret to show the humanity behind the Flaming Lips freak show?
As I was mulling it over, Spiritualized began a set of their pharmaceutical space rock. A church organ introduced “Here It Comes,” humming over soft violin and plinking xylophone, as the soft pseudo-hymnal drifted through the dusk. “Electricity” and “Let it Flow” were just as interstellar as the FLips but in a wholly different way: Pierce’s band drifted through space with the help of Valium and blues instead of rocket boosters and psychedelia. While I was initially skeptical of whether Spiritualized would fit into a bill with the FLips, I began to appreciate the similarities between the two bands.
At the end of a particularly intense instrumental outro to “Hey Jane,” my girlfriend turned to me, remarked that “it felt like I just had sex” and I was immediately struck by how appropriate her statement was. Every song began small, concerned with trivial things like a conversation or getting high on Christmas, and then built and built with tiny moments, an added musical phrase, another memory, a new voice, until the tiny things became so big that it felt like the whole stage was going to rise into the air. Every song felt like a gospel choir, a spaceship slowly taking off, or a building orgasm – something that built and built until it felt like I couldn’t keep everything inside of me and I was completely overwhelmed. It was space music with the help of religion and drugs, stuff far out with the help of things just a nightstand drawer away.
Spiritualized had an otherworldliness and immediate grandeur to their music that gave their songs a fittingly spiritual feeling but their primeval fury blunted all their spacy tendencies as well as humanizing their ethereal subject matter. Although they’re singing about interstellar, inhuman things such as God or the universe, it never feels like you’re viewing their subjects from a pew or telescope. You’re there, in the midst of stars or at the foot of God, listening to stories about these larger-than-life things with human ears, emotions, and understanding. There’s no distance to their music or message. It’s space rock that has its feet in down and dirty blues and rock just as the FLip’s ground their music in the chaotic and purely human fury of punk. The pain and empathy of Spiritualized bring them down to earth, the struggle and sex down in their blues nail their feet to the ground as they look towards the heavens. It’s the scars on their knuckles that make their folded hands so affecting, the presence of their eye on humanity that makes their pleas to God so powerful. I had figured it out. Weirdness isn’t what draws me to the FLips just as the airy minimalism wasn’t the true source of captivation during Spiritualized. So, by the time Wayne and his crew were setting up the spaceship, hundreds of lights, and laser cannons up for the FLips set, I was assured that behind all the intergalactic irreverence and weirdness, no matter what happened, it would be their sincerity and unselfconscious joy that I would remember. Because it’s the humanity behind the freaks, the struggle and love and hope behind their alien image, that’s the real heart of their music.
However, it’d be hard to forget the spectacle that the Flaming Lips put on. The stage was dominated by a pedestal front and center in the shape of a crashed spaceship. Wires of light flowed down the cracked surface of the ship, running past the bubble cockpit and down to the stage floor like veins. Every drum hit sent lights cascading down the ship, under Wayne, and back into the stage in a kind of reverse waterfall. Confetti cannons studded the stage, defending massive laser cannons and a screen that shifted like the surface of a lake, and an uncountable number lights that could be moved up and down the stage to stand like soldiers behind Wayne, focus on him like laser sights or point down at the crowd, into the stars, and everywhere between. Laser cannons shot blades of light above the audience that danced in the night skies like wildfire, drifting into patterns or furiously carving into the darkness. The giant screen behind Wayne’s skull/spaceship pedestal looked as if it was made of liquid and moved in the wind so that the images seemed to dance, lunge, and pulse with the images projected. Lining the stage were columns of light that dripped light like raindrops, shot walls of light at Wayne, or flashed patterns to the guitar. And at the front of all of it was Wayne’s nebulous shock of hair and goofy smile, kissing the weird baby doll thing that was attached via light umbilical chord to the spaceship, flashing his spotlight, and yelling at the crowd to get pumped up (like we even needed to be told). I’ve never seen a stage show like the Flaming Lips.
For a stage show as obviously complicated and rehearsed as the FLips, I never felt like a second was recited. New tracks like “Look… The Sun is Rising” and “The Terror” were tense and tight and revealed even more of the bracing desperation and hopelessness that terrified me in The Terror. While I appreciated seeing the songs performed in a live context, I hoped that the FLips wouldn’t play many songs from the new album. So, I was relieved when “The W.A.N.D.” had the whole audience bouncing on their feet and throwing up their fists as images of women and lights danced behind Wayne and the baby doll he cradled, cooed at, and kissed. When he wasn’t freaking everyone out with his weird plastic baby, Wayne was playing with his spotlight by shining it at people in the audience. I loved how he was shining the spotlight on the audience rather than at himself; when Wayne was in control of the spotlight, it was always pointed away from him. When it would shine right at my section I liked to think he could see the face of every person he hit with the light, and he could see for himself how much his music meant to that one person in the audience – “We’ve got the power now, motherfuckers.” He was our bandleader, our rabble rouser, our mouthpiece and we ate right out of his hands. Energy bristled off the crowd, ripping apart vocal chords and shooting fists into the air, and Wayne was at the middle of it with a goofy smile and upraised baby. It was weird and a little unsettling but I am much more comfortable with the bizarre, happy Wayne than I ever will be with an intense, sad Wayne.
Fog poured around Wayne’s perch and enveloped the band as the lights pulsed in the midst like the breathing of an organism. The stage seemed to swell and exhale, pushing light and fog into the front rows as as the slow rhythm of “Try to Explain” beat from in the depths of the stage and Wayne’s voice floated out of the pure white mist. As Wayne sung about the death of love and pain without relief, I felt upset and scared. The Flaming Lips have always preached a message of love – love that conquers gravity, space, and time and overcomes any obstacle – and Wayne’s lyrics about hopelessness and the terror of the death of loss and the merciless continuation of life was like hearing Mr. Rogers swear – something so out of character of their message and personality that it disturbed me on a deep, personal level. I felt a real sense of relief when the band started the haunting “Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast” and then raced into “Silver Trembling Hands.” Anything, even two songs from a disliked album, was better than hearing Wayne sing about hopelessness and despair.
Wayne Coyne has always had my vote for Ambassador of the Human Race if aliens ever happen to stop by our tiny sphere. If he is anything like his persona expressed in his music with the Flaming Lips, he will be the perfect representative of the whole positive spectrum of human characteristics: the FLIps bizarre sense of humor and fun, Wayne’s sincerity and passion for whatever he is singing about whether it is a silly space operas or just the joy of a kiss (and he somehow makes both of those feel similarly interstellar), and his music’s infectious lust for life. But the Flaming Lips have never come across as trite or Hallmark-y. Their music knows that life is often hard, sad, and defeating – there’s a reason that their greatest song includes the lyrics “Do you realize that everyone you know will die” – but as he said at during “Race for the Prize,” “no matter how sad we get, if you cheer and clap loud enough you can make anything happy.” There wasn’t an ounce of artificiality to that statement; Wayne believes in what he sings or is one of the best actors I’ve ever seen. Wayne’s commitment to hope, love, and humanity, which he expresses in a way as sweeping and epic as the music he makes, is what makes him a specular performer and human being. If Wayne had doubts about people and love, what hope was there for the rest of us?
Wayne lead the band into an intense cover of DEVO’s “Gates of Steel” that had such wound-up fury and aggression that I was forced to rethink my belief that DEVO was a novelty act. The drumming and guitar meshed in a way that made it sound like a precision machine breaking down in the depths, something massive and cold and sharp slipping a cog so that what was once a rhythmic becomes clanking and mad. Wayne mentioned that he has always felt like “that song is a secret code between people who can understand it. It’s encouragement for those who need it.” Even though I didn’t understand most of the words, the rage and protest of the song, the “secret code,” was crystal clear. Wayne’s rally call for others segued perfectly into “Turning Violent,” a protest song against his own vice. The bass burned like fire under his voice, casting crazy shadows of menace that grew larger with each repetition of “don’t turn violent/ you aren’t violent.” The implications of the phrase loomed behind the Wayne with every shotgun blast of light directed directly at his face.
“Turning Violent” signals a shift in The Terror and signaled a shift in the concert, too. Wayne was no longer consumed in gloom, literally and metaphorically, and the stage was newly revealed as the fog cleared and Wayne told the crowd to cheer as loud as they could because “this is a sad song.” But, he explained, “we know that life is sad. But sad songs are important because they get something out of you, something secret, and they let you share it with others and they can help you lift the sadness. They can make it easier.” Then, like a ray of light, the first piano notes of “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” flittered across the silence. A hundred upraised hands and voices held Wayne’s words above the wave of synthesizers and the last word, “love, love, love” echoed for minutes after the band had left the stage and the music had long since died. After a whole set of intense sadness and tension, hearing hundreds of people chant “love, love, love” in unison felt like an answer to the Terror that the band had sung about. No matter where the band was going and what it was playing, there was physical proof their original message lived on long after they’d gone. Love filled the silence. I guess there is some truth behind the old FLips shirt that bore the slogan “I experienced The Flaming Lips in concert and it made me a better human being.”
Wayne was impressed with how much power his words have, too, because the first thing he did when he came on stage was say how beautiful it was that he could hear “love” chanted all the way backstage. Then, while wearing a very appreciative (and possibly surprised) smile, Steven Drozd started the countdown of “Do You Realize???” and with a word, Wayne was bathed in all the colors of the rainbow. The stage, which had seemed like a slumbering monster, became a vision of bliss. The concert may have actually ended a song later but, for me, it was all over as I stood holding my girlfriend, whispering the words to one of the best love songs every written in her ear and watching the crowd. I saw hundreds of faces washed in the colors of the rainbow that covered the back screen, confetti drifting down and in everyone’s hair, catching the light from the stage like so many stars that have fallen to earth, and a listening to Wayne’s words about life, death, love, and hope bouncing off our tiny stage and out into space – small things that added up to something extraordinary, something universal.
TV On the Radio has just released a new single called “Mercy.” I’m not all the way into the band, having only listened to Return to Cookie Mountain a handful of times. The song seems less experimental musically than many of the songs on that record. Drums are robotic, guitars are stiff and heavy, and synthesizers show up during the chorus. It sounds like The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Darklands meets Minor Threat shakes hands with “Alec Eiffel.” Tunde Adebimpe sings: “Just fell apart in the blink of an eye, better keep yours open wide,” later claiming that “I’ve seen tons of people looking lost and lethal,” in a confessional, cautionary tone.
There is a new Pixies song. Let me repeat that. THERE IS A NEW PIXIES SONG. The weight of that sentence should be heavy enough to make you tremble in your boots with excitement. Exactly two new Pixies songs have been recorded in the past 21 years. The band broke up around 1992 when Kim Deal and Black Francis all but destroyed each other. They reunited for an extensive tour in 2004 and recorded “Bam Thwok,” playing dates sporadically ever since.
Whether you like the new song or not, I think the most important part about it is that it sounds like a Pixies song. Considering how long it’s been since they’ve been a complete, relatively functioning studio band, it is incredibly exciting to hear the band produce new material that maintains their unique and influential style. Frank Black’s solo career in the 1990s proved just how much of a Band the group really was. As Black Francis, he had a dominating role—lead singers tend to do that—but David and Joey and Kim were incredibly important to the dynamics of their sound. Without them it was not the same.
Though we were all sad to hear that Kim Deal left the band again a few months ago, it is great to see that “Bagboy” is a reformation back into the sounds of Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde. Opening with a synthesizer that recalls Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” Black Francis talks, not sings, his usually silly, surreal lyrics over Lovering’s loopy beat: “Like when I hear the sound of feet slapping on the runway/Like a small bird pretty while it’s crapping on the new day.” The stop-start/loud-quiet dynamics are also back, as are Joey Santiago’s mountainous guitar licks. Joey can pack quite the musical punch into the simplest phrases. In fact, “Bagboy” is centered on just two notes. The band explodes as the chorus approaches and then they all let out a single, strained howl while a silvery wisp of a voice (not Kim Deal, unfortunately) exchanges the chorus with Francis’ unparalleled shouts. And then we go back to the synthesizer to rest. What we have here is prime cut Pixies.
It took a few listens, but “Bagboy” has sunk in and I really enjoy it. This return to form will hopefully mark the beginning of another leg of live dates or even a new album, rumors of which have been circulated by mystics for years. If only Kim could be there then we’d have peace in the Middle East. 75% of the Pixies is better than none at all, though. Let’s cross our fingers.
I first heard of Belle and Sebastian in the movie High Fidelity. As the lovable Barry walks into Championship Vinyl Record Store, the music he hears stalls him and he asks: “What the fuck is that?” “It’s the new Belle and Sebastian,” says co-worker Dick. “Well that’s unfortunate, because it sucks ass,” Barry proclaims, later calling it “old sad bastard music.” I really love that movie; the book, too. They’re both musts for music lovers. And so I decided to listen to the band strictly because of that point of contention in the film. A healthy love/hate dichotomy towards established acts will always pique my interest. Any band that can generate heated debate will usually end up in my record rotation. Then I can either join the haters and tell the lovers that they’re stupid, or join the lovers and tell the haters that they’re jaded. After listening to Tigermilk a handful of times a few years ago, I decided to join the latter and I never looked back. The band’s first three albums, especially If You’re Feeling Sinister, were chock full of beautifully arranged pop melodies and clever, romantic lyrics.
While making my typically wallet-draining summer concert list this spring I saw that B & S were coming to Stage AE in Pittsburgh for $44, so I put them near the top of the stack. Much to my surprise, I saw in small print under their name the words “w/ special guests Yo La Tengo,” and so the tickets immediately became a priority. Depending on whom you ask, the concert should have been labeled as a double headliner. This is not to disparage Belle & Sebastian front man Stuart Murdoch and his group, but many circles have deemed Yo La Tengo as one of the best (if not the best) rock bands to emerge in the past 20-odd years. To see them opening for another band can only be explained by their general lack of commercial success, something easily understood by the band’s often aggressive and difficult music. Belle and Sebastian haven’t necessarily seen chart success, either, but they have always stuck to their pop guns, giving them a wider audience to work with. And so they are rewarded with a headlining tour. Even then, I think the music should speak for itself. I love both bands, and labels should mean nothing. Whoever has their name in bigger print shouldn’t matter. Both groups are talented vessels of rock elation, and I was extremely glad to see them both in one night.
Yo La Tengo came onto the stage in their usual get-ups: horizontally-striped t-shirts, jeans, and pairs of Chuck Taylors. Plain as plain can get. The trio epitomizes the old adage that all art is “love and theft.” They are music lovers just as much as their fans (their library of cover songs is extensive) and their being a rock band reflects that. They look like a group of broke college students, and because of that I find them very endearing and unpretentious. The hopeful person in me said that everyone else was just as excited to see them as I was, but as they began to play I scanned the area and saw looks bordering on malaise—not the bright, ethereal Disney eyes that I think such an event would plaster upon the faces of so many young adults. But I felt giddy knowing what lay ahead!
They opened up with the electric “Stupid Things” and played with a subdued, introductory intensity, lubricating our ear canals for the forthcoming rampage. Many of the unsuspecting souls were probably not taken aback during the softer acoustic songs like “Stockholm Syndrome,” “I’ll Be Around,” and the eminently danceable “Autumn Sweater”. I imagine some of them felt their hearts sink down into their assholes every time they saw a crew member give Ira Kaplan his Stratocaster. On “Decora” and especially “Ohm,” James McNew and Georgia Hubley plowed through the intense equatorial chasm that Kaplan creates whenever he picks up the instrument. While they switched between rhythm roles, Ira manhandled his guitar into an anxiety-ridden, catatonic state of psychosis during the solo sections. Placed between the man’s shy, almost inaudible singing, these bursts of energy became extraordinary. At one point he placed two guitars on top of an amplifier crisscrossed and slid them across one another in some sort of kinky, sonic mating ritual. After holding the guitar up above his head as a priest holds up the Gospels, Ira proceeded to slam his fist down on the whammy bar repeatedly, creating what sounded like an overly-aggressive urinal flushing in the depths of a deserted New York City subway bathroom. The group revels in offensive noise just as much as they revel in the gentle, shyer part of their music, and their set displayed both aspects beautifully. Here we have three incredibly normal-looking people evoking sounds that should otherwise be coming from the European theatre of World War II. Greatness comes from the most unsuspected places; one of those places is Hoboken, NJ. After finishing with a blistering rendition of the instrumental “I Heard You Looking,” they walked off stage as inconspicuously as they entered. I hope their set sparked an interest in their music among those ignorant of it.
As night fell Belle and Sebastian came out, all twelve of them, head honcho Stuart Murdoch out front. The instrumental “Judy is a Dick Slap” opened the show, followed by the upbeat lament “I’m a Cuckoo.” I didn’t know what to expect at a Belle and Sebastian show. Most of their early stuff is very introverted, introspective stuff—music for contemplative isolation—so I had assumed everyone would be lying on the grass while fiddling their fingers and slowly bobbing their heads with sullen gazes on their faces. Murdoch’s lyrical content has always given off depressing vibes, but B&S is an extraordinarily talented pop band, so talented that the mood of their music can never be relied upon to reflect the mood of the words; the music is often made on its own terms. They can disguise a sad song with the prettiest music, even inadvertently. A highlight of the concert gave us a perfect example of this contradiction. Murdoch invited around a dozen fans (mostly female) onstage to have a dance party during a few songs. They began to play “The Boy with the Arab Strap” as fireworks went off over nearby PNC Park. It was the perfect visual representation of what I see when I listen to their more colorful tunes, and one that involved three of my favorite things: gunpowder, girls in sundresses, and songs with sexual devices merrily inserted into their titles.
Murdoch was surprisingly charming during inter-song banter, acknowledging local Scot Andrew Carnegie and attempting to name all of Pittsburgh’s interloping rivers. The band played “Take Me Out to The Ballgame” and followed it with the ballad “Piazza, New York Catcher,” a beautiful song with a story constructed almost entirely out of baseball metaphors. To highlight the ongoing fireworks, they played a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” Other favorites included the painfully sarcastic “Lord Anthony,” an archetypical B&S song about a bullied youth (“Tasting blood again/At least it’s your own”), “Mayfly,” stylophone solo and all, and the encore “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying,” which had the whole audience singing every word in unison, myself included.
The whole show was surprisingly full of this energy. Whenever freed of his guitar, Murdoch danced on stage to and fro—often poorly—making me feel better about my own inadequacies. I came away from the concert feeling joyous, ready to enter a Scottish boarding school and become a weirdo loner.
Even at 61, David Byrne is cooler than you. He’s better at multi-tasking, he’s the artistic pioneer of “interoperability” and all those other buzzwords, and one of the most interesting and unique performers alive. He’s the Dos Equis guy in bottle glasses, a “media guru” armed with a paintbrush, a pair of dance shoes, and a camera, and a snappy dresser to boot. He’s the epitome of the “modern man.” Well, a modern man. Byrne’s the prototype of geek chic; slap a big suit on Sheldon Cooper and loosen up those skinny arms with a little African polyrhythm and you have a serviceable Stop Making Sense parody. Byrne’s the excitable and enigmatic dweeb who made the nerdy, overambitious super genius approachable, if not cool. His time in the Talking Heads set the stage for the semi-serious irony, hyper-intelligent and self-aware criticism of the banality of both modern life and modern art, and the detached, magnetic charm of indie art rock while his solo work shows how an artist can continue to be both challenging and relevant. He’s made a musical career out of his wanderings into the many forms of art– from contemporary dance to sculpture to cinema. He’s a self-made man and a singular artist that has made a career of casting the low brow in a high brow light (or is it the other way around?).
Byrne’s performance, for it was a performance in the purest sense, at Greensburg’s Palace Theater with the amazing St. Vincent (the stage name of guitarist Annie Clark) had more of the feeling of a contemporary dance performance than a rock concert. It was weird, mystifying, entrancing, and complex – all the idiosyncratic strengths of the art rock legend and his protégée. It was a concise summary of the appeal and artistic characteristics of Byrne, a practical manifestation of what makes his art so singular and enduring. From the moment the audience entered the venue to a stage littered with brass instruments and the sounds of a nighttime insect chirps and buzzes over the house speakers, there was a sense that this was going to be much stranger and richer than just a simple rock concert. Maybe it was the theater’s plush carpet and literary murals instead of the typical rock venue’s beer and graffiti decorations but it felt like something was happening and I was wringing my hands in anticipation and excitement before the show even started. By the time Byrne, Clark, and their eight-piece brass backing band picked up their instruments to a chorus of chirping crickets and clapping, I knew I was in for something very special.
‘Who,” the single from Love This Giant was a primer for the whole rest of the show. The muscular brass section gave the Love This Giant’s single’s odd and unpredictable eclecticism a shot of friendliness while it underlined Byrne and St. Vincent’s detached lyrics. The choreography, too, was surprising as the whole band danced, marched, and “fought” with each other throughout the song, ducking their hips or diving with their shoulders as if throwing or dodging punches. It was fun to see Byrne up to his old tricks – herky-jerky movements and singing that belayed a nervousness hidden in his lyrics– but it was even more fun to see St. Vincent play along. She was the clockwork ballerina to Byrne’s animated mannequin; moving about the stage in juddering half-steps while smiling in a painted-on, almost menacing fashion as she ripped into her guitar with a shocking viciousness. Byrne’s always reveled in performance and paradox and I was pleased to see that he had picked a partner who could match him step-for-step with intellectual, musical and artistic ambitions.
Byrne’s love of performance and dance grounded the show’s highly intellectual and abstract in physical expression. Clark’s “Marrow” had the band lay completely still on the ground like corpses until the chorus of “H-E-L-P / Help Me” when Byrne would pop his head up and then flop back down before the next verse. It was a disturbing but very simple piece of choreography that underscored the already palpable menace and dread of Clark’s lyrics. Byrne’s dancing in “This Must Be the Place” was reminiscent of the “Once In A Lifetime” music video but his ballet-like posing destabilized the music video’s frantic, epilepsy-inspired movements with calming grace. When the band stopped for a full beat after “Love me until my heart stops,” my heart leapt into my throat as I realized that Byrne’s midlife crisis cry of “where does this highway lead to?” had just been answered with a simple declaration of “home” and one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. It was a tiny, but unbelievably significant expression “This Must Be The Place’s” themes of hope, love, and happiness defeat over “Lifetime’s” alienation. For Bryne, one of the first masters of modern alienation and irony, his performance was startlingly warm, human, and sincere. The conga line for “Wild Wild Life” had the band marching in a circle and taking turns delivering each line á la True Stories. Accusations of pretentiousness are sure to come when smashing together rock and modern dance, but the show was absent of any self-seriousness. The dance was organic and came from the music, illustrating what was being said musically with physical movements. It was dance for those who didn’t know they like dance.
The set list followed a give and take formula where the band would play a Love This Giant track followed by a St. Vincent song and then a David Byrne song before returning to another Love This Giant song. This gave the concert a wonderful appropriate sense of chaos as Clark’s icy art-rock bumped right up against Byrne’s funky crowd pleasers. After a couple iterations, I began to see the ice under Byrne’s pop – the alienation and detached intellectualism that makes Byrne lyrics such as so affecting and yet so shocking – and the heart under Clark’s jagged edges. When the band rolled around to another Love This Giant track, the rough experimentalism of the album’s baroque pop, which I initially disliked, began to make sense. “I Am An Ape’s” stomping repetition and disjointed boogie hinted at the haunting melodies in Clark’s songs and Byrne’s own experimentalism that is often buried in his exotic and polished instrumentalism and others disclosed other hidden strengths of the artists. “Weekend in the Dust” burly brass twitched under Clark’s chanting, giving the song a nervousness and warmth that were at odds and yet flattering, and “The Forest Awakes” punches of horns matched Byrne’s spasms and military march at the side of the stage. For most of the concert Clark appeared to quite literally, take cues from Byrne but closer inspection revealed that more often than not, she took the lead.
It’s tempting to describe the concert as if the audience was just a witness for the trials of a musical apprenticeship but that would unfairly represent how much fun the show was. After all, Byrne is the reigning “Art Rock” icon and Clark is at the forefront of challenging, intellectual rock. So, it’s not hard to see the musical/lyrical irony and contradiction that is so prevalent in Byrne’s music in each note and word of Clark’s compositions. And so, for most artists, the opportunity to work with an idol of Byrne’s influence would cull any urge for bold self-expression and replace it with humbleness. But Clark isn’t one of those artists. Her own artisanship shined throughout the concert, complimenting and clashing with Byrne’s unique style. She commanded the band, incorporating a blast of horns to shoot “Northern Lights’” climax into the stratosphere and giving “Cheerleader” an arrogance that only lurked at the edges of the original song. Clark’s use of horns was confident, even comfortable and held her own against Byrne’s background of polyrhythm and world music. The juxtaposition of both artists revealed what was so distinct and yet so similar between their music. And it’s apparent from the Love This Giant tracks that the two are learning from each other.
Byrne’s “turns” consisted mostly of his most poppy songs and, as such, did not show Clark’s influence but his performances of Love This Giant were marked by a distinctly different style of performance and composition. “Strange Overtones” had the band marching in battle lines and slowly crashing together like waves over a beach, “Like Humans Do” bounced along with world music-influenced richness, and “Burning Down the House” rumbled and yelped to a chorus of audience voices. In contrast, “I Should Watch TV” slithered over Byrne’s stilted singing or skulked under his declarations. Byrne’s always had an edge of panic even under his brightest songs but his lyrical themes have never been so explicitly manifested in instrumentation. “Outside of Space and Time’s” regal and somber instrumentation quietly propped up Byrne’s mundane observations taken to a universal extreme. Byrne has never had a problem writing melodies that appeal to the ear but his lyrics have always been dense and challenging. In fact, I’d argue that his lyrics are so complex and refined that many don’t see Talking Heads as anything more than “just another pop band” because of Byrne’s masterful command of irony, parody, and paradox. So, it’s nice to see that Clark’s approach of music as an expression of lyrical themes makes Byrne’s brilliant lyrics much more approachable if only because of the increased conflict between lyrical and musical content. In turn, Clark’s lyricism was more concrete and less insular as her music opened up with the addition of horns and a bit of warmth. The two artists worked as a catalyst for the other and I walked away from the concert with a greater understanding and appreciation for the art of St. Vincent and David Byrne.
It was over 21 years ago that Loveless, My Bloody Valentine’s monumental shoegazing achievement, was released. In fact, the album shipped out only a few weeks after I was born. It was adored by a small but dedicated crowd, they toured a little bit, and the band didn’t produce anything for two decades. They never officially broke up, instead sitting in the rock and roll limbo known as a hiatus, surrounded by talks that they were slowly and meticulously working on their follow-up. The years piled up, and both the band and the subsequent album turned into a myth. Many people had assumed and accepted the fate that another My Bloody Valentine album was never going to happen.
But suddenly this past February the band announced on their Facebook page (keeping up with the times) that it would be released upon the public in a few days. Then on February 2, it actually happened. The album got a name, an album cover, and both physical and digital copies went up for sale at midnight. Shields wasn’t just blasting air to cool off fans’ demands. This was it.
People have been waiting for this record as long as I’ve been alive. The new album has nine tracks, meaning that it took about just over two years for Shields to complete each song, on average. In the amount of time it took me to become potty trained, this Irishman had something like two whole new songs under his recording belt. By the time I was entering junior high school, the number was increased to six. Now I sit here as a senior in college and the album is done and has been released into the public sphere. This kind of patience is often never rewarded in the rock world. Expectations, grandiose by nature, will always triumph over the actual product. Comeback albums often fail by the dozens. Was this one worth the wait?
I’m not the one to say; I technically didn’t have to wait that long, not being cognizant for most of the 90s. But I can tell you that the new My Bloody Valentine album, the self-acronymed m b v, is very far from being a failure. It’s really goddamned good, in fact. Sure, it’s not Loveless. They will never make another Loveless. The Stones never made another Exile, but that didn’t stop them from making a few more great records. m b v is a worthy follow-up to a legendary album. It’s been a long, long time, but m b v sounds like it was made by a band in the middle of marathon-length winning streak.
Kevin Shields is well-known for taking his precious time in the studio; I can’t blame him. The studio is his stomping ground; it’s where he hones his craft. On paper, My Bloody Valentine’s music is fairly simple. Any fool could pick up a guitar, learn the chords, and play these songs with some degree of success. But they are much more than that. What makes this band unique is their adherence to the bottomless pit of distortion, a toy that rockers have been fooling around with ever since Link Wray poked holes into his amplifier, to the chagrin of his studio engineers. To call their songs fuzzy would be a grand understatement. Layers upon layers upon layers of electronic effects and whatnot mangle and coagulate all of the instruments together into a gargantuan blizzard of tickly pleasure, like licking ferociously at a ball of steel wool. How Mr. Shields does this exactly I do not know, but I salute him. The band’s music does not so much sound like a group of individuals each contributing to the whole of a song. Each one is like a construct, something like a vision that you can imagine appeared in Shields’ head, a vision that we can see took immense tinkering to perfect and come into fruition. Shields paints mural-sized soundscapes, so big that we can keep looking at them and always find fascinating new details that we never previously noticed. He is more than just a lead guitar player or songwriter; he’s an arbiter and a supreme arranger of musical ideas and frameworks, akin to the likes of Brian Eno. These men use the power of the studio to create fascinating and elegant works of supreme beauty.
Gently and subtlety we are coaxed into the apocalypse with “She Found Now” as the band breaks the opening millisecond of silence with a soothing, introductory strum into which we are completely engulfed. A bass drum barely resonates in the background, and Shields plays a series of tuneless, silvery guitar lines seemingly at random throughout, like directionless arrows soaring past our heads as we stand motionless on a battlefield. Subdued, elegiac singing creeps into the forefront, massaging us into submission. “She Found Now” doesn’t coldcock you over the head like “Only Shallow,” instead injecting the fury in your femoral artery, letting the disease course its way through your veins. The song is a timid one, as if the band is warming back up to the olden days. Once the medicine/poison hits our system, it prepares us for the ride ahead.
Always maintaining a tangible presence on the band’s records is guitarist and singer Bilinda Butcher. She often takes the reins as lead vocalist, breathing unintelligible but beautiful whispers into our ears and providing the most immediate contrast to the band’s calculated grittiness. Butcher’s hushed intonations work perfectly with the horrendous babble Shields puts us through; the combination is blissful. Because her singing is often buried under a mountain of guitars, we must actively search for her. This journey can be excruciating, but the rewards for such travels are heavenly. When the melodies grow on you, they stick like glue. Butcher, like any beautiful woman, lights up any environment into which she is thrust. In “If I Am,” listen to her tame the acrid garble of Shields’ wahwah-powered rhythm playing. On the adrenaline-fueled “In Another Way,” she croons over a tossed salad of electronic cockamamie and dazzling feedback. Both songs are probably completely unfit for air on the radio, but she manages to make them palatable. Butcher acts as the alluring Homeric Siren; she is the melodic selling point for those of us out there unaccustomed to the deadly forces of distortion. After she has done her job, we will have been coaxed into believing that the oblivion surrounding her is equally as beautiful as her own voice, because it is.
“Wonder 2” closes the album with a furious windstorm of otherworldly drum flourishes. The song seems to have been recorded inside an abandoned Air Force hangar. Butcher’s voice sounds appropriately nervous and frantic, for good reason: the sonic space she fights for is a difficult battle between her and what sounds like an army of rabid lawnmowers turned self-aware and subsequently murdering any and all unsuspecting homeowners. My favorite song on the album is “Who Sees You,” the most astounding advertisement for the guitar in recent memory. Commanded and sung by Shields, the tune is a blistering slow-burn, a gargantuan butte of monstrous noise over which Shields moans and dines upon a simple but festering chorus of a guitar hook. The clicking of a robotic, mid-tempo drum beat keeps it together as the song pushes us further and further back into our seats until we become One With The Universe. “Nothing Is” seems to be a controversial track among fans. Half of us love it, the other half hates it. It’s rock and roll at its most mechanical: by the time you’ve listened to the first few seconds, you’ve listened to the whole thing. It pounds you over the head with a repeated guitar burst and a Neanderthal clank which puts us in a state of deep hypnosis. “New You” is the clear winner is terms of dancability. Shields plays the most ethereal guitar I’ve ever heard over a funky electric beat while Butcher caresses our souls, giving us those warm fuzzies we’ve been waiting for all these years.
Buy this record, and then play it; play it loud. The louder you play My Bloody Valentine, the better. If it isn’t bothering your neighbors, it’s not loud enough. So get yourself a nice pair of speakers and turn it up until you can feel your skin peeling off, otherwise you’ll be doing Mr. Shields a great disservice.