Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Mirah - (a)spera

Between 2000's You Think it's Like This But Really it's Like This and 2001's Advisory Committee, Olympia's Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn demonstrated a knack for fluctuating between sweet and thundering, much of the latter assisted by Phil Elvrum's production, which gave percussion as much power as Mirah's buttery voice.

Eight years and several collaborative albums later, Mirah's voice is untouched by those years, still a soothing layer above thickly-produced strings (“Generosity”), haunting harmonies with herself (“The World is Falling”), delicate finger-picking of the kora (“Shells”) and flamenco fusion (“Country of the Future”). Scattered, yes, but it's all her, and the second half of the record is the Mirah of 2000, simple guitar, lo-fi vocals and lyrics literate, sharp.

But, oh, when the minimal “Skin and Bones” appears, it becomes suddenly apparent that what sets Mirah apart from a number of singer-songwriters is how closely you can hear her voice, every breath and note so cozily nestled in your ear that her most intimate moments of song seem to be taking place right beside you. But then, when you've grown comfortable, she'll run off into an echoed harmony with herself and perhaps – though not this time – fall into a tunnel of highly-produced percussion just to catch you off-guard.

Mirah - Generosity
Mirah - The World is Falling
Purchase (a)spera

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Constantines - Too Slow For Love EP

It's a year too soon for a new Constantines full-length, as their usual hiatuses tend to go, but a new supplement to last year's Kensington Heights was just released, an EP of seven tracks, stripped-down versions of songs past, mainly, called Too Slow for Love. Only accessible in pairing with Kensington Heights, the EP highlights the strength of the Constantines' songwriting and musicianship, and contains as much natural beauty as their more recent full-length efforts.

The largest difference here is actually in the respective vocal tones of Steve Lambke and Bryan Webb, their voices a bit less outwardly expressive, more to get the words across than convey any style in particular. Nowhere is this more apparent than on "Shower of Stones," where there are no tumbling walls built into the music, Lambke perhaps a bit less convincing than he was on Kensington Heights. But the emptiness works beautifully with Webb, whose usual roughness is stripped away here. And with every song bare as can be, slowed to the same numb pace, "You Are a Conductor," for most the forgotten track of Tournament of Hearts, is now a highlight, its poetry more noticeable above a light drumroll, rather than buried beneath the powerful, periodic guitar strum that's much lighter here.

The high point of Too Slow is Webb's solo acoustic version of "Our Age," demo-quality with light reverb carrying his shy voice, his finger-picking light and precise. A good deal of vulnerability shows through here, even with that light numbness replacing the passionate call-out that appears on the album's soaring version. The sound of his fingers sliding across his steel strings adds human warmth and imperfection to a song once of strong, inspiring tone. Much of the same can be said of the alternate version of "I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song," so much better than its Kensington Heights counterpart, also acoustic and sung from a microphone which adds distance, and joined only by a light touch of the highest keys of a piano at first, then, a bit of embellishment from a second guitar. Even the Constantines' unfinished works are gold.

Track List:
1. Young Lions
2. Shower of Stones
3. Conductor
4. Our Age
5. Strange Birds (orig. by Jon Langford and the Sadies)
6. Do What You Can Do
7. I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song

Constantines - Our Age (solo acoustic)
Constantines - I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song (alternate)
Purchase Kensington Heights and Too Slow for Love together for five bucks!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cursive Overload! (Mama, I'm Swollen)

Possibly the Cursive record most suited to be a project of Tim Kasher's alternate outlet, the Good Life, Mama, I'm Swollen is less dissonant, somewhat less bitter than the rest of Cursive's catalog. A good share of Kasher's lyrics (particularly since 2003's The Ugly Organ) have somewhat mocked his audience and the way he feeds his fans the regurgitated pain they've come to expect from him, forcing him to peg himself as the songwriter who shares every ounce of vulnerability he's built up. Pick a topic, whether it be sexuality or emotional maturity, and he's not only felt it but written about it, then written another song to match on how he's expected to keep telling the story of what he's felt and written.

Mama isn't as musically impressive as Organ, necessarily as much of a concept as Happy Hollow, but there's a bit of a rhythm to it, particularly with the title track, “I Couldn't Love You” and “From the Hips,” where Kasher sings, “we're all just trying to play our roles/in a play that runs ad nauseam.” The latter is an excellent complement to album closer “What Have I Done?” – the move that seals that pitiful image of an artist recreating pain for audience appeasement that he's so perfected (“I spent the best years of my life waiting on the best years of my life/so what's there to write about?”).

But most interesting about this record is Kasher's constant comparison of himself to an animal, a caveman, any primitive creature at hand. It's a step up from his artist's woes, perhaps the “why” to his “what,” and it's written all over the record – most clearly on “Caveman,” a declaration of his independence from family life and the tradition of “upward mobility.” Whereas earlier songs may have shown frustration with an inability to adapt in love and life, this record in full is sort of a mark of acceptance, both of the inevitability of age and that unwillingness to adapt. Sure, a few of these tracks are musical filler, but there are some beauties, too, and it's a strangely peaceful listen as far as Cursive is concerned.

Cursive - From the Hips
Purchase Mama, I'm Swollen

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cursive at the Troubadour. March 13, 2009. West Hollywood, CA.

So much of 2003's The Ugly Organ was about using pain as the basis of selling art, and having to imitate that onetime real pain in order to recreate an authentic experience for the music fan. It was a heavy, dramatic album, and despite that Cursive's current tour is meant to promote the brand new Mama, I'm Swollen, this Troubadour show really revolved around The Ugly Organ.

Tim Kasher suddenly woke up after “Sierra,” perhaps the most intense song ever written about a deadbeat father ready to pick up where he left off. And after this passionate fit of calling out to that lost daughter, there was no option but to start over softly and gradually regain some of that energy expelled – so there was “From the Hips,” and there was the title track off Mama, to which Kasher danced a smidge, perhaps to add some grace to a room in which an old-fashioned pit (it's true!) had steadily developed.

Kasher's specialty – always a step above “emo” – is bitching without weeping, though it was awfully hard for him to keep a straight face when someone broke the silence between his whispers with an occasional “Tim-may!” And though he had to set a somewhat slower pace in fingerpicking at the start of “The Recluse,” his guitar layered over that of Ted Stevens meant heavier songs like “Sierra” and “Art is Hard” sounded complete even without the cello of onetime member Gretta Cohn.

The performance on the whole was much larger than the tiny Troubadour, an idea best demonstrated through the wall of white noise, Organ's “Staying Alive,” which cooed in repetition “the worst is over” before Cursive came back down for a meaty encore. Band and crowd looked a bit worn by the time “The Martyr” came to be, but just as “Sierra” had woken Kasher, “Art is Hard” woke the crowd, suddenly apeshit – apeshit! – above lyrics that made us a collective character in song.

Supporting act Ladyfinger, who eat sausage and play like real men (and not in a "Hi, we play at the Whisky-a-Gogo" sort of way.)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Animal Collective, Ariel Pink at the Henry Fonda Theater. February 26, 2009. Los Angeles, CA.

Four years ago, you might have caught Animal Collective supporting (and overshadowing) Black Dice on a small stage, improvising an hour's worth of animal calls. Now they're selling out venues to accomodate numbers in the quadruple digits, playing actual "songs" off actual "albums."

But they bring out the hippies that even L.A. itself didn't know existed in L.A. (the indie ones, anyway), and while these hippie folk did their weird hippie dances, arms flowing and shit, to a massively applauded "My Girls," a rendition of "Slippi" ringing with only half the chaos of its recorded counterpart, and an extended version of the gorgeous "Fireworks," they also turned out to be the same people who chatted with their neighbors, and said courteous things like "excuse me" and "thank you." Who knew?

Thank goodness Animal Collective rescheduled their postponed dates (an issue after Avey Tare was too sick to sing when scheduled for last month); they gave us something to be happy about. The chick walking by the east side of the room smells like meat? No worries, she's friendly and asks to be excused as she brushes past. That dude in front of you looks laughable while pounding his chest to the rhythm? Whatevs, he's just happy. It's a bit bittersweet that Animal Collective's not still small enough to play tiny venues (the next night's Troubadour show was only a supplement), as the only downside to this show was that the Fonda's simply too big to carry Animal Collective's audible details as sharply as they're heard on record.

It should also be said that supporting act Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti is a spectacle for any audience. I used to listen to Ariel Pink albums on occasion and wonder what kind of a performer he'd be, maybe hitting "play" on a boombox and speak-singing over infomercials or whatnot. But he's got a live band now, which sounds tinny and vintage and nearly identical to the recorded junk he'd gotten down on tape a few years ago.

I also used to look at one of his album photos, of a manboy with a threatening grin and black lipstick or whatever drawn all over his face, and think, "Ah! What sloppy artwork." But alas, that work of art was Ariel Pink himself, and it turns out he does sort of resemble a mental case in person. And much like David Bowie in the Labyrinth, it's sort of intimidating to look at an unstable-looking man in a spandex jumpsuit, though unlike Bowie, Pink likes to keep an eco-friendly shopping bag on hand. Just in case there's a sale on stage, I guess.

Spandex + shopping bag + technical difficulties = interesting results. (Ariel Pink joke, har har.)

Animal Collective: