Wednesday, December 16, 2009

hometowns & heartbreaks

sometimes one finds one's self far away from what he knows. saint louis, missouri, for example: a city with enough similarities to long-ago places like iowa, wisconsin, chicago, and minneapolis, that the chilly, hard midwestern air feels familiar, but different in those small essential ways that bring on a sense of mild alienation and discomfort. what does one do in such circumstances? if one is this one, one gravitates towards the consumption of beer, and the warmth of cuddling under blankets, illuminated by old movies.

but then one's companions might suggest that life is far too sedentary, and one may don long johns and gloves and heavy coat, pile into a small car, and travel twenty minutes or so, past college campuses and the odd minaret, where one finds one's self on a dark, brick-lined street, under the towering shadows of the old lemp brewery, freezing one's nuts off, and wandering into a tiny saint louis rock club to listen to a band who, like one's self, comes from far away, in their case, from canada. to be more specific, the band in question is the three-piece outfit, the rural alberta advantage (henceforth "the raa"), who continues the astonishing trend of canadian indie music sounding totally awesome in a particularly un-american way, and with great verve and elan. (for the record only one of the band is from alberta; originally a five-piece, there used to be three from that province. woo: useless trivia!)

i have not been to a rock show like this one in some time. sometimes in seattle, the "blue-collarness" of many concert-goers is questionably poseurish at best, and one can detect the distinctive odor of irony in the spilt pabst blue ribbon on the sticky floor. i would not go so far to say this hipster attitude was entirely absent in the club "off broadway," but there was a discernable sense of un-pretension that one finds more seldom at home. pbr was consumed, but also on offer was the home-grown lemp beer (we were, in fact, on lemp street), distinguishable as the first lager brewed in america (potentially arguable, but i will bite). it was cool. it was a cool club. i felt at home there in a sense, with its long wooden bar, tiny, wall-less stage, and modest attitude; and that was good.

and then there was the first opening band.
i will immediately confess that the name of the band, blood pony, caused in me an immediate impulse to cringe. their actual set only scarcely reinforced that impression, with a full band (six dudes! and yes! they were dudes) incorporating chamber-pop instruments like glockenspiel, horns, and strings to the standard indie rock kit, sometimes to positive effect, sometimes with a bit too much neutral milk hotel shadows cast upon them. the greatest disadvantage to my ear was the lead singer.
now, indie rock is notable for its great tolerance of vocals which are, quite bluntly, raw. however, blood pony's myspace discribes the vocals as "wounded," and sadly, that fits better than they should hope for. often the complete sound of the band compensated for the lead singer, but the "off" moments were memorable, and not positively so. there was also a lack of cohesiveness that is less apparent/more forgiveable with smaller bands, but which was more grating with such a large ensemble.
sadly, it should be said that i would've been a lot less judgemental about this stuff had blood pony behaved differently. unfortunately, they acted exactly like the stereotype of what they, in fact were: a local band, given the opportunity to open for a buzzy touring band, who abuses the privelege. blood pony played for over an hour, which is thirty minutes longer than i consider appropriate for a band in their position, and fifteen minutes longer than the maximum i think is ever appropriate for any opener anywhere. considering that the headliner, the raa, played a set of just more or less sixty minutes, the local boys were even more notably egregious. they also were very focussed on pimping their free cdr, available on a little table in the back of the room, which itself was advertising a show of their own the following week. altogether pretty bad form, and ultimately behaviour that darkly colored my otherwise positive impressions of them.

the second opener hit a little closer to home, figuratively and literally. portland, oregon's, the shaky hands rocked their way through a blistering set dominated greatly by their deft guitar work. the sense of relief amongst many in the room was palpable as the band brought the competance level notably up. oddly, my impressions of them are less distinct that those to blood pony, but the overall sense was far more pleasant. coming in at a standard 40 minutes or so, the shaky hands' set took some of the bitter taste of their predecessors out of the mouth and fulfilled their mission to whet the appetite for the headliner with great aplomb.
i have been listening to the songs on their myspace with pleasure, and am disappointed that they will not be accompanying the raa past portland on their way north by northwest (i hope to see the canadians again at the vera project; we'll see, haha).
however, i will certainly be keeping an eye out for my slightly-southern neighbors, with the intent to catch them again. (is it just me, or is it bizarre to travel so far to discover someone so near?)

so, finally the raa took the stage, making apt comments about precisely how unexpectedly cold it was on that night. singer nils edenloff began a little story about the mysterious lemp brewing dynasty which ended up a vicious tease as many audience members affirmed that they already knew the story. my friends and i felt unfairly teased! oh well.
edenloff, with percussionist paul banwatt and multi-instrumentalist amy cole, launched comfortably, energetically and cheerfully into a set which vastly eclipsed sonically the assumed potential of a three-piece. both cole and edenloff had keyboards planted in front of them, and driven at a viciously unforgiving pace by banwatt's stellar drumming, the three combined powers to create a rich, layered and harmonic sound that seems like it may only be found in canadian indie rock. with positive echoes of bands like (inevitably) the new pornographers, stars, and immaculate machine, the raa's members alternated instruments and vocal duties within songs to create a densly packed soundstorm filled with multiple keyboards, vocal harmonies, hard-strummed acoustic guitar, and glockenspiel--one that never felt the absence of the non-existant bass player so common in indie rock. the democratic spirit of the raa's playing was felt most strongly in a song ("frank, ab") where edenloff started the chorus with a trilling "oo-oo" which was seemlessly picked up and imitated by cole, shifting the dynamic to startling effect. another instance was on a song where banwatt abandoned his full drum kit and stood next to cole where both musicians played the same stand-alone drum. it was awesome. sadly, i cannot recall the song... oh well, haha.
i was given the raa's 2009 release, hometowns, on a week when i was clearing out my glutted itunes library: i listened to it once, thought "oh yeah that's nice," and put it away. having now seen the band play live, i have dug it out again, and hometowns is racing quickly into the top-ten list of this year's records. there was such passion, such positive energy, and such fluid skill displayed by the rural alberta advantage, that one can't help but envision a long, fruitful future for the band.
i hope so, at least.
i want more, please.