Saturday, December 25, 2010

fire-jumpers and singing saws

i make the following admission only with the certainty that i do not stand alone in its embrace: as a genre, "christmas music" instills in me the urgent desire to make madly for the hills.
there are certainly exceptions to this acerbic and frankly humbuggish rule. the lush limited-edition seven-inch "he's coming home" b/w "old toy trains" by dean and britta (with sonic boom) is one of them; so too low's genre-busting ep, "christmas," originally self-released on cd and now available on vinyl. (both succeed where most pop x-mas offerings fail in different ways. dean and britta's little disc downplays the overt christianity of traditional carols and focuses instead on the warmth and feeling behind the rituals and atmosphere which permeate the holiday season--nostalgic reference points for even we amongst the secular cynic listening audience. as practicing mormons, low brings their spirituality to the table with their album, which includes some christmas standards, but also originals. however it withdraws to a matter-of-factness that doesn't try to proselytize, and the music can be heard and felt without inner conflict for all but the strictest existentialist.)

anyway, with this holiday caveat ideologically embedded, i found myself at a crossroads when i was invited to a leg of the music tapes' marathon "caroling" tour, which a pair of good friends was hosting in their home.
on the one hand, i was excited that my friends had landed the opportunity to host the gig, they being enthusiastic fans of the elephant 6 collective, and because i (rightly) suspected their house, with its impressive stacks of tapes, records and cds, its andy kaufman and kiss figurines, and its daniel johnston and james mcnew art, would provide an apt and welcoming venue for such an intimate event.
on the other hand, there was no escaping the cheery holiday vibe as the show loomed closer on the calender, and the un-apologetically christmas-ness rumored to be due fostered a finicky apprehension that i would go to an intimate gathering around former neutral milk hotel instrumentalist julian koster, and find myself nose-deep in schmaltzy regurgitated indie versions of "rudolphs" and "jingle bells."
on the other hand, the chance to attend (and as it turned out, to participate peripherally in) such an unusual event was palpably intriguing. and with the venue a scant five blocks away, it was too ridiculously convenient to skip out on. of course, if you're following along, this math results in three hands, which is creepy. hmmm...

in the end, of course, we stuck a flask of bourbon into warm coat pockets and strode through the frigid night to my friends' place.
the house was lit with colored lights and filled with a small crowd of cool-looking people; the sense that we were all in on a secret together was inescapable. no real spacial divide existed in the living room between the audience, seated in folding chairs, sofa and floor, and the three band members surrounded by lights, vague automatons (a snowman, bell-ringing mice, etc), and a barrage of well-worn or outright tattered instruments. still not sure what to expect, we settled in as koster, in a high, excited voice, began his show.
what followed was a journey through a highly personalized version of the idea and practice of christmas, set to music ramshackle and sophisticated, eked out through bow-played banjo, collaged re-purposed recorded material, singing saws, brass and keys. subtle moments of beauty, such as the pure sonic bliss of saw duets, were juxtaposed with almost over-the-top jokes and nearly too-saccharine personal stories (some no doubt based in fact, some certainly false, and both peddled with equal candor and import). the impression was that koster was actually living the fantasy he was acting out for us, weirdly evocative of pee wee's playhouse, the film "delicatessen," indie shows and schoolboy recitals, and though it was actually magical at times, at some points in the show the only thing that saved it from being pathetically contrived was that sense of honesty. it was a delicate balance struck, therefore, with the scales tipped just to the right side, but retaining that sense that catastrophe was lurking in the corner, waiting for its opportunity to spring.
with this in mind, the utter disregard for the "fourth wall" shown by the music tapes seemed especially ballsy but, in that they succeeded in compelling jaded seattle hipsters to happily be woven into the fabric of the performance through highly interactive actions (including passing around a huge gift-wrapped box, being blindfolded, and incredibly, jumping over a flaming can full of our own incinerated totems). this is remarkable in that people here seldom even move at shows, much less dance, and audience participation is a rare and painful-to-observe occurrence at the best of times. so koster's blend of musical ingenuity and (faux-?)naive presentation definitely seemed to have charmed rather than chagrined.

after collecting our coats and shoes, we walked home, keeping warm with a shared nat sherman and sips from the flask, we debated: what did we just see? was it good? was it weird? i guess it was both. and that was alright.

i dreamed last night that i saw the music tapes play a more conventional show, and woke up thinking, "aha! now i can contrast the two for a better review!"
i have no idea what they must have played like in my dream though, so that write-up will have to wait until reality provides me the opportunity to see them again.

Monday, December 13, 2010

it's not the radio

with almost exactly one year passed since my last post, i supposed it might be time to renew my ramblings on the meagre wealth of indie rock. though funds have been severly short of late, somehow music has still managed to eke its way into my life, slowly in the earlier days of 2010, but more steadily as a new job paid it's way up to the point where mere survival had been sated and small luxuries could be brought home.
the first of which being a decent turntable.
accordingly, i have been listening to a lot of records on vinyl.
accordingly, i have been listening to other people's vinyl records also.
it's cool, i get to hear stuff i haven't really heard or paid attention to before.
like, whe alex chilton recently died, i felt like i was the only one who didn't know who he was, because i never listened to big star before. rectified!
also, how did i never pay attntion to teenage fanclub?
well that, too, is being paid proper due now.

amongst this cultural re-excavation, i happened to become re-acquainted with the two albums by low, "secret name," and "things we lost in the fire," that i had on cd, and enjoyed listening to once, but never really got deeply into. i thought they were pretty, especially the harmonies of singers alan sparhawk and mimi parker, but it never made too much of a impression besides.
as i listened to those records again with the attention one feels requisite for playing such things on vinyl (which takes "more work" obviously, and therefore yields a sweeter response.... right?), they struck different chords within me, and their impact was deepened by listening also to previously unheard (by me) "trust" and the collaboration with the dirty three, "in the fishtank," which is frontrunner for my favorite record of the minute.
the sounds i was hearing somehow resonated more in my head this time around, as i became of their structures and technical merits, and struck anew by the gorgeous simplicity of low's practice, and so when the opportunity came to catch the band on the opening show of its west coast christmas tour, and nearby in my neighborhood, and for fifteen bucks, i felt i ought to go along.

seattle's tractor tavern is a venerable rock club in these parts, intimate, immediate, raucus and raw all at once. boots line the ceiling joists, and crushed (though seldom dry) pabst cans litter the floor. the stage rises a scant few feet from the floor, and the performer is only an arm's length from the front row.
after dinking around with his guitars for a little, low frontman alan sparhawk retreated to the green room to reappear in a handful of minutes with wife and drummer mimi parker, bassist steve garrington, and eric pollard from the sparhawk/garrington side-project retribution gospel choir, in tow.
two rows back, between the majority of the room and the band, it felt like old friends were being welcomed into a home, though who played the role of which protagonist seemed negotiable.
with a minimum of fuss and banter, low kicked into gear with their long, droning, gorgeous songs, working with tight skills and enthusiastic energy through their set. the energy and synergy between the performers was palpable, with silent looks and nods being exchanged throughout, and with a good deal of grinning during songs, especially between sparhawk and garrington, who seemed to be enjoying the experience mightily.
after regaling us with low songs newer and older, eventually the tone switched to seasonal topicality, and the carols were broken out, with the band running powerfully through nearly, if not all, of their fabled self-released christmas ep.
were that not enough, after the set, when they returned to the stage for an encore, the band entertained requests and happily played six more songs, bringing the entire set to a run time just below two hours, and a memorable time indeed!
the only real downside of the evening, musically, was that the opening performer, minnesotan bluesman charlie parr, was brought on to the stage twice to accompany low on his resonator guitar, and though his achingly beautiful sliding notes could be discerned, it was only just barely, which was a shame (we could hear them where we were because we could hear them partially un-amped as well as on the p.a., a luxury many present could not have been accorded).

otherwise, the show, for me, was a revelation, seething with an energy i had not expected, and a pleasure to be playing that inspired and awed. the sonic crush enveloped one, with sparhawk's guitars (there was a gorgeous white les paul custom, an epiphone les paul-style baritone, and a fender twelve-string that defied belief; bassist garrington was rocking a gorgeous vintage fender) growling and cooing while parker's drum sent reverberations rollicking through the floor into our bodies. the singing was at once lush and spare, and pollard's keyboards and effects set the stage for the the six-string acrobatics that scratched the songs into existence. all the while garrington carefully and precisely delineated the rhythm with sharp, heavily amped bass notes, his long fingers poising and pouncing on the strings.

alan sparhawk remarked somewhere towards the middle of the encore that "[they] don't usually play for so long," yet neither he nor his bandmates seemed tired or bored; rather they seemed delighted to be back on the road, and the crowd surrounding us could not have agreed more.