Sunday, March 25, 2012

Show Review: Poor Moon 23 March 2012 b/w Illusions EP

This past Friday, I made the trip over to San Francisco to see Poor Moon at Bottom of the Hill.  All evidence points to me being a huge Fleet Foxes fan, so I was right on top of things when it was announced that the band's bassist Christian Wargo was now fronting another band with fellow Foxes' multi-instrumentalist Casey Wescott along with friends (and brothers) Peter and Ian Murray.  And when these guys released an absolutely great free digital single several weeks ago, I knew that I had to see them when tour dates were announced.  For a couple days two or so weeks ago, they offered the entire Illusion EP for free download (I guess they didn't want to go out on the road with no material officially released yet), so that was well familiar by the time they took the stage.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

The Illusion EP will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Fleet Foxes.  Five folk-pop songs, book ended by two sparse acoustic numbers (the title track and the redemptive 'Widow'), Josh Tillman contributions, with many deep harmonies and plenty of reverb on the vocals in between.  Yeah, there's definitely some like-mindedness going on in the Foxes' camp.  Except for that one song right in the middle of everything.  'People in Her Mind' is just a wonderfully bouncy little slice of layered, catchy-as-all-hell, 60's inspired pop.  To say that it sticks out on an EP that could otherwise be described as moody and eerie is an understatement.  You just have to marvel at how complete and cohesive things are for a sixteen minute EP.  It's always nice when a band can put out such a perfect synthesis of what they do in the EP format.  There is a clear beginning, middle and end to the whole thing and I was going in to the show well-versed in its contents.  Except, I would be thrown a curve ball (not one that I wasn't prepared to take a mighty swing at, mind you; I just didn't see it coming).

We're getting ahead of ourselves again.

Going to shows in San Francisco means getting a good meal beforehand.  It just does.  The choices are endless.  Japan town is my pick for the concentration of good places all within walking distance of each other.  You can compare menus and prices in real time, on the spot.  The search for the right place is almost a show within itself.  Found a place in the mall (and it was delicious):

Time to kill after that, so off to the west bay it was:

After some thought, I realized it had been years since I had actually seen the Pacific Ocean (despite being close).  About a quarter mile straight downhill:

And then it was time to do silly things that I did when I was a kid, like draw designs in the sand with your feet and taunt the incoming waves:

Enough silliness, back across the city to the venue:

It's always fun to see shows at Bottom of the Hill.  It's a small enough venue that you can probably catch somebody from the band at the merch table or wandering about and shoot the breeze for a bit.  I did catch Christian, pre-set, at the merch table and he seemed pretty road-weary, but receptive to conversation.  I said my thank yous and let him know that his last visit to the Bay Area with Fleet Foxes was appreciated and that I was grateful for the good work he was doing.  

When Poor Moon finally took the stage about an hour later, they made the thing look smaller than it actually is.  With six guys and tons of gear, there was hardly room for anybody to move.  But you'd never know that from the absolutely perfect performance they put forth.  The only song that was played off of Illusion was 'People in Her Mind', late in the set — which was rendered in a slightly rocked up, less polished way that just seemed to bowl everyone in the place over.  I mean, after an eight or nine song set of unknown tunes, no stage banter, no titles announced and in such contrastingly exquisite form to the previous band, I don't like the lukewarm audience reaction they received, but I can at least understand it.  I have no titles to go off of here, but the first tune they played was such a grand shift in mood in the place that I dare say it silenced the crowd briefly.  The one I have given the stopgap title of 'The Tambourine Song' was smack dab in the middle of the set, and appropriately so, as it was the highlight for me.  A mid-tempo, percussion-oriented thing; I can't wait to hear it again.  Another one that I will call 'The Rocker' for now found Christian pounding away at his Rickenbacker in between brilliant vocal melodies and pieces of dead silent pauses for a downright stunning display of stop/start/loud/quiet shifts.  'People in Her Mind' got the biggest audience reaction and, I have to say, even though I never would've guessed it from being familiar with the EP, it was the most representative song that I knew going in.  The rest of the band's set was much in line with that sprightly little number.  Very 60's pop inspired material, very tightly arranged and played and all very heartfelt.  Although Illusion gave me a completely different picture of the band than what I was presented with on Friday night, I have to say that, if this band is going to go further (as it seems to be, with a full length rumored to be on the way later this year), they have tons of potential.  The songs were presented purely professionally, but there was no doubt there was an amount of silliness going on (I saw band members sticking their tongues out at each other between pitch perfect group harmonies!) and, despite all the between song instrument juggling and just an in-general rush that was in the air, I can't imagine these guys putting out a better "first taste" live showing.  Christian was excellent vocally (who knew!) and overall, I felt like the trip was totally worth that fourty five or fifty minutes of completely unfamiliar music.  


I hope that full length is not just a rumor and I hope to see them again soon.  

I was so pumped after seeing them that I walked out of the place and was able to stay awake for the four hour drive back to Reno.

Yeah, they were that good.

This video features the band playing some of those tunes that didn't show up on Illusion (and one that was not played at Bottom of the Hill).


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Andrew Bird — Break it Yourself

Andrew Bird has long been somebody I was aware of, and quite enjoyed, but for some reason, I guess, I just underrated him.

I saw him open for Kristin Hersh, years ago, playing all alone.  Quite frankly, he blew me away.  He played first (before Howe Gelb, even!) and I still was aware that, while he was up there, looping pizzicati, flaying around, generally like a madman, that I was witnessing something unique.  It's taken a while, but by the time Noble Beast was released I was a fan.

This time, I'm just more in tune to him than ever before.  He's tuned into acoustic music that seems to be reminiscent of my favorites, but also in a way that doesn't seem repetitious, either.  In fact, the one minute introduction to the first track 'Desperation Breeds' does more than any one moment I can think of to illustrate just how subtly unique Andrew Bird has become.  That this is essentially just an intro vamp consisting of his looped and treated pizzicati, but somehow melds seamlessly into an acoustic arpeggio of the tune proper — and this, in turn, morphs into a colorful sunrise of whistling and pizzicato brilliance— is just a shining example.  To sit through it with an attentive ear is to know sheer rewards as a music fan.

The changes —so subtle, so nuanced— are there.  Yes, I get that he records his music on an isolated farm (as has been pointed out in a billion reviews), but I hear music that would sound that way regardless of where it was recorded.  This is warm, rootsy, brilliantly "orange"-sounding music.

My point here is this: I don't recall Andrew Bird ever sounding as downright human as he does for the first run of the absolutely engaging five or six proper songs on this album.  He's shown hints of this sort of strength in the past, but it's never gelled as well as it does here.

Even on the pre-album teaser (the album's title track and clearly the one aimed at the radio) 'Eyeoneye', it's clear that this album just possesses an earnest polish and perfection that seems to say, "Hey, I think this one's pretty good — what d'you think?"

It claims a unique humble quality of realization of the world around it.  As if Andrew is saying to everyone, "Hey, what about that tree over there?"  Except, he just has a way of asking such a question that, when that particular tree is actually looked at, you see a wonderful, rainbow-filled skeleton of glowing, ramshackle beauty.

Allusions to "mistaking clouds as mountains" on 'Danse Caribe' atop easily one of his best melodies just seals the deal for me.  That song kicks butts and takes names.  Listen to his violin playing!  Don't care — it's one of his best songs; no discussion needed.  'Near Death Experience Experience' recalls Armchair Apocrypha, floating in hillbilly space, while a tune like 'Hole in the Ocean Floor' actually sounds like shoegaze gone acoustic.

It seems ridiculous to call this the album that Andrew Bird seemed destined to make all along, but here I am saying it and I can't really find another way to put it.  He has created his own little tiny universe of technology-inspired roots music that longingly looks towards the past while trying to ignore the present.  His music has never sounded as unique and as important as it does here.  His lyrics are full of self-referential near-jargon, but the vibe is never is lost on the listener; the sign of a true craftsman.

I was lucky enough, by the graces of a very dear and special person, to receive the limited edition of this album.  Artsy fartsy inclusions, heavy vinyl, gorgeous packaging and all — wonderful for a dork like me.
(probably can't see it there, but I got #606)

I can't say enough good about this album or Andrew Bird in general these days.  If he manages to improve (yet) again, I will be pleased.  But, as it stands, this may just be his most complete album to date.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What's New?: 3.6.2012

Mellow mellow. . .
Michael Hedges — Taproot (1990)

This is more of a full band affair for Mike.  Not crazy about it.  It gets too comfortable in its stock "new age" shoes for my tastes.  Sure, Aerial Boundaries had that kind of ethereal 80's new age production to it, but what struck me about that one was the sparseness of the whole thing.  Here, it just sounds cheesy and overwrought.  A concept album of sorts, it hits me as a case of forced creativity.  Really like when Mike just plays his guitar, but unfortunately, there's not enough of that here to make this album anything more than a curiosity.  Not even David Crosby and Graham Nash could save this one (they contribute background harmonies to the one vocal number on the album, 'I Carry Your Heart').

T. Rex — Unicorn (1969)

I know these early, pre-Electric Warrior T. Rex albums are generally nobody's favorite anything, but I like all of the ones I've managed to find.  Granted, never more than anything from Electric Warrior onward, but I find them to be pretty fun, oftentimes underrated albums of quirky British folk-pop.  And this one is no different, starting off with the somehow Beach Boys-esque 'Chariots of Silk.'  The syncopated piano chords of 'Cat Black' fill out one of the album's biggest productions (and catchiest tunes), while the title track rides a droney, building backdrop to pure delight.  Most of the tracks are between two and three minutes in length, so things fly by really quickly (especially for a sixteen track, fourty minute affair).  But there's just an abundance of great, haunting melodies on display here.  Stuff like 'Evenings of Damask' or 'Iscariot' is just strong.  The whole thing's great and the sequencing is mostly to thank for that, as songs just flow in and out of one another with pure chemistry.  Really does get better the more you listen to it.

Michael Hedges — Breakfast in the Field (1981)

Especially having heard his later stuff first, there's a sense right away that this album is just a demo tape for Michael Hedges.  The first track ('Layover') is a good manifesto for the whole album: a short, thoughtful melody is meditated and danced around, none of the extra virtuoso showboat moments are there and the production is immediate and intimate, with none of the extra effects or polish present.  With the production being what it is, there is a bit more of an acoustic folky vibe to this one.  A song like 'The Unexpected Visitor' is much closer to John Fahey than anything else Michael would probably ever do, for instance.  And, in that respect, for some people, it might be the last good Michael Hedges album.  Overall, really wonderful and tuneful music, considering how sparse it is.  Really like how thoughtful and introspective it becomes at certain points (the closer and only trio performance, 'Lenono', is probably my favorite tune on the album, for instance).  Good stuff.

 Joan Baez — From Every Stage (1975)

You know, Joan Baez just seems like one of those old musicians that has a ginormous back catalogue that I just conveniently ignored for a long time, despite how closely linked she is to one of my favorites.  This two record live album from her 1975 tour is titled as such because it features an all acoustic first half, an all electric second half and many songs from throughout her career up until that point.  I can't say I'm blown away.  The acoustic half presents probably what has been my problem along: I'm just not crazy about her voice.  Too much vibrato, plain and simple.  Good selection of tunes, though (especially appreciated the Leonard Cohen cover).  The electric half on record two features a much slicker approach and and equally as strong selection of tunes.  'Diamonds and Rust' was a big single at the time and the band (featuring such big names as James Jamerson and Larry Carlton) gives it a rendition that mirrors its studio counterpart pretty faithfully.  Still, a good song is a good, no matter the setting.  I wanted to go for an overview sort of album as my first taste, but I can't help but think I could've made a much better selection.  Dah well.

William Ackerman — The Search for the Turtle's Navel (a/k/a In Search of the Turtle's Navel) (1976)

The basis for new age?  Or just a darned good John Fahey imitation?  I can't even say.  I don't know enough about either thing.  Just have a listen to the solo acoustic guitar, multi-movement opener 'The Pink Chiffon Tricycle Queen' and decide for yourself.  As far as I knew, new age music didn't have twang, but here it is, full twang of 'The Second Great Torsion Bar Overland Of West Townshend, Vermont, Jose Pepsi Attending', on Windham Hill records and everything (the first release in that catalogue, in fact).  If I were me at a younger age, I'd have stayed away from the new age section for the rest of my life.  I mean, seriously: how is this new age music?  I always pictured Yanni.  Not actual substance or thought, nor a general respect for space within music.  Oh well.  To the new age section!  In search of more Pentangle-inspired gems like 'Windham Mary.'  That's a good thought too: his guitar seems very informed of John Renbourn's style.  Just check this live performance of 'Processional' and anticipate Jacqui's entrance (spoiler: it never actually happens, but should).  Actually, that's a good comparison, isn't it?  I can't think of a better bridge between trippy folk rock guitarists like John Martyn, Nick Drake and John Renbourn and their post-modern counterparts like Robin Guthrie and Vini Reilly than the so-called "new age" guitarists like Ackerman and Michael Hedges.  There's certainly a lot more common ground between all parties than first meets the eye (er, ear).  This one was Ackerman's first album and he did lots more.  I have some homework to do.

William Ackerman — It Takes A Year (1977)

Although recorded in 1977, the songs on this album date back to being composed as early as 1970.  I guess the one that people remember from this album is the first track, 'The Bricklayer's Beautiful Daughter.'  And that's a good one, for sure.  The title track does venture awful close to new age cheesiness with the sounds of waves being audible in the mix (but then again, I'm reminded of a John Martyn song with similar characteristics from around the same time and that's one of my favorite songs of all time — am I letting my pre-conceived ideas about the record label this is on affect my thoughts on the actual music again?).  'The Townshend Shuffle' is a great track and is straight back into pseudo-bluegrass territory (I get impressions of a less technical Leo Kottke here — not bad at all!).  The tracks 'Rain Sequence' and 'The Search for the Turtle's Navel' successfully bridge the gap for me between the folkies and the new wavers.  It's not really a question of whether or not everybody involved was aware of each other.  The progression was there, regardless.  The chord progressions respect the folk music that came before them, but simultaneously look inward towards something altogether different.  I can see how someone could successfully argue that a song like 'The Search for the Turtle's Navel' is new age music.  I can also see how someone could successfully argue that it's folk music.  Pretty remarkable stuff, when you consider that.

Harold Budd — Lovely Thunder (1986)

After owning several albums where he is a collaborative player for quite some time, I have been more than ready to venture into Harold Budd's catalogue.  When this album kicked off with 'The Gunfighter', I knew I was in for something good.  Yes, it's definitely ambient music, but it has a very dark, almost post-punky undertone to it.  Really eerie music, but in a good, rewarding way.  I picked up this album by chance, because it was what was available to me at the time, but in a serendipitous occurrence, this album contains a re-touching of a song from Harold's collaboration with the Cocteau Twins.  The tune (originally titled 'Memory Gongs' on that album) is re-imagined here as 'Flowered Knife Shadows (for Simon Raymonde).'  Side two of the album is taken up entirely by a piece called 'Gypsy Violin' and it's done in the tradition of the great sidelong Brian Eno epics, but it's actually a bit closer to what Jon Hassell was up to at the time.  Definitely one to experience properly on headphones, but it does have that all-encompassing, dipped into another atmosphere feeling of the best of this stuff.  It's good.  Real good.