Saturday, September 29, 2007

Mat Kearney / Tyler Burkum / Jesse Irwin - Live 2007.09.28 Webster University, Webster Groves, Missouri

Band: Mat Kearney
Venue: Parking Lot E, Webster University
City: Webster Groves, Missouri
Date: 28 September 2007
Opening Acts: Jesse Irwin, Tyler Burkum

01. Crashing Down
02. Break Her Fall
03. Bullet
04. Chicago
05. In the Middle
06. Renaissance
07. Wait
08. Where We Gonna Go from Here
09. Girl America
10. City of Black & White
11. Nothing Left to Lose
12. All I Need
13. Undeniable

14. Breathe In / Breathe Out
15. Won't Back Down

This won't be too long, since although I was present for the entire concert, I was also working at it. After helping set up for an hour before my classes and then returning after working an extended regular shift, I mostly blocked people from entering from the back corner and then checked IDs. I was pretty busy and distracted for most of the show, but I did manage to snag a setlist while taking down the stage setup. On a personal level, separate from the music, it was an enjoyable experience for me to be such a part of a concert – I had an event staff shirt and an access pass. It's always good to feel like you're on the inside.

So, I'll be honest, I hadn't heard of Mat Kearney until I heard he was coming. I mean, that's simply because he comes from a movement that normally doesn't interest me, and his singles are played on radio formats that I ignore and in television shows that I avoid. I figured I'd give him a chance, especially since I'd be there anyway due to my job.

The first opener, Jesse Irwin, was a Webster graduate who had played at Webster before, both at our old unplugged series as a student and at Homecoming as an alumni. He played a short set based on a sort of acoustic country feel. Not my thing but not bad or anything. Thereafter, Tyler Burkum came on. Burkum is apparently Kearney's guitarist but makes his own mostly-acoustic music on the side. I must confess my large degree of distraction, but what I did hear sounded pleasant. He played a short set, and I believe he did a song or two with some other guys.

Mat Kearney finally came to the stage and was accompanied a handful of musicians who handled additional guitar, keyboard, bass, and drums. Kearney himself played guitar and sang. I didn't catch lyrics nearly at all, so I really can't get deep here. In general, the music was on the lower-key side of things, which is to say, not metal. The sound was usually clean and largely straightforward (as in, not a lot of complex structure or intricacies – which shouldn't be taken to mean I thought it was dull, just that I didn't notice anything crazy on the basis of music theory). There were brighter, more upbeat songs, and slower, minor chord pieces. (Does that describe every concert or what?) During the long instrumental beginning of the first song, one of the bartenders near me said it sounded like the Smashing Pumpkins. I couldn't disagree – the tempo and general sound or feel of that first song sort of did feel Pumpkinesque. After the second song, the bartender said it sounded like Coldplay, and again, I couldn't disagree – Kearney's vocals are a bit similar, and the music seemed to be moving in a bit of that sort of modern alt-rock sound direction.

I must repeat, my attention was not as focused as it should have been to be writing a review, but I have to say the general sound was good enough for me. I can only guess about lyrical content, which is normally very important for me, but the sound was pleasant enough. Probably not something I'd listen to a lot, but not bad if I happened to catch it somewhere. I did notice that Kearney pulled out a few raps, which I found interesting. A few of my coworkers and friends seemed to disapprove, but from what I heard, he did a decent job of it.

Kearney pulled out his two singles at the end of the main set ("Nothing Left to Lose" and "Undeniable"), and the audience really reacted to both of those. We had maybe 800 people, and they were pretty into it at that point, even if a significant fraction were local high school girls. I'd call it a fun time, even if it wasn't down my aisle of style. Clearly, it attracted other people well enough.

[Retrospective Scores:
Mat Kearney: D
Tyler Burkum: C
Jesse Irwin: D]

P.S. I know I said my next review would be David J's Embrace Your Dysfunction, but I felt like writing this spur-of-the-moment before finishing that. I also decided to forego reviewing my own performance Wednesday at the Red Sea with the Awesome Black Hole, as that might be a little too indulgent.

[Note (2014.06.03): The original version of this review was posted with a general score of C, although this was quickly amended to a D.]

Monday, September 24, 2007

David J - Estranged (2003)

When people ask me what my own music sounds like, I never know what to tell them. I like a lot of bands, but I don't quite sound like any of them. Then one day I realized that there was a man out there doing the same sort of thing I do – only he'd been doing it for about twenty years before I began. He isn't a big name, but he should be. After all, David J has not only had a long solo career with many a collaboration (Alan Moore comes to mind), but he was the bassist of Bauhaus and Love & Rockets, two of my favorite bands. (He also sang Bauhaus' "Who Killed Mr. Moonlight", wrote many of their songs, wrote and sang about half of L&R's, played bass on a few Jazz Butcher albums, and DJs.)

I love David J's work. Bauhaus is a fantastic goth-rock post-punk band and Love & Rockets is a fantastic psychedelic post-punk, semi-new wave, semi-goth rock band. And then there's his solo music, which tends to be subdued, acoustic or clean electric, with limited accompaniment and clever lyrics. His first album was rather dark and unpolished, but he quickly developed his own style and started releasing albums at the rate of one every four years or so between his other bands. After a long silence from his 1992 album, the breakup of Love & Rockets in 1999, and a brief Bauhaus reunion in the same time frame, J finally released Estranged, written and recorded around 2000 but unreleased due to lack of a label until 2003. It stands as his most complete, lasting, and solid piece of solo work.

Artist: David J
Album: Estranged
Release Date: 9 September 2003
Label: Heyday
Producer: David J

01. The Guitar Man [Bread cover]
02. Mess Up
03. Pulling Arrows from Our Heels
04. Ruined Cities
05. Static Cling
06. In the Great Blue Whenever
07. Crashed
08. If Anything Should Ever Happen to You
09. The Ballad of August and June
10. Bring in Your Absence
11. Trophy Wife
12. Arc of Return
13. Estranged
14. Time in the Sun

Estranged starts with a cover of Bread's 1972 soft-rock hit "The Guitar Man". The song features Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction on lead guitar and several other musicians filling up the space of the song. It's one of the most composed pieces on the album and even has a touch of country. The song works well, in part since the lyrics are right up J's alley, about a rock star who stands as an icon and gradually fades from view, and although "the crowds are gettin' thin / ...he never seems to notice." Also relevant, considering the literate and witty nature of J's own words, is this bit: "You want to squeeze the meaning / Out of each and every song / Then you find yourself a message / And some words to call your own / And take them home."

"The Guitar Man" was released as the title track of an EP, as was the second track of the album, the lilting but catchy "Mess Up". The song pulls along with some swinging drums and a nice jumping bassline. The lyrics seem to be about a relationship that the narrator inevitably will ruin: "I'll mess up your life / Lead your pony astray," and so on. In the final bridge, though, J sings, "The last thing that I want to do / Is mess up your life".

"Pulling Arrows from Our Heels" is a fairly sweet song. A typical J acoustic-guitar-and-obscure-lyrics structure is combined with a fantastic string arrangement. The song sounds somewhat reminiscent or rueful, and I like it a lot. It is followed by "Ruined Cities", which is driven by an electronic drumbeat. The strong chorus melody and string combination work well, much like the subtle overdubbed picking pattern on some of the verses. The lyrics just rattle off cities that apparently have been destroyed in some post-apocalyptic landscape, but then a bridge crops up with a total Beatlesque melody with backing "la la la"s. The beat changes and it sounds like a twisted 60s song for 30 seconds. It's great.

"Static Cling" is somewhat more restrained also, consisting mostly of acoustic rhythm and a pedal steel lead. Somehow the traditionally-country instrument doesn't feel out of place at all, even when an overdriven guitar lead pops in. The lyrics concern a relationship that seems to remain inevitably together despite troubles, sort of like static. "But didn't we start some beautiful fires", J sings while a second vocal track sighs dramatically.

"In the Great Blue Whenever" has some more subtle pedal steel but also has a little shuffling drum sound here and there. Piano bits and wordless vocal overdubs add to the mix. The lyrics mix a bit of military and pilot imagery with the idea of flying off and leaving someone behind. It's sort of dramatic, though, since the chorus is the melodic "And I'll see you sometime in the great blue whenever." "Crashed" also uses some flight imagery about wasting around in motels and cars, presumably presenting a critique of concert tours or something. Hard to tell. The choruses again use backing vocals and extra little guitar parts and sounds, but the whole song is done with a fuller feeling, incorporating bass and restrained drums.

In "If Anything Should Ever Happen to You", J sings about relationship difficulties while accompanied by his acoustic guitar and some great tremolo guitar. The bridges have a great keyboard that's arpeggiated and a bit spacey. The choruses amp up for just a second with J singing the title and then "it would crucify me" while a slightly overdriven guitar chugs three chords. "The Ballad of August and June" doesn't stand out too much, but it's still a good piece. A pedal steel works great as both for small solos and lead parts. J sings about a relationship as it flows through the seasons and months.

"Bright in Your Absence" has much more of a folk-country piece due to the strong pedal steel, the melody and chord structure, the drumbeat, the guitar solo, and the lyrical theme of driving in to the town saloon. However, the lyrics deviate quite a bit. It starts with the weird "I embrace my dysfunction and drive into town" and chorus is equally strange: "You're bright in your absence / You shine in that place / That screams, there's no mercy / For playboys in space / Bright in your absence / You glow in that vacuum / Where no life can exist". It recalls the earlier J song, "Space Cowboy" but remains yet weirder. To top it all, it ends with a three-minute segment featuring weird spacey synthesizers, an electronic drumbeat, and J's repeated delivery of "I embrace my dysfunction".

"Trophy Wife" is also a bit more country-esque, somewhere between "Static Cling" and "Bright in Your Absence". The lyrics are again a sort of subverted country theme: J sings about wooing a girl but uses the metaphor of a trophy wife very literally. It starts with "I placed you on a pedestal / And that's an uncomfortable perch". It's fairly unclear if J is singing more about materialism (the "trophy" part) or an actual relationship (the "wife" part). The juxtaposition drives both in.

"Arc of Return" begins with a pleasant picking pattern and then becomes a sort of 3/4 shuffle until the chorus comes in, a driving 4/4 affair with a rapid strumming pattern, a dramatic piano part, and a dramatic chant under the lyrics. The bridges also change pace into a more straightforward 4/4 bit with a muted trumpet part and a bit of organ. I think the whole thing is something of a metaphor for trying to escape from a relationship but ending up right back where you started. The dynamics of the song keep it moving well.

"Estranged" is perhaps the most straightforward song, just J and his guitar, strumming nice little patterns. The lyrics seem to deal with trying to leave behind a relationship but being unable to: "Every time I turn away from you / I face you". Things can't have gone well, as evinced by the confused chorus: "How can the sea leave the shore? / How can the stars be rearranged? / How can soul mates become estranged?" The bridge is hilarious and beautiful: a warm sort of nature-reminiscent background sample with a full synth flourish welcome the emotion of a metaphor for how J feels about his former lover: "And your world is a green world / With oxygen and water / Suitable for evolution / Of a carbon based life form like me". What? I love J's lyrics (see also: "I am frozen peas / You are the sun". "Time in the Sun" is short conclusion where J sings "Every disease has it's time in the sun".

J (solo) has always liked his acoustic and clean guitars, and he often adds his own basslines and gets friends to add additional guitar parts and drums, but every once in a while in his past you can hear traces of classical, electronic, a little folk, and even a dose of country. Estranged actually takes advantage of the country elements, but does not abuse them at all – pedal steel parts can be found sitting comfortably in a few songs, and only one song has a standard country feel ("Bright in Your Absence") – and it's still done rather tongue-in-cheek.

A lot of sides of J come out on this album, but the common thread is his somewhat morose, thoughtful, and moving sort of ballad thing. Many songs fit into this category, from "Pulling Arrows from Our Heels" to "In the Great Blue Whenever" to "Estranged". Most of the songs can be described as beautiful, melodic, singer-songwriter things (only better than the image that might construct). Most of these more subdued songs seem to focus on relationships and the difficulty of getting past a broken one, making me suspect that J went through such a situation not long before (or while) writing the songs.

J is far from not willing to rock, though. "The Guitar Man" is a full-blown affair, and several others drive along with some electronic bits or stronger guitar or drums. More than straight-up rocking, though, J seems to have enjoyed playing with dynamics and sudden changes in this batch of songs. "Ruined Cities" sounds like a dark semi-electronic piece until the weird Beatlesque bridge crops up, "If Anything Should Ever Happen to You" picks up considerably a few times just for two lines, and even "Estranged" has the sudden romantic vision of a vast-sounding bridge.

Despite the dynamic nature of many of the pieces, I feel like this is J's most consistent record (by which I mostly just mean that the songs are all consistently good). His overall sound remains similar, but he has grown with his choices of accompaniment and arrangement since his first solo outings. It's funny to think that someone who contributed so much to the dark, gothic rock feel of Bauhaus and the trippy psychedelia of Love & Rockets could also make such melodic, restrained, largely-acoustic music, but clearly he can. "Who Killed Mr. Moonlight", the sole J-sung Bauhaus song, and the folkier tunes of Love & Rockets' Earth.Sun.Moon album help bridge the gaps, though – J has always had an eye for melody and complex, interesting structures. Estranged is probably J's most interesting album, and likely his best.

Score: A

P.S. Estranged was released with a limited edition bonus album, Embrace Your Dysfunction. After selling them all years ago, J recently found some more, so I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to buy one. I'll probably write a short-ish review of it soon. [Edit 2018.08.30: See here.]

Monday, September 17, 2007

They Might Be Giants / Oppenheimer - Live 2007.09.15 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

Band: They Might Be Giants
Venue: The Pageant
City: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 15 September 2007
Opening Act: Oppenheimer

I don't remember the exact setlist or anything from the show, but it was pretty great. (For someone else's transcription of the setlist, see This Might Be a Wiki.) I went with a large group of people based around my band and met a few other friends who went afterward (specifically, the dudes over at Highway 61 Revised, who also wrote a short review). Oppenheimer, a Northern Irish sort of electro-indie pop duo, opened. They played about nine fast songs and got a little bit of crowd movement. They relied heavily on samples for most of their tracks, but the live parts (drumming, singing, guitar, and some keyboard) were spot-on.

Once They Might Be Giants came on, the crowd was pretty excited. There was some movement with the dancier songs. The mood was good but seemed calmer than I would have expected – and I think the two Johns that compose the core of the band reflected that. Flansburgh, who handles the guitar, seemed in a mostly good but slightly sedate mood, while Linnell, the keyboardist/accordionist, seemed a bit more down. He didn't really smile much, but he did perform well. The two Johns traded singing roles and were accompanied by another guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer, all three of whom seemed to be having a good time.

I enjoyed it all pretty well. The song selection included plenty of old favorites ("Ana Ng", "The Guitar", "Birdhouse in Your Soul", "Why Does the Sun Shine", "Istanbul", "Dr. Worm", "Particle Man", etc.) and was mixed with some back catalogue fun, like the really weird "Spider", and a bevy of songs from the new album, The Else. The classics were all done really well, but typically extended or toyed with just a little bit to make them interesting (which, by the way, is exactly what I like bands to do with their standby classics). "Why Does the Sun Shine" included a little bit about something like the atom-smashing reactions on the sun being caused by "a failed foreign policy, a failed domestic policy, and a failed presidency", which got a large round of applause. "Istanbul" was preceded by a long and impressive acoustic guitar solo by the second guitarist.

I did miss out on a lot of what seemed to be in-jokes and obscure references, since I'm not an obsessive fan but dig their material. There was a big thing about Buddy Ebsen and pretending to call him from beyond the grave, and I really couldn't figure out what was going on too well. I didn't feel too alienated, though, because they did joke about Mississippi Nights, the now-gone St. Louis venue that the band had played at several times before. The music was good, and when the humor came out here and there, they were usually funny (although I had expected even more humor), so all was good. They make for a really fun show.

Score: B+
[Retrospective Score for Oppenheimer: B-]