Although I eventually came to love a lot of their music, I walked out of my first Built to Spill show. Touring in support of their pretty-damn-good You in Reverse album, they played at Warsaw in Brooklyn ("WHERE PIEROGIS MEET PUNK!!") in October '06, but I left early, dogged by a bad back and disappointed at the band's energy level. "Built to Spill are the ultimate cock-tease band," my buddy Sluggo rationalized as we exited the venue. "They get SO close to rocking, but never actually *rock*."
However, my appreciation for the band's live prowess grew approximately 1,000,000% during their headlining set at the Siren Festival in '09 at Coney Island, which was EXCELLENT. At that show, Built to Spill delivered their tunes skillfully and confidently, tacking gorgeous, melodic instrumental breaks onto some of their best songs ("Virginia Reel Around the Fountain," "Strange," "Conventional Wisdom," etc.) and performing a set worthy of the several thousand-strong crowd. Finally, I was hooked, and the next four shows of theirs I saw during '09 / '10 were all in the very-good-to-great category.
For this recent tour, Built to Spill has re-emerged from a period of dormancy featuring a new rhythm section. I have no idea if it can be blamed on the personnel change, (or the shitty venue, or the oddly quiet concert sound, or the setlist choices), but this show was closer in energy level to the underwhelming Warsaw show from several years back than the highly enjoyable BtS shows I've seen since.
Not that it wasn't without its highlights, though. The show opened with a spot-on version of "Goin' Against Your Mind," giving the three-guitar attack plenty of room to stretch out. "Strange" is always a welcome hear, and this one included the unnamed instrumental coda that has accompanied it for the last several years (see below for video). The Beefheart cover ("Abba Zaba") was sung by guitarist Brett Netson, and featured Netson climbing to the top of the side stage area that's connected (uh, sorta) to the balcony. And any encore that includes both Blue Oyster Cult classic "Don't Fear the Reaper" AND the crowd pleasing "Car" is going to lead people out into the streets feelin' sat-si-fied.
A bit belatedly (and because I can't think of anything terribly interesting to report about the Mono show I saw at Bowery the night before this one), here's my take on the Tapes 'n Tapes show I saw at Irving Plaza a coupla weeks ago. Yes, despite no substantial changes, the venue is now officially known as The Fillmore at Irving Plaza (as I noticed prior to the disappointing Type O show I saw there a couple of weeks ago). This time I finally noticed one difference between "old" and "new": a bunch of framed photos/posters from assorted shows at various Fillmores across the country, including at least one big one of Bill Graham. Whoop-de-fuckin'-doo!
My first reaction after getting towards the front of the stage was one of the "holy shit, I'm the oldest schmuck in this room by at least a decade." This was the worst I'd found myself to be out of my age class since that terrible Minus the Bear show I'd walked out of after 20 minutes at the same venue (when it was still called Irving Plaza) less than a year ago. The major difference was at that concert, I only wanted to see the opening band, the mighty Russian Circles, so I was able to leave in plenty of time to catch Matlock.
Tonight's opening band, The Virgins, was super fun, although I should probably lower my voice while announcing this. Guilty pleasure to-the-max uber-simple-yet-fun-fun-fun bouncy pop punk played by a quartet of drunk-off-their-asses teenagers. Apparently, they had been drafted in to fill this opening slot at the last moment due to a member of the band that was originally supposed to play suffering from a bout of appendicitis. Although I was able to stifle the urge to pogo, lots of head-bobbing was induced. Set's highlight was the band's tiny teenage bassist ascending to the top of the bass drum then doing the Nestea plunge in a true display of rock n' roll set-closing enthusiasm-- except it was only three songs into the set. Brief delay to reassemble the slightly askew drumkit, but the momentum wasn't lost.
Second band... don't really remember the name. "Ladyhawk?" I think so. Anyhow, these guys were plagued by *horrendous* concert sound, and I really couldn't tell what the fuck was going on musically. Prior to their set, when they were tuning their drums, I noticed that whoever was in charge of running the soundboard totally blew it: the floor tom, for example, instead of producing a good, deep THUD, had unnecessary noise accompanying each beat. You know when you're listening to a tape walkman and the batteries are running low but you've still got the bass boost on, all distortion-farty? That's what it sounded like; just really unpleasant, with a lot of unwelcome background noise. Again, due to the simply horrendous drum sound, strangely muted guitars, and muffled vocals, I could barely tell what style of music these guys were playing. Grade: incomplete, although the lead singer vowing to singlehandedly de-virginize The Virgins produced a hearty guffaw room wide.
Tapes 'n Tapes took the stage a bit after 11. I'd been really looking forward to seeing these guys live for quite some time (The Loon was my fourth favorite new record of '06) but sadly the sound guy still hadn't figured out that the sound was shitty. So, yeah, the guitar and keyboards were barely audible, thanks to the unnecessary BOOMing drum sound. If this were the first time I'd heard the music of Tapes 'n Tapes, it's pretty safe to assume that I would not be a fan, because the horrendous mis-mixing really didn't suit Tapes 'n Tapes' spare style.
After opening with "Just Drums" and "The Iliad," I wondered how these guys would fill a whole set, what with only about 40 minutes of music to their name on their debut record, which they did by playing several new songs. Again, I hate to blame the poor concert sound but as a result I really don't have much to report other than that the new songs don't really seem to depart too greatly from Tapes 'n Tapes' established style (read: I dug 'em). Throughout, they mixed in a couple of changeups, notably "In Houston" being played with dramatically accelerated sections, and with many other songs having more energetically-delivered vocals than their album counterparts. Finally, they ended the show with "Insistor" and "Jakov's Suite," which both really rocked. Just as on The Loon, these guys proved that you don't have to play chunky power chords at an ear-splitting volume to really, really rock out.
So, yeah, I wish the sound had been better, and I'm really looking forward to hearing these guys' new record, whenever that's supposed to come out. I imagine when Tapes 'n Tapes next come around I'll be seeing them supporting that new record at Webster Hall, where, hopefully they'll be mixed by a sound guy who knows what the fuck he's doing and the instruments will have some separation instead of being buried amongst a sloppy sonic shitshow. Next up: maybe I'll get off my fat ass and see Cheeseburger later this week.
Well, I finally quit my excruciating, painful, knock-my-head-against-the-wall-for-14-hours-each-day job, so now I'll have a shitload more time on my hands. When I first started this blog I was hoping to do indvidual pieces on each show I saw or each album I heard in a timely fashion, regardless of how good or bad, and since I was working upwards of 70 mentally-draining hours a week there wasn't much time for that. With that workload now reduced to zero hours a week, at least for the foreseeable future, there should be more time for the truly insignificant things in life, such as writing entries for a blog read by nobody. (That's you!)
Anyhow, the first time I saw Type O Negative, they seemed primed to rule the world, or at least as close to it as a melodic thrash band with goth leanings could get. Fresh off the release of their career defining Bloody Kisses, I caught 'em at Nassau Coliseum, opening up for the mighty Pantera at Nassau Coliseum in what had to have been either '94 or '95. Back then, they opened up their set with the pummeling "Too Late: Frozen," a song that's part weepy break-up song ("Was everything we had just a joke?/I've run out of patience, tears and hope") and part bizarro undead cheerleader cadence ("One! Two! Fuck you!"). How the hell these guys ever got mainstream radio play with "Christian Woman" and "Black No. 1" still confuses the shit out of me to this day. Is there any artist that seemed more out of place when situated amongst the usual Toadies/Silverchair/Stone Temple Pilots alt-rock playlist you'd hear in the mid-90s? Not that I can think of.
Now, don't get me wrong, I fucking LOVE Pantera, but Type O all but blew them off the stage that night. The version of "Unsuccessfully Coping with the Natural Beauty of Infidelity" (the song with the "I know you're fucking someone else" chorus) that they played last night still ranks amongst the most bestest live songs I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing.
Today's Type O has slogged on through four more studio albums (plus a "Least Worst of" collection), with seemingly interminable waiting times of at least three years between each. Their most recent, Dead Again, released last month, proved that neither the band's popularity (it debuted at #27 on the Billboard charts) nor its ferocity (the treblified buzz-saw "lead bass" tone still reigns supreme on their recordings) nor its bombast (six songs clocking in at at least 7 minutes) has diminished during the intervening years. But how about their live show?
I arrived at Irving Plaza a bit after 9 PM, having missed opening band Brand New Sin. Apparently, Irving Plaza has been rechristened "The Fillmore at Irving Plaza," although I was unable to really notice any real changes to the venue other than a cordoned off area to the right side facing the stage where band gear is apparently now kept. I noticed that the same dickhead bouncer that tried to kick me out of a Guided by Voices show in December '04 was still working there, and in typical "that guy" fashion he elbowed his way through the crowd in order to both scold this evening's weedsmokers and establish himself as the room's Alpha Male. I entered the hall just in time to catch the joyless monotony of classic doomsters Celtic Frost's set. With the exception of a few classic NWOBHM licks, these guys were about as fun as a "hands on" trip to the urologist. Obviously, my back started killing me and I longed for somewhere to sit down, and, failing that, something to lean on. Anticipation ran high.
Unfortunately, following Celtic Frost, Type O decided to severely fuck with the audience, playing "The Chicken Dance" over the in-house PA for literally upwards of 30 minutes, complete with about 10 or so fakeouts during which the house lights were dimmed, only to be raised back up along with the blaring Chicken Dance. Not fun. After about 20 minutes a roadie came onstage to announce that "Pete [Steele, the band's vocalist/bassist/songwriter] missed his train... he'll be late" and imploring the soundman to "just play the Chicken Dance for another half hour." Obviously, the audience sensed this announcement to be highly dubious, but that didn't make the situation any better. Not to mention that for me, this interim was spent with some chick behind me jabbing me with her elbows as she made out with her boyfriend all sloppy-like. Collectively, the two smelled like an overturned outhouse at a BBQ pork cookoff.
Finally, the band took the stage, accompanied by the crowd's faithful "You! Suck! You! Suck!" chant, just as heard on their (fake) live album, The Origin of the Feces. The first impression was not, how you say, good. The once-formidable Man of Steele looked pale, wan and deathly ill, not to mention that it was a bit troubling to see him sporting a pair of tits and matching lovehandles. Clearly, years of cocaine abuse, alcoholism and failing mental health have not treated the man kindly. And he didn't sound much better, either, croaking through a cover of "Magical Mystery Tour," followed by "We Hate Everyone" and "The Profit of Doom." For some reason I was reminded of that horrible Bob Dylan MTV Unplugged album, where his unwillingness/inability to enunciate/sing properly made me wish someone would just turn his mic off so the crowd at large could perform in his stead. Following "Profit," Steele announced that he had to leave the stage "so I can go vomit," the first of several confusing, momentum-killing evacuations of the stage by the band during the set.
Of course, in following with the "let's piss off the paying crowd as much as we can" theme, these seemingly impromptu setbreaks were filled with the worst music imaginable, i.e. the Addams Family theme song and recordings of crowds cheering and booing. Just not cool, man. When the band returned, Steele announced that he had "eaten a half of a bad pizza backstage." Credible, especially in light of his history of drug and alcohol abuse? You be the judge; I'll just passive- aggressively put that out there. Steele's vocals sounded much better following this intermission, as they played several new songs quite well and dipped deep into their back catalog for the boring "Hey Pete/Kill You Tonight (reprise)." The "two songs onstage, then a break" routine continued, to the point where I actually started to walk out in disgust right as the opening notes of "Christian Woman" started up. Finally! After still yet the umpteenth setbreak, we got a cool instrumental jam with some Sabbath licks thrown in, and, ultimately, "Black No. 1," with the latter closing the show before a huge toilet paper fight broke out between the band/crew and the audience. Yes, I was disappointed that they didn't play "Naturally Coping," but that complaint was really towards the bottom of my list of annoyances. Won't be seeing these guys again. Had I known the show was going to be such a disappointment, I would have hit Arcade Fire, which I also had a ticket to. Oh, well.
As expected, 2006 saw its share of activity -- be it in the format of recorded output, touring, and other projects -- from that venerably prolific drunk uncle of indie rock, Robert Pollard. Captain Bob's advancing age (he turned 49 on Halloween) dictates that the tours are shorter, and that consequently much of the US winds up getting passed over in favor of focusing on the Midwest and the East Coast. Which is fine for me, as my "real" job didn't start until September, meaning that I was able to catch 3 shows over the course of his tour supporting From a Compound Eye prior to finding said new job. Yippee!
I feel that it's important for me to use full disclosure here: I'm a dyed-in-the wool Pollard devotee, and I own pretty much everything which is available on CD by Guided by Voices, Pollard, or any of his idiosyncratically named side projects. I will continue to eagerly pre-order any and all musical project the man's involved with until something drastic happens, let's say an act as great as Bob threatening physical harm to one of my family members, declaring his alignment with the values of the Tea Party, or, say, a collaboration with Devendra Banhart. That being said, my position as a Pollard fanatic is somewhat unique, in that I don't blindly worship any hastily-cobbled turd the man drops, and that I listen to (and appreciate) a ton of music that comes nowhere near resembling Pollard's output. For example, I can freely admit that his Motel of Fools record from a few years back is terrible, that the entire Circus Devils side project is the very definition of "inessential," and that the last five songs of 1996's Not in My Airforce are absolute fucking dogshit. I will say, however, that I find Bob to be the best performer alive today, and that the very idea of anyone matching the sheer quantity (and quality) of amazing songs he's written is laughable. Arguably the greatest moment in my life occurred at a Guided by Voices show on December 4th, 2004, when I was hoisted onstage against my will by a gaggle of rowdy showgoers during "Things I Will Keep," handed the microphone by Bob himself, and proceeded to completely botch the song's lyrics. Simply put, I feel that Robert Pollard is the greatest artist whose work I'll ever have the opportunity to appreciate. So there.
Now, much importance was placed on From a Compound Eye, a 26-song affair that was the first full album released under the "Robert Pollard" name since his disbanding of Guided by Voices at the close of 2004. Of course, to anyone that closely follows the man's career, the "break" between '04 and early '06 (when FaCE was officially released) was anything but an infertile period: although he didn't tour in that time, he managed to release a 4-CD box set of outtakes (Suitcase II), two EPs (Zoom and Bubble), three side projects (Moping Swans, Circus Devils and Acid Ranch), a literary magazine chock full of poetry and collages, three reissues (GbV's Propeller and Forever Since Breakfast as well as an expanded edition of the Hazzard Hotrods' Big Trouble), in addition to a comedy record (Relaxation of the Asshole). FaCE itself was anything but a highly-guarded secret, seeing as how plenty of in-the-know fans (myself included, cough cough) received CD-R copies up to a year and a half prior to its release thanks to the modern marvel of message boards and mailing lists.
FaCE itself is a bit of a "grower," much like some of Pollard's best work. At first, I was unsure what to make of it -- after all, at 70 minutes it's lengthier than any single volume in the GbV/Pollard/side project canon. Second, with the exception of a handful of standouts, it's not immediately accessible. Third, it's heavily steeped in the production of collaborator Todd Tobias, who provides much of the instrumentation and synthy atmospherics, much of which leaves the listener wondering if Bob himself even had any input into the recording of the instrumental tracks at all (see "The Flowering Orphan"). Fourth, any way you slice it, the album simply doesn't RAWK, and is a bit more "mature" than anything I usually enjoy. Truth be told, I really disliked this record the first several times I heard it, and it wasn't until I saw much of it performed live in DC in late January that I developed an appreciation for it.
During this concert (at the 9:30 Club), I was blown away by how the two-guitar attack totally changed the overall sound of many of the songs, which on the album to me had seemed limp-wristed and half-assed. Live, the keyboards accented the songs instead of carrying them, and songs like "Conqueror of the Moon" and "Recovering" turned out to be show-stopping masterpieces. And, as had been rumored, the evening was capped off by a 9-song all-GbV encore (one from each proper GbV album starting with Bee Thousand and ending with Half Smiles of the Decomposed, GbV's final studio release), which brought the house down. At this point, my only (minor) gripe was the rigidity of the setlist: whereas Bob chose GbV's setlists from a bank containing upwards of 100 rehearsed songs, by comparison it seemed as though the first several shows of the FaCE tour were comprised of similar -- and, at times, identical -- setlists. In all fairness, Bob and his backing band, a group of talented hired guns dubbed The Ascended Masters, were still pumping out 40-plus tunes a night despite being new to performing Pollard compositions. Expecting much more would have been unrealistic. Yes, all was well.
The next news on the Bob front came in the form of three more side projects, to be released simultaneously in mid-April. The most consistent of the three, a collaboration with power-popper Tommy Keene (dubbed Keene Brothers) paired Bob's melodies and inimitable lyrics with Keene's jangly riffage. The Takeovers, assembled with the help of a former GbV bassist (Chris Slusarenko), contained glorious peaks and unfortunate valleys. Songs like "Insane/Cool It" and "Be It Not for the Serpentine Rain Dodger" are as good as anything Bob has put out in the last decade-plus, but are accompanied by some truly joyless drudgery and tuneless throwaways. The project released under the name Psycho and the Birds was perhaps the most intriguing in its description of how it was assembled: supposedly recorded on a boombox by Bob in one sitting and sent off to Todd Tobias for embellishments. Without belaboring the specifics, let's just say that Psycho and the Birds' All That Is Holy is quite possibly the worst album Bob's ever released.
After a layoff of nearly three months, the FaCE tour continued, and I caught shows at NYC's Irving Plaza and The Paradise in Boston in mid-April. I managed to consume fourteen beers at the Boston show, and had a fucking blast. To date, that ranks at the top of my Favorite 2006 Concert rankings, perhaps a tick behind the Comets on Fire show I saw at Knitting Factory in October.
Over the next few months, Pollard fans were left to eagerly anticipate the release ofNormal Happiness, Bob's second release with Merge Records. Bob and The Ascended Masters had played a handful of tracks from Normal Happiness during the FaCE tour, and they each seemed to engender the poppy-yet-warped aesthetic I've come to expect. In the interim, we Pollard maniacs were afforded time to digest the three side projects, compile mix CDs, and bemoan the incarceration of Postal Blowfish (a Pollard-centric listserve) court jester Jonesy. Rumors also began to circulate regarding the release of a book written about Bee Thousand in the 33-1/3 series. (This would eventually be released around the time of Normal Happiness.)
Normal Happiness, as it turns out, is also largely a "grower," which came as a surprise to me since it had been described as "sixteen lean pop songs" in the months leading up to its release. This description had visions of sixteen new "Echos Myron"s dancing in my head, which is obviously a completely unrealistic expectation, so obviously I was disappointed when I finally heard the actual album. The only show I was able to catch on the Normal Happiness tour was at Bowery Ballroom in NYC, and the band put on a fantastic performance, digging out several songs from GbV's 1996 classic Under the Bushes Under the Stars during the regular set, throwing my all-time favorite Pollard composition, "Subspace Biographies," into the encore, and closing the show with an overzealous-fan-insisting-on-being-onstage-marred version of "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory."
I was half-tempted to head up to Boston, where Bob and The Ascended Masters would be closing out their brief tour in support of Normal Happiness, but I decided not to in favor of catching up on sleep. Getting up before 6 AM every day is very tiring, especially when my regular workday, including commute, regularly eclipses the 12 hour mark. However, a couple of days after the Bowery show, I heard that Bob had cancelled the remainder of the tour, announcing during the Philadelphia show that he had hurt his calf. Speculation began running rampant as to whether or not the injury was legitimate or if Bob was simply sick and tired of being sick and tired (or some such variation), as he had intimated onstage at the Philadelphia show. Reports ranged from Pitchfork's cursory "tour's cancelled" announcement to accounts of what sounded like a full-scale breakdown on the Pollard internet boards.
Obviously, I hope that Bob continues to tour. By most accounts, attendance at the Midwestern shows was flagging, and oddly enough, even the Bowery show wasn't sold out. For the first time probably since 1992, people have begun to wonder if Robert Pollard has once and for all hung up his microphone and called it a day. Please, Bob, say it ain't so -- I'll have to find a new hero. *sniffle*