Live: Minus the Bear

Who: Minus the Bear
Where: Common Grounds, Gainesville, Florida
When: May 18, 2006

Minus the Bear seem like a bunch of dudes who take themselves way too seriously. (Not what you'd expect from a band who has titled songs along the lines of "Hey, Wanna Throw Up? Get Me Naked")

Don't get me wrong, their set is not a bad one by far. Technically, they were perfect. The guitars were a little low in the mix and the bass a little high, but that made me realize exactly how fucking awesome their underrated bass player, Corey Murchy, manages the rhythm section. Sadly, the most anticipated song of the night, "Pachuca Sunrise," was the most poorly executed: it's pace too slow, it's emotion too lacking. The best songs of the set were Menos El Oso compatriots "Drilling," "The Fix," "Fulfill the Dream," and "The Game Needed Me," whose otherworldly polyrhythms had guitarist David Knudson swinging on his effects pedal like an Olympic speed-skater rounding a turn. The premier of "a new song" had me seeing visions of the band as a late summer M2 megahit.

The crowd was a mix of DudeBrahs, their Sorors, and the indie dedicated. This concoction calls for a certain amount of tolerance on behalf of the band, which they sorely lacked. When a Volcom clad attendee climbed the stairs to pull off the inevitable sophmoric stage dive, lead singer Jake Snider abandoned all efforts to keep the son
g ("Hooray") together in an effort to physically harm the offender. Not cool, brah. Let it go. We want you guys to have a good time too.

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Review: Shearwater

Shearwater - Palo Santo
Released: May 9, 2006
Rating: A+

All too often, a band will release an album to muted fanfare due to a certain reputation the band has built for themselves. Sometimes the band has underacheived (Pinback) and a great album comes from seemingly out of nowhere. Other times, the band is born as a side project or solo outing from a more revered or successful act (Sam Prekop from The Sea and Cake), releases an incredible album which is automatically assumed inferior or simply composed of cast-offs from the main group. Such is the case with Palo Santo, the new album from Shearwater, which started out as a side project for Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff of Okkervil River. But not only does Palo Santo hold its own against Okkervil River's 2005 masterpiece Black Sheep Boy, it surpasses it in almost all respects.

For the first time on Palo Santo, Meiburg handled all singing and songwriting, and what results is a huge leap from the somber, relative straightforward folk of their previous albums. As a songwriter, he has a flair for the dramatic and a voice that is both affecting and determined. It is an album that is fun to play name-that-influence with, but like all great albums, the influences are meshed in a unique individuality. Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Modest Mouse, and Talking Heads can be heard coursing through the songs as prevalently as the more traditional folk influences. What results is not so much the outlandish experimentism and cacophony this implies, but a well-rounded, deceptively straightforward, restrained masterpiece.

The first track, "La Dame et la Licorne," is a perfect cross between Antony and Radiohead, as it begins with Meiburg's operatic voice hovering over slow moving piano and static. There is a premature explosion, as he screams, "Bring back my boy!" as he demonstrates the barely contained emotion lurking right below the surface. His composure returns, at least until the natural buildup permits him once again to let loose. "Red Sea, Black Sea" is composed of staccato organ stabs, banjo, and a straight 4/4 dance beat. Again, he employs Thom Yorke's melodrama, but chirps maniacally like Isaac Brock during the chorus. "Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five" is structurally similar to "Red Sea, Black Sea" but employs piano instead of organ, and results in the most outward rock assault on the album. Meiburg sounds as if he is on the verge of breaking, very Roger Waters-esque, as he sings, "Seventy-four, seventy five, daddy come back to me now." This, the most obviously damaging song on the record, is followed by the warmest, most straightforward folk songs with "Nobody" and "Sing Little Birdie." But however warm they seem their angelic harmonies and melodies belie a sadness and danger that is discernible in fragments from the mostly indecipherable lyrics.

The only area that Black Sheep Boy has Palo Santo beat is in the lyrics. BSB was clear, insightful storytelling; as literate (if not moreso) than anything indie signpost Colin Meloy has ever done, as well as darker and more relevant. The lyrics here come through in bursts, discernible one second, muddled and unclear the next, but always dramatic. Well over half the emotion, however, is contained in the delivery, and Meiburg is one hell of an affecting singer. The production is absolutely stellar; alternately haunting, murky, and disturbingly clear. The recording volume isn't jammed at the top, thus there is more room for subtleties to be heard, more room for the songs to breathe. Hopefully, Shearwater will be recognized from now on not as Okkervil River's second fiddle, but as a band in their own right, and Meiburg and Sheff will get the recognition due for this excellent album they have created: as the absolutely essential songwriters they have become.

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Live: Silver Jews

Who: Silver Jews
Where: The Grey Eagle Tavern, Asheville, North Carolina
When: March 12, 2006

To say the Silver Jews' tour was eagerly anticipated is quite an understatement. Culling an intensely devoted cult following for over a decade, Dave Berman has never set foot onstage under the Silver Jews moniker. But shit, even Jandek made a few live appearances recently, so Berman must have thought, "What the hell, if he can play live, so can I, and I even have talent!" What has resulted is one of the most anticipated indie rock tours I can remember, and the small/medium size venues were selling out as if they had booked Radiohead.

What added icing on the cake for me was that the Asheville show's opener was to be Edith Frost, who's last album I enjoyed greatly. But alas, she was ill and had to cancel, so we got a Nashville trio calling themselves Lone Official, who were basically a big ripoff of The Sea and Cake and Wilco. Even more annoying than the music was the lead singer's face, which was the most strained, constipated singing face I have ever seen, and this compounded my annoyance since the vocals were so soft, he made Sam Prekop seem like Jello Biafra screaming through a megaphone by comparison. No matter, I can survive this for ten songs: the SILVER JEWS are playing tonight!

Understandably, Berman was shaky; it was only his third show ever. He even brought out a notebook containing his lyrics. There were often miscues on his part, false starts and restarts. None of which the crowd seemed to mind; it was one of the most boisterous and supportive crowds I've been apart of. In fact, the notebook and the slight missteps added to his charm and the uniqueness of our experience: an experience obviously long-awaited for many in attendance. At one point, Berman put on a big smile and exclaimed, "Goddamn it, we're the Silver fucking Jews, for Christ's sake, of COURSE we're gonna fuck it up!" The crowd erupted ecstatically in applause.

To Berman's credit, he backed himself with great performers, who he could lean on for support, most notably his wife, Cassie. She has the beauty and grace of a 1950s movie star, and proved to be the anchor for Berman. He often looked to her for guidance, and she always kept an eye on him, making sure he stayed steady. What resulted was a growing confidence throughout the set for Berman, as he seemed more and more at ease as the show went on, playing favorites such as "Smith and Jones Forever," "Trains Across the Sea," "Buckingham Rabbit," and "Random Rules." The band really hit their stride on the closing song, "Punks in the Beerlight," as Berman abandoned his lyrical aid, and the band was at its most energetic, easily whipping the crowd into a frenzy and ending the show on the best possible note.

The best thing about this show was the contentment and giddiness that was seemingly enjoyed by all, including the band. For the fans, it was all about wish fulfillment: finally seeing one of their heroes play some of their favorite songs. The band were also in high spirits throughout the set, as they joked, laughed, and videotaped, and seemed genuinely happy and humbled by the great reaction they were getting from the crowd. Time will tell if this tour is a one time thing for the Silver Jews, or if this is only the start of regular touring. Either way, it was great to see them at the beginning, before the novelty has worn off, and the band (and fans) are used to the idea of the Silver Jews playing live.

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Review: Mogwai

Mogwai - Mr. Beast
Released: March 7, 2006
Rating: C+

Poor Mogwai. From the king of all bands who live under the daunting shadow of their debut comes Mr. Beast, and by all indications, this unfortunate trend will continue. This isn't to say that Mr. Beast is particularly bad or even disappointing, but when compared to the promising genius that was Young Team, the newest offering from the Glaswegians simply doesn't measure up. I'm not saying that this is fair. Hell, Young Team was released about 9 years ago. But if Mr. Beast was recorded by any other band, it would register only the smallest blip on the radar of underground music.

Mogwai have always been a band whose main musical device was the buildup and release of tension, constantly (theoretically) carrying the listener through the composition until an ultimate conclusion. Whether it be loud guitar crunch or the more subdued multi-instrumentation that they've been developing over the last few albums, they always have an intended destination. The execution of this compositional movement is critical for a band like Mogwai, who play a very palpable, mostly instrumental post-rock. Mr. Beast continues this trend, and features waves and waves of buildup that ultimately wash out and leave the listener stranded. Obvious exceptions to this are album openers "Auto Rock" and "Glasgow Mega-Snake," the former relying on piano and synth drones and the latter a brutal guitar assault of Mogwai legend.

Mogwai's albums also seem to follow a pattern of constant build up throughout their entirety, a sort of interstate leading to the final destination of the last track. After following Mr. Beast as a whole, it comes as little surprise "We're No Here" is not the album closer one was hoping for. It uses ideas recycled from earlier on without building upon them and ends the album in a mumble rather than a confident proclamation.

Unfortunately, Mr. Beast is very top-heavy. The album features beautiful production and great technical proficiency throughout, but the composition is wanting, and songs end up wandering aimlessly. One exception is "Acid Food," the album's third and possibly best all around song. Synths dust the song with subtle polyrhythms, provide a great melodic twist, and end by blending perfectly into a beautiful steel guitar. The rest of the album lacks any true standouts, even though there are no real missteps. It's the sound of a band playing it safe, for better or worse, and it ultimately leads to forgettable and sometimes boring results.

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Review: Love is All

Love is All - Nine Times That Same Song
What's Your Rupture?
Released: January 31, 2006 (U.S.)
Rating: B+

See if you can relate: an album arrives with tremendous hype, you give it a few precursory spins only to be underwhelmed. You shelve it, rarely ever to return, and you curse the tastemakers of the world. Well, that's hype for you. But if you spend all of your time chasing after all of the We Are Scientists and Arctic Monkeys of the world, you would never have time for actual music enjoyment. I feel that my B.S. detector is finely tuned, and I was surprised that my gamble on Love is All's Nine Times That Same Song seemed to not pay off.

But for some reason, after relegating it to the also-ran pile, there was a nagging voice in the back of my brain, telling me to pay more attention to it. A few more listens proved revelatory, and this experience, the antipole of the experience listed above, is music lover's gold. I've found a grower, and at least for me, these are the albums that end up meaning the most, those that are not forgotten over the years. Everything that was at first a deterrent for me had now became a plus: the vocals buried under a sea of reverb, the lo-fi version of Phil Spector's wall of sound, the obvious post-punk benchmarks. They have noticeable shortcomings as a band in the technical aspects, but the cacophonous, whitewashing production style does a good job covering up their flaws. Besides, this album isn't about skills, it's about enthusiasm and excitement. Nine Times isn't a landmark album, and it doesn't have a very original sound, and they've been often compared to the obvious reference point of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They share the same sort of energy and the vocals from the lead track, "Talk Talk Talk Talk" is pretty much identical to the YYY's "Tick," but that is where the similarities end. Love is All are a much better band and they are at turns more boisterous, beautiful, exuberant, and intelligent than their NYC counterparts.

True to the album's title, there is a definite repetition of themes revolving around the L-word, but Josephine Olausson manages to keep things fresh, as she highlights the mundane circumstance, confusion, and mindgames of relationships without once sounding overly twee. The first half of the record is full of disappointment and annoyance; Olausson pleads for personal space on the aforementioned "Talk" and takes satirical aim at a partner's emphasis on youth in "Ageing Has Never Been His Friend." "Turn the Radio Off" does more with less instrumentation than any song on Nine Times, and is musically a striking standout. She sums up the feeling of the first half of the record nicely in the chorus, as she proclaims, "I leave the sunshine out/ I'll turn the radio off/ Hey world, I've had enough." She quickly qualifies her remarks as a mood and saves herself from melodrama, "I've got all that I need/ And so much more/ Still I yearn for something more." There is a watershed in her mindset that's apparent on the album's climax, "Make Out Fall Out Make Up," as a cheeriness and acceptance of circumstances becomes apparent, and this attitude is more or less carried throughout the rest of the songs. "Records and clothes on the floor/ Remind me of the night before/ A pounding pain in my head/ I think I'll spend all day in bed!" and later, "Dancing in the living room/ Light supplied by the moon" indicate her curtains are again open, and she's beginning to take a healthier outlook on things. "Make Out" is the albums centerpiece, and quite possibly the best track here. It combines everything that make the album a success: a singalong chorus, rapid-fire drumming, and a melody that grows more and more addictive.

The album's two closing tracks, "Turn the TV Off" and "Trying Too Hard" are reciprocals of one another, the former an upbeat, ebullient track with a surfrock feel and the latter is simply composed, somber, and understated. They both express the same sentiments of "I was trying too hard," and "I've got to get myself together," but they approach the same subject matter from opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. This is a perfect example of the strengths of Love is All; even though you've heard it all before (umm... nine times to be exact), they never grow stale in sound, style, or delivery.

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Live: The Fiery Furnaces

Who: The Fiery Furnaces
Where: Common Grounds, Gainesville, Florida
When: February 20, 2006

All too often, a band's live set is a clone of their recorded output. The most egregious offender I've ever been privy to is The Strokes; the variation between Is This It?'s recorded sound and the live interpretation was nonexistent. Luckily, there are bands still out there that separate the two experiences, reserving their live show for something totally unique.

First of all, opening act deadboy & the Elephantmen were able enough as a twopiece. Their songwriting abilities are well above average, and they boast the hottest drummer in the history of rock and roll with Tessie Brunet, who is at least thrice as versatile as Meg White. They alternate between crackly electro-blues and indie ballads, which is easy in concept but difficult in execution. They set the stage well for The Fiery Furnaces, whose electric brutality was about to confound and befuddle some and astound others.

Did you know that Blueberry Boat is one of the loudest, most aggressive post-punk albums ever written? I didn't either until I saw them last year at Coachella. To the surprise of their fans, the Furnaces didn't bring a single damn keyboard along with them on tour. Live, their songs are defined by angular, aggressive riffs and chant-sing vocals by Eleanor Friedberger, and sometimes the instrumentation borders on prog-metal. One interesting twist is that Eleanor sang almost all of brother Matthew's vocal turns, most notably on "Inspector Blancheflower." They have a no nonsense approach to their set, a very NYC ethos. Their live interpretations of their well-known recorded output surprised many in the crowd who clearly didn't recognize some of their favorites. Others, however, latched onto the energy, particularly a certain albino with a bizarre head tic who slam-danced his way to the edge of the stage. The highlights to me were "Straight Street" from Blueberry Boat and "Single Again," the lead track from 2005's EP. It was almost as if AC/DC teamed with Dinosaur Jr. with Grace Slick on vocals to perform the hits of The Fiery Furnaces. I only wish that the band would release a live performance, just to show how versatile their arrangements can be.

I think that Rule #1 in The Fiery Furnaces' manifesto is "No Smiling." While obviously in the moment, the band never played to the crowd. In fact, the only slight amusement the band showed was after the announcement that the next few songs were going to be from Rehearsing My Choir, an announcement that was met with a resounding silence by the crowd (however, the performance of these songs left me wondering why the album was deemed "unlistenable" by most critics). They were often overly sloppy with the material they were trying out from the forthcoming Bitter Tea, showing no remorse or embarrassment for stopping and restarting a brand new song right in the middle. These are almost expected pitfalls for a band so versatile and prolific as the Furnaces; a band that has no trouble twisting established arrangements into a totally new experience, and well worth the unexpected joy produced by the new interpretations.

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Review: P.O.S. -Audition

P.O.S. - Audition
Rhymesayers Entertainment
Released: January 31, 2006
Rating: A

I know what you're thinking: Great...another mall punk who thinks he can strap on a backpack and write rhymes as a form of therapy. And granted, the fusion of the punk rock ethic and hip-hop consciousness isn't a new concept. So why is P.O.S.'s sophomore album, Audition, so compelling? It boils down to sincerity and intensity. Too many indie-hoppers get caught up in their own melodramatic suburban angst while losing sight of their relevance. No one wants to listen to someone rehash the same morbid, metaphoric mantra over and over again. But, P.O.S. rises above the filler and proves himself to be worthy of the hype.

So here's the scoop: P.O.S. is part of a Minnesota based collective known as Doomtree. As far as I can tell, the talent in this mixed bag of DJ's, producers and emcees is bananas. P.O.S., which stands for a variety of things such as Pissed off Stef, Promise of Skill and of course the obvious Piece of Shit, is part Sage Francis and part Dr. Know of Bad Brains. He's played in touring punk and hardcore bands such as Cadillac Blindside and Building Better Bombs, but found his niche in hip-hop as an emcee and producer.

Audition is more than a step up from his 2004 debut, Ipecac Neat. It's not that his first effort was terrible, but there wasn't anything unique about it. P.O.S. has truly seemed to find his voice on his latest effort. He's backed by an impressive supporting cast including the benevolent Slug of Atmosphere fame, various Doomtree cohorts and a few less intuitive guests to be named later. The production is as energetic and powerful as any Rhymesayers release to date. The beats were crafted in part by P.O.S. himself and partly by members of his clique, such as Lazerbeak and Turbo Nemesis.

P.O.S. wastes no time bullshitting around. He lets us know exactly where he stands. His first proper line, from "Half-Cocked Concepts" begins with a near-screaming P.O.S. saying, "First of all, fuck Bush. That's all, that's the end of it / Second, give it up to RSE for hooking up a kid." Talk about getting off on the right foot with a guy like me. It's apparent early on that this is going to be right up my alley. P.O.S.'s hardcore roots seep into the very foundation of his music. The evidence is sometimes subtle, such as the way his history stains the fabric of the beats and and obvious other times, as in the unabashedly scream-o chorus on "Concepts."

Next, on "De La Souls," I would expect to see the boys from Long Island, (Posnoduous, Dave and Maseo of De La Soul) as guests. But instead, a rather unlikey guest crops up. Bouncing Soul's Greg Attonito lends his croon using parts of "Argyle" to the track. At first, when I heard the rumor of this I admit that I thought it would feel forced and out of place. To my surprise it actually flowed nicely with the dynamics of the song. Andy yes, it gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside from the high school-era nostalgia it stirred up. The beats get switched up on this one, in favor of a quiet, glitchy palette for P.O.S. to spit rhymes over.

Next on "Stand Up (Let's Get Murdered)," Doomtree beatsmith Lazerbeak gets to show off his digs. His style fits right in with the Rhymesayers decór. It's almost as if he apprenticed under resident production guru, Ant. P.O.S. gives us a taste of his activist side here with lines like, "I'm patriotic like a fox. I hung my flag high, but must have misunderstood when Beanie Siegel was like 'Ayo, light that shit the fuck up!' / I ain't white and there's laws for that, so I use color-safe bleach at the laundromat, and deal with it. Usually how my squad react: we keep our hands warm with the Patriot Act." Something like that, anyway. You get the idea.

The album keeps rolling with a gratuitous Slug cameo here, more angry and inspired beats there. And then the next surprise steps out of the shadows. "Safety in Speed (Heavy Metal)" starts off innocently enough. A haunting melody is loosely woven into a crawling beat held together by an unassuming handclap, when all of the sudden, the unmistakable voice of Craig Finn from The Hold Steady sneaks up and begins a soliloquy about his dislike of a certain 1987 action-adventure summer blockbuster. Finn explains, "And the posters in the lobby of the theater called it Predator. I called it weak and unwatchable. / Carl Withers and two future governors. You know it's really unacceptable." At first I didn't know what to think. I mean, the rant started off humorously irrelevant. Okay, I can dig random. Then P.O.S. reeled it in,
and revealed the metaphor. The song turns out to be about our tendancy to tune out the world around us and sink into our comfortably numb habits. They urge us to wake up and pay attention. Word.

The rest of the album is more of the same, and that's not a bad thing. Throw in another Slug cameo and there you have it. P.O.S. and his Doomtree guest stars keep the album interesting and engaging. Don't write this one off as just another emo emcee rhyming about suicide over depressing beats. There's more to it than that, and I doubt we've seen the last of P.O.S.

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