Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mutual Benefit / Suno Deko / Taft - Live 2014.10.21

I wasn't excited about another super-late-night show on a work night, but for Mutual Benefit, a rising band that has captured my attention like few others, I couldn't resist.

Artist: Mutual Benefit
Venue: Red 7
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 21 October 2014
Opening Acts: Suno Deko, Taft

Setlist:
01. Strong River
02. Golden Wake
03. Auburn Epitaphs
04. Statue of a Man
05. Desert Island Feeling
06. Advanced Falconry
07. Stargazer
08. That Light That's Blinding
09. Statue of a Man
10. Backwards Fireworks
11. Animal Death Mask
12. C.L. Rosarian
13. Strong Swimmer
14. Moonville Tunnel

Review:
The evening started off with Taft, a solo singer/guitarist. Apparently, he normally operates in a five-piece rock band framework, but was trying out something different. At face value, he reminded me just a bit of Billy Bragg, with his solid solo electric guitar technique and his tuneful, earnest lyrics. His songs always had good groove and just enough of a hint of a hook to keep my attention. I'll admit, when he was walking up to the stage, my expectations were pretty low, but he immediately impressed me with his voice and style. His songwriting was excellent and his voice was always jumping into places I didn't think it could go. He could slip into a falsetto without pause and then fall right back into his normal range. He was far more vulnerable and expressive than I would have otherwise imagined. He ended with a solid cover of the Kinks' "Strangers", but his own material is what really impressed me.

Next up was Suno Deko, a solo looping act. Considering that that's the style in which Mutual Benefit started, too, it seemed like an appropriate match. However, whereas early MB focused on unusual soundscapes and experimentation, Suno Deko takes a more direct pop approach. Every song of his followed the same pattern of overdubbing a simple snare drumbeat, a simple pitch-shifter-assisted bassline, a couple guitar parts, and maybe a keyboard part, and then singing and/or playing additional guitar parts on top. Only one song featured his extra stage props, a violin and a shaker, both used to minimal effect. I think there's promise in his approach, but as it is now, it ends up sounding like every guitarist with a looping pedal. It didn't help that the mix was overdriving and muddying his high-end, so there was nothing to grab on to in the higher ranges. His lyrics were almost totally indecipherable, so anything they may have added was lost. I was hoping for some surprises, but he just stayed in his one idiom and wouldn't break out.

When Mutual Benefit finally hit the stage, it was as a quartet, as opposed to the seven-piece outfit I was expecting after I'd seen one of their performances at SXSW. I was a little disappointed that the bassist and violinists had departed, but I suppose a full national tour as a small, rising band on a small label probably makes it infeasible to tour with a large cast of characters. The current lineup features frontman Jordan Lee on guitars, banjo, keyboard, loops, and lead vocals; his sister Whitney on keyboards, accordion, and backing vocals; Mike Clifford on lead guitar; and Dillon Zahner on drums and backing vocals.

Lee has spoken before in interviews of the challenge of adapting his recorded compositions to the live stage. His songs usually feature a large number of parts, many contributed by a wide variety of friends, and it's easy to understand that rearranging the songs for a limited number of performers on stage would take some work. I think the material benefited greatly from the seven-person lineup, where it sounded rich and full, and while the four-piece edition did a good job with what they had, some songs felt like pieces were missing. Jordan's loops helped build up the songs, but the lack of sounds afforded by the missing violinists and bassist meant there was simply a smaller spectrum to work with.

The mix was better than with Suno Deko, but the high end was still getting abused. The loops and keyboards often ran into each other or were simply too low in the mix to be heard, so one really had to strain to pick apart some of the individual parts. Whitney's left hand frequently contributed bass parts, which certainly added to the frequency range, but it was still no substitute for a real bass, whose absence I felt a little too keenly.

The setlist started with the opening songs of Mutual Benefits debut album, Love's Crushing Diamond, and the band proceeded to play the entire album in order, interspersed with a variety of cuts from their assorted EPs. The album is short, as are the EPs, mostly because all their songs are short, so the entire 14-song set only lasted about an hour. "Strong Swimmer", the final track of the album, was the only extended piece, and it came off beautifully. Other highlights were "Desert Island Feeling" and set closer "Moonville Tunnel", which are the type of songs that open up your heart in an unexpected way, somehow coming off sweet and tuneful despite the strange tales they tell.

The steady beat of a drummer brought a little more power to the songs, and the song selection leaned towards the more melodic side of the band, so I found myself moving and singing along with songs I thought I barely knew. The musicianship was excellent and somewhat unconventional, especially since Jordan plays guitar in a deliberately unostentatious manner. Whitney's accordion and Jordan's banjo were also welcome additions that added to the depth of the sound. I'm a big fan of Jordan's lyrics as it is, so it was easy for me to get lost in the show.

Despite that Mutual Benefit began as an inauspicious solo affair, I think the music calls for a larger, grander representation. The performance was good, but it felt a little restrained, like there was more hidden underneath a veil, waiting to come to light. The small venue and mediocre sound hurt their presentation greatly, but their spirit was strong and the music never faltered. I enjoyed it thoroughly yet felt like I wanted more.

Scores:
Taft: A-
Suno Deko: C
Mutual Benefit: A-

Bonus scores:
Love's Crushing Diamond: A+
The Cowboy's Prayer EP: A-
I Saw the Sea EP: C+
Mutual Spirits split 12" with Holy Spirits: B-
Spider Heaven EP: B
Drifting EP: C+

[The Cowboy's Prayer EP original artwork.]

P.S. Love's Crushing Diamond might be a short album, but every minute is just about perfect. The Cowboy's Prayer, recently reissued on vinyl, is the obvious next in line, and while it is very, very short, it too is nearly perfect the whole way through. The other EPs are a mixed affair, with great tracks next to sonic experiments that sometimes stretch a little too far. Spider Heaven is probably the best of these, as it contains the standout tracks "Desert Island Feeling" and "Moonville Tunnel". Most of these releases can be downloaded from bandcamp, several as "name your price".

[Spider Heaven EP.]

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