Sunday, October 29, 2017

St. Vincent - Live 2017.10.26

I enjoyed seeing St. Vincent at Austin City Limits Festival a few years back so much that I immediately bought a ticket for this show as soon as I heard about it. This was before Masseduction was even announced. Once I finally heard the album, I was a bit skeptical, but still more than curious enough to see what she had to offer.

Artist: St. Vincent
Venue: Huxleys Neue Welt
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 26 October 2017
Opening Act: The Birthday Party (short film)

First Set:
01. Marry Me
02. Now, Now
03. The Strangers
04. Actor Out of Work
05. Cruel
06. Cheerleader
07. Strange Mercy
08. Digital Witness
09. Rattlesnake
10. Birth in Reverse

Second Set (Masseduction):
11. Hang on Me
12. Pills
13. Masseduction
14. Sugarboy
15. Los Ageless
16. Happy Birthday, Johnny
17. Savior
18. New York
19. Fear the Future
20. Young Lover
21. Dancing with a Ghost
22. Slow Disco
23. Smoking Section

I hadn't heard anything about an opening band, so when the 8pm showtime came and went without any appearances, I wasn't too surprised. Besides, the house music was Brian Eno and David Byrne jams that were a pleasure to hear on such a large sound system. But fifteen minutes later, when a projection screen was revealed, it all became a bit clearer: we were getting treated to a showing of The Birthday Party, a short film directed by Annie Clark, the sole member of St. Vincent.

The film depicts a woman trying to hide the death of her husband from their child on the morning of the lattermost's birthday. It relied on suspense and black humor, but the suspense was overplayed by the extremely heavyhanded audio cues. The final scene was accompanied by intense music from St. Vincent, which matched the emotional content of the action, but I found the whole setup rather predictable. The film was artfully produced and not without its clever touches, but the plot wasn't notable and the style was just a bit gimmicky.

When St. Vincent appeared on stage in person, she was alone with just a microphone. The curtains still hung around most of the stage, implying that there was still something to hide. After performing a song from her debut album to a backing track, a masked stage hand brought her a guitar. She continued to play songs from her career in chronological order, mostly in pre-recorded arrangements that seemed toned down and scaled back. The curtain revealed the rest of the stage at some point, but there were no additional musicians or instruments, just a couple microphones. The backing tracks initially focused on arty, less rock-oriented arrangements, culminating in "Strange Mercy", which featured nothing but strings and Clark's voice. The songs from St. Vincent (2014) were more fully synthesized with the expected dance beats.

And then she left the stage. The stage lights came on for just a few minutes before the curtain came up again. St. Vincent appeared again with her guitar and a change of costume. She proceeded to play the entirety of her new album, Masseduction, in full. Again, she used backing tracks for everything she couldn't do herself. She left again and that was it.

It was a strange concert. St. Vincent's persona is always somewhat affected, sarcastic, bizarre, and mechanical, so part of the show felt like she was making a big joke and everyone was in on it. Her choreography and movement felt like something from the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense playbook, except that she was the only live performer. The decision to rework and play around with the arrangements of her older songs was solid, but without a live band to give them any life, they felt stiff and artificial. St. Vincent's guitar style was wild and fascinating, but she wasn't even manipulating the pedals and effects herself.

The chronological ordering of the material was another interesting choice. but it meant that the show built up to a crescendo in the first half, then slowly came down as the performance of Masseduction reached its end. I'm usually skeptical of full-album performances and this was no exception. Coupled with the reliance on backing tracks, the set was entirely predictable. Worst of all, there was no encore. A few strong back catalog tracks could have brought the show to end on a high note, but we were left with nothing further.

St. Vincent's vocals and guitarwork were as strong as ever, and her stage presence was commanding. I appreciate her style and her willingness to experiment with different ideas, but I don't think many of her choices succeeded at this show. Most of the best elements that drew me in when I saw her perform with a band at ACL were absent. Playing to a backing track sapped away most of the energy and excitement. The songs were good, but there was hardly any spirit in it. If St. Vincent goes the way of an electronic pop star, then so be it. At least she can still play a mean guitar.

The Birthday Party: C
St. Vincent: D+

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Jesus & Mary Chain / Cold Cave - Live 2017.10.12

The Jesus & Mary Chain were one of the first "older" bands that I was introduced to in high school, and yet after hunting down several of their albums, I lost interest. Psychocandy may be novel, but Darklands is the only album I still listen to regularly. They always had a rather crass and debauched side to them, and over time that increasingly bothered me. When they reformed and played at Levitation in 2015, I had a passing interest, but they were doing one of those full-album shows for Psychocandy and I just wasn't sold on it. But with a new album in tow, I figured it was finally worth giving them a chance.

Artist: The Jesus & Mary Chain
Venue: Astra Kulturhaus
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 12 October 2017
Opening Act: Cold Cave

Setlist (with some help from here):
01. Amputation
02. Happy When It Rains
03. Head On
04. Always Sad (with Bernadette Denning)
05. Black and Blues
06. Mood Rider
07. April Skies
08. Between Planets
09. Snakedriver
10. Teenage Lust
11. Cherry Came Too
12. All Things Pass
13. Some Candy Talking
14. Halfway to Crazy
15. Darklands
16. Reverence

First Encore:
17. Just Like Honey (with Bernadette Denning)
18. Cracking Up
19. In a Hole
20. War on Peace

Second Encore:
21. Sidewalking
22. I Hate Rock 'n' Roll

When Cold Cave hit the stage, the venue was still quite sparsely populated, so I got up close despite the loud volume. They matched their retro synthpop/darkwave sound with a stark look emphasized by heavy shadows and white light. It was hard to tell what was pre-programmed, what was synthesized on the spot, and what was the result of heavily treated guitar and drums. I liked their use of effects, but it did make me wonder what exactly I was hearing. Their uptempo, danceable songs sometimes sounded a bit too much like New Order, except that it continually seemed like there was a melody or something in the high end that was missing. It's possible that the problem was just that the mix was poor, especially since it seemed like the keyboardist's backing vocals were mostly inaudible.

[Cold Cave.]

The new album from The Jesus & Mary Chain, Damage and Joy, isn't particularly notable except that it sounds a lot like their classic work, despite being released about 19 years after their previous album. I admittedly had only marginal interest in seeing the new songs live, but they largely fit in right alongside the older ones. The most bizarre part was that Jim Reid sounded identical to his younger self from 30 years before. Also strange was that Jim sang all of the songs, even the ones that William Reid had sung on record. Meanwhile, William stuck to the shadows with his guitar, and Jim didn't even touch an instrument. Drummer Brian Young, bassist Phil King, and rhythm guitarist Mark Crozer rounded out the band, although none of them retreated from the shadows.

I was concerned about the quality of the performance after I caught a few stumbles by William and Young in the first few songs. However, they quickly hit a stride and pumped out some solid tunes. Not every one of their songs was a winner, but they mostly kept to the better half of their catalog. Only a couple of their choices reminded me of their less appealing side (e.g. "Teenage Lust"). Furthermore, it seemed that the band share my feelings about their career peak: they played four numbers from Darklands, more than any other album except their latest.

Their lyrics have never been particularly strong, but sometimes (as with "Darklands" or "April Skies") they get a combination of mood, melody, and music together to make something affecting. Their best songs might just be a combination of 60s bubblegum pop and heavy distortion, but sometimes that just works. There were also a few successful exceptions, like the dense, swampy, extended "Reverence".

Thankfully, the band didn't live up to their reputation of being antagonistic and short-tempered. There were no drunken brawls and it was not just a brief affair of pure sonic assault. They played a long set (with two encores, even!) and thanked the crowd. That said, it was incredibly loud. My ears were ringing despite using my strongest ear plugs. Even if they aren't as wild and exciting as they may have once been, I think consistency and reliability have their merits, too. The show ended up being a bit better than I was hoping, and far better than I feared it could be.

[The Jesus & Mary Chain with Bernadette Denning.]

Cold Cave: B-
The Jesus & Mary Chain: B+

Friday, October 6, 2017

Slowdive / Isan - Live 2017.10.03

Last time I saw Slowdive, it wasn't under the best of circumstances. While I still managed to enjoy the show, trying to watch from outside the venue wasn't exactly ideal. When I heard about this show, I jumped at the chance to see them in a proper setting.

Artist: Slowdive
Venue: Huxleys Neue Welt
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 3 October 2017
Opening Act: Isan

01. Slomo
02. Catch the Breeze
03. Crazy for You
04. Star Roving
05. Slowdive
06. Souvlaki Space Station
07. Avalyn
08. Don't Know Why
09. Blue Skied an' Clear
10. When the Sun Hits
11. Alison
12. Sugar for the Pill
13. Golden Hair [Syd Barrett / James Joyce cover]

14. No Longer Making Time
15. Dagger
16. 40 Days

Isan are an English electronic duo. They played some warm, chill grooves with an outdoor vibe, almost like I was at a campsite at dusk. The dream-like sound suited the mood of the band they were opening for, but they risked being too mellow and easy to get lost in. Especially since they had no stage presence and the light show was minimal, it was easy to be distracted. The audience was only partially interested. A couple of their tracks picked up with a heavier beat, which served to break things up and keep attention focused, but I ultimately enjoyed the lower-key music more. Their closing number crescendoed more substantially and brought things to a nice finish.


Slowdive started the night with their new self-titled album's opening track, the slowly unfolding "Slomo". They immediately sounded just as good as I could've asked for, and they picked a perfect song for the job of introducing themselves and their new album. The instruments started sparse and shimmering, but gradually layered across each other magnificently. Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell's vocals took their time to enter but melded seamlessly. The mix of instruments was excellent, and the vocals were surprisingly clear and strong (considering that the band is famous for exactly the opposite).

Their setlist may not have been full of surprises, but they chose a good mix of songs from across their career. The place for surprises came in the form of the nuances of the performances. Continually throughout the night, I found myself noticing details that I'd never heard on the records, like a bass riff or drum fill that only appeared briefly in the background. I'm still not sure if those elements were always there and had previously escaped my notice, or if the band just adds little flourishes at will when they play live. Either case is believable, but in any event, those additions made the performance sound particularly special.

Several songs featured intense, extended jams that took their recorded versions as a blueprint but launched much further and deeper than what I'd heard before. "Catch the Breeze" was especially notable in that regard; it built up to thunderous peak that had me completely entranced. "Golden Hair" was given a similar treatment, although I was expecting that one.

"Souvlaki Space Station", on the other hand, was played in a more dynamic style. The band emphasized the calmer verses by dropping the intensity of the guitars substantially before the trademark sweeping effects returned to focus for the rest of the song. Most songs carried a high energy level, but "Dagger" was extremely stripped down, and "Blue Skied an' Clear" was fairly tame as well. These quieter moments might have been a let-down but for the fact that they served as a reprieve and a counterpoint to the rest of the set.

Slowdive's new songs are no disappointment, either. While the laziness of self-titling the album is unfortunate, the contents are what matter, and they are impressively consistent with the band's older work. Although it may sound like familiar territory, the band only had two original classic albums (sorry, Pygmalion), so re-asserting themselves in the same vein is hardly a matter to take issue with. Live, the new songs fit alongside the older work gracefully. Their quality is high enough that I found myself anticipating and enjoying them just as much as the other songs.

The only flaw of the show came in the form of a few drumming hiccups. A couple were minor and easy to forgive, but at the start of the coda of "No Longer Making Time", right when the music picked back up, a drum effect went haywire and the band just cut off the closing chords of the song. It was no great loss, and to an extent there is comfort in seeing a great band make a mistake so that you at least know that it's not all pre-recorded. And if that's the worst thing I can complain about, I know that this was a superb show.


Isan: C+
Slowdive: A+
Slowdive (the new album): A-