Archive for May, 2011

Marshall Stacks

05/19/11 – Sleigh Bells, CSS, Neon Indian @ First Ave, Minneapolis

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I’ve spent a lot of time wondering who the star of the Sleigh Bells show truly was. I don’t think it was either Derek Miller or Alexis Krauss, though certainly they bestrode the stage at First Ave like giants. I don’t think it was the light rig they brought in that threatened epilepsy on all who looked at it in wonder. No, I think it was the 8 amps that Derek used to blow out the ears of everyone there. Seriously, I’ve never seen a rig like that in a place like First Ave, and it looked a little ridiculous for most of the night, but if anyone can pull it off, Sleigh Bells can. They are soldiers in the loudness war, to quote a friend of a Pitchfork writer, and they spend little time or effort worry about how to most effectively reach you. They do it through volume, ear-crushing, body shaking volume, and to judge from the effect on the crowd, that was in order. Booming bass, overpowering guitars, martial drums, and piercing vocals. Those are their tools, all at 11. Not the loudest show I’ve ever been to (I challenge any band to take that honor from Mono), but definitely in the top 5 in that regard.

Don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t me going to see Sleigh Bells out of some indie rock obligation. I thoroughly enjoyed them from the first time I heard “Crown In The Ground”, eons back in Internet time in 2009. “Tell ‘Em” is probably a song that any neighbor of mine at work could tell I was listening to, because I just had no choice to turn it up. It commands you to inch the volume louder and louder until you realize that people around you are looking at you, talking to you, and you have no idea what’s going on. It’s music that begs to be listened to at full, speaker-breaking, ear-bleeding volume every time. But feeling that way at home is one thing; seeing it in action is another. Sleigh Bells did what any young band would should do, even if you are selling out the Main Room. Keep it short, keep it simple, and play what the people want to hear. There were no detours, no speeches, no random covers; in short, no filler. They played about 40 minutes, matching the length of Treats and hitting everything on it, I think, though by the end, it can get a little hard to distinguish what was what. Obviously, songs like “Crown On The Ground”, “Rill Rill” and “Tell ‘Em” were highlights, and newer single “Infinity Guitars” fared well. Hell, it all fared well, the crowd ate it up. Which is a little weird to watch.

Maybe this is just me being cynical, but I’ve gotten used to going to see band that not that many people want to watch. A full night at the Entry is one thing. A full Mainroom (I guess they say 1400 officially…I think that place can hold more) is another thing entirely, and on top of that, to actually have the audience into it is yet another. So for what has been a buzz band of the indie mainstays of the world, the Pitchforks and Guardians is one thing, but to take that next step and fill up the Mainroom with a lot of people who probably don’t go to nearly as many shows as me? That’s something. Plus, it’s more likely to be a crowd less critical of the piped-in backing tracks on everything. They just want to see Derek and Alexis. And those Marshall stacks. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that. (As an aside, it is weird to think that a guitarist from the first three Poison The Well records and a former teen pop singer could come together and form this band. But hey, it’s the journey sometimes.)

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CSS did what CSS does. I’m still not sure what that is, but there was lots of dancing, and more women than men playing instruments (not that common) and a lot more dancing and offers from the lead singer to marry all of us. And songs about going out all hoed up at 16. You know, standard fare from everyday Brazilian funk/reggae/pyschotropical rock bands. They are one of those bands that I always see their name, but I never actually sit down and listen to them. And after sitting through their set, I wonder why not. They make good danceable music and they have that sexy Brazilian thing going on. And they had a song in an iPod commercial. I thought that was the modern benchmark for success (just ask Chairlift. Or Chappo. Or…well, do they only pick bands that start with C?). Snarkiness aside, there’s something about seeing a lot of people rocking out and doing one thing, making you dance. Even if you don’t know the words and what you can understand is dead simple, it’s those basic kinds of themes that resonate. The empowerment of coming to age; partying; having fun; being sexy; you know, things we can all relate to. Maybe, after reading what I just wrote, it’s just that I’m too cynical for music like this any more. Or at least too cynical to listen to it at home or at work. But in First Ave? With a lot of other sweaty people bouncing around? Feels just about right. Makes me think I should maybe go to a dance night every so often, because with a good dj, it’s probably got the same feel. C’mon, this is Minnesota, nobody has dance moves. I will not be alone.

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As for Neon Indian…I don’t know what to say. That’s actually what I bought a ticket it for, when it was just Neon Indian headlining the Entry, but then the gigs got combined and I got rescued from the already difficult decision I’d made as to who to see on that Thursday. Thing is, I still think it would have been a nice gig in the Entry for them, as a headliner, to a couple hundred people who really wanted to see them. But when you don’t talk, and you make music that’s a bit challenging, and even the musically inclined amongst the crowd aren’t really sure who you are, well, that’s not a recipe for success in the Mainroom. Add to the fact that there wasn’t a lot of crowd interaction, and Neon Indian’s really only had 1 song that most people there had a chance of hearing before hand in “Deadbeat Summer”, and you get the pretty obvious result of a set that wasn’t all that inspiring. Not that the music was played poorly, or the song choices were bad, or the band didn’t acquit themselves well live. They did play well, and it was a good set, and they looked like they knew their way around the stage. But there’s that reciprocation between band and audience that happens at any good show that was missing, at least until CSS took that stage (maybe it was there for Princeton, I wasn’t). I bought a ticket to Neon Indian and gladly got to see CSS and Sleigh Bells, but as the headlining set revealed, almost everyone was there to see Sleigh Bells. That is how you take control of a room. Hell, there was even some stage diving. All anyone did during Neon Indian was buy more drinks and talk with their friends. Which is too bad, but that’s what happens some nights. Maybe the moment of chillwave has passed us by, and Neon Indian took too long to capitalize on it. Toro Y Moi has already moved into funk, and another mainstay of the genre in Washed Out has a new record coming out that could sound totally different for all I know. Maybe the problem was less locus-based and more temporal in nature. The time to see Neon Indian probably would have been early 2010, not mid 2011. No matter, there’s no need to rationalize the money spent on the ticket. Sunk cost on experiences and all that. It was worth my time and money. While I may have been wishing for a little more after the first set I saw, that certainly wasn’t the case by the time the curtain dropped on Sleigh Bells.

Confessions Of A Serial Cyclist

As I was riding my bike home last night at 2 am, large puffy clouds were cutting across the sky, obscuring most of the stars, but not the 3/4 full moon. It was quite a sight on the occasions that it was in the direction that I was riding, and therefore not unduly risky to look at. The streets were extremely quiet, more than I thought given that it was bar close on a Friday night, but it was appreciated, if unexpected. More than once, it hit me that it’s a bit odd to be riding my bike at 2 am on the way home from something, and it is certainly not something that I would have done a couple years ago, but now, there’s not much more natural than hopping on the bike to get to or from something. Be it work, or a show, or an impromptu gathering at a friend’s, it seems more often than not that I get there by two wheels instead of four these days. But it took quite a while to get to this point. I know a big part of it is motivation; secondarily, there are concerns of many things, but the hardest thing of all for most of us is getting it into our head to do something and then getting it out of our heads and into our lives. Really, this is the fruition of about 6 or 7 years of attempts to make myself do this, and it took me that long to deal with many of the barriers I created for myself to prevent me from doing something that I wanted to do. Biking accomplishes a lot of great things at once, but there’s a trade-off lurking somewhere.

It’s 11 miles one way to work. First off, 11 miles is not that far. I know it seems like it is, but it isn’t. Second, it’s not crazy, so don’t look at me like that. I can feel you across the internet giving me that look, so stop it. I am not riding at any speeds that are going to make anyone blush on either commute. I usually average between 14-15 miles an hour these days, which is good, but is no land speed record. Generally, between trying to make sure that cars don’t hit me, stop lights, pedestrians, obstacles, and the general nonsense that seems to fill roads and bike paths, it takes me about 45-50 minutes to get to work, though the bike timer always says a little less since it doesn’t go when I’m not moving. It takes a little less time to get home, because it’s more downhill and I believe that I’m probably a touch more motivated to get home than to get to work. On the other hand, there’s a lot more traffic of all kinds at 4:30 pm than at 6:30 am. I have gotten a lot more comfortable with road riding and people not paying attention and all the other things that are now a part of my daily commute.

When I drive to work, it takes about 30 minutes in the morning, and usually it’s closer to 40-45 in the afternoon. So you can already see that the time difference isn’t all that great. Yes, I get up at 5:50 am, but I would be getting up 30 minutes later if I were leaving from here, so it’s really only taking me about an hour longer adding together both my morning and afternoon commute. And I spent about 90 minutes of that getting exercise. Sure, I have to take two showers, but even after all of that, I’m home and cleaned up and ready to do something by 5:30 if I really need to be, though usually I’m a little more leisurely about leaving work than that.

As gas settles in around $4 a gallon (and sure it might go down for a bit, but I imagine this will be the norm going forward more than the exception), I spend about $50 to get enough gas in the RAV-4 to get 300 miles. This is probably low compared to a number of people, but it’s the facts as they now stand. Let’s say I ride my bike to work 20 times a month at 22 miles round trip, I’m taking out 440 miles, probably saving myself close to $75 a month on gas. Which is great. Except I’m probably spending at least $100 every couple months on parts, gear, etc. Not including whatever the initial cost of the bike might be (only $600 in this case, so not too bad) and the initial investments on gear and such since those are sunk costs, I’m still probably not saving money as on might think of it. What I am doing is investing my money in something I care about more than my car. The more I bike, the quicker I have to put money back into said bike, which means that if I have a 600 mile month sometime, it’s just that much quicker to the next tune-up and batch of parts. Less gas, but more chains and gears. It has taken me a while to understand that concept, and I still think that’s a big gap for a lot of people. One might routinely take a car in to get it looked at for maintenance, but many view a bike as something you just buy and don’t do anything with until it breaks. Well, actually, looking at that last sentence, a lot of us treat our cars that way. But much like a car (or any vehicle) standard care along the way does a lot to make it work better. You are happier, and your vehicle is happier. So any financial realizations are minimal in the sense of saving. Of course, I feel the money is going a better place, which is a big thing. It’s nice to feel like your money is going to something you care about, not something you just have to do or need.

So no, it’s not a big money saver. As to the other general set of questions I get, no, it’s not that hard. But it is a commitment. I guess one could say that’s true of anything in life. The more effort you put in (and time and money and all those associated variables), the more you might get out of it. And this is the same way. It’s a big hurdle, and a bit of a restructuring to say that I’m going to bike someplace. I have to leave sooner, I have to consider the weather in terms of how it’s going to be to ride in, I have to consider whether I’m going to bring a change of clothes. But I don’t have to do that much more than I would anyway. Plus, it makes me think about what I’m going to carry, what I truly need, and what I just want on the other end. Because those are all different things at different times, and frequently what you need is much less than what you have. I don’t need to do much more than look around my apartment to know that. I, of course, have committed to it, and since I’ve got back on in April post surgery I’ve stopped making the excuses. Not that I didn’t bike a lot before surgery, but post-surgery, I’ve just decided there’s no reason not to bike more. Instead of saying, oh, I don’t have time for it, it’s saying how do I make time for it? How do I structure my activities? How does it impact a trip to Target or a trip to the Fetus? Do I need all the things I get at the store, and if so, how do I account for them? These are all valid questions, and I get there are numerous excuses not to ride. My take-away has been to simply be more honest. I know your workplace might not have a shower. Sure that’s a hurdle. Mine does, and that’s great. Yes, it sucks when it rains. But I get a little wet and I have some rain gear that takes a bit to dry out. My neighbors at work probably don’t like it.

And I guess for me, that’s the big thing to do. There’s no problem with saying you don’t want to bike to work. It might not work for you on simple virtue of the fact that you are not going to move around enough other things in your life to make it work, which is perfectly respectable. Or maybe you just don’t want to, which is also perfectly respectable. But there’s no reason to make excuses about it. And that’s something that I can be better about in my own life. But many people can do what I do. They just don’t want to. Just like I don’t want to do many things that they do in their lives that they make more time for. There’s too much to do in life to go about making excuses about not doing things. That’s more time that you could be doing stuff. But, but if you truly are interested in riding to work, remember that it’s something that takes a long time to get going and instill, like any habit. But mostly, it’s a decision, like any decision? How committed are you? Because if you are, join me out there on the paths and roads of the Twin Cities, and for the sake of all of us, please signal.

On The Eve Of My Defection

As I was walking to SA for a beverage (in a tank top and jeans no less, thank you weather), I couldn’t help but notice the unmistakable smell of Lowertown. I lived in Uptown for 7 years and never particularly associated a smell with it, but Lowertown, especially given the recent rain, can best be described as musty. Old buildings, some now apartments, some now businesses, some now garages, and some still empty, they have that inveterate smell of some place that will never quite be dry, and frankly, a lot of the old buildings here have that character. And whether it’s snow or rain or the river just a couple blocks away, maybe there’s some truth to that. So I breathed in and breathed out and enjoyed the long shadows of a sun near setting. I watched people walking dogs over to Mears Park, I noticed that it was a decent, but not especially busy night for the Bulldog, and I’m pretty sure I saw three buses, but it might have just been two. I couldn’t help but feel at home. For someone somewhat conflicted with the concept of moving to Saint Paul in the first place, well, I can only say that feeling seems like a long, long time ago, even if it was just a year ago. Though, to my credit, once I made the decision to move here, I committed to it. That isn’t to say that I don’t still go across the river. I do every day to get to work, and I certainly still spend a lot of my time and money at First Ave and The Entry. But the bars, the restaurants, those things have subtly changed. Whereas I was once a frequent patron of many places, but never a particularly recognized or appreciated one, I am now a regular at The Bulldog (which deserves its own thoughts, but another time). Everything is even further, but as gas prices go up, that’s only made me more committed to the bike. I actually spent time on back-to-back days going through Uptown earlier this week and it felt weird. Things have changed over there, and I notice as my landscape amnesia has shifted to a new landscape. That building going up at 28th and Lyndale, the new Heidi’s, some other Parasole restaurant I won’t eat at, but it is all pretty new and shocking to me, whereas I used to see that stuff every day as I walked, biked, and drove around Minneapolis (and the west side in general). So, what’s next?

I am signed into my apartment for another year. Studio living suits me well, and this building and its management are particularly my pace. I could spend less, but you get what I pay for. And I pay to be a few blocks from the river, to be able to walk to Central Library, to see the Cathedral and the Capitol every day. I pay to know the wonder that is Cosetta’s, to actually know what’s across High Bridge, to get the chance to ride by the Governor’s mansion on my way to work. I pay to have a bunch of bartenders know my name (and me theirs) at The Bulldog, to live stumbling distance from the Happy Gnome and the Muddy Pig, to have access to all the wonderful food and shops on Grand as a realistic and close option, like Uptown, but less crowded. I pay to live on the side of the river that many of my friends scoff at, to have a Skyway that’s actually useful, to see people marching down the street with torches in the middle of winter. I pay for all of those things and so many more wonderful, quirky bits of the Saint Paul identity. I never really got it. I lived across the river for 7 years and I never really got it. Short of a show at the Turf, some food at Mickey’s, or a trip to the Summit brewery, I never really found myself on this side of the river. Not that I was sitting on my hands; Minneapolis has so many of its own hidden wonders as well. But it was a good time to discover them. And now I wonder whether I will ever move back across the river. Not that I even know if my next move will be within this state at this point, but the point remains that I now know the merits of living on both sides of the river, the Twin cities that aren’t so much twins as much as they are quarrelsome brothers. I know what it’s like to tell people in Minneapolis that I live in Saint Paul now, I know what my reaction used to be. It is not the other side of the world, and yes, the city does shut down pretty early, but it’s getting better, and besides, that means there’s always open street parking after 4:30 pm. I gave up the post-college kids stumbling home from the bars at 1:30 am on a Wednesday for the not much older, but more professional amongst us that still know how to have fun, but also know the importance of a good night’s sleep in the middle of the week. Uptown is a strange beast, and it’s certainly not the same place I moved into 8 years ago. Not better or worse, just not for me anymore.

My only real regret in the past year is that I’ve done a poor job of sharing the wonders of Saint Paul with people. I have not been organized in getting people over, and that is on me. So that’s the year 2 goal, to make those things happen. Starting with a birthday observed or a celebration of my first year over here. It’s all just an excuse to lure people in from the western burbs. I know it’s a haul, because I make that drive approximately once a week the other way. And just as it’s worth it to get together over there with my friends, it’s worth it to get people over here for a taco at Boca Chica’s taco house or a glass of Kwak or a fun day of museum hopping. But that’s on me. It certainly took some doing even getting to know some of the things over here; the least I can do for my city is share them with you. Whether it’s playing Dr. Mario in my apartment while I spin records or a visit to the local haunts isn’t really important. Just come on over and see what we’ve got so that you know where to go when the Light Rail is done in a couple years. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.

Why Do You Think The Triangle Is The Strongest Of All Shapes?

05/07/11 – YACHT w/ Light Asylum, Triple Rock Social Club

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Any band can (though doesn’t necessarily) play a great show in a sold-out room. While that is by no means the only prerequisite, having a full room is definitely an experience that a band can feed off, as I’ve already been reminded of a few times recently (Rural Alberta Advantage, Toro Y Moi). Personally, I think it’s one of the more simple ones out there, as the others are much harder to peg. It can be more illuminating to see how a band that has some degree of stature responds to a half-full room. Because bands can just pack it in, play their setlist, and head off to the next town where hopefully everyone is more excited to see them and they sold more tickets. As a fan, it’s not something one has much control over, and I always hope that I never catch that kind of show. But I certainly understand where that feeling comes from and I understand that it happens from time to time. I was a little worried between bands last night that it might be that kind of show at the Triple Rock, since I can only generously estimate it was half-full. This wasn’t a Tuesday night show, either, this is prime concert going time, Saturday in spring. Thankfully, YACHT quickly allayed those fears barely halfway into the first song. Having never seen YACHT before, I don’t know if this was typical energy or if they just really liked playing for us, but it was definitely a high energy show, complete with not one, but two lead singer entering the crowd moments, a bachelorette party, and some Q & A between the band and the audience that featured questions about triangles and dinosaurs. You know, a typical show.

YACHT consists of 5 people in its current touring incarnation, though it started long ago as a “solo cross-disciplinary experiment” by Jona Bechtolt (their words, not mine), though it didn’t really pick up steam until after her time in the criminally under-appreciated band The Blow. As to the nature of the cross-disciplinary experiment, it doesn’t really come across on the record. That is just music, after all. But the live show…certainly a sensory experience with lights, music, and associated education material presented via a projector. All the people in YACHT do a number of other things with their time as well, but they still manage an album every couple year; they had my attention with See Mystery Lights, their 2009 effort. They have a new record due up soon called Shangri-La, and predictably, the current live show leaned heavily on it. While it is sometimes a detriment to see a band play a lot of songs that you’ve never heard, I don’t think that YACHT had that problem. Maybe it’s the kind of music, maybe it’s the overall energy, but it was pretty easy to get into the music. Not that it was that much of a departure from their previous effort. There were lots of parts that were easy to pick up on and sing along with the first time through, and a lot of songs that were designed to make you move. As to the actual construction of the songs, they had the same slinky, dancy, disco-ish feel of so many other DFA artists. We are talking about the label that’s given you LCD Soundsystem and Hercules & Love Affair. There are the typical loping, hypnotic base lines and angular guitar parts, the unstoppable beats and even more unstoppable hand claps that you’d expect form the label. Though I wasn’t familiar with the new songs, they sounded familiar, and not in a bad way. Reminiscent without being derivative, always a challenging sound to pull off. And then when they did throw in a few songs from the previous record or an excellent cover in the form of “Breaking The Law”, they all seemed to meld together into a cohesive statement, along with thoughts on the brontosaurus or a discussion of the power triangle they recorded the album in (Portland, OR, Los Angeles, LA, and Marfa, TX if you are keeping score at home). And even if there were many of us in the crowd, they had us, and we were jumping, and singing and dance along like we didn’t have a care in the world. By the time the show peaked at the regular set finale of “Psychic City”, I knew that whatever ineffable feeling I had come in search of, I had found.

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As was perhaps to be expected, there weren’t that many people there for Light Asylum. I am sure the next time they come through town, that will be different. Light Asylum is a very 80s leaning band, with the obvious synth-based touchstones of bands like Joy Division, New Order and Depeche Mode, or at least the tenebrous edges of those bands’ catalogs. If you want to go with one of those fake genre names, you could call it dark wave. In other words, pretty much a shoe-in to be something that I’m going to give a lot of my listening time and critical thinking to over the next few months. Over the past few months, some buzz has been building around Light Asylum based on their 2010 EP, In Tension, and it’s well-deserved. Getting a lot of love from places that I get a lot of my information from (Pitchfork and Altered Zones), I first heard the stand-out “Dark Allies” a couple months ago, and it’s one of those songs that just lodges in your brain. And while it’s still mostly only synthesizers and a few other odd instruments live, what struck me most about this duo was the power of Shannon Funchess’ voice. When it comes to the more programmed side of music, obviously it’s a pretty easy expectation that the music will be done right, but the actual vocals are always something that artists either have or don’t. And Shannon Funchess has pipes. For days. And while there were some minor difficulties with their set in addition to a non-engaged crowd, Light Asylum powered through it. When even their most memorable track was marred by a poor mic cord and it still turned out to be a song that got a big response, well, yes, that means that it’s still a damn good song. Here’s hoping that the next time Light Asylum rolls through town (maybe with their Mexican Summer debut in tow?) they don’t have that problem. They deserve to be heard in all their glory.

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