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Not local no more: Phantogram at Northern Lights.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Studies in Subtraction

By Josh Potter

Minus the Bear, Phantogram, Maps and Atlases

Northern Lights, Feb. 5

 

As a “critic,” I’ve never much gotten off on panning a recording or performance, instead regarding basic avoidance as the more civil and effective way to express personal displeasure. After all, music is a social medium, but its experience is a fundamentally subjective one, so one listener’s impressions should never be taken as definitive. What I’m talking around is a basic question I found myself asking over and over again during the well-attended, high-energy Minus the Bear set (after which beaming kids spilled into the parking lot spouting things like, “damn good concert, right!?”): How is it that a show, which according to audience response is a resounding success, can strike one listener as simultaneously sleepy and overwrought?

The answer can probably be summed up with some statement regarding personal taste, but, thing is, I really wanted to like Minus the Bear. There’s absolutely nothing offensive about their records, which slyly blend skittering indie pop and quirky math rock, but there’s also nothing especially inventive about them. It was my hope that the stage would provide that much needed extra spark, and, at the outset of the evening, it seemed to have makings of the kind of indie-rock show this area so badly craves.

By the time openers Maps and Atlases exited the stage, the bar had already sold out of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Five years ago (or so), this fact alone would have rendered the occasion a hipster scene, but despite the preponderance of mangy beards, bangs, and photos being snapped on iPhones, there was a loose glee belying stigmas of guardedness and pretentiousness. The Chicago band’s sound certainly helped set the tenor. With fleet, major-key guitar figures, and sunny, lilting polyrhythms, it was evident that Vampire Weekend hasn’t been the only band in recent memory influenced by Malian guitarists and West African groove sense. Never pandering, these guys are taking that approach to new levels of sophistication.

No doubt, many in the house had come to see Phantogram, the Saratoga Springs duo who have forged a national presence in the past year, and who this week released their debut LP Eyelid Movies. From the first beat, it was clear that this is a new and improved band. Drawing largely on new material, the two pushed their ambient trip-hop into full-blown spacey dance music. With the help of strobe lights and Sarah Barthel’s increasingly commanding stage presence, the set was surprisingly high- energy for a band that works primarily from keyboards and electronics consoles. Over seismic sub-bass and heavy J Dilla-style hip-hop beats, the two stacked atmospheric vocals and effects-drenched guitar parts, the sound swelling toward something much larger than the sum of its parts. If only they’d been allowed an extra hour and a half.. . .

Maybe it was the fact that Minus the Bear guitarist Dave Knudson compulsively mopped his sweaty hair into dramatic tufts after every song, or that a squirrelly stagehand constantly darted back and forth to protect pedal boards at the front of the stage, or that singer Jake Snider admonished the crowd for not dancing enough, or that, after all this, a couple kids were actually inclined to attempt crowd surfing, but something seemed disingenuous about the whole affair. The set was flawless—the band delivered hits like “Throwing Shapes” and “Pachuca Sunrise,” even flaunting some interesting math-rock stuff on songs like “The Fix”—but the whole thing was squeaky clean, overacted, a Red Bull sponsorship away from corporate cock-rock. I don’t mean to harsh anyone’s mellow with this assessment, it’s just that the band seemed unclear as to whether they wanted to be, well, harsh or mellow.


Alive and Slacking

Evan Dando

Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Mass., Feb. 4

So, about a quarter century ago, there were a couple of guys forming bands: Both of them wrote songs, and both had melodic skill that would set them apart from the 50 or 60 million other post-punk-inspired bands of the ’80s. They each became, first, cultish faves for the fanzine crowd; then, in the ’90s were migrated into mags for more general audiences and toward the front of the book, becoming cover boys. And, of course, they each developed well-publicized drug problems.

One never quite broke out of the category of fan-and-critic’s darling/heartthrob; while the other became an unlikely and resistant Voice of a Generation type.

Guess which one of them made it out of the ’90s alive.

Well, yeah, duh—the one I saw play in Northampton, Mass., last Thursday. But while watching Evan Dando perform at the Iron Horse I couldn’t help but feel a bit nostalgic—and to recall that other “slacker” icon of my youth. And I couldn’t help but think that the mantle hung ’round Kurt Cobain’s neck, that of spokesman, which he so publicly loathed, was an ill fit. Dando was so much more the representative Gen-X type. Cobain’s ethos was working-class, principled, and anarchic. Dando came from a comparatively privileged background. Cobain seemed to dare you to like him; Dando knew you would. Cobain wanted to be one of the Melvins; Dando could have been one of the Simpsons.

Though some of my peers revered Cobain in a way that bordered on the evangelical, most, I think, would have found it uncomfortable to hang out with him. (And he, certainly, would have hated all of us.) Dando, on the other hand, would have been right at home: the prettiest one among us, surely, but at ease bogarting the weed, rooting through the fridge for the last Sierra Nevada and arguing till the girlfriends fell asleep whether the Byrds really deserved Parsons.

Thursday’s show brought that all back. Dando opened on solo electric guitar, with a trio of songs from his early Lemonheads days: the magnificently infectious slack-anthem “My Drug Buddy” first up. And songs from the ’92-’93 one-two punch of It’s a Shame About Ray and Come on Feel the Lemonheads constituted the bulk of the night’s Lemonheads material: “Bit Part,” “Confetti,” “Hannah & Gabi,” “Big Gay Heart,” “Favorite T,” “Style.” “Clang Bang Clang” from way back in ’87 turned up, and “Circle of One” from ’89’s Lick.

It sounds like a Greatest Hits show, and the aforementioned tracks did light the fanboy pleasure centers. Later joined by second guitarist Chris Brokaw (Come, Codeine), though, Dando also performed a handful of co-written tracks and covers that really revealed his eclectic, erractic approach to music-making and performing: tunes from frequent Dando collaborators Tom Morgan (“No Backbone”) and Ben Lee (“All My Life”); tracks co- written with wunderkind Jon Brion (“It Looks Like You”), as well as far-flung covers, from Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” Victoria Williams’ “Fryin’ Pan,” to Fred Neil’s “Ba Di Da.” Dando covered the guy next to him with “My Idea,” written by Brokaw and Morgan; and guys who are god-knows-where with “New Mexico” by the FuckEmos.

The set wasn’t paticularly intense, rather loose and easy. The singer didn’t seem particularly driven, rather comfortable and familiar. You could call the vibe “slack.” There wasn’t reason to think much of passion or principles—just to enjoy the show, order another beer, and wonder if the 42-year-old Dando would cover Parsons tonight.

—John Rodat


Who Dat

Brandi Carlile

The Egg, Feb. 4

Out of the many friends I told I was seeing Brandi Carlile, exactly one knew anything about her. Until recently, I’d only seen her name here and there, and for some reason assumed she was one of these Disney cookie-cutter “pop stars” that fall out of the television every week or so. Then I caught her on a rerun of a 2008 Jools Holland show. She started quietly playing her signature song “The Story.” First, I thought, “Wow, good song.” Then, “Geez, great voice.” Then, three bars into the second verse, her band just lands with a grunge hammer, and Carlile jumps an octave and starts wailing over the top. I was totally in the tank.

Her show last week was a tour de force, starting with Carlile and her four band members singing the Beatlesque lullaby “Oh Dear” around one microphone center stage, and continuing for 90 minutes of brilliantly crafted and stylistically diverse songs, wrapped around Carlile’s huge and rangy and majestic voice and her absolutely deadly band. Most of the material came from her two most recent albums, 2007’s The Story (produced by T Bone Burnett) and last year’s Give Up the Ghost (produced by Rick Rubin).

Carlile’s a tiny little thing—I can’t imagine she weighs more than 100 pounds—but she effortlessly commands attention, even while she’s bookended by long-time collaborators, the tall and lanky identical twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth, who play guitar and bass and who themselves have a matching repertoire of rock-star moves. Yeah, the band is something to see, too.

The encore was as goofy and talent show-y as the main body of the show was tight and galvanizing, hysterically hitting on Johnny Cash’s “Jackson” and “Folsom County Blues,” and Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Stand By Your Man.” The twins came out and sang “Sounds of Silence” with their identical voices, prompting Carlile to quip “Have you ever heard anything so wonderful and weird and creepy in your whole life?” Then the band blazed through the elegant “Pride and Joy” and then it was over.

It’s a testament to the fracturing of any kind of shared musical experience and the fall of radio as a mass taste-maker that someone so hugely talented and so immensely satisfying could evade the purview of me and virtually everybody I know for so long. This was a show that will haunt me for a long time.

—Paul Rapp


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