Besides the fact that concerts are a good time to bellow along to your favorite songs and not be judged for it, seeing a band in person often completely changes your idea of them. What with clothing, lighting, and stage banter, it's easy for artists to build up a public persona — one that is all too often wildly different from who they are off-stage or, at least, who you imagine them to be. Simply put, a concert is only half music; the other half is showbiz, baby.
Well, that's how most bands work. And then there's Big Thief, a folk-rock act that is defined, both in sound and attitude, by complete austerity. Their latest release, Capacity, is a thoughtfully-crafted album that pastes together hauntingly intimate stories of darkness and beauty — its subtle storytelling akin to flipping through a family photo album. Paradoxically vulnerable and powerful, Capacity resists — even contradicts — the idea of the stage-persona: sincerity, not sensationalism, is what defines Big Thief.
Preceding Big Thief at the Old Rock House last Wednesday was Twain, a Brooklyn-based folk act. Composed of just Mat Davidson (whom Big Thief frontwoman Adrianne Lencker called "my favorite living songwriter") and his guitar, Twain embodies the minimalist beauty that will define the rest of the night. (This is also his last time opening for Big Thief on this tour). Despite being a solo act, he achieves a richness of sound that might normally be expected of a two or three-person set. His chord progressions and colorful guitar textures, effortlessly filling the room, hint at exceptional musicianship. Davidson, however, is concentrating on anything but the technicalities: with his eyes lowered and his expression thoughtful, he seems completely at ease despite the dozens of people in front of him. His voice — sometimes whispery, sometimes triumphant — evokes an intimacy that is rare to feel at a show as packed as this one. In fact, Twain's songwriting emanates a sense of universal wisdom that seems somehow sacred. There were songs of transient love and transient life, songs of inner peace and outer harmony. The entire experience felt a little transcendentalist, as if Henry David Thoreau himself had come back from the dead, armed with a guitar and an ear for folk music.
Big Thief's Capacity may have some of the most powerful songwriting on any album this year, and to hear its message live is extremely moving: Lencker spins stories of trauma into something simultaneously disturbing and hypnotic, like the haunting image of a mother soaking up her child's blood with a dishrag in "Mythological Beauty" (which happens to be about a real near-death experience Lencker had as a toddler). At the Old Rock House, none of that power was lost in delivery; in fact, it's perhaps even more moving to see Lencker in the spotlight, her eyes closed, singing softly about events that most people would never in a million years talk about. In some ways, what was most jarring about seeing Big Thief live was the openness and honesty of it all. Capacity is a very personal album, filled with stories of abuse and sex, love and death, odes to friends addressed by name. Show after show, Lencker shares these stories with a roomfuls of strangers and, truly, her capacity for honesty is infinitely impressive.
On stage, Big Thief's technical prowess also shines. Their guitar work, sometimes soft and harmonic, sometimes harsh and dissonant, adds another layer of darkness to the album. The grating cacophony at the beginning of "Shark Smile," for example, is one of those instances in which the guitar-work take the forefront. That isn't to say the band's instrumentals aren't always top notch: on the contrary, songs like "Haley" and "Pretty Things" demonstrate a subtle mastery of instrumental lyricism, where the guitar seems to sing along with Lencker's hushed vocals. In fact, some of the more upbeat songs had the entire venue dancing — a fact that I found kind of funny during "Shark Smile," considering the song is about losing a lover in a highway car-crash. In this way, Big Thief is truly remarkable: they can take even the darkest parts of life and turn them into something you can dance to or, at least, something that adds a little light to that darkness.
Click the image below to see all of Ben Mudd's photos from the evening's performances at the Old Rock House.
I've almost always been drawn towards break-up albums. Even before my first serious break-up in high school, most break-up albums always appealed to me. Some of my favorite songs of all time are break-up songs and my favorite album of all time, Dean Blunt's The Redeemer, is a break-up album. So, when I found out the latest album from Toro Y Moi, Boo Boo, was partially a break-up album, I was super intrigued. Under his Toro Y Moi moniker, Chaz Bear (fka Chaz Bundick) has made some songs alluding to relationship issues, but this time around he was digging deeper than before, which in turn helped create not only his best album in over half a decade, but possibly his best album yet.
Now along with this slight change in subject matter, we also have a new change in sound that's rooted more in early '80s R&B and synth pop rather than the traditional indie-rock sound seen on his last album, What For? In order to do this style justice, Bear provides some of his confident vocals yet, showing a new layer of vulnerability that does the lyrics justice. Opener "Mirage" showcases this to near perfection, as we take a look into Bear's headspace as he labors over a potential confrontation with his significant other. The music behind him is calm and collected on the surface, but frantic in its layers much like Bear in the song with zany synths, punchy percussion straight out of an '80s drum machine, and autotune background vocals.
The album overall sees Bear jumping all throughout time in the end and aftermath of the relationship, with early album highlight "Mona Lisa" seeing Bear realizing his feelings are fading for his lover, comparing her to a stolen Mona Lisa painting. On "Don't Try" -- my personal favorite track on the album -- Bear slows things down with a spacey synths and a constant drum machine, bringing us into the aftermath of the relationship where he's at his lowest low. Lyrics like "Woke up only cuz I thought I had to" and "Give me no ideas, I just waste them" hit me like an absolute gut punch knowing how many times I've been there in my own battles with depression.
Another new addition on the album which I briefly hinted at is some of Chaz Bear's extensive use of autotune throughout the album, especially on songs like "Windows" and "Girl Like You," both cuts that could have probably fit nicely on Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak. While Kanye West wasn't mentioned as a direct influence on this album, many artists that he's worked with or influenced himself were mentioned in the press release including Travis Scott, Frank Ocean, and Daft Punk, the latter two having some of the biggest influence in the sound and feel of the record.
Boo Boo is a huge revelation for Toro Y Moi. For me at least, he's never made a truly consistent album, as almost every album of his has at least two or three clunkers that don't quite work out and ruin the flow of the album. But with this, there are no bad songs and no ideas that aren't fleshed out. The album is sequenced to near perfection as every track here is essential. I was expecting another pretty solid album from Chaz, but instead I got something truly great. With a newfound confidence, let's just hope he can keep things up.
I'll admit it: I was never much of a country music person. In high school, I was one of those pretentious kids who proudly declared I listened to, 'like, literally everything but country.' You can't blame me; growing up in an immigrant household in a dense little neighborhood at the edge of Chicago, country/bluegrass/Americana was never quite the 'big thing.' Well, moving to St. Louis has provided me with something of a culture shock. Sure, the punk, indie, noise, etc. is all here, but country music holds an entirely different meaning: the city embraces it, celebrates it, and lovingly cultivates it. Thus, when approached to do a review about Daniel Romano's show at Off Broadway last Tuesday night, I thought it couldn't hurt to give it a go; if KDHX likes country so much, it can't be all bad, right?
Luckily for me, country music is in the midst of a genre-wide renaissance. Artists like Daniel Romano are redefining what it means to be a country musician, drawing upon a range musical influences outside of what would be considered orthodox — rock, punk, world, and even noise influences sneak into every hook, riff, and chorus. Country, like everything else in this age of change and reinvention, has emerged sounding a little bit different.
Just take the first opener, St. Louis's own Brainpal, for example. The deep, Southern-tinged voice of frontman Reshad Staitieh undeniably speaks to the band's classic country influences (as do all of the band members' pointy-toed, leather boots). Their songs, however, give off a dark, discordant vibe, which is only intensified by the harsh guitar lines that churn alongside Staitieh's powerful singing. The sheer intensity of the experience is decidedly a darker spin on classic country, drawing from rock and maybe even emo roots.
The second act of the night, The Strange Places, (also homegrown) is more akin to Daniel Romano, both in terms of sound —what the band themselves call "kosmic country" — and look — an aesthetic that would look right at home in the 1960s. Lead vocalist Chris Baricavic, who onstage goes by his space-cowboy pseudonym Kristo, brings just the right blend of weird Americana and classic rock as he struts, yelps, and howls. The songs themselves — surprisingly lyrical tales of witchdoctors, desert magic, and even tumbleweeds — embody the whimsical otherworldliness that 'noveau country' brings to the table.
Daniel Romano himself is the very embodiment sonic evolution. His newest album, Modern Pressure, is both a continuation of the undeniable country flavoring of his previous release, 2016's Mosey, and a reinvention of it. Modern Pressure is an album that refuses to be defined by generic archetypes; it is neither rock nor country, but something in between. The result is a sound that is as striking as Romano himself.
"He looks like a Bob Dylan impersonator," my friend whispers to me as Romano takes to the stage; indeed, in a colorful collared shirt, flared pants, and a flowery sunhat that looks like something the Queen of England would wear, he exudes the same, offbeat coolness that defined Dylan in his prime. The rest of the band, outfitted in similarly flowy clothing, look as though they've stepped straight out of the '60s; the guitarist even nonchalantly chews gum throughout the entire set, in true, vintage rebellious fashion.
The set opens with the album's titular track, "Modern Pressure." Earlier that day, he had performed the same song at a KDHX studio session: it was a stripped-down rendition, performed by just Romano and two other musicians. With just his breathy, wavering voice over the whisper of the acoustic guitar, it had seemed like a love song, sung sweetly and softly. I had expected something similar for his performance at Off Broadway, but Daniel Romano, always the sonic chameleon, shows off just how widely his talents range. "Modern Pressure" is the perfect opening — a grandiose rock anthem that channels the brashness and confidence that defines Romano's style. The evolution is surprising, not just because of the stark differences between his two sets, but because of how effortlessly he pulls it off.
The rest of the night proceeds with just as much fast-paced vigor. Even the more mellow songs, like "Roya" and "What's to Become of the Meaning of Love" are infused with new energy in a live setting; there are plenty of electric guitar solos, drum solos, yelps, and howls. Unlike in the KDHX sessions, Romano doesn't hold anything back, allowing the full breadth of his voice, piercing and powerful, to fill the room.
As Romano begins to play "When I Learned Your Name," another song he had performed at KDHX, I think of how I'm supposed to define this experience: country music's old-timey twang is definitely there, but so is rock's unadulterated energy. Listening to the sheer spirit behind his singing, though, it almost seems silly to confine Romano to the boundaries of one genre or the other. The music is here in all its glory, and that's what matters.
Click the image below to see all of Chris Malacarne's photos of the night's performances.
Following opener Darren Hanlon, an Australian songwriter who proclaimed the members of Chastity Belt his "sisters from other misters," lead singer Julia Shapiro, guitarist Lydia Lund, bassist Annie Truscott, and drummer Gretchen Grimm took the stage to share their unique brand of noise pop with the crowd at Off Broadway last Thursday. Hanlon was a loquacious opening act, regaling the audience with the time his Megabug took gunshots outside of Chattanooga and lamenting the fact that Australia does not boast as many potato chip flavors as America. The members of Chastity Belt were almost stoic by comparison, saving their early between-song banter for requests to the sound engineer.
The band's intro music was the theme to Sex & the City, an ironic smirk that was followed by the song "Happiness." from Chastity Belt's latest release I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone. "Happiness" hits heavily upon the album's sense of day-to-day doldrums, featuring lyrics like "I wanna wake up feeling great, every single day; is that too much to ask?"
The first songs of the set were infused with a laid-back West Coast flavor. Lead singer Julia Shapiro sported a Portland Trailblazers tank jersey with a baseball cap perched atop her mass of blonde curls. The visual seemed to set the tone for a concert that was stylish in an "Oh-this-old-thing?" fashion.
Toward the end of the set, the band switched things up with Shapiro alternately swapping duties with drummer Gretchen Grimm and guitarist Lydia Lund. The song "5am" was gleefully dedicated to the opener with the band exclaiming, "This one's for Darren!" and featured an extended guitar solo from Shapiro -- making liberal use of the fuzz pedal to the delight of the crowd.
Ovations were tumultuous and, following a quick intermission, the members of Chastity Belt rejoined the stage to send off the crowd with "Time to Go Home" and "Seattle Party." The latter, a track from their debut album No Regrets, had the audience enthusiastically dancing along to the lyrics, "I think they're having fun!"
Click below to see all of Colin Suchland's photos of the night's performances.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart has always struck me as a singularly adolescent act. Their earliest album centered around the universal experiences of growing up -- teenaged love, teenaged loss, and teenaged trysts in the school library, to name a few -- narrated with such intimate lyricism that it's almost a little uncomfortable to listen to, as if you yourself are reliving that overblown, messy breakup you went through when you were seventeen. For The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's frontman Kip Berman, however, those coming-of-age stories are growing more distant with each day. Considering this, one can imagine the questions I had as I drove to the Firebird on a balmy Saturday evening. Would the Pains still be genuine, I wondered, even after they've left their years of adolescence far behind? Or would they be reduced to a hollow act -- a band that's outgrown its own image yet awkwardly clings to the past?
As it turns out, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have handled growing up more gracefully than I could've imagined. For one, I suspect that Berman is some kind of vampire, for he looks more or less the same as he did ten years ago; in a baggy jean jacket and black jeans, he seemed as though he had just stepped out of a college coffee shop. Waiting offstage before the Pains' set, he was energetic as ever, chatting at length with fans and even doing a pretty convincing lip synch of The Promise Ring. To maintain such a high level of enthusiasm for performing after years of slogging through the indie-pop world is no small feat, yet, to Berman, it seemed to come naturally.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart were preluded by two younger but equally talented acts. First was L.A.-based Ablebody, led by Pains' own guitarist, Christoph Hocheim. The laid-back pop sensibilities made for a chilled-out set filled with groovy guitar rhythms and synth hooks that defined sophisti-pop trends of the '80s. ("They got that cool L.A. thing going on," Berman overheard one audience member saying, as he would tell us later. I definitely agree -- Ablebody is the kind of band you'd play while cruising down Mulholland Drive in your red convertible -- top down, of course.)
Before the next act, Beverly, began their set, the tropical shirt-clad guy standing next to me leaned over and excitedly whispered "This is why I'm here!." The instant their first song started, I could tell why: their sound -- a thick, noisy haze of guitar laced with the dreamy vocals of frontwoman Drew Citron -- arrested, even demanded, attention. Unlike Ablebody's mellow spin on shoegaze, Beverley provided us with an equally thoughtful but altogether harsher and more assertive sound. Citron's delivery, which reminded me of an amalgam of the Cocteau Twins and The Sonics, evoked the sounds of 90's alternative while still managing to sound fresh -- a fact that puts Beverly up there with 2017's most badass female-led bands like Hinds and Diet Cig.
The openers were a blast to listen to, but there was no doubt that everyone in the audience was waiting eagerly for The Pains of Being Pure at Heart -- some people, I learned, had even made the four-ish hour drive from Kansas City specifically for this show. Instead of opening the highly anticipated set with one of The Pains' hits, however, Berman opted for a surprisingly tender solo rendition of "Art Smock" off of 2014's Days of Abandon, dedicated to his wife. Standing alone in the blue stage lights, surrounded by unmanned instruments, Berman seemed completely vulnerable but not at all uncomfortable. This was The Pains at its most serious, but more importantly, at its most grown-up; the teenaged confusion had been shed for adult clarity.
Of course, the Pains still managed to maintain their old sense of youth. (Berman himself even joked about the band's 'angsty teen' image: a "dour dude" is what he called his stage persona.) The big hits like "Heart In Your Heartbreak" and "Young Adult Friction", as well as the infectious singles "When I Dance With You" and "Anymore" from the upcoming album The Echo of Pleasure, were performed with the gusto of a band just making its debut -- Berman nearly doubled over his guitar, the guitarist and bassist strumming furiously, the room filled with The Pains' iconic pop hooks and guitar haze.
There was a bittersweet side to the evening, however. Just as the show began, it ended with Berman alone on stage. He was hundreds of miles from home, he confessed, and missed his daughter dearly. Dedicating a moving cover of Suede's "The Living Dead" to her, he sang solemnly and sadly. It was then I realized that the ideology behind The Pains of Being Pure at Heart couldn't be restricted to adolescence nor adulthood: the love and the pain in those songs are permanent and ever-changing.
Click the image below to see Doug Tull's photos of the evening's performances.