Okay, so hang with me for a minute here. On Aesop Rock's most recent album, The Impossible Kid, the exasperatingly brilliant song "Shrunk" catalogues the rapper's thoughts on therapy -- from filling out forms to the discomfort of the waiting room to the eventual encounter with a psychologist, whose professional training and appeal to objectivity contrasts wildly with Aesop's inventive view of the world: "She said, 'When you start getting all expressive and symbolic / it's impossible to actualize an honest diagnostic.'"
This is my problem when it comes to writing concert reviews. What begins with a well-meaning attempt to document and disseminate the most salient aspects of a show ends with a kind of soul-searchingly obsessive deliberation that infests my intellectual life. Like a mom (okay, my mom) who entreats her son to "try to have fun" as he sets out for school, football practice, or a friend's house, I remind myself every time to try to write a review: Who played? Was it good? When they roll back through St. Louis, should your reader "be sure not to miss it"?
Instead, what churns inside me when I sit down to write is the something more akin to the "expressive and symbolic." I can't help but feel that I have a kind of cosmic responsibility to the show, regardless of whether it was good or bad, boring or breathtaking. If we believe that art cannot help but affect us in some way, however infinitesimal, then I cannot help myself from taking this imperative to an unnecessary extreme, like I owe it to the world to bear witness to whatever in me is changed.
I'm neither proud of this nor holding myself up as a paragon of review-writing. If anything, I feel like kind of a total tool, having already exhausted 303 words without even mentioning any of the bands. (I've also already cut out a semi-serious exegesis of the phrase "try to have fun," which was clocking it at an extra 114 words.)
What happened, though, was that last Friday night, the band Daddy Issues -- whom I'd neither heard before, nor even heard of -- became my new favorite band. It came to me verbatim, in words, "This is my new favorite band," as though I was incanting something holy. This being 2016, I also immediately tweeted it, offhandedly and without really interrogating the thought. What I realized, though, over the course of another song or two, was that Daddy Issues had somehow always been my favorite new band. But I didn't know what this meant, or why I felt this way.
Before we get to that, though, here are some of the review-type things that are apparently so hard for me to make happen. Local garage rockers Baby, Baby Dance with Me opened the show (which was at Off Broadway, which I mention in spite of my all but innate ability to withhold basic information from the reader). Baby, Baby Dance with Me's music is driven by a decidedly vintage vibe, and I expect that over time they will eventually become more than equal to the sum of their parts. For the moment, though -- or at least to me -- it felt like I was listening to someone flip through a really cool, somewhat eclectic, occasionally bizarre record collection: Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the soundtrack to The Addams Family, a little Johnny Cash, a bunch of 1960s stuff that seemed familiar without my having to put a finger on it.
Between bands, I saw two people sprawled over a couple of chairs in a corner of the mezzanine. They were lightly dozing in one another's arms, it seemed, and I envied their comfort -- the ease with which they inhabited the world, moving fluidly between states of being. (I'm straying from review-type stuff here, I know, but the moment was too beatific to go unremarked.)
The Seattle-based four-piece Tacocat headlined the show, and they are easily the best surf-infused, feminism-fueled punk band with a palindromic name since Emily's Sassy Lime. Tacocat write fun, smart songs with a wry incredulity. Like a cheerleading squad sneaking Julia Kristeva into their routine, Tacocat's sunny disposition belies the dark comedy of their lyrics, which often take aim at positions of privilege and the ignorance of those who inhabit them. "Men Explain Things to Me," for example, distills mansplaining down to its most basic bullshit: "You're in my way / Every day." Tech bros flooding into Seattle on corporate shore leave populate "I Hate the Weekend." "Time Pirate" comes down hard on anyone who doesn't know when to shut up.
The straightforwardness of Tacocat's songs is perhaps their greatest strength. After a few listens, though, it's hard not to tend to "get it," which makes their live show a study in the importance of stage banter. Introducing "You Can't Fire Me, I Quit," the band members riffed off one another to expound upon the its theme; singer Emily Nokes summarized the song's perverse, antagonistic logic of a rejected lover who pleads "take me back, so I can dump you," which bassist Bree McKenna annotated as "very mature." Although their live presence was hardly as theatrical, anarchic, or exuberant as one might expect from the visual aesthetic of their social media or album art (to say nothing of the very nearly viral video for "Crimson Wave"), their set was solid and enjoyable. It was actually cool to be reminded that when a band plays well, their music can simply be their music.
Here, though, is where the whole thing becomes a problem for me. If I can explain what I didn't like about Baby, Baby Dance with Me (overly influenced) and what I did like about Tacocat (progressive fun), then why is it so hard to simply say what was so totally flooring to me about the band in between them, Daddy Issues? Because, seriously, it's been days now that I've been thinking about this. Why has it taken so long to say? Why risk jeopardizing the very relevance of a concert review (to say nothing of straight up abusing a reader's patience) in order to continue agonizing about this; to play and replay the CD-R that I bought from them at the show (yeah, they sell burned CDs); to feel inarticulate and weird and dumb; to try to write the experience off as ineffable while at the same time literally writing about it; to have all but focused myself singularly to this task, with the exception of going to work and occasionally working my way through Luke Cage while I eat dinner; to admit to you (are you still here?) just how long this has taken to write; to almost want to apologize to the band themselves for being as moved as I was by their music?
Because honestly I'm worried that I'm wrong. Worried that they weren't as good as I think they were. If anything, on paper, it may not look like much. Daddy Issues are a three-piece band from Nashville who met during college and seem only newly out of it, if not still outright enrolled. They are young women whose music is a kind of resurrected grunge, reminding you just how much melody had been hiding in the noise of the 1990s. They sound like a cross between Nirvana and Belly, if that makes sense. Simple song structures, unflashy arrangements. Cool, you can tell, but not too cool.
The lyrics of singer/guitarist Jenna Moynihan have a kind of brutal, beautiful obviousness, but they are delivered almost dispassionately, like she is singing a police report. "I'm a creepy girl / and I'm in love with you," she intones on "Creepy Girl," one of their most striking songs: "I don't know what I'm doing / because I'm in love with you." There are a number of songs about crushes on their debut album, Can We Still Hang (Infinity Cat Recordings, 2015), which arrive at a real intimacy through their plain, un-retouched quality, as though on loan from a diary. On "Blue Haired Boy," Moynihan reveals the relatively low-stakes lengths to which she seeks attention from the other ("Blue haired boy, you better notice me / Went and dyed my hair pink"). On "Veronica," her infatuation with Winona Ryder's character in Heathers aspires to what seem like pretty reasonable goals ("We're gonna hang out / We're gonna make out").
But there's an undeniable darkness here too, articulating the converse of the crush. On "The Bruise," an unnerving presence leads to self-destructive excesses: "I took something / because you're in the room / keeping your distance / I tried to eat around the bruise." Another song, "Ugly When I Cry," achieves its stunning affect through an unrepentant clarity:
I hate girls on TV
They're much prettier than me
I have low self-esteem
It's easy to be a mess when you're debris.
This seems pretty real to me, pretty bare. Unimpeachable. And yet one finds little wisdom-beyond-their-years here or any of the "old soul" bullshit that too often refers to a friend who is more quiet than you are. Rather, this darkness is not only their darkness but everyone's darkness. It happens all the time and at every stage of your life and you can't stop it and it's really hard to talk about in all but the most obscenely direct way. I suppose I love how easy it seems for Daddy Issues to be that direct, as in they didn't need the million words to get there that I need to get here.
Musically, the guitar, bass, and drums fit perfectly by not fitting. There is a certain steadiness to their songs, forsaking the dramatic highs and lows that one might expect of the subject matter, residing instead in a more neutral middle -- the place where truth, if it exists, can usually be found. The songs usually stick to two or three chords, occupying and owning them. Above all, Daddy Issues play every song like they are playing it for the first time -- newly, with interest and curiosity, a little afraid, excited, proud, unselfconsciously, in love with what didn't exist until right now.
When I say, then, that Daddy Issues have somehow always been my new favorite band, this is what I mean: that they are once honest and expressive, bridging what could easily be an impasse; that they articulate what I (we) have surely always felt; and that their urgency, however reserved, is deeply connected to creativity as such.
Kishi Bashi (née Kaora Ishibashi) came to St. Louis years ago as part of the traveling rabble of noise and sound that is the band Of Montreal. Their shows were affairs of pageantry full of puppetry and lights and tongue-n-cheeky songs like "Just the Tip" which Kishi fronted. It's clear now, that while touring with that band, Kishi learned a trick or two about how to keep and hold a crowd (a raw steak puppet did make an appearance during the song "The Ballad of Mr. Steak" as well as confetti). His later rounds through St. Louis were solo, in which he dazzled small crowds at the Firebird and other venues with his endless loops, his clear mastery of his major instrument, the violin and his vocal range, which makes almost all of his songs un-sing-a-long-able and sometimes, unintelligible, perhaps and most likely on purpose. This Tuesday at the newly minted Delmar Hall, Kishi came with his band and his signature sound exploded as if in overdrive. While solo, we were primarily treated with the layering of effects, with a background cellist, banjoist, guitar and drums, the sounds and rhythms were in constant flux and dynamic flow.
It's fair to say that this latest tour and his album Sonderlust is a flexing of the muscles he's developed as a solo artist. Breaking down his portmanteau, "sonder," as he explained, is the "the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own" joined with "well, you know...." There are a lot of esoteric and spiritual themes to his work, "M'Lover" has the sensibility of an Andrew Bird song, "In my dream, you split apart the ocean/ in a single heated motion, and we settled in agreement/With glee, our dangerous liaisons and clandestine creations were fine with me" with a picking violin loop and his vocal-harmonized bowing. A poppy keyboard kept the lyrics from feeling too treacle, but with many songs, Kishi Bashi comes dangerous close to something less new, and something more new-agey, more disco.
But his sincerity in this regard is pretty refreshing. His forays into soul and bhangra and 70s acid rock in "Who'd you kill?" isn't just playful curiosity. He seems to be able to adapt a genre to his style instead of the other way around. The best thing about the show is still his incessant loopy tinkering that produces layers of a soundscape which seems ethereal and tangible all at once. I think it's fair to say that if the audience didn't know much about Kishi Bashi before tonight, they will remember him now, and in a few short words, Kishi Bashi and the band have gone way past "just the tip" and delivered on something with promise and purpose; a sound that beggars comparison and stays with you long after you hear it.
Angel Olsen has been quite the world traveler since she released her breakout album in 2014, Burn Your Fire for No Witness. In the weeks before her visit to St. Louis, she played popular venues such as Webster Hall in New York and Thalia Hall in Chicago as well as the Pop Montreal festival. A month ago she appeared on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Secondary market tickets to the sold out show were going for quadruple the face value, a rare occurrence for the venue.
Performing at Off Broadway in support of her fantastic new album, My Woman, released a few weeks ago on Jagjaguwar, Olsen dazzled the sold out venue with careful, minimalist renditions of songs throughout her catalog and a few vivacious rockers, showing off her talented five member backing band.
Setting a hushed tone, her first song, "Hi-Five," carried a 1950s girl group vibe, slide guitar interplaying with her crystal clear vocals, while her recent single, "Shut Up Kiss Me," featured Pixies guitar stylings and had the crowd bobbing throughout the garage rocker.
Calming things down again, Olsen followed with "Lights Out," a memorable song from Burn Your Fire. The lonesome lead guitar work and her haunting voice captivated the crowd only to blow their minds in the end with a wall of guitar sound wrapping up the song.
The unique poetry Olsen brings to songwriting has been part of what has drawn audiences to her -- from her days playing venues like the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center and the Creepy Crawl a decade ago until now at venues worldwide. That gift shown on "Heart-Shaped Face," as she pleaded, "Was it me you were thinking of all the time when you thought of me? Or was it your mother? Or was it your shelter? Or was it another with a heart-shaped face?"
Olsen has achieved the rare feat of enjoying commercial success without having to hop on the endless self-promotion treadmill. Her raw talent created the buzz and she has remained fiercely artistically independent in creating her music. Indeed, whereas Burn Your Fire carried themes of loneliness and yearning, My Woman has embraced themes of self-possession and independence. She even insisted on calling all of the shots when it came to making music videos for songs on the new album. "It was less about me trying to make a statement as a director and more about me trying to be in control of my own image," she recently told the Chicago Tribune. Given such high-profile coverage, many may have wondered why Olsen wasn't playing a larger venue, but the decision to book at Off Broadway surely speaks to her commitment to independence across the board (as well as the sound quality of the venue).
Musically-speaking, Olsen is steeped in all kinds of genres spanning decades of the pop music spectrum. On tunes such as "Those Were the Days," "Windows" and "Unfucktheworld," I could hear Olsen expressing that range of influence: David Bowie, Neil Young, R.E.M., Nirvana and Guided By Voices along with the vocal qualities of Patsy Cline, Feist and Stevie Nicks. Not bad company. Impressive and diverse, Olsen's catalog doubtlessly will continued to grow and change as Olsen's curious nature and her desire to learn about different musical highways and byways carries her into the musical future.
The Head and the Heart is a band in transition. With founder and chief lyricist Josiah Johnson on indefinite leave, a label move (from Sub Pop to Warner Brothers), and the September release of a decidedly glossier album, some might ask have The Head and the Heart lost their soul?
For a sold out, plaid-clad, faintly redolent of weed crowd last Monday night the answer was, "La la la la la la," punctuated by exuberant hand claps. Opening with "All We Ever Knew" from the new album Signs of Light, The Head & the Heart had the Pageant audience on their feet and signing along from the jump. Jon Russell -- now foisted into the position of front man -- told that audience that after a two-year absence from the road, "We're remembering how to play music for people who like music."
Under a neon sign emblazoned with the title of their new album, the band follow a pair of tracks from that release with "Ghosts," a chestnut from their self-titled debut. Keeping banter to a minimum, The Head and the Heart continued on into material from their sophomore album, Let's Be Still, with their live rendition of "Shake" elevating the audience's hand-clapping to a frenzy. Early in the set The Head and the Heart showed signs of rustiness (including breaks between songs that yawned a bit too long), but the unbridled adoration of the crowd smoothed over the rough patch.
Near the middle of the set, Jon Russell introduced "the newest, most talented member of the band," Matt Gervais. It was long-time member Charity Rose Thielen (Gervais's spouse), however, that stole the show, eliciting the loudest cheers with her vocal and violin solos. The group closed out the first set with a rousing rendition of "Down in the Valley," and -- following a minutes-long standing ovation -- returned to the stage to perform a trio of previously unreleased tracks. The final song of the evening "Rivers and Roads," showcased the newly minted The Head and the Heart line-up at their harmonic best.
Opening band Hurray for the Riff Raff, fronted by dynamo Alynda Lee Segarra, treated the audience to rocking renditions of "End of the Line" and "Look Out Mama." Teasing a new album due out in March, Segarra debuted the new songs "Life to Save," "Nothing Gonna Change that Girl," "Rican Beach," and "Living in the City."
In 2001, the Dandy Warhols foretold the rise of the hipster. Their radio-friendly hit "Bohemian Like You" was a tongue-in-cheek ode to the kids they saw every day on the streets of Portland. With a catchy swing and sing-a-long-able "oooh ooohs," frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor described a growing underclass of twenty-somethings who played in bands, couch-surfed and went vegan. It's been 16 years and five albums since then and the song seems almost quaint were not for the fact that the Dandys have stuck around, churning out five albums, several compilations, and a prize-winning documentary. They've managed to sound the same while sounding different on each album, thanks to a sometimes uncategorizable mash of gritty guitar rock that also has a polished, 90s-era Britpop sheen. It's spacey grunge, with nods to psychedelia. However, their latest offering, Distortland, features a stripped-back sound that still sounds Dandy Warhols-ish, distorted but bare-bones -- a stylistic turn begun with their last record, This Machine. As usual, the tracklist is equal parts catchy pop "All the Girls in London" and pensive jams like "STYGGO" and "Give." Songs built around repetitive samples or hooks delivered by Zia McCabe's keyboard can frequently bury the hushed baritone of lead vocalist Courtney Taylor-Taylor, whose mischievous lyrics are delivered in either a near-whisper or a flat, almost insolent tone, depending on the amount of amperage coming from Pete Holmstrom's guitar. Therefore, it's easy to miss lines like, "All my friends are mommies" (from "The Grow Up Song"); however, a fair amount of Distortland is Taylor-Taylor simply crooning, wordlessly, into an effects-laden microphone, as understated beats and hooks swirl around him. Lately, the Dandy Warhols have been heavier on atmosphere than wordplay.
Distortland may seem sleepier than some of the Dandys' previous work, although longtime fans know that the band has always had a penchant for rainy day lo-fi: in my opinion they don't get enough credit for helping inspire the current crop of proto-shoegazers. Their Capitol Records-era catalog is remembered for their jangly, grunge-rock take on the Velvet Underground, but fully one-half of records like Dandys Rule OK and ...The Dandy Warhols Come Down were made for burrowing under a quilt to "sleep forever," as Taylor-Taylor crooned plaintively in "Sleep" from Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia.
But while the psychedelic paeans are less grand on Distortland than in previous releases, this mostly laid-back record contains a few unexpected touches. "Doves," for example, builds slowly before sprawling into a psychedelic jam -- then ends so abruptly, I thought my computer had gone to sleep and cut off the rest of the song. "You Are Killing Me" is driven entirely by a pick on a chunky C chord, distant-sounding backup vocals by McCabe, and a few cymbal crashes here and there to complete the song. "Search Party" kicks off the album with a crisp acoustic guitar loop and a lot of expansive, whispery "aaaaaaaaaahhhhhs" from Taylor-Taylor; it doesn't change course until the final seconds with a few handclaps and what sounds like a bridge -- at least, until it doesn't go into another verse but cuts out. It's a good album opener and perhaps even a better opening-credit choice for a road trip movie. "Semper Fidelis" fell flat for me; it's pieced together from samples and some post-production flourishes that don't really gel; at times, it feels like the sound engineer is just randomly swirling the button to Taylor-Taylor's vocals back and forth to see what happens.
Lyrically, the Dandys have continued in their tradition of packing in-jokes into each songs. But this time around, the punch line is more overt -- if only because we are on our sixth season of Portlandia and the peculiarities of the Pacific Northwest have become a pop culture touchpoint across the U.S. The title of the album, of course, is a direct nod to Portland, the rainy town full of hipster oddities that most of the Dandys have called home since the early 90s. In its own way, each song is a snapshot of a different Portland personality. "Pope Reverend Jim," for example, pays tribute to a street character, or conglomeration of characters. In "STYGGO," Taylor-Taylor empathizes, albeit snidely, with up-and-comers: "Trying to follow your calling but your reception is appalling / Everybody's sailing on the same ship that they sell ya / Higher oh, it's not all the things that they tell ya." Perhaps more than an ode to their hometown, the album is Taylor-Taylor's reckoning of himself in this new Portland. "I won't give you away," he says over and over in "Give," a verse that seems less about a specific someone than about a previous version of himself. "The Grow Up Song" concludes with "Goodnight to drunkies / Cigarette smoky cokey guy only bugs me / I've got to admit / I'm too old for this shit." The album appears to be the way that the Dandys -- and as the main songwriter, Taylor-Taylor in particular -- are coming to terms both with the fact that Portland has become a cultural juggernaut and with the fact that they are now practically the elder statesmen/women of this new, unrecognizable place. Distortland listens like an ode of sorts, a shaky reassessment of art and life as a middle-aged hipster wakes up, stretches, and looks out over the river to take stock of the new wave of urban bohemians he inspired.