Brandy Zdan and Dave Quanbury are the core duo of Twilight Hotel, an Austin-based group, originally from Winnipeg, that’s been around for some 8 years, releasing records that have found notice in their native Canada; elsewhere not so much. Zdan and Quanbury (you can see why they opted for the name Twilight Hotel) released their third album, When the Wolves Go Blind, this year, a record cut in the Kingsize studios in L.A., with assistance from engineer John Whynot (Lucinda Williams and Blue Rodeo) and Tom Waits’ drummer, Stephen Hodges.
“Mahogany Veneer” is a song from that album. It begins with a deep breath and a pathetic fallacy:
I met you in the forest
where the Borealis shine
And every fish in that old lake
could tell that you were mine
The singer can’t be serious, or can’t expect the listener to take him seriously. And then the song unfolds, the melody refracts a hundred songs you’ve heard before but can’t name, driven by couplets that deepen along the way.
The lovers light out together, why we don’t know, but the journey leads from Manitoba to New York to Memphis to New Orleans, following the river. The old life falls away “like mahogany veneer.”
When we got to New Orleans
We found a city on its knees
homes hung with shadows
streets lined with weeds
By the end of the song and the journey, the two have seen enough. They hear about suicide and attend a funeral and witness homes burning in Nashville. It’s an elliptical sojourn, the kind only two young romantics can take, and they convey that uncanny feeling of being haunted together and finding purpose in those feelings. The low guitar notes echo, the light percussion marches along, and the song ends.
Radio was static
moon was out of sight
I watched you sleep beside me
turned off the dashboard light
Twilight Hotel – Mahogany Veneer
The St. Louis music scene can at times seem anemic, stubbornly hanging onto the past. I used to hate the sheer preponderance of classic rock stations, the mass illusion that all great music was recorded and waxed in the ’70s, and that everything else was pop, rap or worse.
Luckily, Al Gore invented the internets, file sharing broke the stranglehold on music licensing and our generation put Pink Floyd into the nostalgia bucket and began searching for something new. As a result of social networking and community radio like 88.1 KDHX, St. Louis has pried itself away from the amber of classic rock and heartless punk and now has an alternative music scene, and it is good.
One such pillar of this changing scene — a relative newcomer — is Pretty Little Empire. The band’s first album Sweet Sweet Hands seeped into the scene in 2008 through word of mouth spread from friends of the band and patrons of Sasha’s on Demun, where half the band earns a living while chasing the dream. It played heartfelt and real, at times predictable but still engaging, earnest and it established a distinct voice, with direction from a musical core that promised to improve and evolve. That first album mainly bore the imprint of Justin Johnson, a 30-something with a baby face, soulful eyes and a solid vocal range. Between his voice, the rare trumpet accompaniment, fledgling harmonies, the first album worked, but not like this one. On Reasons and Rooms, the band’s second album, Pretty Little Empire sounds deep, varied and on the cusp of something much bigger.
The 4 members of PLE are best when they engage in full harmony. It’s clear that over the past 2 years they’ve played together enough to realize their distinct voices, and the new songs exploit this strength. Though once defaulting to a grungier sound, now with the addition of a cello and banjo and so many voices, there’s nuance where there was once mainly guitars and drums. The banjo didn’t make it into the studio on Reason and Rooms, but it should have. It tempers the chords sneaking in right under the bass, finding a niche, never getting lost. A touch of country emerges in just the right amount.
Another marked departure from earlier arrangements: The Saturday night CD release party at the Firebird was punctuated by a steady rotation of band members, guest players and lead-singing switches, a true musical chairs. These new voices are welcome. Evan O’Neal brings a real folk element and “Islands” was a sweet mid-show release. Another newer element was the catch provided by the keyboards in “Morning’s Been Hard.” The hook started me thinking of the Police but ended up a much newer sound. Will Godfred’s song adds a new dimension as well — a playful side the first album never had. “Cinnamon Toast” is in some ways less complex then the other songs, but the lyrics are tied tightly together and the chorus of “oh hey I don’t know” works because it comes out of nowhere and is full of feeling. Add the cymbals and the song goes places you can’t predict.
The 4th Annual St. Louis Blues and Soul Revue took place at the Sheldon Ballroom in St. Louis this weekend. Performers included the Soulard Blues Band with the Voodoo Blues Horn Section, Renee Smith, Ms. Monya, Big George Brock Jr., Marty Abdullah and Tom “Papa” Ray, master of ceremonies.
All photos by Sara Finke. View more at my Flickr stream.
On this wet and chilly Thanksgiving day, I’m thinking — admittedly with a hint of nostalgia and certainly with some denial over the winter to come — about the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market and Harvest Sessions. It was a terrific season of music, good produce and great people down at the West Pool Pavilion in Tower Grove Park. Every other Saturday from May through October 2010, KDHX and the Whitaker Foundation presented a free concert, and I was happy to have helped organize the series and even happier to have enjoyed so much music outdoors in a great urban park.
Here are some photo highlights, all shot by KDHX photographer Sara Finke (with the exception of the 2 photos of Farshid Etniko, which were taken by Tom Lampe). Enjoy and happy thanksgiving to you and yours.
Concert review: Loudon Wainwright III demonstrates the folk singer’s art at the Old Rock House, Monday, November 22
I arrived at the Old Rock House expecting to see a performance by one of the most underrated musicians of the folk music scene. What I received last night was not a performance, but an experience that showed why Loudon Wainwright III is as important to folk music today as he was when he began his musical career 40 years ago.
Opening the show was Spectator, a four-piece ensemble that is relatively new band to the St. Louis music scene. The set was perfectly matched to the weather outside the venue, with notes from the guitarist rhythmically falling like raindrops while the keyboard, bass and violin swirled like leaves around vocals that both whispered through the branches and kicked up a forceful gale. Although its sound was quite a departure from the main act, Spectator was a fantastic addition to the evening and provided a great amount of atmosphere for everyone in attendance.
Loudon Wainwright III took the stage shortly after Spectator finished its set and immediately showed that the fire and rebellion of the folk music scene of the 1970s is still alive and just as necessary in modern times. Over the course of the evening he introduced us to his humorous views on the retail expansion of Christmas into October with the tune “Suddenly It’s Christmas,” large amounts of prescription medications in the song “My Meds,” and the government and its ideas with “Cash for Clunkers.” One of Wainwright’s hallmarks is injecting his brand of humor into some fairly dark subject matter. Whether he’s discussing death and dying, the plight of the homeless, or introducing us to the skeletons that most of us keep hidden in the closet, you can be guaranteed that there will be a little ray of sunshine peeking from behind those clouds.
Unlike some musicians from the early ’70s, Wainwright did not show up to play all of his old hits in an attempt to relive a nostalgic period in the lives of the audience. Although he did perform songs from throughout his entire career, the words and feelings were vibrant and fresh. In addition to his more well-known pieces, he also played a few songs from his newest album, 10 Songs for the New Depression and even played a few songs that he’d recently written, including one that he had penned literally a day before he set foot on stage.
I’ve always believed that a good singer-songwriter tells a story with his or her performances, but Wainwright’s performance Monday night was less of a storytelling session and more of a personal conversation. His playing was so effortless at times that it seemed as if he were talking with his hands rather than playing his Martin D-28. We were invited to sing along with a few tunes and a request or two were taken from the audience.
Loudon Wainwright III proved last night that folk music is not only alive and well, but in the right hands it can transcend what we commonly perceive it to be and become something truly amazing.
Concert review: To all the 18-year-olds at the Billiken Club on Saturday, November 20: The Hood Internet crushed it, and it was sick
If I were 18 again, I’d throw out the fake ID I got by paying $8 and showing only my county library card to a nameless “state official” from an unmarked storefront on Cherokee Street, before Cherokee Street had streetlamps and coffee shops and rock venues, so that I could get into Stages: Five Levels of Dancing on the East Side. Instead I would just be my age, and go to the Billiken Club, eschewing alcohol and sporting a blue wristband instead of the yellow one, and I would dance my face off to the Hood Internet.
Apparently, if I were 18 again, now and not then, my older sister’s emerald green and aqua one-shouldered poufy prom dress with the silver-sequined mermaid ruffle could be hemmed daringly short, paired with Kardashian-worthy 5-inch nude suede platform Louboutin stilettos and a side pony, while the guy who lived 2 houses away from me could wear a Ghostbusters tee, checkered slip-on Vans, not because these things are timely now, but because these days when you are 18 years old, everything is new again, and everything is “sick.”
If I were 18 again, I would be cool not because I know how to play Axel F on my Casio keyboard in tune with the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack on my boombox, but because when Steve Reidell lays Major Lazer over it, he totally “crushes it,” and I can shake my ass to it like nobody’s business.
If I were 18 again, and it was dark, and everyone around me was sweating, and Cyndi Lauper came on, I wouldn’t be at home with my girlfriends mouthing the words to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” while I mimic Courtney Cox from the “Dancin’ in the Dark” video, because instead I would be rocking my black American Apparel leggings with my vintage boots purchased used at Urban Outfitters — such a great find — and I would probably be able to achieve level 16 of Dance Dance Revolution with my sweet moves on the floor. It would be sick.
If I were 18 again, when I heard Alvin and the Chipmunks, I wouldn’t be wearing knit stirrup pants but instead would be rocking my mom’s old drippy gold lamé shirt, but as a dress with a belt around not just my waist but also around my head, and the Chipmunks wouldn’t be singing “we are the chipmunks, guaranteed to brighten your day,” but instead would be maniacally repeating “how low can you go, how low can you go, how low can you go” laid over Ludacris. Me and my braless girlfriend — wearing a belt around her head, too — would be squatting limbo-style, but not limbo-style like with a pole at a pig roast, but rather all sexy and dirty and low and bootylicious and full of potential, and it would be so hot.
When Beastie Boys came on, it wouldn’t be “Sabotage” blasting from the back speakers of my friend’s mom’s minivan as we sped around west county tp-ing boys’ houses, it would be in the midst of a full-on booty-shake to “Good Old Rump Shaker” with Mike D. laid over Matt & Kim. And when Dr. Dre came on, I wouldn’t be proudly reciting “1, 2, 3 and to the 4, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the door” bleeping out the bad words, as a sort of sideshow entertainment to my parents’ friends’ dinner party, because it wouldn’t be “Nuthin’ but a G Thang,” baby; rather, it would be “Nuthin’ but a Journal Thang,” with Dre and Snoop laid over Class Actress synth. Hell yeah, “never been on a ride like this before.” I would crush it.
Not all rock shows are soul-rocking experiences. Though all the necessary components were there at the Wolf Parade show this Saturday at the Pageant—the punctuated lights, the sheer volume of the music, the gathered masses and group drunkenness—but the performance while solid seemed forced and it wasn’t fixed by a light show. It was a valiant effort by the entire band, but unfortunately, at least for me, it was just, well, mediocre.
To start with, they were a bit pissed. I saw it early, one boozer recognizing the inebriated swagger of another. Brother, I hear you, pass me the whiskey. I kept waiting for a visible gaff, a stumble, a botched key stroke or a missed lyric to liven things up, but there wasn’t one. Maybe Spencer Krug always does no-look hackey-sack tricks with his foot stool while he plays head down, banging the keys on his center-stage set-up, and maybe all the other members of the Wolf Parade are always kind of crowd wary, and not just happily smashed and a little disconnected.
They looked disconnected from their audience and they were. Maybe it was the cold medicine and the flight from Kansas City, the eighteen city tour in almost as many days. Maybe these guys should take a break after this and do a little soul searching. I don’t know, buy a church to record in or take a long trip into the desert accompanied by a film crew and lots of psychedelics.
Last week I’d seen the Dresden Dolls and watched Amanda Palmer captivate an audience with her eyes, lusty vocals, the full attack of her playing, her manic sex-fueled rocking on her keyboard. I’ve seen a keyboardist hold a crowd, so I know Spencer could have looked up at least once and given me something more than the top of his head. Amanda Palmer had been there for us. But this week, I was there for Wolf Parade. If I left, they would cease to exist. That’s not true of some bands—some have a purpose and a following and a raison d’etre. But Wolf Parade worries me a bit. They get the basics, they work hard, they make decent music. But I wonder about the soul of the whole enterprise, whether they are truly committed to doing something innovative, or whether they’ll just be happy with a little record deal and an 18-city tour.
True fans said that the ten-minute “Kissing the Beehive” encore was incredible; I don’t know, because I left, and for me, Wolf Parade ceased to exist at least for a night. Maybe they’ll get over their colds and bring it in city 19; I will never know.
Event photos: sound waves, featuring Josh Weinstein, Charles ‘Bobo’ Shaw and Zimbabwe Nkenya at the Pulitizer, Thursday, November 18
All photos by Michael Landeck.