Annah Bender's Posts
|I like music, tattoos and bikes. By day I'm a social worker and lackadaisical blogger. St. Louis is my favorite place to see shows.|
‘I’m pretty happy with the way things have turned out’ A pre-LouFest interview with Philip Dickey of Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin has grown from the humble origins of being the third most popular band on Weller Street in Springfield, Mo. to national recognition for breezy, harmony-laden pop and quirky song structures.
While the band’s long name and the notable lack of post-Cold War lyrical content in their music continues to vex many a journalist, SSLYBY has built an impressive and devoted fan following over the years, thanks in part to a brisk touring schedule and singalong melodies that are both radio friendly and grudgingly respected by indie critics.
I recently caught up with Philip Dickey — who is either the lead vocalist, guitarist, bassist or drummer in the band, depending on what song it is — to chat about the band’s latest release, “Tape Club” — a collection of old tunes, rarities and B-sides sure to delight early fans especially — and SSLYBY’s recent tour of Japan and upcoming recording project. Full disclosure: Philip and I have known each other since college. He once lent me a book about Zelda Fitzgerald that I may have forgotten to return to him.
Philip Dickey: I’m really bad at interviews.
Annah Bender: Ha ha! I just have a couple of quick questions for you. I know you got back from a tour of Japan not long ago, and so I wanted to hear how that went.
It was the craziest thing!…um so, something I can say for the radio. Yeah, I guess I was just really surprised at all the people that came to see us play, it was like, wow! I mean, because we always, or at least I always, have these really low expectations. I find it’s better to have low expectations because then you’re surprised when all these people come to see you play, and if you get really excited before and no one shows up then it’s just really sad. (Laughs)
How do you think people had heard of you?
Well I think basically, our record label [Polyvinyl] did a really good job of trying to promote us in Japan, and there were posters and we even made a video where we tried to speak Japanese, so by the time we got there it was like, people had been listening to our music and so our label basically did all that, which was really cool.
I was listening to “Tape Club” yesterday and it occurred to me that I have been coming to listen to you play for almost eight years now, maybe longer. I can’t believe we are this old. (Both laugh) I have been hearing and singing along to “Pangea” and “Modern Mystery” for all this time. On the one hand it’s great to hear you play some of your older material at shows because those songs, “Modern Mystery” in particular, really stand the test of time in my opinion. On the other hand I wonder if you ever get really sick of playing them?
Yeah, it’s weird, because at a show you have to play the songs that we’re known for on Myspace and stuff. (Laughs) I mean I think for all of us, even though it gets tiring sometimes to play the same old stuff, we want people to have a good time. I think for a lot of those songs it’s like, they were written such a long time ago when we were in college and they all have to do with relationships and stuff, and it was like, a totally different time in our lives, you know? I mean, that’s why I resisted “Tape Club” coming out for a long time, because a lot of those songs have to do with girls and stuff from a long time ago.
(Laughs) Controversy! A lot of those songs, I remember you guys playing way before even “Broom” came out, so listening to it was like, reminding me of being someplace in Springfield and hearing the music…
Was it the pink house? [Writer's note: a spider-infested, shabby rental painted pastel pink where current and former girlfriends, coworkers and friends of the band threw numerous dance parties and hosted one of the only known live performances of MC Migraine Head]
Yes! Those parties were so much fun!
Right! But I guess as far as getting sick of them, whenever I have to play a song like “Modern Mystery” or something, you know, I sometimes just close my eyes while I’m on stage and think about other things and just enjoy it, that helps me get through some of that older material (Laughs).
It was cool when you and the rest of the guys would crash on our floor in New York. I think I was vaguely aware then that you were having some success, but the moment that I really knew you had arrived was some years later, when I heard something from “Pershing” playing in a coffee shop in Ann Arbor. The guy in front of me asked the barista, “Who is this?” and the barista said, “They’re this band from Mississippi, they’re called Somebody Loves You Boris Yeltsin, this song is about Nirvana” or something like that, he was totally giving all this false biographical information!
Ha! I think the thing with that is, I hear those kinds of stories all the time, people are always telling me things like that, but it has never happened to me personally. I hardly ever hear our songs playing anywhere, but other people are always coming up and telling me about stuff like that.
It must be a trip to hear yourself playing in places. I mean, it’s a trip for me to hear it just because I know you, and it’s not my words or music that’s coming through…
Yeah, totally. It is a trip!
Concert review: Girl in a Coma crashes into the Firebird with Tex-Mex rock ‘n’ soul in tow, Sunday, July 29
The garagey outfit plays punk-tinged soul tunes for none other than badass Joan Jett’s Blackhearts record label. Behind asymmetrical bangs and tattooed biceps were heartfelt songs of longing — or lust, according to lead vocalist/guitarist and all-around firecracker Nina Diaz. We learned some Spanish (“gracias” means “thank you”; “Ven Cerca,” a gorgeous song about the aforementioned longing and lust, translates as “come close to me”). We danced. We worshipped at the altar of the power chord. We were treated to material from the girls’ latest release, “Exits and All the Rest,” and smaller helpings from “Both Before I’m Gone” (“Consider”) and “Adventures in Coverland” (“Come On, Let’s Go”).
If you have ever wondered how much noise a triplet of barely-drinking-aged women can make with a short stack of amplifiers, the answer is: plenty. My eardrums are still humming from Jenn Alva’s rockabilly-inflected bass lines and Nina’s impressive pipes, which ricochet from a smoky croon to all-out, heart-shattering wails in a matter of seconds.
It was impossible not to engage in any one of the following during this show, including but not limited to: pogoing, fist pumping, over-the-head hand clapping, side-to-side swaying, head banging, generalized shimmying and shaking. Feedback from Nina’s guitar had barely faded when her sister Phanie, holding steady on the drums, crashed into the next punk ballad, song after song. The rhythm and raw energy, coupled with Nina’s unholy roar, conjured up memories of early, “Arkansas Heat”-era Gossip. By turns riot grrl and serenaded blues, Girl in a Coma is a band to see live, despite its no-frills stage presence.
It’s no surprise that the the band has built up a loyal — some might say feverish — fan base during its several trips to St. Louis. After a tight 45-minute set (no encore? Really?), the bandmates hung around their merch table, graciously signing CDs and posing for photograph after photograph with what appeared to be every single person in attendance.
Clutching t-shirts and posters, fans stumbled out of the Firebird with punk rock flowing through their bloodstreams. Viva girls and guitars!
Concert review and set list: Beach House brings starry-eyed melancholia to the Pageant, Wednesday, July 11
I’m going to be honest. When I first heard “Gila” on a mix CD a friend made for me a few years ago, I assumed the vocals I was hearing belonged to a male.
This misunderstanding persisted until I happened to read an interview with Victoria Legrand, the very female lead vocalist of Beach House, when their excellent record Teen Dream came out. Victoria’s voice is low without being deep, and coupled with baggy black clothes and a shock of curly hair, lends an androgyny to both the sound and stage presence that is a little mysterious and a lot sultry.
Taking the Pageant stage after shoegazers Wild Nothing, Beach House gently warmed the crowd with the rippling guitars and blurry keyboards characteristic of their sound. An arrangement of large wooden pallets framing industrial-sized fans provided the backdrop, purportedly designed by guitarist Alex Scally. It put me in mind of an urban summer in a rust belt town, especially when hundreds of tiny white lights illuminated the stage during “Lazuli,” as though we were gazing not at our shoes but at the stars outside; the effect this had on the crowd was an immediate, ecstatic, “Ooooooohhh!” It became impossible not to sway back and forth in time with the hazy rhythms of “Used to Be” and “Take Care.” “It’s incomplete without you,” Victoria crooned during “Silver Soul,” and I thought my heart would burst.
Onstage banter was kept to a minimum — but are you surprised? Clearly, Beach House carefully crafts each element of their music into a full work of art, from lyrics to album design to song order. They are not readily shuffled into an iTunes playlist, and so it was interesting to see how they jumped around from “Bloom” to “Teen Dream” and back again, with just a few nods to an earlier catalogue — or a phase of life now left behind? — from “Devotion” as well as their self-titled debut. Victoria and Alex seem quiet without being shy, two serious artists who are content to let the music speak for itself, intentionally leaving their ambiguous lyrics up for interpretation.
Dedicating the love song “Take Care” to the city of St. Louis, Victoria announced, “This is for you…we are going to try and make a big pizza of caring here in this room.” (“IMO’S!” somebody yelled to my right.) At the encore, she walked to the edge of the stage, bent down and shook hands with a dozen or so grasping fans. “It’s nice to reach out and touch someone,” she remarked, before whipping into “10 Mile Stereo” and the beautiful “Irene,” a driving, quiet-loud emotional outburst that ended with — oh yes! — head-banging.
After lulling the crowd into a half-dream state, the explosive finish felt oddly disconcerting, like the feeling you get after watching the last firecracker fade into the dark on a swampy summer night. But if there’s anything you could learn by listening to Beach House, it would be that it’s OK to be happy and a little sad at the same time.
Heart of Chambers
Used to Be
10 Mile Stereo
“I’ve been practicing my nice-guy jokes,” announced Rob Crow, midway through both a set of lo-fi math rock and what appeared to be an entire case of Newcastle. “Do you know this one about the interrupting cow?”
“MOO!” yelled someone in the back.
Rob continued thoughtfully to tune his guitar. “Knock knock,” he said.
“MOO!” “Who’s there?” “MOOOOOOO!”
“The interrupting cow,” he replied. Pause.
“The interrupting cow … who?” asked a girl in front, helpfully. If you know the interrupting cow joke, you would realize at this point that Rob had missed his cue to shout “MOO!” in the middle of her sentence. Another pause. “MOOOO?”
“Oh, excuse me,” said Rob, almost absentmindedly.
It was Pinback’s first swing through St. Louis in more than a decade, and they were rewarded by an adoring crowd who sang along to favorites like “Penelope” and “Bloods on Fire.” My attention was divided between a backdrop projected behind the drum kit, where a mashup of film clips and music videos — including “Dark Star” and one particularly intriguing sci-fi gem where a troupe of leggy, intergalactic babes investigate what appears to be a sleeping robot-monster on a beach — and Rob himself, who at various points throughout the evening cracked open his beer with a plastic water bottle (hydration is important, after all—the Firebird felt like soup) and writhed across the floor in a dance move approximating the worm, as Zach Smith, the diffident straight man of the duo, looked on without expression.
Pinback is known for complex indie rock that can turn a song about a goldfish (“Penelope”) into what feels like a canonical postmodern statement on the passing of life and time. This is why, for a minute in 2001, they were the boys du jour of all the boys in my life. But since then the band has continued to make somewhat moody, melodic pop with a bent toward atypical song structure, albeit at a snail’s pace (the excellent “Autumn of the Seraphs,” from 2007, is its most recent full-length record — although new material is forthcoming).
I had never caught the band live, and now I don’t think recordings do them justice. Take “Loro,” for instance, a beautifully languid song from their debut that came across as almost raucous live, while the normally mellow “Fortress” was a danceable number that had one of my friends threatening to perform a high kick. The dynamic between Rob and Zach (full name: Armistead Burwell Smith IV), the creative forces behind Pinback, is one of two longtime friends and collaborators who know each other’s rhythm and style too well to be surprised by anything the other does. The more Newcastle Rob poured down his throat, the more his voice scraped and the more the crowd loved it. But it’s Zach, whose raw, half-screamed, half-sung vocals belie a shy, restrained stage presence. Although their voices are both similar in range and pitch, the harmonies work and they toss verse and chorus back and forth to each other effortlessly.
The band lurched off the stage after playing for over an hour, and then waited several minutes until feverish applause and impatient chanting drew them back out for a four-song encore. In an admitted pander to the crowd, Rob (wearing a Clownvis t-shirt) professed love for St. Louis and reminded us to sign petitions on behalf of Pinback’s namesake, the actor Dan O’Bannon, a native of our fair city, whose star is not yet engraved on the Delmar Loop.
We were left with a mixture of very new material from a record that will be released this year and generous helpings of “Summer in Abaddon” and “Autumn of the Seraphs.” Rob gamely stuck around after to chat and pose for pictures. Let’s hope it’s not another decade before Pinback finds their way back to St. Louis again.
From folklore to barnstormer jams, Ha Ha Tonka play music true to the woodsy Ozark parkland that shares its name.
The quartet of college buddies has been ripping up the countryside since 2005 with their brand of bluesy Southern rock, crisscrossing the country at festivals and even barbecuing for Anthony Bourdain on an episode featuring Ozark cuisine. Their latest record, “Death of a Decade,” is a mandolin-inflected assortment of spooky stories (“Jesusita,” “Dead Man’s Hand”) and two-steppin’ numbers (“Usual Suspects”) that feature the band’s trademark tight barbershop harmonies and reflect the evolution of their style as a harbinger of the sounds of the “nouveau south.”
I caught up with Brett Anderson — a multi-instrumentalist who lends his guitar, vocals and burgeoning mandolin talents to Ha Ha Tonka — as the band was headed to Milwaukee for the fifth show of their summer tour.
Ha Ha Tonka arrives in St. Louis on Friday, June 8 for a show at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room for Twangfest 16.
Annah Bender: I hope this doesn’t sound creepy, but I’m looking at a picture of you right now, you and your band, and I think I know you. I graduated from Missouri State in 2004, and I’m friends with all the guys from Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, and Jody Bilyeu of Big Smith was my advisor in my bachelor’s program. So I don’t know if our paths have crossed in some ways before, but you just look really familiar to me!
Brett Anderson: What is your degree in?
In English, yeah, ok. I was definitely there at school at that time, and I’m friends with all those guys as well, so, yeah.
Well I just thought that was funny.
Maybe if I saw a picture of you, we could put two and two together…
Well, I’m planning on coming to the show at Twangfest, in a week or so, so maybe then we’ll meet each other and figure this out.
So I am listening to “Death of a Decade” right now and I see that it’s a departure from previous stuff like “Buckle in the Bible Belt” — which is an awesome title, I really like that name — but “Buckle in the Bible Belt” just seems a lot more story-based, and even the sound seems more southern rock ‘n’ roll. And this is total speculation on my part, but I imagine that you all are in very different places in your lives now than when you recorded “Buckle in the Bible Belt,” so I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the evolution of your sound and songwriting.
Yeah, absolutely. With the first record, we were all very, very broke, we had just graduated college and we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives, and we were just kinda playing shows on weekends. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad place, but I think you can hear a lot of that stuff if you listen to our second record, “Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South.” And so with “Death of a Decade” it was our time to shine, we felt like, you know, with what we’ve become. We introduced a new instrument which I think kinda took it in a different direction, which was the mandolin which I started playing a couple years ago. I think that really kinda changed the sound a little bit.
You are correct in the fact that “Death of a Decade” is not nearly as much storytelling, not as much as “Novel” or “Buckle in the Bible Belt,” but since then, we wanted to make everything more relatable in a way. I think, musically, the accessibility is a lot more there than in previous records.
It seems like with “Death of a Decade” I get the sense that it’s more personal, whereas with “Buckle in the Bible Belt” it’s like a story about something else that happened, like Missouri folklore or whatever, and stuff on the new record is coming straight from y’all’s experience.
Concert review and set list: Florence + the Machine (with Blood Orange) fills the Peabody Opera House with high drama, Sunday, April 29
Louder than sirens, louder than bells: An enthralled crowd worshipped at the altar of Florence + the Machine in the drizzly Sunday twilight.
The crowd trickled in to the sounds of Blood Orange (although many of us didn’t know that; the artist didn’t introduce himself until the last song), an unlikely opening act: a single human being surrounded by scads of machines (Mac-generated beats, effects pedals and a projector screen upon which cut-and-pasted scenes from “Grease 2″ and “Felicity” played on a loop) that were perhaps designed to make you forget that he was either blatantly remixing or channeling the band we were all there to see. He sounded like a mashup of Prince, Seal, and Imogen Heap, or maybe the disputed love child of all three. On to Florence!
Her entrance was as theatrical as you would expect: arms spread wide as sparkling lights illuminated the folds of a sheer black cloak –something an elf queen, or perhaps a Victoria’s Secret model from the 1970s, would wear. She descended the stairs with force, almost moth-like as she spun and skipped across the stage, flaming of hair and bare of foot. A dewy, wooded meadow might have been a more appropriate venue — or at least an outdoor festival, to which she alluded after opening with “Only If For A Night”: “Can you all stand up? It’s quite odd to be playing when you are sitting down, it’s like we’re at the cinema.” Still, the Peabody was well suited to F + M. Every spotlight, every note was on point; rafters, though not visible, were shaken. The set list was heavy on the latest material from the wildly popular “Ceremonials”; however, whenever there were twinklings of harp notes from “Lungs” songs, the masses collectively swooned with something akin to religious ecstasy.
Lest you curl your lip at the ethereality of the Machine, let me remind you that it was not all fairy wings and flowing robes. Take “Rabbit Heart,” for instance: Florence, slightly aghast at the nobility of the venue, reminded us that “this song is for the ladies” and that we should subvert the poshness, the opera housey-ness, of the Peabody by hoisting girls on shoulders and shouting “RAISE IT UP! RAISE IT UP!” along with her black-clad backup crew. I tried to get my sister on my shoulders; she was having none of it, but girls all over the orchestra section started climbing on top of friends, seats, aisles, etc., much to the delight of Florence and the likely dismay of the Peabody Opera House staff.
The spiritualized wordplay of F + M’s soaring ballads, transposed against a backdrop of stained glass, lent an eerie, church-like texture to the performance. Florence herself is a willowy high priestess who at any time could be beamed up into outer space (“Cosmic Love”) or command legions of devotees to pray at her feet even as she declares, in anything but a mournful tone, “there’s no salvation for me now” (“Lover to Lover”). This hybrid of science fiction and mother earthiness is what makes F + M so arresting and her popular appeal somewhat of an enigma.
Concert review and set list: Getting into the spirit with Cursive, Conduits and Cymbals Eat Guitars at Off Broadway, Friday, April 20
What happens when you mix one part Spiritualized, equal parts Pavement and Thurston Moore, a dash of late-’90s college radio and shake with a trumpet? Just another night at Off Broadway, where assorted and sundry independent music shook the rafters courtesy of Conduits, Cymbals Eat Guitars, and headliners Cursive.
“We’ve played a shit ton of shows on this tour and this has been one of the best,” declared frontman Tim Kasher of Cursive, polishing off a tall boy of unidentifiable origin as the capacity crowd swelled with roars of appreciation. Well into a generous encore, it didn’t seem as though the crowd or the band was ready to call it quits. Cursive had been ripping through the pop-punk-flavored alternative favorites that have made them beloved by erudite indie rockers for over a decade and with each song the crowd loved them more.
Kasher and Co. are well known for a deft songwriting style that assumes a sort of knowing, wink-wink disaffection that somehow manages never to be snide and in fact, revels wholeheartedly in earnest abandon at times. This is music suited to the scholarly scenester, healthily skeptic Generation Y-ers and Millennials who have no illusions about artistic purity or integrity but still believe enough to lose themselves at a live show, all for the love of watching people play instruments and sing about girls. “Art is Hard,” from Cursive’s excellent 2003 release “The Ugly Organ,” summarizes this creative vs. commercial tug-of-war in a self-deprecating missile that saw the crowd singing, cheering, and even (gasp) fist-pumping along.
But let me backtrack. There must be something in the water in Omaha that compels polite and creative young people to make music ranging from the weird to the eclectic. I’d file it under “miscellaneous.” To wit, the opening act, Conduits, an up-and-comer from Saddle Creek Records who led off with a bass-heavy dreamscape of psychedelia. Now this is stuff for which you need long hair, all the better to whip around as you alternate between gazing at your shoes and banging your head.
Second up: Cymbals Eat Guitars, which aside from being a great band name was also a great band. Hailing from New York City even though they kind of look like they’re from Ohio, CEG frontman Joseph D’Agostino announced this was their first visit to St. Louis. Their sound, a little disjointed, ranges from Pavement-esque screamo to gentler, Wilco-esque melody. Keys and a fantastic drummer who didn’t skimp on the open high hat distinguishes the sound of this foursome from other Brooklyn noise bands and in my opinion earns them a rightful place in the “if you like Sonic Youth, check out ____” category.
And then there was Cursive. Leading off with “This House Alive” from their most recent release, I Am Gemini, the four-piece plus one (an extra for the tour) peeled through old and new to the delight of the crowd, who sang along with everything and surged forward to envelop the band members in sweat-soaked approval. After returning the favor with praise for our fair city’s fan base, a lovely young lady with a flower in her hair stepped onstage with two large glasses of that beautiful amber-colored substance we all know as bourbon and offered one to the lead singer. She knocked hers back immediately, while Tim deferred — “I’ve got to play a show!” — but eventually decided that when in Rome, you’d better drink like a St. Louisian. The show went on.
By the end of the night, I was in the mood to hug everyone — such is the power of rock music and rock musicians who play every night like it’s their last. Well done, Omaha.
Stalwart punk anthems for the outwardly tattooed but emotionally fragile: the Smoking Popes, unlikely love balladeers and polite band of brothers, played to a couple dozen enthralled fans at the Firebird on Thursday night.
Supporting act Roundheels opened with a metal-licious set featuring thermonuclear drums and a fair bit of antics by the lead singer, who kept leaving the stage to get more beer and ended up ripping his jeans from crotch to knee during a particularly energetic scissor kick. It was an interesting contrast to the laidback stage presence of the Smoking Popes — brothers Caterer (Josh, Eli and Matt) and their drummer Neil Hennessy — who shuffled onstage without ripping or drinking anything and dove headfirst into “Rubella.”
You would never know it from Josh Caterer’s unruffled croon, backed by head-bouncing power chords, that most of his songs have to do with either the tentative beginnings of a crush or the deflation of a crush spurned. In between there are gems like “Punk Band,” which pair upbeat, bouncy drums with lyrics that indicate the life of a rock star ain’t all it’s cracked up to be — resonating with punk bandmates and non-musicians alike who have ever wondered, uncomfortably twisted into a pretzel on a friend’s couch, “Is this really what I should be doing with my time?”
The Smoking Popes helped define a sound (pop-punk) and a place (Chicago, 1990s) that inspired countless others — Jimmy Eat World, Jawbreaker, Alkaline Trio, the Descendants — to reinforce their horned-rim glasses with masking tape and play vigorous tearjerkers that, depending on the mood, could incite marriage proposals and/or angry bottle-throwing in the crowd.
This drizzly Thursday evening was a one-two punch of back-to-back, earnest and snark-free anthems (dedicated at various points, apparently without irony, to both Ron Paul and Ralph Nader) that left us with restless legs and, at least in my case, a powerful urge to relocate my old Punk Planet collection to see if I could find an interview with one or more of the Caterers.
Kicking things off with material from their latest release, the concept album “This Is Only A Test,” the Popes brandished guitars and stomped as hard as their Chuck Taylors would allow, speeding through each three-minute tune without pausing for so much as a “thank you ma’am.” Somewhat incredulously, there was a short acoustic set (“Megan”), a showcase of the much-discussed vocal stylings of Caterer the Lead Singer. I’ve pinpointed his technique: a mash-up of Morrissey and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants.
An encore provided us with crowd-pleasers like “Need You Around,” which you may remember from the “Clueless” soundtrack if you were ever a teenage girl in the ’90s. It’s music made for a mixtape but it sounds even better live, bobbing your head along with the person who will break your heart later.