Sunday, October 18, 2009

[LIVE REVIEW] Andrew Bird in Milwaukee 10/16 & 10/17

I have written many things about Andrew Bird over the years, releasing glowing reviews of both his live act and his recorded output, making it clear that I am a fan. I had already seen him in concert twice before last weekend, and I own –yes, own—more of his records than anyone else.

So as I was adding more candles to the Andrew Bird shrine in my room the other day, I started to worry that this form of worship simply makes it harder for me to write a legitimate review of the man. Since I’m fairly certain I will fall in love with anything he releases, what’s the point of giving my official “opinion” of it to any reader I may have, when they already know what I’ll say?

But after going to the much-anticipated two-night stand of Andrew Bird last weekend at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, I think I figured out a reason. Simply put, I have no choice. The man is not perfect, I have realized, and not everything he releases is gold – if pressed, I may admit to not liking certain songs on Noble Beast – but he’s one of the most unique and intriguing artists out there right now, and it’d be a crime to not try and share this with as many people as possible.

So enough with all that, let’s get to the show. The two-night stand was special for several reasons: Bird would be playing the first night with a full band and the second night by himself as a solo performance; the first night would feature Dosh as opening act, while the second night would give us St. Vincent in the first slot; and on top of all this, the shows were being filmed for an official DVD release of the live show.

With all of this up in the air, the first night had a sort of electricity in the air, as cameras rolled and Bird joked with the audience – “Just act natural, everybody.” Bird and his band ripped through a longer-than-usual setlist, which included several songs from his latest release, Noble Beast, along with some old mainstays like “Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” and “Fake Palindromes.” For the encore, the group huddled around one microphone in the front of the stage and performed the rare “Some of These Days” before plugging back in to finish with “Don’t Be Scared.”

The second night started off with St. Vincent, who I was almost as excited to see as the headlining act. Annie Clark tore through several songs from her newest release, Actor, with her backing band, wowing the Pabst audience with her fuzzed-out guitar licks and angelic vocals. Laying the groundwork for the soon-to-be epic night, she retreated into the background as Bird took the stage all by his lonesome.

Bird’s solo set featured many songs that were not played the previous night, and it was peppered with new and rare songs, like the early version of “Dark Matter” called “Sweetbreads,” a song from his instrumental release Useless Creatures that now has lyrics, and “Lusitania,” a new song that he had played the previous night. In the middle of the set, Bird started up “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” before stopping his progress as he confessed to not knowing the first line of the song, drawing laughter from the sold-out crowd. He stood there, gazing off into space trying to remember the line, before a helpful audience member called out the correct lyrics, and things proceeded as normal.

For “Lusitania,” Bird called out St. Vincent’s Annie Clark to come and play along with him, leading to an elegant take on the new tune. After this charming display of two talented artists working together, Bird announced they would play one of Clark’s songs next, and she launched into “Marry Me” as Bird played along on the violin. An instant show highlight, the audience was treated to a rare collaboration on the much-adored song from St. Vincent’s first album.

The rest of St. Vincent’s band came on stage to rip through some outstanding versions of “Scythian Empires” and “Tables and Chairs” before Bird and Clark once again took to the lone microphone at the front of the stage to perform Bob Dylan’s “Oh Sister.”

All in all, this was one of the most memorable concerts I’ve witnessed, with the excitement of new songs and new collaborations added to the fact that all of this would go down in history as a live film. I will readily admit that Andrew Bird is not perfect, but he’s closer than most.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

[REVIEW] The Flaming Lips - Embryonic

When I first heard that the Flaming Lips were planning a double album full of sonic freak-outs and sound experiments, I was a little nervous. I love the freaky side of the Lips as much as the next guy, but I've always thought that Wayne Coyne and company did their best work when they combined their weird, spacey freak music with more conventional pop structures, resulting in such gems as "Race for the Prize" or "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1."

After my first listen "Embryonic," their new album that takes up over 72 minutes of space, I thought that I was right to fear this new development. Where are the singalong choruses? The fake orchestras? The songs made to soundtrack a confetti gun gone mad?

After each subsequent listen, however, I've gotten more and more excited by "Embryonic," and now I can safely say that I'm a big fan. This album easily tops 2006's "At War With the Mystics," which tried a little too hard to appeal to a mainstream audience, and I believe it is close in quality to my previously favorite Lips albums, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" and "Soft Bulletin."

First of all, let's just get this out of the way: this album is weird. The sprawling work goes from fuzz freakouts to animal sounds to massive walls of noise like it's no big deal. There are a couple songs that veer closer to the traditional Lips song, like "If," which features Coyne singing, "People are evil, it's true. But on the other side, they can be gentle, too, if they decide."

"Embryonic" is one of the loudest albums the Lips have produced, both in instrumentation and in the way the album was mastered. But where this was annoying before -- "At War With the Mystics" - the loudness is now a crucial part of the texture. Songs like "The Sparrow Looks Up At the Machine," "Aquarius Sabotage," and "Worm Mountain" -which features guest artists MGMT - owe much of their existence to the distortion pedal, as huge waves of fuzz roll over the listener.

There is also a very loose and unrehearsed quality to the album, something that makes it stand apart from the last three albums. Studio chatter and throat-clearing is all over the place, and many of the tracks have a loose, improvised feel to them. It's quite refreshing to hear this kind of spontaneity out of the usually heavily arranged group.

Adding to the already-strange collection of songs, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs makes an appearance on "I Can Be A Frog," submitting animal growls and chirps over the phone, turning what could have been one of Coyne's childish, nonsensical songs into a much more intriguing track.

Overall I will say that this album will stand the test of time as one of the Lips' best. Even if you don't necessarily like it, you have to applaud the band for giving us something unexpected, taking a left turn when going straight would have been perfectly acceptable. To exist as a band for over 20 years, releasing 12 albums along the way, and to still have this level of unpredictability, is something to be admired.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

[LIVE REVIEW] Wilco in Minneapolis 10/2/09

If last Monday’s Sufjan Stevens concert was an example of a relatively young artist still finding his way, then Friday’s concert with Wilco in Minneapolis was just about the polar opposite. Starting the night with a song named after themselves, and then going for 2+ hours without letting up once, Wilco played with the utmost confidence and skill, making it clear that this band is the happiest it’s been in years, and we can all agree that the feeling is well deserved.

Many Wilco fans, myself included, may feel that the band has never quite matched the level of artistry they achieved with 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Their last album especially – Wilco (The Album) – has not met with the highest of critical approval. But as Friday night showed, the band could not care less, and is completely satisfied with where they are as a group. This level of confidence was overwhelming, and made the night a complete success. From jokingly adopting rock-star poses on stage to playfully goading on the audience, Jeff Tweedy and crew were extremely loose and relaxed, and it resulted in one of the more enjoyable “rock ‘n’ roll” concerts I’ve seen.

The band has gone through many lineup changes over the years, but the one that Tweedy has settled on for the past few years is arguably their strongest on the concert stage – not necessarily in the studio, but the live shows are on a whole other level than their albums at this point. From guitarist Nels Cline, who dominates the stage with his exciting stage presence, to drum veteran Glenn Kotche, to Pat Sansone, who may not dominate the Wilco headlines but certainly won over a large portion of the crowd with his humorous stage antics, this group is filled with skilled musicians who are undeniably some of the best in the world at what they do.

The show was heavy on tracks from (The Album), but the set was long enough that this fact did not wipe out any of the other, more anticipated tracks like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” “Heavy Metal Drummer,” and others. Opener Liam Finn put on an electrifying set and came back on stage in the first encore to strum and sing along with “You Never Know” and “California Stars,” the latter of which also featured guest guitarist Gary Louris of the Jayhawks.

Tweedy was relatively quiet for the first part of the set, as the band went through several of the new tracks, but as things got going he got more into the crowd, whether it was encouraging us to clap along during “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” – “It’s gotta be healthy for you” – or leaving the singing duties of “Jesus, Etc.” entirely up to the audience, as the entire Roy Wilkins Auditorium crowd sang along in unison.

Tweedy and the rest of the band injected energy into every single track, as the set came off as much more “rock” than their newer albums would suggest. Cline and Sansone even engaged in a couple of guitar duels, trading off virtuosic solos with grins on their faces, making it clear that they’ve done this before and have loved it every time.

Overall, this may have not been the single greatest concert I’ve ever seen, but it is definitely one of the more “fun” exhibits I have witnessed. Wilco may never release another masterpiece, but that would be fine with me as long as they keep touring and giving the audience these kinds of shows. As long as Wilco keeps loving us, we’ll keep loving them.