Sunday, September 21, 2008

Blowing the ol' goddamned mind

Got a few phone calls on Saturday afternoon, one inviting me to a house party somewhere in Westville and one encouraging me to get out on the town and do something to break my current avowed celibacy. Yet, thanks to an interaction I had while walking up Nicoll Street, in which I ran into a former university classmate who alerted me to the appearance in town that evening of "this band from New York called The Lay Lays or some other repeated syllables," I ended up at Cafe Nine digging Austin's The Low Lows and, once again, New Haven's M.T. Bearington. Seriously -- priorities. Rock music. Life itself is a matter of a few moments of transcendence couched in miles and miles of total bullshit. Of the options suggested to me, which offered the most promise of transcendence?

The Low Lows, who are on the lauded Misra label, pretty much rocked my socks off. I thought of conversations I've had with Brad from Titles about how when you write songs with not a lot of chords, you find you have all this space to stretch out melodically. The Low Lows stretch out, and they use these broad, structurally simple sonic expanses to throw a bunch of stuff into the mix. I believe there were six people onstage, and between them there was an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, two organs, two trumpets, a trombone and a drumkit. Plenty of opportunities for both atmospherics and counterpoint. There was something yearning and hopeful about these songs, even when they sounded dark and haunted -- melodies soared; the singer's trebly voice cut through the mix. There's some vaguely folksy sensibility about this band -- in the sense that folk music is the music that grabs you at gut level because you swear you've heard it before and possibly in some primal dream-state that has more to do with the way you relate to the world than anything you know you've experienced physically -- but it's run through some kind of wild psychedelicized filter. And lots of electric guitar tremolo. At times the horn lines felt rather derivative of the horn lines heard on Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but perhaps that's because I've had Elephant 6 on the brain this weekend. Lots of originality with The Low Lows, in any case.

In a flurry of text messaging, a friend and fellow music writer whom I'll identify here as Laz Helm came running down Crown Street to catch their set. Evidently he's been following The Low Lows for over a year but was unaware they were playing in town, and he eagerly geeked out with me near the front of the stage. And there was much rejoicing.

M.T. Bearington threw down appropriately hard. I've written about them recently, but I do feel the band's set felt more immediate and certainly more intimate last night than it did a week ago. Dunno what to chalk that up to -- some special magic, maybe, or the closeness of the band and of the band and the audience in a venue much smaller than BAR (though the closeness thing seems questionable, in light of how fiery and immediate their show at Toad's earlier this year felt). The air crackled with that which I could not quite pin down and articulate. Matt Wilson took the Mike Sembos role at this show, playing acoustic guitar and singing backing vocals. While the timbre of Mike's voice provides a contrast to Matt Thomas' that works extraordinarily well, and that timbre was lacking at this show, Matt Wilson gelled quite well with the band (and with minimal rehearsal time, according to M.T.). That probably speaks to the strength of the songs themselves.

Barn Burning opened up, a Providence-based art-folk-rock trio of guitar/vocals, drums and steel guitar. Technically proficient, but they could use some vocal melodies worth hanging one's hat on. Atmosphere's great, but hooks help.

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