Monday, May 7, 2012

SHOW REVIEW: Zammuto w/ Lymbyc Systym

It must be difficult to emerge from the shadow of a ten-year-long, critically acclaimed project as prolific as The Books. Few solo projects reach the heights of the acts that begot them, and in Nick Zammuto's case, the hope here is that his new output – creatively titled “Zammuto” - will somehow be comparable to one of the most innovative and beloved projects in experimental pop and sound collage in the last decade. It would be nice if it was possible to separate the two acts and evaluate this new venture on its own individual terms, but the reality is that there's probably no one who will write about Zammuto (the band) without mentioning Zammuto (the musician's) resume, and in this case especially, it's extremely difficult to avoid.

Nick Zammuto has a lot going for his first self-titled album. Some of the elements and ideas that made The Books' recordings so compelling make appearances here from time to time - the curated snippets of bizarre audio from anonymous sources, carefully constructed but sometimes chaotic sounding progression, digitally processed vocals, exacting wit and clever wordplay. There are a few songs (“Too Late Topologize” “Harlequin” “The Shape Of Things To Come”) which would be right at home on any Books record, and then there are those that would somehow not. These contain a kind of straight-forwardness that obliterates the mystery, beauty, precision, and whimsy that made The Books what it is. At best, the indignant, driving undertones of “F U C-3PO” improve on the ambiguity that marked Zammuto's prior work (though what he has against beloved the Star Wars character is not made apparent). But at its most cloying, the jam-band tendencies of “Groan Man, Don't Cry” might make some Books fans want to groan and cry, and the disembodied female androids “rapping” through the entirety of “Zebra Butt” seem, well, asinine. Overall, however, the record is a triumphant experiment in the same spirited vein as the music Zammuto made as one half of The Books, yet sets itself apart just enough for these explorations and new additions to remain interesting (stream it below via the band's soundcloud).

Nick Zammuto met Paul de Jong in 1999 as tenants in the same New York City apartment building, but it wasn't until six years and two and half albums later that they finally started touring, screening unique and often hilarious video collages of found material during the shows. For Zammuto, Nick's wasted no time in assembling a group of considerably talented band members and embarking on a proper tour, borrowing some elements from his former musical project but creating something that is wholly different. That tour culminated at Glasslands last Monday, with Lymbyc Systym opening.

Lymbyc Systym is a two piece that sounds like a band five times its size. Hailing from Tempe, Arizona (but now based in Brooklyn), brothers Jared and Michael Bell make earnest, transcendent post rock. Their intricate compositions are thought out to the most minute detail and replicated live with stunning exactness. Having not released an album since 2009, this particular set featured plenty of new material, much of it tinged R&B beats and influences. Though there's very little to see onstage – Jared hunches over some electronic equipment, while Michael drums beneath a swath of dark curls – the sounds they make take on a breathing, seething life of their own, instantly occupying every inch of space from floor to ceiling. While the nostalgic undertones are at some points crushing, there is no room for pretentiousness and it never really has a chance to rear its head. For having played with so many huge names in indie rock, the pair have remained humble, and that nonchalance somehow makes their music seem that much more potent. They were joined on stage for a few songs by a friend with a violin, the strings adding sweetness and drama in just the right amounts.

When Zammuto took the stage it was not Nick as soloist, but Zammuto as a full band, joined by brother Mikey on bass, Sean Dixon on drums, and Gene Back (who had also played intermittently with The Books) on keys and additional guitars. Like an actual extension of the mood introduced by album's first track (entitled “Yay”) there was a collective, ecstatic enthusiasm so apparent it could have been a fifth band member. The sense that it gave me was so different from having seen The Books; whereas The Books wanted to tickle at thought processes, Zammuto's live show is all about the act of playing. Nick in particular seems so motivated by desire to expand on a live sound and share it with anyone willing to bear witness that it's hard not to respect - though it is slightly ironic when you consider that he manufactures most of these sounds by himself, holed up in a shed behind the eco-house which he inhabits with his wife and children in the sprawling countryside of rural Vermont.

In terms of visual stimuli, Zammuto also had something to offer, though the projections here were less choreographed and a bit more random that the video pairings I'd seen at Books shows. A bit more akin to Found Footage Fest or Everything is Terrible, the first projection was a chopped and screwed how-to for finger skateboarding, while another took stock photos of actors “experiencing” back pains, headaches, and otherwise twisting their faces and contorting their bodies into unpleasant shapes. But the most intriguing video was one that actually formed a song – for “The Greatest Autoharp Solo of All Time”, Zammuto took the sights and sounds of a Bob Bowers-led instructional video for the autoharp player, editing the song “Battle Hymn of the Republic” until it was all but unrecognizable. The band played alongside the video, drawing on its unique rhythms to form a cohesive, moving piece with just a hint of a clever smirk.

The only real low-point of the show, for me, was a crunchy version of Paul Simon's “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” that fell flat mostly because it lacked imagination and also because in Paul Simon's oeuvre “50 Ways” has got to be one of the weakest, most trite tunes.

The encore of Zammuto's set was the big payoff for fans expecting another Books show. In attempting to present “Zebra Butt” live, there had been some unexplained technical difficulties. Nick had promised to come back to it, even offering to hook up another computer that supposedly would have had the necessary files. For whatever reason, these plans were to no avail and resulted in one of the most awkward interstices between set and encore I've ever observed. But out of that wreckage came the first twangs of “Smells Like Content”, the seminal philosophical love-letter to living from 2005's Lost And Safe. I've been trying to decide whether this was a cheap shot – if picking out the most instantly recognizable and moving track that you've built your musical career on as an encore to one of your new band's first shows is somehow a weak move. Would I have felt more gratified if he'd chosen a “deep cut” as opposed to a “hit”? Did I feel slightly pandered to, being reminded in such an obvious way of one of the greatest contributions The Books made to independent music? Yes, but also no.

There's this beautiful and sort of tragically funny truism that appears as a sound-byte at the end of the recorded version of “Smells Like Content” (Expectation leads to disappointment. If you don't expect something big, huge, and exciting.... usually uhhhh... I don't know... you're just not as... yeah) and though Zammuto didn't roll the clip at the end of playing the song, its unforgettable to anyone who's listened to that song as much as I have. Thinking of it served almost as a caution not to expect Books-caliber output from only half of the band, that it would by its nature be the same in some ways, different in others, and there was simply no reason to obsess over the particulars when you should just try to enjoy it. While the high-minded creativity that propelled The Books is present in some aspects of this project and absent in others, Zammuto (as a band) is a new iteration in that direction. Even if in the end Zammuto doesn't feel as wholly imagined as its predecessor (because one half of it is literally missing), there's plenty of merit and beauty in the music that Nick Zammuto is still more than willing to create. And whether its fair or not to evaluate this album against The Books' releases will stop being a question the longer he continues to produce work and come into his own, shedding those expectations and freeing himself for further sonic exploration.  

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

SHOW REVIEW: Here We Go Magic w/ Glass Ghost

Here We Go Magic are crowd pleasers. When they released the video for “Make Up Your Mind” (in which a variety of women suffer seizures instigated by frontman Luke Temple's mystical musical powers), they unwittingly unleashed a maelstrom of indignation from a some overly sensitive viewers. Rather than embrace the controversy or use the subtle sexual undertones (some YouTube commenters noted that the “seizures” were rather orgasmic) to generate buzz for their third album, A Different Ship, out May 8th on Secretly Canadian, they shelved the video entirely. This decision seems baffling for a band whose video projects often skew a bit bizarre and push some boundaries, but the choice was made to avoid any conflict that might take attention away from the music. That music was front and center on Thursday when the band played its sold-out record release party at The Knitting Factory. And once again, their crowd-pleasing nature came into play, with a nicely rendered set that showcased the newest album and offered surprising takes on old favorites.

Openers Glass Ghost, a Brooklyn-based band who have cultivated a creative friendship with Temple, were a nice compliment to the set. Offering a contemplative batch of eerily unspooling tunes, Eliot Krimsky's otherworldly falsetto swirled through Mike Johnson's ephemeral synths and diffused beats, then over an unusually reverent audience. The power of Glass Ghost lies in moody disconnect, which they achieve through an elevated sense of fragility and a slightly autistic manner of delivery. Both players were stoic to the point of coming off as robotic, interacting with the audience and each other minimally, while retro video projections flashed on the screen behind them. Though the subdued nature of the set was unusual for an opening band, whose typical responsibility is revving up an audience for the headliners, this wasn't necessarily a detractor. As testament to how powerful ambivalence and alienation can be, the tragically gorgeous “Like A Diamond” served a perfect thesis statement, and somehow television talk-show host Marc Summers (of all people) became the poster child for that lost feeling.

Marc Summers is famously known as the wise-cracking host of Nickelodeon's Double Dare, which ran from the mid-eighties into the early nineties and pitted kid contestants against the likes of a giant ice cream sundae and some water balloons filled with tomato sauce; if they failed to answer trivia questions correctly they had to take a “Physical Challenge,” the end result of which often involved getting covered in some sort of goo. There were a bunch of spin-offs, including “Super Sloppy” and “Family” editions of Double Dare, which caused my parents to buy a second television when I threw a fit because the evening news they wanted to watch aired at the same time. Summers also hosted What Would You Do? in which guests were regularly doused with slime.

What does this have to do with Glass Ghost? Well, the irony in the fact that Summers spent the better part of his adulthood getting slimed and sliming others is that he suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, a mental illness which can manifest itself in a frantic need to stay immaculately clean. That dichotomy – the disjointed sensation of wanting to participate, be involved, stay there, to feel versus the failure to do so despite having these emotions and knowing what is normal, even doing what is normal but remaining out of place – is at the crux of it of Glass Ghost's music, a lá seminal Radiohead track “Fake Plastic Trees”. So when the projections shifted to a distorted video recording of Double Dare (including many shots of Marc Summers grinning through his despair) it brought not just a wave of nostalgia, but also served as a peculiar illustration of a much deeper theme.

the beguiling Jen Turner
For all the removed grandeur of Glass Ghost's set, Here We Go Magic brought just as much intensity to the stage, though it was of a different variety. Backed by bandmates Jen Turner (bass & keyboards), Michael Bloch (guitar), and Peter Hale (drums), Temple's enigmatic voice soared through renditions of “How Do I Know” “Hard To Be Close” and old favorites like “Fangela” and “Casual”. The new record was produced by Radiohead's Nigel Godrich, who became interested in the band after seeing them play at Glastonbury. For most of the tracks Godrich employed a live recording technique with few digital flourishes meant to enhance but not perfect the recordings. It's hard to say whether that emphasis came from his initial, inspiring exposure to the band, or if the in-the-moment improvisational methods utilized in the studio have infused their latest performances with a newfound go-for-broke energy. But something magical indeed happens when the band is playing together as a cohesive whole.

It was not uncommon to see the band extend normally unassuming musical breaks into spiraling, extravagant jam sessions more apropos of arena rock bands, or hair metal even. But instead of cock rock, the audience was treated to the plaintive, dreamy “Over The Ocean” rendered epically, in all its shimmering glory. Even if it seems overwrought for more a genre of pop that is typically more humble, make no mistake: this is exactly how these songs are meant to be experienced, with all their dormant power front-and-center. It's a bold move in these times; as the influence of technology on indie pop becomes more and more ubiquitous, it's become increasingly uncommon to see a band who can actually rock out but that's exactly what Here We Go Magic do, and do well. Though Temple started this project as a solo one, he's found some tremendously talented players whose skill is so assured that they make each other look even better. And their confidence in the new material truly gives these tunes a worthy showcase. So maybe they don't need a gimmick or a controversy to propel their own hype. No one at the show went into seismic convulsions, but the crowd was very, very pleased indeed.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

SHOW REVIEW: The Horrors, live at MHOW

Given the infrequency with which these guys tour, I had no idea what exactly to expect from them as a live act. I got into Primary Colours when it came out in 2009, because of the song "Three Decades", which starts out seeming like disjointed a-harmonious chaos, and becomes, at the exact moment you feel you're going to lose your mind, melodious and really quite beautiful. It's like being handed a glass of cold water when you didn't even know you needed it.

To me, they are what Joy Division would have become had Ian Curtis decided not to give the ghost up. However, after I listened to more, I realized I like them for one pretty obvious reason: if all the best aspects of shoegaze and 80's new wave were to have a love child, it would be the Horrors. You could say that the former progressed naturally out of the latter, but that doesn't necessarily mean the two sound good together.

The Horrors do pull it off though, pretty brilliantly. Playing into their new-wave aesthetic, they cultivate a louder-than-life persona on stage, with Faris Badwan's freakishly tall frame in the forefront, towering over the audience, his faced obscured by a mop of disheveled hair. The rock star ethos he works pretty hard to achieve (he prefaces each song with a slur of incoherent mumblings, for example) is tempered by the spacier lo-fi, effect of all the distortion and synth they employ. This contrast alone, adds a compelling ingredient to what could otherwise be thought of as a pretty formulaic recipe.

Anyway, I'm happy to say that their songs sound as good live as they do on their albums--which I find is often a conventional indicator of any band's ability to walk the talk.

They opened with "I Can See Through You"--an angry, incredibly loud love song, that combines post-punk lead guitar lines with various iconic, 80's-esque synthy arpeggios (think "Bizarre Love Triangle").  The evening progressed from there, with most of the work off their newest album Skying including "Still Life", which I think is the track that best (and perhaps singularly) captures the above-described conceit with which they began making albums, as well as "You Said", which to me, points to where they may be venturing next: a bigger, more ethereal and instrumentally complex sound that still maintains its basic foundations as music that induces profound nostalgia. For what? Who knows. Most of us--including these guys-- weren't around then...