Friday, July 06, 2007

Rilo Kiley's "The Moneymaker"

I've liked Rilo Kiley for a while, "Plane Crash in C" is one of the best songs of the decade, and their whole last album is very strong, particularly the aching, gorgeous, "Does He Love You." That album's country flavor was taken to the extreme on Jenny Lewis's solo album, the solid, but not exceptional Rabbit Fur Coat. I like that album, but I was eager to see what would happen when she got back together with Rilo Kiley. I was not at all expecting what they delivered from the first single, "The Moneymaker."

The video for the song begins with nine minutes of interviews with various porn stars, then segues into a nasty funk bassline, and snaps into motion as Jenny appears on screen. First, I'll talk about the song, then the video. The song is a radical departure from their previous work, embracing a sleazy, funk vibe for something that sounds like an 00s version of a 70s exploitation movie. The song is structured on a really catchy, descending riff that seems to be played on the same instrument that gave "Superstitious" its phenomenal bassline. This riff segues into a stomping chorus that quickly subsides back to the funk riff.

The song works because of its atmosphere, the vocals and instruments all feel semi-robotic, capturing the mechanical emotion of porn. They're playing at being sexy with the song, and it works well. This is echoed in the video, which calls back to the porno chic of the 70s. The closest video to this one in stylistic terms if Fiona Apple's "Criminal," which featured an almost oppressively sleazy 70s vibe. That one felt like you were on the set of the porno, this one feels like you're in the world of the porn, and that's a critical difference. The Fiona video gave you the feeling that she was being exploited, but here, they're all into it.

The video is actually quite similar to "Portions for Foxes," which featured the band in a taxidermy shop. Here, we've got the band in a porn set, surrounded by dazed looking porn actors. These scenes are ok, but the insert shots are really well done. I love the shot of Jenny flanked by two inanimate porn queens, and the 70s style overlay of the two women singing backup vocals. I also really like the overhead shots of the porn actors. But, the high point is the shot of Jenny in a black void, lit from above. It's the kind of image I absolutely love, a really striking use of light to create a strong tableau. It echoes UFO abduction imagery, but also taps a kind of spiritual place.

I love the way this video enhances the vibe of the song. Listening to this on the record I would probably think of it as a slightly sleazy funk song, now it's a full on dispatch from porn world. The video makes the song better, and that's what the goal of every video should be. It's a bold choice for the first single, but I love it and hope the rest of this album is as inventive and adventurous. Perhaps Rilo Kiley will have a Belle and Sebastian like late period reinvention, moving from a band that does one type of song to one that mixes all kinds of genres and styles together, all the while keeping a singular voice. I can't wait for this album.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

John From Cincinnati: 'His Visit: Day Three' (1x04)

With its fourth episode, John From Cincinnati continues to do something that now show since Twin Peaks has succeeded in doing, and that’s create a really odd, but totally believable set of characters, a world that you the viewer can enter into when you watch the show. It’s a world with its own rules, rules we’re still not quite clear on, but more than the rules, it’s a feeling. What’s so wonderful about watching the show is the sense of touching some kind of mystical presence, being privy to something outside the ordinary. Ultimately, isn’t that what’s art is about, to take us out of our everyday lives and show us something more?

Last week, I said that this episode would give us a better idea what the show’s structure would be like on a weekly basis. Using this episode as the template, it would seem that the story centers on the Yosts, they are the most significant players in the cosmic drama, but the show is actually concerned with looking at the way a community joins together around this family. In each episode, we’ve seen new characters gather at the motel and just be together. First, it was Ramon and Dickstein, joined by Barry. Now, Freddie and Palaka have set up shop there, joined by Bill at the end of the episode. Cass and Vietnam Joe are also mysteriously drawn in, as well as Dr. Smith.

I feel like John’s purpose during “His Visit” is to help set the Yosts back on the right path, and part of that is building up this vast support network around them. Clearly Shaun and Mitch have access to some kind of larger power, and it’s likely John’s mission to help bring that out, to actualize their full potential. Most of what John has done in the last few episodes is to help bridge the gaps between people, to look beneath surface interactions and find the essential connectedness at the base of humanity. Clearly, the “See God” line is very important, and it’s notable that when he says this what people see is not some higher power, rather it’s other people, going through the same things that they are suffering from. The implication is that seeing God is seeing yourself in others, the oneness of all things.

This is all instigated by John’s disappearance and the subsequent assault on him. He deliberately provokes this assault as a way of letting Vietnam Joe relive a moment in his past when he failed to save a fallen comrade. Here, he says that there’s nothing he can do, but John shows that there actually is. Joe thinks that the whole thing is a practical joke, that someone has gone to these lengths to reenact his greatest failure as a way of taunting him. However, what’s actually happening is John is trying to show Joe that he needn’t consider himself a failure. He may have lost one comrade, but live goes on and there are opportunities to save others.

Joe was caught up in his own guilt, much like Cass was, and I’d argue that’s why the two of them were connected by the vision. Both felt trapped by the idea that they had to be someone they didn’t want to, Joe the guilt ridden vet, and Cass the pawn of Linc. She was using Mitch, and feeling increasingly guilty about it, but it’s not until she sees John’s vision that she recognizes there’s something else she could be. John seems to be moving through the characters’ lives, helping one an episode. First, he helped Butchie get off drugs and turn his life around. Last week, he showed Kai something larger and opened her up to get together with Butchie, someone she’s clearly been in love with for years. Here he saves Joe, and it looks like next episode he’s going to show Cass how to be something other than a pawn of others. We already see that things are working when she walks away from Linc in the hotel, even as he tries to control her with worldly concerns, like money and security.

Amidst all this larger mystical stuff, we’ve also got some nice quirky world building. Dr. Smith has resigned from the hospital and now is set to become a disciple of John, seeking an understanding of what it is that healed Shaun. It’s an interesting comment on medical practice that he has to resign because Shaun was cured, society just isn’t equipped to deal with a miracle. I’m guessing that Dr. Smith will wind up joining the motel crew, Ramon already mentioned that there might be an opening for a staff physician. They recognize that this is a guy without direction, and it would be a kind gesture to offer him a place to say.

It’s interesting that they chose a motel to be the base for all these characters to gather. Such a place is by its nature transient, guests come and go, but instead of drifting on, these people have stopped and begun to call it home. I go back to Deadwood, and the way the various characters all just seem to have stopped on their journey and chosen to camp rather than move on. This is how worlds are built.

Bill’s soliloquies are really interesting, a Shakespearean departure from television norms. He eventually comes to the realization that he needs to stay out in the world, drifting off into his personal world of grief will only lead to insanity. He may appear annoyed on the surface, but nothing makes him happier than when Butchie and Kai come to ask him help in the search. He eventually decides that his place is keeping an eye on the family, and since Freddie might be a threat, he decides to join him. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of comic gold in this pairing, throw in Palaka and you’ve got quite a team.

Also well done was the stuff with Kai and Butchie. We’ve seen her as mostly an aggressive, self confident character so far. Here, she lets her guard down, strips off the public persona and shows him a more sensitive part of herself. Playing the song, she retreats back to a place she was years ago, when she was in love with him, and finally gets to fulfill the dream she had then. It’s a wonderful scene, and I hope the return of Shaun’s mother doesn’t make things too soap opera for them.

I’ve been reading a lot about Milch’s writing process, and its reliance on improvisation and development in the moment. That’s very evident as you watch the show, characters come on and seem to take on a life of their own. There’s certainly something to be said for a Babylon 5 style exact plan, but I love the notion that Milch didn’t know exactly where things were going, but chose to just let the story guide itself. It allows for wonderfully real moments, and a sense of organic evolution. It doesn’t feel like the characters are inserted in contrived ways, they come to the show, the show doesn’t come to them. I love watching this show evolve, it hits that exact same spot as Twin Peaks, simultaneously presenting a vast cosmic mystery and just real, quirky moments of everyday life. I’ve got some minor issues, like John’s healing potentially becoming a deus ex machina, but I’m confident that Milch and co. will guide the show well and keep things as strong as they are now.

The New Pornographers @ Battery Park

Setlist (Approximate)

All of the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth//Use It//The Laws Have Changed//All the Old Showstoppers//Jackie Dressed in Cobras//Mutiny I Promise You//Mass Romantic//The Spirit of Giving//The Bones of an Idol//My Rights Versus Yours//Sing Me Spanish Techno//Go Places//From Blown Speakers//Twin Cinema//Bleeding Heart Show

Encore: These are the Fables//Testament to Youth in Verse//Slow Descent into Alcoholism

I’ve seen The New Pornographers a couple of times before, but this show was the first time I’ve seen them with Neko Case. It’s not quite the full band, Dan Bejar was still MIA, but he’s slated to tour with them in the Fall, so perhaps I’ll get the chance then. Anyway, this show was outside at Battery Park, the same place as the Belle and Sebastian show I went to last year, and like that show, this one was shadowed by the threat of rain. It got a little iffy at times, but luckily the rain held off and the show went on without any issues.

The good thing about this show was that it was free, the band thing is that means the crowd isn’t going to be as into it as they will be at a show they paid to get to, and for this band, and every band, that makes a difference. At The Polyphonic Spree earlier this week, so much of the joy of the show is being a part of the crowd, singing the lyrics back and getting really caught up in things. When I first saw The New Pornographers, opening for Belle and Sebastian in March 2006, I was a bit underwhelmed. They played a good show, but it didn’t have that transcendent energy the best shows do. When I saw them last August, it was a whole different story, that was an amazing show, with a lot more energy.

Here, they not only had the free show issue to deal with, they also had to deal with the fact that they’re playing material from an album very few people have heard. I got a review copy of the album, and have been playing it nonstop for the past couple of weeks, so I was all set to enjoy their new stuff. But, most people aren’t familiar with it, and as a result, they weren’t as into the new songs. I think their new album is as good as anything they’ve ever done and I was really eager to hear the songs off it, but I can understand people not connecting with unfamiliar material.

That’s not to say it was a bad show, they played great, and there were some really strong moments, it’s just that on the whole, it didn’t quite match up to last August’s Summerstage show. And, this whole perception could be due to where I was in the crowd, when I got to move up towards the end, things definitely improved and I was more into it. The final run of songs was fantastic.

But, let’s backtrack. I’d read that seeing the New Pornos without Neko Case wasn’t the real experience, and I was skeptical. They sounded fine to me. However, she is a great stage presence and has a phenomenal voice. I thought of Carl Newman as their frontman, and when she’s not there, he is. But, with her there, she pretty much controls things, overpowering his vocals when she comes in to sing. On the songs that spotlighted her, like “Go Places” and “Mass Romantic,” she owned the show, and if this was my first time seeing them, I couldn’t even imagine them playing without her.

The tracks off their new album are a bit more varied, both in terms of tempo and emotion. The band was supported by a four piece instrumental section that helped to flesh out the new material. While I love their first three albums, I’ll admit that the songs are very similar. It’s a great sound, so I don’t mind, but it’s exciting to hear the band do a song like “Go Places,” which is more subdued and emotionally involved. Neko’s performance on this song was phenomenal, and the emotion behind it was great, it was a shame that people seemed to zone it out because it was new material. “The Spirit of Giving” is another highlight off the album, which sounded great live. Though I’m still unclear what the repeated line on that final segment is, at first I thought it was “Corporate America mourns,” now I’m thinking “Love the American mall.” It’s unclear, but the song itself is so well put together, I don’t care. The song, like many New Pornos tracks, moves through a series of sections before resolving itself in a layered singalong chorus. That mysterious line is repeated, then another vocal is added on top. It’s a spectacular close to the album.

The one track I was really missing from the new album is “Unguided,” an epic six and a half minute track that soars to one of the most beautiful choruses they’ve done. It’s another really emotional song, hopefully it’ll get some play when they tour for the album. Other than that, most of the songs I wanted to hear were played. They’ve got such a deep back catalogue, it’s getting to the point where you’re not going to hear a lot of great songs. I would have liked to hear “Letter From an Occupant” with Neko singing, and “Falling Through Your Clothes” is always welcome, but this assortment was well chosen.

The old material sounded good still, though the crowd wasn’t really feeling things until “Mass Romantic” hit. That’s the one song that everyone knows, and there was a lot of excitement then. The lengthy stage banter slowed the show’s momentum, tightening things up a bit might have helped sustain the energy. It was funny when the drummer forgot which song they were going to play, but other lengthy digressions were just annoying.

The highlights of the show came at the end, with a triumphant “Bleeding Heart Show” to close out the main set and “Testament to Youth in Verse” during the encore. Both of these songs are anthemic, singalong masterpieces and I hope they remain in the setlist for as long as the band’s around. By the time of the encore, some of the less devoted people filtered out and the crowd’s energy raised a bit. The spattering of rain only added to the drama, though it would have been a lot nicer if it was about ten degrees warmer out there.

Ultimately, this was a nice preview of what the band will do on their next tour. It was great to get a chance to see them play for free, but I’d rather have paid some money and got to see them in an indoor venue with more devoted fans. Once people get to know the new album, they should get a lot more crowd involvement. But, any day where you get to hear “The Bleeding Heart Show” performed live is a good one.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Polyphonic Spree @ Warsaw

I first saw The Polyphonic Spree in concert in 2005, when they were supporting Together We’re Heavy. It was an almost overwhelming experience, a torrent of sound unlike anything I’d heard before. I saw them again at the Across the Narrows Festival later that year, but it’s been a year and a half since I last had the chance to experience the best live band playing today. I’m not sure if last night’s show at the Warsaw was my best experience with them, but it certainly seemed to be Tim DeLaughter’s. The Spree frontman kept things going for nearly two and a half hours, drawing out the encore to the point that it was as long, if not longer than the actual set. It was a high energy, incredibly fun show, a reminder of just how powerful people getting together to play music can be.

The show opened with Tim cutting a heart into a giant piece of red paper to reveal the band, who were wearing their black fragile army uniforms. They opened with “Running Away,” the exhilarating first single from the new album. The first time I saw them, the sound was mixed so loud that I essentially lost the higher frequencies midway through the show. This venue felt like my elementary school auditorium, just a really big space, and the sound was mixed much better, such that I didn’t have any more hearing issues than at your average concert. Now, this does sacrifice some of the initial impact of hearing them, but it was good in the long term. I still think “We Sound Amazed” is the optimum show opening song, it’s a shame it’s drifted off the setlist.

But, we can’t live in the past, the new album has plenty of great tracks, and nearly all of them were performed during that initial set. “Get Up and Go” was an early highlight, bringing a heavy guitar riff to the fore, in a way you don’t usually hear with the band. “The Fragile Army” was also fantastic, letting the chorus do some weirder vocalizations than usual. But, even though the new album is on par with the rest of their work, it’s tougher to get into live because I just don’t know those songs as well, and neither does the audience. With a couple of exceptions, no one is really thrilled to hear the new song, in the same that they are when Tim reaches back to the first two albums. That’s an inevitable consequence of doing a show promoting a new album, particularly one that came out a couple of weeks ago.

That said, the crowd was on board for pretty much all the new songs. I think a large part of that is due to the sheer spectacle of their show. There’s so many of them, and the songs have such consistent positive energy, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment, the ebbs and swells of the song. There’s nothing like hearing the whole band go from quiet to a sudden burst of sound. These sudden bursts were frequently accompanied by confetti blasts. I particularly liked how their roadie would just run out with the confetti gun and launch it on beat, he seemed so excited to get the chance to do that.

Most of the back catalogue stuff in the main set came from The Beginning Stages. There was a great, stripped down version of “It’s the Sun.” Normally I’m not a fan of the acoustic cut down versions of songs, but playing things down let us better hear all the instruments and their interplay. Plus, we did eventually get the full version during the encore. My major issue with the show was that Together We’re Heavy was virtually ignored. There was an amazing version of “Hold Me Now,” but that was it until the encore. There’s a lot of great songs on that album, “Two Thousand Places,” and “We Sound Amazed” most notably, and I’d love to have heard them.

The initial set closed with “The Championship,” the closing track off The Fragile Army. They tore the song up, building to the closing “Raise our Voices” part. The recording of the song fades too soon on this part, I would have loved to just let it go, so it was great to hear them extend it out live. They kept the refrain going as all the band members gradually left the stage. Tim left, and it was just the audience keeping the song going, and it went on for a good five minutes. I’d never heard anything like it before, people just singing on their own, continuing the show without the band. I think that moment was one of the best testaments to what the Spree do, because there’s so many of them, it fosters a very inclusive feeling. They seem to be having so much fun, you just get caught up in it.

The singing kept going until “Together We’re Heavy” began playing over the speakers and gradually the band filed back up to the stage, passing through the crowd. They did this at the Irving Plaza show in 2005, but it was still an amazing moment, to watch them ascend the stage and start playing again, overtaking the record. They were wearing their white robes now, and this was such a sense of joy in the place. What came after was still great, but that was probably the high point of the show for me.

The first part of the “encore” was a couple of covers, both off the Wait EP. First was Nirvana’s “Lithium.” This was a fun song to see them do, but the subsequent “Sonic Bloom” was more satisfying. I think the Nirvana cover probably worked better for people who aren’t as big fans of the Spree. I’d love to eventually complete the rumored covers album because they really transform a song once they play it.

Following this was a rousing rendition of “Light and Day.” This song is their trademark and it always kills live. The chorus is so easy to sing along too, and by the end I think everyone in the place was with them. I figured that was the end of the show, little did I know there was a good 40 minutes left. Next up was “When the Fool Becomes a King.” This track is an epic, ten minutes on the album, and at least fifteen minutes here. It’s one of my favorite songs of there, filled with the builds and explosions that only they can do. The extended runtime was due to the lengthy theatrics within the song. There was a good five minutes where the band froze and Tim messed around on stage. This went on a bit long, it did build anticipation, but when you’re so far into the show, you don’t want to kill all the momentum of the song. The three minute long piano solo also took a lot out of me, but it was still a great moment when we finally made it to the “It’s the Sun” close of the song. I’m glad that song is still in their repertoire, it’s a great set closer.

With both their big songs performed, I figured that was it. However, Tim wanted to keep going, and the audience was still very enthused, so they broke out “Soldier Girl.” This is another great singalong song. Even though I prefer the more developed songs on Heavy and Army, those Beginning Stages songs kill live.

Throughout the show a drunk guy near me was yelling out “Ride, Captain Ride” repeatedly. I thought it was just a random shout, but the band still had some energy and they started up one more song, “Ride Captain Ride.” This was a great closer. It’s a simple, but anthemic song, and as they went, the chorus and other band members moved to the front of the stage, and Tim went into the audience. It felt like the end of Saturday Night Live, when everyone just gathers on the stage and celebrates a job well done.

At this point, they brought out a cake for guitarist Mark Pirro’s birthday, and sang “Happy Birthday” to him. He wrapped things up with a lengthy odd story about his fear of the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” This was a ramble, and that marked the end of the show. It took away some of the momentum coming off the show’s close, but with so many songs, who was I to argue.

This was an amazing show, primarily for what happened after the encore. After the initial set, I was really liking it, but the encore took things to another level. After the Spree filed through the audience, everything was higher stakes, with more crowd involvement and enthusiasm. This was a huge room, but it felt like everyone was completely into what was going on. I’ve seen them three times now and they never cease to amaze me with their communal enthusiasm and joy at being able to play music. I can’t wait to see them again.