Shitty Cell Phone Photos of Mountain Goats

Meany Hall Auditorium, University of Washington, 2/15/11

I had the pleasure of seeing John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats play a solo show at the Meany Hall Auditorium at the University of Washington in Seattle this past Tuesday, and aside from the warm memories of his always entertaining and eloquent between-song banter and the soulful renditions of his wonderfully-written songs, all I have to show for it are these shitty cell phone photos.  Again, I forget to bring my real camera to a show.  Playing a somewhat emotionally heavier than usual set, he thanked the audience repeatedly for our silently rapt attention to his renditions of songs he played in dedication to a friend of his he had just lost to cancer.  The Mountain Goats aren’t theater, they’re poetry—a real attempt by a human being to communicate with others.

His opener was a young woman with whom I am entirely unfamiliar, one Jesy Fortino, AKA Seattle’s  Tiny Vipers.  She does chilling, quiet, long-form meditations on nothingness all alone up on stage with her acoustic guitar and her looping pedal.  She sounds like Nico from the velvet underground singing Bradford Cox-produced variations on Cat Power’s “Crossbones Syle”.  Somehow she loops the resonant sound from the notes she plucks from her guitar while managing to not actually record the pluck itself.  The result is layered beauty, and the effect is soporific.  And man, what a voice.

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Shitty Cell Phone Photos of: Kurt Vile

I’m out here for the summer on the humid prairie, blown to and fro by the hot moist winds.  Bloomington, Indiana is a theme park town about an hour south of Indianapolis that has all the urban amenities you might want as a student or a visiting scholar- nice restaurants, plenty of bars, cheap drink- with none of that access to the outside world you might be expecting.  It’s really in the middle of nowhere.  It also has a hipster venue where all the traveling acts passing through the midwest stop off to dance their jigs for proud townies and college students alike.

Luckily for me, Kurt Vile came through on the 15th and put on a really excellent show.  He’s got a sound that’s a cross between Deerhunter and Paul Westerberg.

I present to you three shitty cell phone photos of that show, one of which is of in the main boring opener Real Estate.

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Shitty Cell Phone Photos of: Bad Rabbits

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Since I’m leaving New York, I have been trying to see as many shows as possible before I go.  Getting to see Bad Rabbits was a disproportionate reward of my desperate gambit.

Seeing Bad Rabbits was like watching Morris Day and the Time- if they were as good as Prince and the Revolution.  I admit, when the first nostalgic tones floated out over the crowd, I felt myself turn off— I felt a special kind of dread as I realized these guys are trying to revive one of the worst periods of musical history I have had the misfortune to live through.

Though I enjoyed the band immensely, the dread hasn’t left.  As the Chromeo, 33Hz vibe floats on a pestilent silicate wind like a plume of volcanic ash through the upper atmosphere, lightly raining its grim fertility on the distant- but not not, after all, so distant- continent of mainstream culture, I have the unhappy suspicion that this is not the last late ’80s/early ’90s revival act that will be permeating the air and canceling flights to better musical vistas.

Bad Rabbits was amazing.  They were great.  I had a fantastic time.  But, as talented as they are, I  just wish I could count on them continuing in novel isolation.  If their musical forebears are any indication, all the acts that are going to follow them are really going to suck.

Trans Am at Knitting Factory BK, and What Might be an Image of the Same

I had the happy accident on Saturday to walk past the Knitting Factory and notice the placard advertising Trans Am were playing the following night.  So, Sunday night, to cap off an anodyne afternoon of walking across the Williamsburg Bridge to see The Runaways (it was good), I was back at the Knitting Factory filling my face with rock.

There were two opening acts— The first was the phenomenal Jonas Reinhardt, whose perfect channeling of Gary Numan, rhythmic Krautrock, and the show’s headliners were worth the price of admission all by themselves.  The second was affront to talent Nice Nice (what is with you guys picking up mediocre to plain bad electronic acts and putting them on your decreasingly illustrious roster, Warp?).

Jonas Reinhardt’s guitarist and vocalist is Trans Am’s Phil Manley- to whom, not knowing this at the time because I never really knew what the Trans Am guys look like, I gave an enthusiastic “What up, awesome opening band?” type “Fucking awesome!” to as we passed in the crowd.  It made a little more sense why they sounded so much like an austere version of Trans Am once I figured that out.

While I enjoyed myself near to stupefaction during Jonas Reinhardt’s set, I felt I had to avenge the second act’s very presence or become scarce so as to avoid trouble with the security staff of the establishment.  Most fun activities in New York, though, are sanitized cattle stockades, meaning that even if an opening band is really, really bad, bad like Nice Nice was bad, you can’t really leave the venue and go to the bar  Why can’t you go to the bar?  You can’t go to the bar because the club is maximizing its income by hosting a stand-up open mic event (I doubt those open-mic’ers were getting paid for the booze money they were funneling into the joint with their humiliating efforts) in the only other part of the place you could find refuge.  You also can’t throw things, etc.  So, I had to wait it out.

Nice Nice nervously manipulated live loops and step sequences while a drummer wankily flourished his command over his weird drum set.  The sequencer/guitar guy looked a lot like Dana Carvey.  The drummer had one of those snares that’s only about half as deep as it should be, meaning it gave that high-pitched, unsatisfying pop every time it was struck, and his toms were all about 3/4 of the circumference of a normal set of toms.  He was obviously a very good drummer, though he could have done with a band and a kit that didn’t inspire homicide.

Trans Am kept true to the form of their current record, Thing, out on Thrilljockey just this month, and played a compelling, dread-inspiring set of off-time changes, insane drum artistry, vocoded enigma, and dazzling bass and guitar chops.  I particularly liked that they threw Red Line‘s “I want it all” and “Play in Summer” in the setlist, the most accessible tracks of one of their more off-putting albums.  A song like “Futureworld” just wouldn’t have fit in the hemi-kiltered set they had put together.

If I may make a comparison across art forms, Trans Am seems to work on a cycle similar to Pynchon’s— Pynchon, in ten-year arcs, swings in his prose production from the purposefully and masterfully baroque (V), drifting to the easier to digest narrative (The Crying of Lot 49), to the abstracted and purely hallucinatory (Gravity’s Rainbow), back to the straighforward Narrative (Vineland), and then further rule-bound into  the baroque (Mason & Dixon) before swimming back into the waters of the collective unconscious (Against the Day).  Trans Am follows a similar arc from the very conventionally digestible to the esoteric and ineffable, with the mastery and skill to pull it off.  Some records see them hewing very closely to a theme and song-oriented approach (Futureworld 1999, Liberation, 2004, Sex Change, 2007), while others, contain more exploration of theme and instrumentation (Red Line, 2000, TA 2002, Thing, 2010).

The feel is always a kind of cold dread and ecstatic expectation, and they do it well on Thing. From the album art to the song titles, Thing is an sci-fi/psychological thriller of expectant encounters with the uncanny and uncertainty.  They’ve been one of my favorite bands for over ten years, and I’m glad I got to see them play again.