Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Hundred Waters

Hundred Waters were one of a handful of bands scheduled to play the Austin City Limits Festival last year that I had never heard of but suddenly got really excited about. Somehow, despite my interest, I missed my chance to see them then. However, I bought their first, self-titled album at that time, and it cemented my appreciation. Then came South by Southwest. I again missed a chance to see them at the Empire Garage, but finally got to see them the next day at The Owl. However, the sound was poor and the setlist fairly short. I wanted more.

When they announced their first national tour as headliners, I immediately bought a ticket for their local Austin show. It was at Red 7 on June 23rd. However, days before the show, I realized that circumstances at my job would basically prevent me from going. I was disappointed, because this had never happened to me before, but I suppose after all the wonderful shows I've seen so far in Austin, I can't be too upset. To make up for it, though, I'd like to say a few words about their new album, The Moon Rang Like a Bell, as well as their debut.

[Hundred Waters.]

Hundred Waters first appealed to me because of the unique blend of folk instrumentation and electronic production heard on their first album. Right next to the swaths of synths, keyboards, and pads are flutes, acoustic guitars, and hand drums. The beats are mostly synthetic, but parts sound like conventional percussion. The vocals of Nicole Miglis are soft, airy, otherworldly, and almost certainly incomprehensible without the printed lyrics sheet. The first track, "Sonnet", appears to be based around a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, but the phrasing is so strange that the traditional poetic format becomes transformed into something entirely new and different. I think the strength of the album is that it sounds like a perfect blend of both artificial and authentic, synthetic and acoustic.

Right after Hundred Waters was released in 2012, the band moved from the obscure Elestial Sound label to Skrillex's OWSLA. The new label reissued the album and gave it a deservedly wider release, but the pairing struck me as odd. This was not a band playing EDM or dance club music; the odd time signatures, shifting beats, and occasional subtle and muted tracks seemed to indicate quite a distance from those scenes. But after all, I suppose there's no reason Skrillex can't have some good taste, so why not be on his label?

When follow-up The Moon Rang Like a Bell finally came out in May, it immediately struck me as a band with a different mission. Long gone were early contributors Sam Moss and Allen Scott, and also left behind were any traces of the acoustic. I think the band may have felt the folk label was inappropriate, and they reacted by ditching almost anything that could be construed in that genre. My initial reaction was disappointment – what to me was their original selling point was now nowhere to be found. But after a few weeks of regular listening, I've found plenty to enjoy.

[The Moon Rang Like a Bell.]

First of all, the opening a capella "Show Me Love" is a great performance with a great lyric. The second track, "Murmurs", might start off with an annoying repeated vocal sample, but once it settles in, the vocal melody and the piano become something beautiful. The piano actually plays a very strong role throughout the album, absorbing nearly all space left by the forgotten acoustic elements. The album might be primarily electronic and beat-oriented, but several tracks disobey that trend, including "Show Me Love" and the abstract closer "No Sound". Standouts are "Cavity", "Down from the Rafters", and "Xtalk", and the only misstep is "[Animal]", which delves a little too far into dance music cliché. While I might prefer the clever blending of styles found on the first album, The Moon is still a beautiful album with a rewarding intricacy.

All these changes make me wonder if in the future they will edge closer to dancey EDM or if they will rebound back to a broader and more acoustic sound. When I saw them live at SXSW in March, they seemed to occupy an entirely separate third space, preferring live drums but electronic instrumentation otherwise. However, there were exceptions: the drummer also had a rhythm pad and one song featured electric guitar and bass. I was curious to see if as headliners they would bring more instruments to encompass a wider scope of sounds... but I missed my chance to find out. I'll just have to wait until next time!

Scores:
Hundred Waters: A-
The Moon Rang Like a Bell: B+

P.S. I also appreciate that their name is derived from the wonderful artist/architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. (I have made several pilgrimages to see his work; for example, see here, here, and here.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Recent Changes

I'd like to do something a little different and introduce a few changes to this blog.

Over the past months and weeks, after spending a lot of time writing reviews of all the concerts I've been attending, I started thinking about some bigger picture ideas about music. My first thought was to write a post explaining my changing musical interests and directions, and I may still write such an essay, but in the meantime I took the more measured step of writing an About page. My previous attempts at introduction didn't feel representative anymore, so I decided I needed a fresh start at explaining the purpose of this blog. I also moved the Music Game to its own page in the process.

Then I decided that I wanted to provide more space for the opening acts of the concerts I've attended. A few (e.g. Haii Usagi or Other Lives) have always stood out to me, but many were not properly labeled, and some were not even scored. I've gone back and applied retrospective scores where necessary in best faith of my thoughts then and now.

This led to a realization that there were several formatting issues that I wanted to clean up. Most are so minuscule that I expect no one to notice them except myself, but in the process, I reexamined almost every post I've written. Along the way, I corrected the stray typo somehow left unnoticed for years, I expanded my usage of labels, and I added notes where I felt like a comment or update was necessary. My early posts were often rambling, inconsistent, or even sloppy, and while I haven't changed their occasionally idiosyncratic nature, I have intermittently added a comment to contextualize some of my ideas.

I don't expect anyone to suddenly feel inspired to re-read my old posts – any changes I have made are decidedly minor. But if someone were to stumble into the archeology of this blog, I want to present a slightly more consistent perspective. At any rate, I do encourage readers with any curiosity to review the (relatively) new About page.

I also noticed one other thing when reviewing my old posts. I used to write about a wider variety of topics (not just concerts!) and many of these posts were shorter and more to the point. Since I think about music a lot and frequently have realizations or ideas that don't fit inside a standard review format, I want to again open myself to the opportunity of writing different types of posts. Don't expect a constant stream of two-sentence nonsense blurbs, but don't be surprised if you see the occasional shorter, less structured exposition of some musical topic on my mind.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Andrew Bird / Jesse Woods - Live 2014.06.16

I happened upon the news of an Andrew Bird show in my new hometown quite by accident. Since he hadn't yet announced what is now his latest album, I wasn't sure what to expect, but I figured it was well worth a shot.

Artist: Andrew Bird
Venue: The Paramount Theatre
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 16 June 2014
Opening Act: Jesse Woods

Setlist:
01. Ethio Invention No. 1 [solo]
02. Hole in the Ocean Floor [solo]
03. Plasticities [solo]
04. Dyin' Bedmaker [Traditional cover]
05. Tin Foiled [The Handsome Family cover]
06. Dear Old Greenland [originally performed with Bowl of Fire]
07. Effigy
08. Frogs Singing [The Handsome Family cover]
09. Give It Away [one mic]
10. When That Helicopter Comes [one mic; The Handsome Family cover]
11. Something Biblical [one mic]
12. Near Death Experience Experience
13. Three White Horses
14. Pulaski at Night
15. Danse Caribe
16. Drunk by Noon [The Handsome Family cover]
17. Tables and Chairs

Encore:
18. MX Missiles [one mic]
19. The Giant of Illinois [one mic; The Handsome Family cover]
20. If I Needed You [one mic; Townes Van Zandt cover]
21. Don't Be Scared [The Handsome Family cover]

Review:
Some background may be necessary here, so pardon my diversion from the show. Astute readers may recall that I have seen Andrew Bird twice before: once as a total neophyte in 2009 for his Noble Beast tour and again as a casual fan in 2012 for the Break It Yourself tour. Just after the latter tour, he surprise-released a second album in 2012, Hands of Glory. After years of pursuing violin- and loop-heavy indie folk/rock/pop, this album showed a country bent with a decidedly older-school approach. While the violin and looping pedals were still present, the violin was far more folk than classical, and the looping was secondary to more traditionally-arranged country tunes, including several covers. It was a weird album, but it's grown on me and I do like it.

But after that album, Bird took a low profile. At the end of 2013, a stray EP appeared under the name I Want to See Pulaski at Night with hardly any fanfare. This EP was also an odd release, featuring six instrumentals consisting mostly of looped violin along with a semi-eponymous track ("Pulaski at Night") featuring vocals. Again, I liked it, but it was hard to figure out what Bird was trying to express with it. Subsequently, my regular correspondent J. Potter theorized that Bird was at a crossroads and in a unique position to shift his career into a new direction. He had already done once before, in transitioning from jazz/blues/folk with his earlier group Bowl of Fire to the indie rock/pop of his solo career. The fact that both of the latest releases were disparate, incongruous affairs led us both to think that he was clearing out his vaults of old ideas and preparing for something new and adventurous.

But then he announced a new album, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of..., to be released just about a week before this show. The catch is that the album consists entirely of covers of songs by the Handsome Family, a clear longtime favorite of Bird's, considering that he's been covering them since at least 2003. The album features a new backing lineup, eschewing most of his collaborators from his previous few albums and tours in favor of a very old-school country/folk-oriented band dubbed The Hands of Glory. The whole album was recorded live in three days on one mic with no studio manipulation whatsoever. While the novelty is intriguing, I don't actually find the music very interesting.

So when Jesse Woods came out with his band and proceeded to play a half-hour of country/swing-leaning rock, I wasn't surprised at all. It was clear what direction Bird was looking in, and for once he found an opener that was on the same path. (I wasn't very fond of the openers the last two times I saw Bird.) Woods' songs were simple, but delightfully arranged. I loved that the lead guitarist wasn't showy at all but still managed to play great melodies, and I thought the organ tones were perfect. Woods certainly got an above-average reception for an opener, but it probably helped that he is a local Austinite.

As seems to be the tradition, Andrew Bird came on stage unaccompanied and performed a few songs built up with his looping pedals. The first track was a stunning medley of various themes and improvisations, perhaps most closely related to "Ethio Invention No. 1" from the recent Pulaski EP. He also offered an alternate take on "Plasticities", which I thought was good but admittedly frustrating. He played it as if he refused to allow any of the dominant and prominent hooks shine through, as if the listener was expected to fill in the holes mentally.

The Hands of Glory then came out and the band played a new song, "Dyin' Bedmaker", which is actually an old, traditional gospel tune usually known as "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed" or "In My Time of Dying". (Yes, this is (loosely) the same song recorded by Blind Willie Johnson, Bob Dylan, and Led Zeppelin.) From there, the setlist varied widely among back-catalog favorites, Handsome Family covers from the new album, unpredictable selections from Hands of Glory, and a few surprises.

The covers had some charm, but they weren't what I wanted to hear. The back-catalog tracks were good, but felt a little by-the-numbers, even if the performances were great. The appearance of several tracks from Break It Yourself was quite welcome even if not really otherwise notable, as they still held up quite well in live performance. But the real highlights were a few cleverly rearranged older tunes and a few newer songs that transcend the genre lines.

To be specific, the older surprises were "Dear Old Greenland", a repurposed song from the Bowl of Fire days, and a rearrangement of "MX Missiles". Both were rearranged to suit the current style, and managed to benefit from it more than the covers did. The newer songs that caught my attention were "Three White Horses", the haunting, semi-fatalistic opener of Hands of Glory, and "Pulaski at Night" from the similarly-named EP. The latter was the perfect cross between traditional country mysticism and modern ethereal pop, aided by prodigious looping. The former might just be a playful exploration of the Chicago landscape, but it too stood to gain from the melding of styles. Andrew provided a rare explanation for the song, offering that it was inspired by a Thai exchange student that uttered what is now the title of the EP, despite that Pulaski Road is apparently a rather run-down, unappealing stretch.

Bird seemed caught between his two halves, preferring his old-timey country/folk esoterics over his much more modern take on indie rock, but still holding on to both and progressing neither. In keeping with the new album, several songs were performed with the entire group crowding around one mic, as was done for the encores of the last tour and once upon a time with the Bowl of Fire. While I think the gimmick is cool, it gradually began to feel like too much of a gimmick, and the absence of bassist Alan Hampton's voice in the mix made the harmonies less impressive than they should have been.

On one hand, it's a good thing that Bird isn't just relying solely on his biggest trick (looping), but on the other, it's hard to feel like he isn't retreading ground already covered instead of pushing somewhere new. The Hands of Glory are good, but instrumentally and vocally, the previous group had more going for it. New singer/guitarist Tift Merritt might serve as a good foil for Bird, and drummer Kevin O'Donnell might be a great old-school drummer, but pedal steel player Eric Heywood was too far in the background, and with Hampton relegated exclusively to double bass, the band didn't have quite the same sonic power of the last lineup. It's hard not to miss Dosh's elaborate drumming and keyboard work, Jeremy Ylvisaker's exquisite guitar and effects, or Mike Lewis' occasional brass and woodwind excursions. Bands move on and change and grow, and it can be good to try something new, but I think The Hands of Glory still have some growing in to do.

Scores (including some recent releases for reference/fun/why not):
Jesse Woods: B+
Andrew Bird: B
Hands of Glory: B-
I Want to See Pulaski at Night EP: B+
Initial impressions of Things Are Great Here, Sort Of...: C