Review- Sigur Ros at Stage AE

Superb.

If I could provide you with just that one word as my complete review of Sigur Ros’ September 19th show at Stage AE, I would. Sadly, writers are expected to be at least slightly capable of examining and explaining the world, and it’d be negligent of me to leave you, the wonderful reader, with nothing more than a two-syllable summation of a two-hour long concert.

The show began with a short set by the luminous Julianna Barwick. I missed all but two of her songs, so I won’t speak much on her live style, but what I heard was equally as ethereal as her most recent release, Nepenthe. (Side note: don’t wait in the parking lot to hear an opener begin before going in. Often, as was the case with Ms. Barwick, bands cannot be heard outside of the venue. Tactical error.)

The 30-minute set change between acts provided me with more than enough time to wonder how my lyric-driven brain would respond to Icelandic. In recordings, it’s easier to take Sigur Ros’ vocals and composition as ambient, post-modern rock and digest it as such. I resigned myself to at least attempt to imagine each voice as just another instrument. And then the show crew brought out and rearranged bells and strings and drums and brass. There were guitars and keyboards and single light bulbs on tall stands. I worried that perhaps adding another “instrument” for my brain to keep straight was a bad idea.

They began their set began with Yfirborð, off of the recently released Kevikur. It’s an ambitious opener that feels more like a track from one of their previous albums. It’s slower, pretty, almost less-experimental. Perhaps in opening with something new that sounds so much like something old they were appeasing the many fans in the audience who have so obviously followed the band since its inception in 1994. This worked. The throngs of21-year-olds were just as pleased as their middle-aged counterparts. All heads swayed in unison, as projections of what I think were artistically blurred and filtered cordyceps fungi shifted slowly on the projection screen behind the 10-or-so musicians on stage.

The core band members, Jón Þór “Jonsi” Birgisson, Georg Hólm, and Orri Páll Dýrason, were joined by at least six others who did everything from sing ghostly, minor-key backup to play the French horn. In addition to a full drum set, there was a second half set with a series of differently sized bells hanging above it. Sigur Ros moved adeptly from song to song, never spending too long playing tracks from one album. In this way, they managed to keep the pace from ever flying too high or sinking too low. The full setlist is below, thanks to setlist.fm.

Yfirborð
Brennisteinn
Vaka
Glósóli
Hrafntinna
Stormur
Sæglópur
Varúð
Hoppípolla
Með Blóðnasir
Olsen Olsen
Kveikur
Festival
Popplagið

About halfway through, a very tall gentleman in front of me split a pill in half and handed a part of it to his friend along with a beer. He mumbled, “put this in your mouth,” and his companion dutifully obliged. I waited patiently, sure that their sways and bobs would become frantic soon, or that they’d end up just a beat or two behind the rest of the crowd. I was happily surprised when they remained as engaged by the stage as the rest of us. But thinking back on it, what was I to expect? Attending an avant-garde, Icelandic rock show is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for a transitional fan. It’s for people who are delighted by flashing lights and projected floating bodies. For those of us who can, in fact, imagine that foreign-language vocals are just another part of the lushest of musical landscapes. For fans who cannot wait until the next time Jonsi picks up his bow and drags it along the strings of his electric guitar.

All Photos ©2013 AWELDINGPHOTO and Pittsburgh Music Magazine

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Everlast’s “The Life Acoustic”: Lazy and Uneventful

Everlast’s (real name: Erik Schrody) 1998 hit What It’s Like was so wildly popular that plenty of people who DIDN’T know what it was like still learned all the words before they realized that the song’s finger-pointing-but-non-judgmental lyrics were aimed at them. It was a prominent enough track to help him sell almost three million copies of the record, Whitey Ford Sings the Blues, but can you name another single from this album? No? Neither can I? Before we get further, I want to remind you of the catchy, seemingly skillful composition of “What It’s Like.”

His most recent solo release, “The Life Acoustic” is, at least in sound, similar to his biggest hit, but starkly different from the myriad collaborations he’s been a part of. It takes his previously released but unknown solo tracks, strips them down, and lets his voice take center stage. Unfortunately, this is an album that feels like it’s trying and failing to be good enough for radio play on a rock station. There may even be a few tracks composed to head intentionally to adult contemporary purgatory. (All I can hear in Broken is Hootie and the Blowfish, but less vocally skilled.)

This is going to be a mostly critical review, so if you’re an Everlast fan, I’d recommend you take pause before continuing. Musically, this album feels stale, derivative and not carefully composed or completely thought through. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a seriously lack of competence that we’re only finally able to fully see in this record. After quite a few careful listens, I do not hear more than four or five chords in most of the songs, all of which begin with Everlast speaking the title of the tune into his microphone. Then the guitar comes in, followed soon after by keyboard or piano. I like simplicity in my music, but these tracks feel lazy to me, formulaic. It’s as if were rearranged and recomposed in a day and recorded in one take 24-hours later.

But worse is that Everlast’s recognizable, gritty, often almost-off-key vocals sound just as careless as the composition. He sings through most of the record. I found myself so distracted by how out of place his voice sounded, that I was sometimes able to forget there were even strings being strummed behind him. I heard pieces without a whole; genres being haphazardly thrown together into one song without consideration of the audience. (My Medicine is a good example of this.)

My last criticism here is that most of what this album conveys lyrically is adulthood, its underlying resentments, its unforgiving nature. The songs that Everlast chose to feature here are all about sort of resigning yourself to loneliness and responsibility, but doing so knowingly. Ultimately, though, I think I prefer him when he’s angry.

“The Life Acoustic” was released on August 27, 2013 on Martyr Inc. Records. It is available on iTunes here.

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Step into Another World with “The Revolution Is Never Coming” by The Red Paintings

The debut LP of original music from Australia’s The Red Paintings, The Revolution Is Never Coming, is a deep, dynamic force of an album that’s at once familiar and alien. On it, you hear both a band and an orchestra. Strings, electronics, and pianos accompany rock’n’roll electric guitars and heavy drums. Lead singer Trash McSweeney’s voice is also oddly contradictory: it has the power and screaming ability of a 90s grunge rocker and the implied vulnerability of each and every twee indie pop singer in the world. It’s this striking combination of sounds that leads you gently into the album just to shake you up midway through.

The record is strongest when the 90s grunge drumming and guitar complement the orchestra’s magnificent sounds, rather than compete with them. Exhibit A: the nine-minute long fifth track, The Fall of Rome. It starts slowly, acoustically, and then 30 seconds in gets bigger. But you’re not overwhelmed. You get to hear the traditional sounds you’d expect from a band that’s regularly compared to Nine Inch Nails before McSweeney’s vocals take a back seat to the musical compilation. Strings are brought forward; the guitar is played forcefully, almost angrily; Andy Davis effectively goes crazy on his drums. And then it’s briefly silent (or at least compared to the previous musical onslaught). There is no decrescendo, no transition back into solely classical instruments. It just sort of happens but doesn’t feel disconnected or unintentional. This song is a remarkable example of how good The Red Paintings are at making an orchestra seem right at home in what should maybe (at least sometimes) be described as experimental hard rock.

Other outstanding tracks on this album include Vampires Are Chasing me as its opener. This is the track that introduces you to how plainly pretty The Red Paintings can be. On the other hand, Streets Fell into My Window has the most complete feel to it, never straying too far into either musical extreme. (You should really consider watching the video for it here.) And lastly, is the teasing Hong Kong which ends at least five times before you stop being surprised when it picks back up again.

There’s also the slightly odd integration of retro-and-popular culture references that are infused into quite a few of the album’s 13 songs: I caught quotes from AI, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Signs. There’s a mention of the yellow brick road that’s unmissable as well. Please note the out-of-this-world connection that all four of those have in common. And maybe that’s this album’s full intention: to provide us, as listeners, with something that requires we stretch our mind out a bit to make room for something new.

While I can’t yet say that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing The Red Paintings live, I think I’d be doing you a disservice by not mentioning their concert style. Each of the band’s members is outfitted in outrageous costume. There are backup dancers (performers may be a better word). Ellie Hutchinson of the Perth Music Online Spaceship News writes of their live set in phrases like this: “On paper, a spectacle; in person, something akin to a religious experience. With frantic riffing, haunting strings, and a primal energy that can’t be faked, TRP are not just another pretentious art-rock band.” As the band plays, painters paint behind them. But not just on canvasses, on people. Sometimes, on willing audience members.

According to their website, TRP will be performing at Garfield Artworks on October 27. I’ll be attending for the spectacle, or maybe for the slight possibility that The Red Paintings will, in fact, transport me out of my world and into theirs. It’s undoubtedly more fun there, and infinitely less predictable.

– Meredith Whitney (@MereWhitney)

Said the Whale’s “hawaiii”– Tap Your Toes to This Record

I’m quite unsure why Vancouver’s Said the Whale named their upcoming album hawaiii (with an intentionally lowercase h and an extra i), but it hardly matters. The 2011 JUNO award winners recorded it in short periods of time over six months, playing songs to live audiences before taking them into the studio to finalize them. “The time in between sessions allowed us to reflect on what we’d recorded, to tour and road-test some of the songs, and to continue writing,” said Tyler Bancroft, singer and lyricist. That production method seems to have worked; hawaiii is set to be released on September 17, 2013. This effort, like their previous LPs, is an eclectic, almost genre-bending mix of sounds that begs you to pay attention, lest you miss something, but never strays far enough from the band’s indie pop/rock roots to alienate you.

Let’s start with the album’s arc, shall we? It’s bookended by two of the record’s slowest songs, the first about non-romantic longing, a tangible desire for something more, and the last about winter’s horrible ability to make us all so very, very sad. These are strong, likable songs for sure, but if you listen to the record straight through, they feel like a fore-and-after thought. The album gears up after More Than This (the aforementioned first track) moving into its apex and reintroducing traditional Said the Whale sounds: consistently catchy lyrics, a penchant for harmonies that tune you in immediately, and the always-present hint at good old fashioned rock’n’roll. You want to keep listening from song to song because they’re just genuinely good. So when a slide guitar appeared for the first and only time on Weight of the Season, it caught my attention, yet contrasted a bit too sharply with the indie-pop goodness of the rest of hawaiii.

This distinction is evident in the Spoon-like bass and vocals on the album’s first single, I Love You, which give way to a catchy and surely quotable chorus. Said the Whale’s target audience (me and most of my indie rock audiophile friends) will be throwing around lyrics and tapping our toes to it for the rest of the summer. And the pitch-perfect harmonies on Oh K, Okay, are sweet and simple and just plain smile-inducing. They’re reminiscent of teenage love. The kind that distracts you in math class, forces you to doodle hearts, and potentially produces a poorly written sonnet or two. These are the album’s strongest tunes. Resolution, it should be noted, also feels different from the rest of the album, despite its place squarely in the middle. It’s grittier and a little bit more retro, ending with a verse or two of rap before fading out.

Said the Whale is currently touring with Kopecky Family Band (whom I’ve seen twice— damn good live show), but will soon grace Pittsburgh with their presence at the South Side’s Smiling Moose. I don’t dance (sad, but true), but fully intend to stop in, bob my head, and grin for a few hours. If this record mirrors their live sound at all, I have to recommend that everyone else does, too.