Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: The Antlers - Canopy Club, Urbana

By Jon Stone | @jwstone

Champaign-Urbana had a busy Record Store Day on Saturday, with all-day band and dj action at Champaign'sExile on Main St and Urbana's Parasol Records, as well as a variety of other performances and events around town (I took my kids to see one of my local favorites, Elsinore, who were playing a rare all-ages show -- one of FOUR they played Saturday -- at the Champaign Public Library). It was a great day for music.

I was looking forward to the Antlers visit to the Canopy Club to end off the day's festivities, but unsure, really, of what to expect. The Antlers played our Pygmalion festival* last year on a packed bill that they shared with a conglomerate of disparate bill-mates and from at least one report (I wasn't there) the show didn't really take off. Also, even though their debut record Hospice was a huge favorite among critics last year (MofB's own Ryan M. names it as his 9th favorite record of 2009), I didn't fall in love with it. Don't get me wrong, I like the record as a friend. We just haven't settled down together or anything.

My reservations about the record are few. I think it does an amazing job building and maintaining a dialectical aesthetic of desolation and beauty -- as I was explaining to my friend, it's not a record about losing your girlfriend, its a record about LOSING your girlfriend. It does so in a lush, wall-of-sound way that makes that despair beautiful and crisp even as it breaks your heart. But, for me, the record doesn't have enough dynamic oomph--it's there in the music, it's just not there in the mix (if that makes sense). It doesn't up-shift.  Even when, in Kettering -- the albums flagship song -- when the drums and wall kick in, the volume doesn't explode. It maintains it's whisper. I suppose this may be the very reason people love it so much.  Also, there is a circular nature to the melodies on Hospice that while perhaps intentional sometimes wear out their welcome for me.

I hoped that the live show would break out of at least that first reservation and I wasn't disappointed. The Antlers start out hushed, as you might expect, but when they kick it up -- usually due to drummer Michael Learner's tight and concise-if-devastating hammering -- it really gets kicked up. As I've indicated I'm a sucker for big dynamic shifts, so live, when Kettering moves into that late-song crescendo, it really does blast. That made me happy.
The Antlers are a tough band to categorize. They don't really fit comfortably in any contemporary guitar-rock niche, but as I listened Saturday night it occurred to me that the band is more akin to electronic acts like M83 or what you might call "hybird" semi-electronic bands like The Sea and Cake or Sigur Ros. I got a similar vibe from openers Phantogram -- whom I pegged as strange tourmates at first. It turns out, though, that they complement each other well. In other words, this was more than just your standard guitar band fare. The Antlers build that sound carefully as a close-to-the-stage view revealed what must have been 20 separate pedals and sound boxes both at foot and on hand between lead man Peter Silberman and keyboardist Darbi Cicci. There is some sonic craftsmanship happening on stage at an Antlers show.

Something too should be said Silberman's voice. It is the centerpiece of the band and it has a kind of classic sound to it. I may be the only person to have ever thought this, but there were parts of the show last night that sounded downright English New Wave to me -- like I could have been at a late 80s Cure or Depeche Mode show (and, believe me, that's a compliment). Silberman's voice soars and is reminiscent, to me, of Martin Gore's (who sang the best DM tracks). Something about Silberman's voice isn't quite there yet, though. On the way out my friend nailed it when he said, "Man, he's got pipes -- but its like he hasn't quite learned how to use the gas pedal yet."

My one big hope for the night was that the band would be able to maintain the emotional tenor of the record which, given its nature as a record about cancer and death, seemed nearly too much to ask. It seems as though such heavy subject matter would get to be too much to bear and recreate night after night and the band would resort to irony or to phoned-in performance. Incredibly, the Antlers didn't disappoint here. The show was intense and maintained an emotional honesty that can't be easy to pull off. In addition, they played a new song -- "never before heard by anyone" they announced. That made for some happy fans.

Check out this free EP from the band titled New York Hospitals and tell us what you thought if you caught the band here or elsewhere (at last night's Madison show, for example).

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