Friday, May 20, 2011
Review: Maps & Atlases / Elsinore / Walkmen - Urbana
By Jon Stone | @jwstone
Over the weekend I saw three shows in Champaign-Urbana. Each show was a good show--great even. But wow, were they different experiences. This disparateness is one of the things that makes thinking and writing about music appealing: parsing through the musical experience looking for clues and connections of their quality with our resulting affinity. My goal here is to review each of these shows but also make a larger argument (that includes some theorizing--sorry: academic alert) about why it is we like the music we do and what makes for large-scale success.
That argument, however, requires some set-up. (Skip down to the reviews if you have no patience for such things. No one will know!). My friend Cory and I see a lot of live music together and we frequently find ourselves in friendly though sometimes heated discussion about the bands we see. One of the things we've been kicking around lately is this question of what makes a band appealing on a large-scale. In development is a theory of musical archetypes. These archetypes are broader than genre classifications: As you'll see below and probably already know, it's becoming more and more difficult to map genre within popular music--and likely, the easier a band is to classify, the less interesting they are. Again, these archetypes are much bigger, more general "types" and are also, therefore, difficult to name. For now, I'll explore two--a pairing-- and call one "sing" bands and the other "think" bands (corny, but I'm looking for simple terms that sum up the central tenants of the archetype). It is likely that you love bands that belong to either archetype, which I will now attempt to explain:
"Sing" (or "oral") bands dominate the music industry. In fact, I might go so far as to say that the genre designation "pop" encompasses most "sing" bands, but surely not without numerous exceptions (and "pop" bleeds over profusely into the "think" bands [and vice-versa], as you will likely see). "Sing" bands are those that we, (duh) sing along to. We feel the music and the melody on our lips. We hum along. We whistle later. We sing in the car. We we walk down the street singing even though we have our earbuds in, and most of all, we SING at the shows. "Sing" bands are great--they actually have it a bit easier than "think" bands. It's not that the singer is the only thing going on in the band, but those words and vocal melody is, perhaps, the most important element. We connect with the band though that voice and lyric. It's the first point of contact.
"Think" (or "aural") bands are a little bit difficult to explain, but you'd know one if you saw/heard one. I'll argue (and you may disagree) that we primarily experience these bands on an aural (non-speech)/cognitive level and because there isn't a dominant oral cue to pull us in, the musicians have to get us there in some other way. Some do so in a display of technical skill, others with sonic experimentation, while still others figure some other non-oral ways of connecting with the audience. Whatever the case, these bands are usually best experienced live. Watching them do their thing seems important to the process (you frequently hear the description "I can't believe they pulled that off live!"), but also, as I experienced with first band I'll review below, there is something very corporeal to the experience. In other words, our minds and bodies respond.
Ok, on to the show reviews. Sorry to put you through that, but it seemed important to get off my chest for some reason.
Maps & Atlases:
I'm not really a math guy. Maybe that's why I find the phrase "math rock" off-putting. I read somewhere that Maps & Atlases were math-rockers, and I was like, what, they play their set with TI-89 calculators or something? (ooh, bad joke.) Seriously, though--if math rock were the the term to describe the kind of intricate, syncopated (and wow! fast!) phrases that Maps & Atlases employ in their set, wouldn't that make Les Claypool the father of math rock? His imagined response to such a label is enough to again question its validity. And I don't know that the guys in Maps & Atlases could (or would want to!) corroborate that genealogical shot in the dark. Math-rock, indeed.
And man, Maps & Atlases are good! The show on Friday night at the Courtyard Cafe in the University of Illinois student student union was the first full set I've heard from the band, though I saw them play as a part of our Pygmalion fest earlier in the year kind of on a whim. It left me wanting more. I think their first song at Pygmalion was the dizzy waltz titled "Ted Zancha" (see below) and I loved that drummer Chris Hainey was playing the glockenspiel and the drums at the same time. He really sets the pace in Maps & Atlases and he has to in a band so percussive. Dave Davison and Erin Elders play their guitars as if they were instruments of rhythm. Their dueling fret-tapping plays out on stage like an intricate dance--joined frequently in a trio by bassist Shiraz Dada.
It was during their Friday set that part of that above theory started to be formulated. Davison wasn't knocking me out with his live vocals--which are unique to be sure, but get a bit buried in the other amazing stuff going on during the live set. But they got me dancing and thinking and counting (damn! math!--but seriously, I've never heard so many syncopated triplets [or whatever they were] inside an up-tempo, 4/4 measure). These guys have something really special going on and you can hear it on their latest EP You Me and the Mountain and you should, but you MUST see these guys to really understand. Take a little peek below to see what I mean, care of their MySpace page.
I got a chance to visit with Davison and Dada a bit before their set. I wondered about this hammered semi-acoustic, arch-top that Davison uses sometimes. He told me it's a Harmony "Rocket" and was the first guitar he ever bought--$40 at a pawn shop. It had been his second-string guitar until he decided to take it on tour (rather than the beautiful 50's era Gibson--his main axe--on a plane). Anyway, Davison knows the guitar tech who does work for fellow-Chicagoan Andrew Bird. "He took it and made it ring," Davison said-- and wow, did it ever.
When I first moved to Champaign a few years ago, I immediately tried to get a feeling for the local music scene. I didn't know yet how amazing our little college town was at attracting interesting acts, and in Phoenix, AZ where I moved from there only seemed to be two options for live music: the unbearably huge arena shows and the small, under-appreciated local bands at semi-deserted Phoenix and Tempe clubs. I first saw and was impressed by our local band Elsinore at Urbana's Corn Festival late in the summer of 2007, though they've been playing together for over five years now.
It wasn't, however, until I saw Ryan Groff (lead-singer & songwriter) play a solo show that I started to get excited about his band. For all Elsinore's musical prowess, it's Groff's work as a vocalist that makes the band a standout. And for those of us who fancy ourselves musical, his voice is truly cause for envy: It's BIG with dynamic range that reaches higher than you think it should into the falscetto stratosphere. But along with the voice, his song-writing is strong and there is some real technical skill in the craft that you can see on display both at Elsinore shows and when performing solo.
I saw Elsinore (which I so hope was inspired by Strange Brew--"I'm taking you to the loony bin, eh." "Take off, eh! Take me to the brewery!") on Saturday night back at the Courtyard Cafe. Elsinore is currently on tour warming up material from their as-yet unreleased new album "Yes Yes Yes". From the material I've heard online and at shows, it's going to be fantastic. Elsinore works well as an example in the "sing" archetype. You just can't help it. Near the end of "Wooden Houses," for example, Groff starts singing the refrain: "This is how hunger strikes begin." I promise that you will be hard pressed not to be singing along by the end of the song. Groff frequently introduces the song, as he did Saturday night, as a song about getting married while George W. was president. He may have even dedicated it to those of us who got married in that era. Dedication accepted.
Here's a great clip of the band singing my song on the streets of Boulder and a link to them playing it in a more traditional setting. Check this band out, folks. They're not just for mid-westerners. I wish them all the luck I can muster and promise to write again here when the record comes out.
After the Elsinore set was over, I wandered over to the beautiful Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Krannert hosted the incredible guitar festival Ellnora a few months ago where we were graced with the talent of (to name just a few) Jerry Douglas, Bill Frisell, The National and National side-project "The Long Count" (which featured Kim and Kelly Deal and Shara Worden) as well as hosting the headliners from our amazing Pygmalion Festival each year that I've lived here (Andrew Bird, Yo La Tengo, and Iron & Wine).
Krannert is piece of art on its own and the Walkmen added to it by playing an incredible (free!) show on Saturday night. They played every song you might have hoped to hear and tried out several new ones (see the set list below). I'd never seen them before and I was so impressed by their focus, their musicianship, their unique style, and Hamilton Leithauser's voice. Wow. The Walkmen have that it that is easy to hear but so difficult to write about. And they have received praise and success relative to that it. This actually becomes the most important part of my argument that I started above: this "it" is created by just the right mixture of the above sing/think archetypes. The Walkmen do this. Their set had me rapt: vintage instruments, mid-set instrument switching, one guitarist that sounded like three, impossibly fast, intense drumming, songs that I have had in my head ever since. It was all there. Radiohead and Wilco are the best examples I can think of in our modern music sphere. But think any respected band where there is a fairly wide-spread consensus on their quality. These are the bands that make us sing and make us think. They change and mutate the boundaries of our tastes. They make us want to research and explore their influences. They become our favorites.
Granted, some folks will disagree. And others have tastes that hard-line on either side and just can't see what the big deal is about bands that fall outside of their particular leanings. To be clear, also, all of the bands I have discussed above have a mix of attributes from either archetype. There were fans SINGING along at the Maps & Atlases show and if you've seen Groff operate a loop pedal or analyzed the complexities of his vocal melodies you'll realize how smart his music is. But sometimes bands just play their one note and that's it and they seem happy to do so. For me, that's just not enough.
The Walkmen's set:
On the Water / In the New Year / new song /Canadian Girl / Four Provinces /What's in it For Me / Thinking of a Dream I Had / Postcards From Tiny Island / new song / The Rat / new song / Donde Esta la Playa / All Hands and the Cook / Little House of Savages