Decemberists LIVE!

The Fillmore (sigh) show was nothing short of spectacular. So great, in fact, that I am compelled to change "Fillmore (sigh)" to Fillmore (yay). The band was tight, energized and clearly enjoying the show. And the crowd was electric, despite not entirely filling the auditorium. This was clearly a show dominated by serious fans. Sing-a-long passion flowed freely throughout.

Playing the entire Hazards Of Love album first, then a handful of back catalog songs, Colin, Jenny, Chris, Nate and John nearly brought the house down as if this were a metal show. Guest vocalists Becky Stark and Shara Worden performed beyond any expectations established by the album. And then ladies turned it on for a jaw-droppingly special 70s hard rock cover. Just a fantastic show. If they're playing near you throughout the remainder of the tour, I wholeheartedly recommend attendance. You will not be disappointed. The set list is below (cobbled together a bit from memory... so the first encore set may be ever so slightly jumbled) NOW REVISED FOR CORRECTNESS:

  1. Prelude
  2. The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone)
  3. A Bower Scene
  4. Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
  5. The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)
  6. The Queen's Approach
  7. Isn't It a Lovely Night?
  8. The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid
  9. An Interlude
  10. The Rake's Song
  11. The Abduction of Margaret
  12. The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing
  13. Annan Water
  14. Margaret in Captivity
  15. The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)
  16. The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise)
  17. The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)
Intermission - First Encore:
  1. Leslie Anne Levine
  2. We Both Go Down Together
  3. Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)
  4. Billy Liar
  5. Dracula's Daughter
  6. O Valencia!
  7. 16 Military Wives
  8. Crazy On You (Heart Cover)
Second Encore:
  1. Sons & Daughters
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Bill Callahan - modern transcendental poetics

Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is Bill Callahan's second non Smog or (Smog) release, and save for a bit lighter instrumentation and a generally pastoral approach to the music, the album delivers everything a fan could want. The album art first plays up the pastoral tone. It's an album that seems from the front cover on through the music to be transcendentalist. The photo is overexposed featuring horses grazing in a yellow-gold field of grass that extends so far behind them to a bank of trees that space is nearly infinite, but realistically limited before the horizon. With this image, a listener who knows Callahan's work, or even a new-adopter, can garner an idea of his music's nuances. Sparseness (open field), light but washed of flourish vocalization (overexposed) and a certain folksy down-home-ness (image content) are all his calling cards through years as Smog and on other projects. Those qualities and his thick, simmering baritone. The beauty is, that in releasing just his second album under no pseudonym, the album art shows the vulnerability associated with removing that protective moniker. The album states itself plainly and so does it begin musically.

The project as a whole just feels honest. A rambling storyteller's collection of anecdotes and poetic turns of phrase assembled to delicate, but deliberate musical arrangements. The guitar is relaxed and sometimes wispy. Horns and strings are present, but not to create a theatrical weight or add intense brightness. Instead the backing musicians enhance the pastoral scene, painting a backdrop that allows the imagination to easily project Callahan and guitar into that grass field from the cover. The album is not minimalist, but it is, again, transcendentalist. Callahan, like Thoreau and Emerson places his audience in an austere musical nature and asks them only to listen to the notes and ponder the lyrics. This is made easy through his deep, talk-sing vocals, as we don't feel compelled to concentrate on the melody and forget the poetics.

And poetry is really the album's heart and soul. This factor is most pronounced in "Too Many Birds," a song whose lyrics have already landed on a few blogs before this one, but one that is so brilliantly composed that it begs additional praise. Callahan croons, "Too many birds in one tree/
Too many birds in one tree/And the sky is full of black and screaming leaves/The sky is full of black and screaming" with a deliberate and calm affect. But, seriously! "Screaming leaves" has to be one of the best descriptions written in music, or for that matter poetry in the last few years. A "sky full of black and screaming" implies such turmoil that though not present in Callahan's voice, it feels tangible. And after all of this lyrical violence, the song breaks down/builds up to a final line: "If you could only stop your heart beat for one heart beat." Passionate words from a dispassionate voice that are moving in their dissonance.

All this said, appreciated the album academically does require a certain love of Bill Callahan's understatement. Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is an incredible 48+ minutes of folksy indie balladry that might not always be your first choice for a party mix, or a driving album to work up an energized sensibility, but it is introspective. And damn brilliantly composed introspection at that.
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St. Vincent - Actor

Since picking up the Yeah Yeah Yeahs new album It's Blitz! a few weeks ago, I had been lauding it as the best album of the year. I showered the record with praise that drenched it like the guy in the old Irish Spring commercials. And all of that praise was deserved, but guess what... 2009 is an INCREDIBLE year for new music and St. Vincent's new release Actor has supplanted It's Blitz! as the front runner for album of the year. And yes, I know it's only May. I have a calendar. I just wrote about calendars, I love them... there's lots of 2009 left. But that's what is so additionally exciting. It's only May! Great music is oozing out of this year, so please go to a record store, pick up something new (or... "download" it if the tangible disinterests you).

Actor arrives two years after St. Vincent's first album Marry Me, which was one of the most exciting new artist debuts in recent memory. Of course, a great first album is both a blessing and a bane. We've all heard of the sophomore curse that destroys some bands before they begin or shows, in the case of former-darlings Franz Ferdinand, what a band really is... patently shitty. Actor denies the sophomore slump with the force of a hurricane mixed with an earthquake bred with a grizzly bear. The album is better than Marry Me, and almost completely different, not at all content to rest on successful folk-infused indie balladiering. Instead it strives toward a more dissonant, crunchier, over-driven sound coupled with gorgeous vocals and ingenious (yes... so genius there's a prefix) lyrics.

St. Vincent is not a band, but one Annie Clark, a multi-instrumentalist dynamo from Tulsa, Oklahoma who also happens to be entirely gorgeous. Prior to her solo releases she was a member of the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens' touring band. And she's an incredible musician, both vocally and in her compositions. Seeing her live is an experience that anyone with a shred of fandom in them must do. Clark takes the stage alone, surrounded with instruments, effects pedals, double mics and minimal lighting. She then proceeds to create songs from the album, layered and sonically dense, without any one's help. She is a slight, demure character, with lightly curled dark hair cut above the shoulders and big, inviting eyes. She looks smaller than her voice, and yet she's capable of invoking deep passion, fear and whimsy through the haunting (yet sweet) quality in her singing.

Back to the album. A rarity in being better than her first, Clark creates a dark, but delightful scene reminiscent of the opium scenes in Alice In Wonderland. (I mean, the whole book/movie is opiate-laden, but specifically the mood and tone of whispering precariousness.) Opening with a howling track called "The Strangers," the album continues to haunting tracks like "Black Rainbow" and "Just The Same But Brand New". Actor isn't devoid of upbeat, fun tracks though. "Actor Out Of Work" is incredible, and I compel you to check out the video. My favorite track captures the ideas of aging, isolation, and trying to go home and it has the most hardcore title on the album. "Laughing With A Mouthful Of Blood" crashes and then paces with brilliant lyrics like "All of my old friends aren't so friendly, and all of my old haunts are now haunting me." Very concisely expressing the very alienation that time can provide, and Annie Clark loves alienation... and she's not afraid of it. For St. Vincent, life is a complicated fantasy and success isn't predicated through skill or talent so much how we face the darknesses around us. We've got to hunt the monsters under the bed. Take the fight to them. No more lying awake in fear.

Actor deserves an A grade, and it's an 11 on the Spinal Tap scale of excellence. Annie Clark has shown an incredible virtuosity and creativity that is so rare in the current one-and-done indie rock scene. It's not often that the new record is better than the first, especially when the first was deliciously breakout awesome. This one is. Now, if only she'd write a song called "Marry Me, Nate" I could die in peace.
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Words On Film: Star Trek 2009

Despite the cache of stories and themes built into the long-running Star Trek franchise, I entered the theater today with a cautious optimism. I readily admit my geekiness. I watched many of the Star Trek episodes from the numerous television series, along with most of the films. The franchise is at heart a sequence of morality plays melded with action and adventure. This narrative quality, which I won't go into here, was cataloged brilliantly by the A.V. Club label of The Onion.

Knowing that many of the recent remake/rework/reboot films of pop-culture nostalgia have been groan-worthy, though sometimes briefly inspiring, (Specifically: the first two Star Wars prequels, Transformers, and Lost In Space.) I knew could not expect too much. And yet, Star Trek did not disappoint. The film combines high-quality digital effects with solid writing. It's both an exhilarating action film with well choreographed fight sequences, and a witty, intelligent character-driven story. The battles take more influence from Hitchcock and less Zack Snyder and other neo-gore directors. There is no needless bullet-time or exorbitant brutality. As for the writing and direction... J.J. Abrams allows his actors to live these classic characters as realistic people, wrought with emotion and complexity. His Star Trek is homage mixed with a complete reworking of the original concept. The film maintains the universe created by Gene Roddenberry in 1966, but does not require the intimate knowledge of a "trekkie" to enjoy. And at its best it does not fail in its effort to remain accessible by avoiding the overwriting and redesigning of those other films I mentioned parenthetically.

In a "classic" Abrams turn, time and its function are central aspects of the narrative. Through his work on LOST, Abrams has successfully manipulated time and space to enhance the story, and he does the same here. Time travel, black holes and planetary destruction all give the audience something to ponder, but without a specifically scientific emphasis that could hinder gross comprehension. And by this I do not mean that the film dumbs down the franchise, it merely draws the curtains wider to let more viewers see inside. By altering the beginnings of the Star Trek original series story, his film lends new dimensions to old characters, making Kirk angry and brash, but talented. Spock remains logical, but with a heart-on-his-sleeve quality. And Simon Pegg's short turn as Scotty is hilarious without being campy or tacked on. Despite the reboot, the film tosses in quotes that even a casual fan will pick up as allusive to the old series. Even Leonard Nimoy is aboard, evidently enjoying the film, and acting up a storm. And while many of these are the lighter, comic-relief points in the film, they do not detract from the drama and tension built through excellent acting, casting and characterization.

While the film does lack much of the morality play design of those in Star Trek's past, by the end (which seems to come all too quickly) that does not matter. I felt attached to these new versions of those characters, each one breathed full of new life by a great story. Star Trek made me wonder what could come from George Lucas handing over the director chair to new blood, new writers and new cast members, rather than relying on an old formula infused with more needless information and childish design than modern audiences desire. Specifically, to the Star Trek's credit (and that of Abrams and the writers) we are not presented with long-winded explanations of Kirk's childhood, or forced to sit through the range of emotional changes in a young man without a father. Abrams and the writers know that jumping ahead from Kirk's brief appearance as a child, to his entrance into Star Fleet Academy early in the film is more enthralling than lingering to show the details of a broken home. They know the audience is smart enough to infer and imagine these missing bits. In short: less is more. So complexities of personality are implied, without the needless exposition that haunted those other prequels and remakes.

Star Trek is more than worth the price of admission, and should be seen in the theater on the glory of the big screen where you can easily immerse yourself in the plot and its created world. If we are fortunate enough to receive more summer films of this quality throughout 2009, then it will have been a very good year.
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The Hazards Of Love - Redux

The Decemberists, touring on The Hazards Of Love, will be in Denver on May 26th... at the Fillmore (sigh), but the potential amazing-ness associated with this performance outweigh the mediocrity of the venue. Shara Worden's powerful pipes alone are worth the price of admission, especially considering her inspired performance of "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid" on Colbert recently. Thing is, the show is not yet sold out. And, yes, the Fillmore will be teeming with coiffed teens in skinny jeans, but this is going to be something special. More than just a rock show, it will be a storytelling, artistic, and escapist-18th Century-magic experience. I will be there... and probably will geek out and white-guy dance in place throughout the show.

The Hazards Of Love remains as divisive as I predicted in my review. I've found that even among The Decemberists ardent fans it is a fence album. In subsequent listens, the album has grown on me more and more. To the extent that I don't feel I described it fairly to begin with. The story is beautiful. The vocals are incredible. And the writing is perfect. Sure... it's a concept heavy album, but it is executed so well that even a bit of eccentricity on Colin Meloy's part must be excused. Specifically, "A Bower Scene" and "The Rake's Song," fling rock explosiveness in a way that was hinted at by The Tain. Really, it is the natural resultant of a progressing, if occasionally pretentiously artistic, band. So now, I recommend with even greater praise. Give the album time to grow on you. Let yourself understand the love of a captive, shape-shifting boy, and a charming girl, and the villainous mother and rakish child-murderer that stand between them. And take note of the chord change and the theme assigned to each character... and where revenge crops up to alter the tone.

A review of the new St. Vincent is upcoming... soon...
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