Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Morning Jacket Perform ‘At Dawn’

Concerts where bands play out an entire album are few and far between, usually only reserved for anniversary events or comeback tours, or almost exclusively Pink Floyd. However, in a recent five night residency at Terminal 5 (New York City) My Morning Jacket dedicated each evening to a single album, suitably themed, and with limited interruption.

Following support act ‘Hacienda’, a Texas-based rock and roll group with an endearing pulse and swagger, My Morning Jacket emerge as shadows behind a psychedelic curtain reminiscent of the relevant album artwork and building the drone of the album’s opener and title track; ‘At Dawn.’ A howl and a drum fill lead into second track ‘Lowdown’ which sounds as smooth as on record, and is followed by the aptly named ‘The Way That He Sings’ (cue mass ‘hum-along’) in an upbeat country-come-pop-rock double-hit suit. Melancholy ‘Death Is The Easy Way Out’ slows the pace and flows eerily into standout track ‘Hopefully’ where James is able to showcase his vocal talent to the utmost; note perfect and bouncing the lyrics off every wall and chandelier. The introspective trio is completed with ‘Bermuda Highway’ before the driving blues-infused ‘Honest Man’ which is extended beyond the album version’s near eight minutes for a thrilling riff-roaring crescendo. The pleasantly warming love song ‘Xmas Curtain’ complete with jingles and steel drums proffers the delicious refrain; ‘’you’re the criminal that never breaks the lock,’’ and adds to the nostalgia. Fading out, a kick drum hurls the band and crowd into ‘Just Because I Do,’ a raucous pop-rock number that sees the crowd rising and falling in unison to the dynamic change in tempo. Band exit, James stands alone and fumbles his way beautifully through ‘If It Smashes Down,’ sparsely picking at his banjo, a reverb enhanced vocal master class; howling, operatic, his chords hit the highest peak and enrapture the now silent audience. The deathly slow ‘I Needed It Most’ sees James tearing himself to shreds, belting out each line and slamming each strum pattern as if his life depended on it. Band return and ska-influenced number ‘Phone Went West’ is a finely crafted song with a catchy chorus and arguably the best ‘band’ performance of the evening; James’ vocals for once subdued, spoken not sang, but lengthy solos and uplifting instrumentals straying from the album version producing arguably the best ‘band‘ performance of the night. Psychedelic, throbbing, ‘Strangulation’ lives up to its name both on record and as a gig-closer, with all the genres of country, blues, pop, rock, represented on this album, the finale starts hard and heavy, turns once more into a rhythmic gospel number for the most part, before descending into chaos; driving bass, crashing cymbals, towering screams and feedback.

On record Jim James’ vocals are unquestionably unique and starkly mind-blowing on the more introspective tracks. Live, they somehow manage to sound even purer, taking off and soaring throughout the concert hall. For whatever reason My Morning Jacket have decided to do this series of album-focused gig nights, the outcome of tonight is that they make you realise, even more than you did before you chose to go, what an amazing album ‘At Dawn’ is, and also appreciate the thought involved in mixing the album, from opening song, through peaks and troughs, to the final track and unending afterthought.

My Morning Jacket performed ‘At Dawn’ (2001) in its entirety at Terminal 5, W56th Street, New York City.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan (Feat. Willy Mason) @ Bowery Ballroom

Vacating the bar in the Bowery Ballroom just minutes prior to going on stage, support act Willy Mason is perhaps the most humble, relaxed and ultimately genuine twenty-five year old on the planet. Introducing himself and announcing his pleasure to be in New York, he furthermore declares his intention to play a set of entirely original music. Racing through a number of intimate, seemingly ‘off-the-cuff’ songs, interspersed with classics like ‘Hard Hand To Hold’ and ‘Into Tomorrow,’ he delivers his bold vocals with such ease that his words seem made to be heard over the sound of breaking glass - which on a night like tonight is a prerequisite, given the marked disrespect from a rather vociferous contingent of this Manhattan audience. More ‘rarities’ and previously unheard tales of sorrow masterfully crafted drift out across the ballroom in Mason’s resonant deep declaration. Live favourites ‘Waiter At The Station’ (written by his mother) and ‘I Got Gold’ (written for his father) end the set in fine style as Mason gives a simple nod, picks up his bottle of Red Stripe (which he alleges had been staring at him all set) and thanks the New York crowd before heading back down to the bar.

The unlikely duo of former Belle and Sebastian singer and cellist Isobel Campbell, and Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, QOTSA, Gutter Twins) remain initially elusive in order to allow anticipation, as well as the crowd itself in the Bowery Ballroom, to build. Sauntering silently on, backed by a four-piece band, the pair launch into the opener from new album Hawk; ‘We Die and See Beauty Reign,’ a track that wouldn’t sound out of place in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks’ ‘Red Room‘; a dream-inducing, pulsating slow dance to hypnotize every listener. Followed by most recent single ‘Come Undone,’ Lanegan, with words on a music stand in front of him, assumes his trademark stance, gripping the microphone with right-hand, stand with left, wincing with every note and watching over his female counterpart like Halloween‘s killer Michael Myers. Campbell on the other hand, who has produced the new album, is noticeably nervous, delivering her breathless vocals perfectly, but shifting around to involve her beloved cello and as many obscure percussion instruments in each song as possible.

‘Honey Child What Can I Do?’ ‘Ballad of the Broken Seas,’ and ‘The Circus is Leaving Town’ from debut album ’Ballad of the Broken Seas’ are a testament to Campbell’s song-writing flair. And despite the author’s unsettled demeanour, Lanegan appears more relaxed with each song, plying vocals to make anyone’s heart crumble in their chest. Vacating the stage after this medley, Lanegan is replaced by ‘’support’’ act Willy Mason, who appears on the new album and performs ‘No Place To Fall’ and the fantastic ‘Cool Water.’ Arguably too humble, especially when stood alongside the inanimate Campbell (long periods pass with the band playing and both Campbell and Mason shoe-gazing) Mason nevertheless ‘plays his part’ in tonight’s main act proceedings like a seasoned professional; running through note-perfect renditions of some of the new LP’s finer moments.

With Willy gone and Mark yet to return, Isobel plucks up the courage to introduce her band, including fellow song-writer, guitarist and oddly referenced ‘colleague’ Jim McCulloch before whispering a haunting version of ‘Saturday’s Gone’.

Lanegan back, the McCulloch penned ‘Salvation’ from second album ‘Sunday at Devil Dirt’ is blue-grassed up live, and ‘Back Burner’ from the same record demonstrates Campbell’s beautiful harmonies but also pedantry, again making sure every scratch, rattle and click is included from the polished version. The latter also demonstrates Lanegan’s incredible voice, a growl that only a prolonged 80-a-day habit can produce. An upbeat finale awakens the audience and rapturous applause ensues as the stage becomes deserted on the stroke of midnight.

Returning for the encore, partially sedated from preceding enchantment, no one could have expected such a spectacle. Favourites from ‘Ballad of the Broken Seas’ are made to sound darker and fresher; ‘Revolver’, ‘(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?’ and ‘Ramblin’ Man’ even see Lanegan shifting his shoulders and forcing out the revered drawl in a spine-tingling fashion. Before departing, even the most ardent fan could not have predicted the gig closer. ‘Wedding Dress,’ a Mark Lanegan (Band) original, thumps and grinds, the mesmerizing man himself gives it his all, as do the band, with raucous solos and crashing drums - a welcome, chaotic, mammoth goodbye.

'Hawk' by Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan (Feat. Willy Mason) is available now on V2 Records.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Kimya Dawson @ Knitting Factory

Running through songs from her forthcoming LP Kimya Dawson relied heavily on her cute persona and unconditional love from the audience to guide her through a set blighted by a bout of Laryngitis, hiccups and false-starts. In a shockingly brief 40 minute ‘headline’ set, there was just enough magic in the new tracks to keep the crowd engaged and ultimately satisfied following the abrupt finish. Her endearing charisma shone through in brief monologues about Seattle, daughter Panda and accusations of ‘selling-out’ after her hugely successful contribution to the film Juno.

True to her nature, the set became increasingly eclectic once it passed the half way point. An a cappella rap tirade (’Check Your Snob at the Door’) aimed at those voicing cynicism towards her new found fame preceded without doubt the saddest and most personal song of the evening; (‘Walk Like Thunder’) encompassing all matters of life, death, equality and love. To finish, ‘So Nice, So Smart’ lifted the mood and restored a degree of normalcy; a well-received gem to round off a short and indifferent yet largely entertaining performance.

Friday 8th October - Kimya Dawson was playing at the Knitting Factory, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Imitation of Life

When a sign goes up behind a stage and flyers are handed out with words instructing you to ‘SIT and Die…’ even in the most unassuming and down-right likeable of American restaurant bars, you never know quite what you are in for. To ease the situation, the bar in question is ‘Rodeo’ and is, (as carefully side-stepped earlier), very much an ‘American’ bar, and not so atypical of its location on the corner of East 27th Street, Manhattan, New York City.

The line-up of tonight’s entertainment slowly reveal themselves, pulling equipment past diners and onto the stage in front of their satirically authentic banner. ‘Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co.’ - a three-piece specializing in hillbilly-styled ‘’ballads, boogies and blues’’ deliver an image and musical set that is as sharp as their wit and accompanying on-stage banter. In a high-pitched vernacular lead guitarist and singer Michael would certainly not look out of place in the Coen Brothers’ ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ (nor would the rest of the trio) and in character they are just as amiable.

Michael reveals on the band’s website that the an acronym in the band’s name was a complete accident; though initial absurdity has surely lead to something much more memorable. Residents of Manhattan for a number of decades now, the group effortlessly meet their aims of ‘making the old songs sound new and the new ones sound old.’ Ripping through standards by Johnny Cash and Hank Williams; the homage to period times and workmanship Americana that seems long gone is honest, and makes for an enjoyable experience. These self-proclaimed ‘yessirs’ are worthy of every deliberate representation and conscious portrayal, as well as those that are purely and simply the product of a lifelong immersion into the rockabilly sound, an era and a way of life that once was, maybe still is; but for now, on the streets of New York it is nothing more than a fine imitation of life - a life far removed, yet far and away as good a live act as you will have the darn good fortune to see.

Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. play at ‘Rodeo’ (‘New York’s Longest Running Honky-Tonk’) on the corner of E27th Street and 3rd Avenue on the second Wednesday of every month, and Otto’s Shrunken Head Tiki Bar and Lounge at 538 E14th Street on the last Thursday of every month.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

'O Land of Our Birth - Cultural Identity within a Global Age'

''I regrettably missed the ‘opening night’ of ‘O Land of Our Birth’… ‘’

This is what I imagined myself saying as I optimistically made my way towards the current exhibition at the Sayle Gallery. I came away, however, torn between thinking that I did in fact not miss anything at all, or that whatever I did miss; I am glad I did. I understand it involved some kind of ‘performance spectacle’, and can only envisage more garish Manx tartan, an amateur dramatics production, and Celtic music fused with MC Hammer and Flashdance. Or some other irrelevant, immature display in attempts to embody the accompanying exhibition that remains.

Dimly lit, with claims of offering a juxtaposition of (Manx) heritage and popular culture; pieces include Celtic designs of corporate logos (that according to the written accompaniment we ‘consume’ on a regular basis) such as Nike, Chanel, Mercedes, and Playboy. The most affecting works are cross-stitched lyrics, combining quaintness and intrusion – the permeation of the media into the lives of everyone; young or old. ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ may widen certain eyes, but we can thank The Prodigy their lyrical prowess, (likewise Britney, Beyonce…) the medium used adds very little; a vague attempt at inciting a reaction from the suggestive stark contrast of modern affront and apparent naivety of times-gone-by. Two obscure photos appear to be an attempt at demonstrating a growing link between youth and sexuality, but are poorly conceived, reveal little and provoke nothing.

The ‘installation’; a close-up video of lips with Manx tartan lipstick design goes through an irritating assembly of nursery rhymes, Gaelic verse and again, the familiar ‘controversial’ lyrics about sex and so forth. As one guest noted, it does nothing more than get even more annoying when trying to view other pieces in the gallery.

The exhibition literature is littered with assertions of juxtaposition, perspective, popular culture, and identity. Unfortunately it falls short of addressing such issues. Granted, there is a suggestive union in almost all the works on display, but in no work here asks anything of the viewer in terms considering the individual or collective identity, or revealing some unknown perspective on the combination of popular culture and heritage.

The photos could be ignored, the installation is tiresome, the logos reminiscent of a high school art project, and the cross-stitch is linear and obvious. One final piece follows the trend, children’s stories, cartoon characters, smutty song lyrics; mildly amusing, nothing more. I noticed it on my way out of the darkened area to look at some art that was illuminating in more ways than one.

Thankfully on leaving I realized I had saved up enough stubs for a free coffee on my way back to work, thus meaning my lunch hour was not a complete waste.

'O Land of Our Birth - Cultural Identity within a Global Age' is on display at The Sayle Gallery, Villa Marina Colonnade, 1-3 Harris Promenade, Douglas, Isle of Man until August 8th.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

''Natural Abstractions'' (A celebration of the natural world in wood and ceramic)

Win Norton

On initially encountering the work of Win Norton, there is a lot to be said for how powerfully unique each piece is. As part of an exhibition, the work in general is similar in style and conception, but the individual significance of each crafted piece comes in the story, the title, the visualisation of the whole and the sum of its parts.

The dichotomy, even ‘conundrum’, that is presented by a work of art and the title it carries, can cause some controversy; echoing a chicken/egg argument. Was the piece based on a pre-conceived idea of crafting a perspicacious title? Does the naming of a piece add to it if it somehow provokes further thought, even infinite analysis, and the suggestion of another (‘higher’) level of creativity?

The ‘nature’ of the exhibition showcasing the work of Win Norton lends itself to either side. Some pieces (‘Fragments Falling’/’Fragmented’) lean towards being essentially abstract in both conception and creation and have been given life at an unknown stage in the artist’s individual quest for inspiration. The aforementioned, one arguably takes at face value, and attempts to connect with a hidden agenda in the indifferent, matter of fact ceramic shards that can be seen, arguably falling, but falling where, falling why, falling how?

Other such playfully emblematic pieces are bizarre in their seeming abstract rationality. ‘Icelandic Ash Cloud Coming Your Way’ is fantastic in encompassing humour, terror, beauty, science and nature, and will unearth personal emotions; thus giving abstraction a degree of clarity and logic.

Norton’s background in science and Biology is identifiable in further pieces resembling ceramic microcosms, and it is this cross-over in the exhibition that dictates the obvious combination of her work and the following artist.

Gavin Carter

Though figuratively the work of Gavin Carter is ‘alongside’ that of Win Norton, it is exhibited in such a way as to fill the middle of the gallery, where sharp, vertical sculptures stand proud on plinths and force the viewer to either circle or weave (or both) to gain premium vantage for closer inspection and deeper appreciation. For although the work is stark and abrasive, especially when viewed as a whole, each piece is precise, refined, accurate and detailed.

Motive and motivation also lies in the artist’s scientific background, merging molecular biology, biotechnology, but also nature – ecosystems, formations and content ranging from landscapes to the microscopic.

At the back of the gallery a large-spiked, claw-like sculpture ('Raven's Wing')unintentionally impacts due to the smell of paint and lacquer from the artist in residence’s studio area. The strong scent makes the already striking piece stand out further with it arguably being the only piece in the exhibition that looks capable of producing such an aroma, lending a ‘freshness’ to its appeal; as if being newly completed that morning, or indeed that furthermore it is a living entity, a biological phenomenon that requires continuous nurture.

No doubt scientific theory is met with the artist’s affinity for the natural world, visibly blending rigour and primality, and creating a tribal feel with vast oak statues that occasionally resemble over-sized, obscure African musical instruments, yet evoke a true sense of humanity, of progress, from the microscopic to the monumental; a three-dimensional slideshow demonstrating infinite possibility.

‘Natural Abstractions’ ran from June 18th through to July 11th.

The work of artist Sally Hogarth is now on display until August 8th at The Sayle Gallery (1-3 Harris Promenade, Villa Marina, Douglas).

Monday, July 5, 2010

''What do people do all day?''

A question I have often asked myself, even going as far as to cogitatively write down following a morning of people-watching. However, if you are Richard Novak in AM Homes’ stunning ‘This Book Will Save Your Life’, on any normal day you wake early, run on the treadmill for an hour while monitoring the stock markets, enjoy a low-carb breakfast as part of a nutritionally planned low-carb diet and read four newspapers – all immersed in complete silence thanks to the latest noise-cancelling headset; a permanent and necessary accessory in achieving total isolation.

Yet it is not until page 315 of this 372 page, dare I say it, (post-) modern masterpiece that this rhetoric emerges, when we are already well-acquainted with Richard, our alluring protagonist; Anhil the donut shop owner, Cecelia the cleaner, Cynthia the weeping ex-housewife, a brother, an ex-wife, a son, environmental officers, fictional celebrities and Bob Dylan; all of whom provide the necessary motivation - amidst blunt phone calls and infinite expenditure - to develop a new perspective on life.

The reader is the serene witness the spectacle of a man letting go and simultaneously reconnecting – and if it takes a subtle donut to be the catalyst, so be it. Even with multiple readings it would seem Homes’ greatest achievement is her ability to keep the reader in the moment, despite the surreal events and transcendental under-current. Each (‘Hollywood’) scene is captivating in its absurdity, but often ‘misplaced in memory’ (not forgotten) as the story unfolds. It is only in later narrative and subsequent recollection that one finds true pleasure in the sequencing of events, the subtle act of referral something Homes’ does impeccably.

Novak’s cynicism, supressed generosity and apparent relative lack of human connection are part-due to his ingrained analytic nature, and increasing penchant for solitude, but in fact demonstrate beautifully the ease in which one can become so removed from the world, even in the most intrusive of landscapes. Both consciously and unconsciously, he has drifted away, but in the same fashion, rebuilds himself with wavering circumstances and welcome digression.

Like Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen’ in novel-form (though thankfully delivered more astutely than simply stating; ‘’I will dispense this advice, now…’’) it is nevertheless, Richard Novak’s own meandering experience that provides the ultimate snapshot, or even series of snapshots, making an album to be shelved under ‘pulp fiction’. With the film version supposedly under production, scheduled for release in 2013, Tarantino would be an unlikely visionary, Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) would get my vote with his ability to recreate Gregory Crewdson-esque production sets. Alternatively, there are definitely moments Noah Baumbach would devour, or perhaps even local legend David Lynch would do justice to this book… and this film… and this man…

‘’He is floating, drifting and he is breathing and watching his breath and watching the sky.’’