Imaginary Baseball League w/The Whole Fantastic World & Aireline
April 23 at Blue Sky Court
Last week's CD release party for Imaginary Baseball League, at Blue Sky Court, was the kind of humid night when it's hard to be happy without the AC on full blast or at least a ceiling fan. Like the stagnant air, the club was eerily calm, all silence and glaring light, until the first band took the stage. Even after a drink from the inadequate selectionbeer, Coke or waterit was clearly going to be a long gross sweaty night of skin stuck to a stool. The atmosphere was just plain annoyingjust like opening acts The Whole Fantastic World and Aireline.
Here's what didn't suck about The Whole Fantastic World. The lead singer sporadically showed hints of personality crucial to live performances; he spoke to the crowd and made a few jokes; and the band members were into their proggy songsso much so that they played with zombie-like fixation on their instruments. (OK, so that sucked too.) Too cool to identify themselves until the middle of the set, the Murfreesboro band treated the audience like gatecrashers at an afternoon garage rehearsal-the guys onstage were having fun but didn't invite anyone else to the three-man party. When it seemed it couldn't get worse, the bassist tried to play a tambourine at the same time. The Whole Fantastic World doesn't just lack charisma, it's missing a whole extra band member.
On the other hand, from their first boring song Aireline went down in flames. Occasionally accompanying their pompous, plodding music with a spacy noise machine (the kind you expect to hear at a relaxation clinic), Aireline lulled the crowd into what was either a trance or a coma. The lead singer took himself way too seriously: pounding his keyboards with his eyes closed, he looked about as rock-star cool as Ross from Friends. Yet for some unknown reason Aireline seemed to draw a crowd, as the room thinned out after their performance.
If a lot of people left early on, the crowd regenerated in time for the headliners. Despite the lure of fresh air outside and our beds at home, we had high hopes for IBL to turn the evening around. They did, but it took some time. Instead of breaking the lethargy right off the bat with an upbeat rockerlike the second song, "Fat Boys Are Not Athletes," which finally jarred the audience into paying attentionthey set out to completely reproduce their new CD Revive from beginning to end. Technically, it's an interesting concept, not unlike a Flaming Lips show: in theory you could hook up your Discman and listen along, as if you were tuning in a radio play-by-play while watching a baseball game. But starting and especially ending with slow acoustic songs gave the show an anticlimactic feel.
The only member of the band in a suit, dapper frontman Aaron Robinson (who resembles a younger, hipper, and cuter David Cross) directed the crammed Blue Sky Court crowd to the right of the stage (his "good side"). Robinson's heartbreaking voice suits the emotional swell of his lyrics ("If this is the new A.M. / then I don't mind waking up"), and the haunting choruses ("watch your mouth/get you in trouble") had the crowd chanting along. Robinson immediately commanded attention with his slurred voice, syllable-jumbling delivery and wails, calling to mind a Thom Yorke gone pop. What their set lacked in rock-out catharsis it gained in cohesion, fitting songs together like pieces of a puzzle.
However, the new album's sonic intricacy was sometimes impossible to complete live, even with Keith Childrey nimbly switching back and forth from guitar to keyboards. To solve this, IBL played their own CD to fill in gaps while they fixed broken guitar strings or re-tuned their instruments. The trick bag didn't always work: the show's audiovisual gimmicks sometimes seemed more ambitious and complicated than the band could pull off, better suited to a venue the size of the Ryman, and the video was mostly obscured by bobbing heads anyway. But it was still a pleasure to watch a band struggle with too many ideas instead of too few.
Highlighting the show was the song "Another Sunken Anchor," played with such devotion and fervor that all conversations seemed to stop mid-sentence. (Although it was by far the most memorable song, rumor has it that the CD release was the simultaneous debut and retiring of the song.) The lyrics "You are the darkness in comedy / you are the laughter in disease" so moved the crowd that one fan sporting a Flock of Seagulls haircut climbed on stage and painfully belted them out with Robinson. However clueless the spectacle might have looked, it's still a measure of how quickly and completely the band has connected with their audience: when people at a CD release party already know the lyrics, somebody besides ex-girlfriends and townie cronies is paying attention. Imaginary Baseball League already has a roster of die-hard fans. Where do we sign?