Open your ears say noOpen your ears say no
Remember in junior high school when you and a couple of your mean-spirited friends would tell some socially awkward schoolmate a joke that made no sense, then you’d pretend to crack up, just to see if the poor sap would laugh with you rather than admit he didn’t get it? That must be what Pitchfork Media is doing with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. How else to explain the craze Pitchfork ignited over a band with one of the more annoying singers in recent memory—and if you don’t find Alec Ounsworth’s caterwauling whiny and affected on record, check him out live. Last Friday at The Basement, he came off as the poster boy for arty pretentiousness. True, we were among the five or six people who were unimpressed, while about 150 rabid fans seemed to feel it was the second coming of The Beatles in Hamburg. Still, we’re not buying it. Talking Heads, you say? Well, yes, he’s clearly aping David Byrne, but we hear a bit of William Hung in there too. To us, Ounsworth was all quirk and no substance. We should have known Pitchfork was pulling our legs when reviewer Brian Howe suggested CYHSY synthesize their influences into a sound uniquely their own, then proceeded to say: “a wailing vocal evokes Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser”; “ ‘The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth’ stands out, with its…textbook Modest Mouse guitar lead”; “ ‘Is This Love?’…is the song most blatantly redolent of Neutral Milk Hotel.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
House at the Hall
The DJ-as-rock-star phenomenon apparently created some confusion among those who packed City Hall to see house music guru Mark Farina last Friday night. When someone headlines a show and stands in the spotlight, one might feel obligated to stand and watch, but the club DJ’s raison d’être is to make bodies move. If the greatest compliment to a dance music DJ is to see people dancing, Farina must have felt a bit insulted at first. Regardless, he appeared to be enjoying himself, bobbing his head and shoulders to the breakbeats and funky house. We weren’t quite sure if the crowd was having as much fun, until around 1 a.m., when people actually started to groove, as if sprinkled by dust from the beat fairy. By then, Farina had already rocked us with the pummeling, hip-hop-style backbeat of his patented “mushroom jazz.” Yet the City Hall crowd seemed more interested in his vibrant, soulful house. Farina was happy to oblige them, demonstrating one of the great club DJ skills: reading a crowd. That’s fine, but we were hoping that a star DJ might do a bit more than just keep the party hyped.
Michael Hurley didn’t conjure the crepuscular likes of “Werewolf” or “The Revenant” during his creaky solo set at the Primitive Baptist Church in Sylvan Park last Thursday night, but the inveterate folkie and rounder summoned a number of indelible spirits just the same. Foremost among them were Mama Molasses and the Protein (Protean?) Monster from “Eyes, Eyes,” but also Hank Williams and the late Jimmy Martin. “Are we anywhere near Sneedville?” Hurley asked early on, referring to Martin’s birthplace in Upper East Tennessee. After being greeted by a chorus of amused “No”s, Hurley, nonplussed (the guy barely has a pulse), proceeded to proclaim his devotion to the King of Bluegrass, capping a two-cover tribute with the wry, waltzing “20/20 Vision.” Apart from the absence of banjo and fiddle, the rest of the show was vintage Snockman, a droll, sexy odyssey through mythical realms populated with creatures great (“Sweet Lucy”) and, well, equally great (“Hog of the Forsaken”). And, much as Bongo After Hours was when he played town during the 1998 tornado, the setting was perfect—an intimate, liminal zone rife with windows to enchanted places that lie just a blink or so beyond the everyday.
The fog in the air didn’t dampen spirits at last Thursday night’s house party in West Nashville. Bostonian Casey Dienel treated the crowd to a breezy, enjoyable set of what seemed more like conversations than songs—she ad-libbed on the piano while delivering her half-sung, half-spoken narratives. Then came Tiger Saw, from Newburyport, Mass. (“yes, that’s a real place,” drummer Gregg Porter confirmed), who played a somber but affirming set of countrified slowcore. Then Jason Anderson, better known as Wolf Colonel, came running from behind the house and yelped, “It’s been a great show in the carport, but can I get everyone out on the lawn!” He sprinted toward the grass like a ballplayer taking the field—except, of course, that he had a guitar over his shoulder. Everyone formed a circle around him as he proceeded to jump, sing his heart out, fall down and nearly hit people with his guitar while whipping around like a crazed counselor at indie-rock summer camp. As headlights glanced over the lawn and cars whooshed by, Anderson led his audience in a sing-along that was equal parts comedy and magic.
Watching Nickel Creek perform Saturday at War Memorial Auditorium was as much fun as hearing them—seeing the way Chris Thile throws his tall body into playing his mandolin, and the way he, fiddler Sara Watkins and guitarist Sean Watkins circle one another like cats about to pounce during the most intense instrumental passages. Those moments reveal the interconnectedness of a trio who have performed together since childhood and spent the intervening years digging more and more deeply inside the sound they make together—a sound closer to jazz than to bluegrass. Their songwriting, too, has taken a leap forward, as was made apparent Saturday; numbers from their new Why Should the Fire Die? album made the older material sound positively lightweight. Sadly, the sound was murky and boomy to the point of distraction, and so quiet at times that the enthusiastic audience members occasionally threatened to drown out the players simply by murmuring among themselves or shifting in their seats.