A very interesting thing happened to The Spin early Tuesday afternoon. Long story short, we coincidentally ran into a good friend who happens to be the biggest M83 fan we know. He's the kind of guy who owns all the obscure early B-sides and every 7-inch the French (or is it Spanish?) shoegazing pop band has ever released. He's the dude who first introduced us to the band. So when we excitedly started a conversation about the evening's M83 show at Marathon Music Works, we were rather perplexed to learn that not only had he never seen the band he loved so much, but also that he had no plans to do so on this occasion. His reasoning? "I'm not going to see M83 live because I want to remain an M83 fan." It sounded silly and downright sad at the time. Turns out, as we were walking out of Marathon later that night, we kinda wished we had taken his advice.
Although some of our colleagues at The Spin have already attended shows at the newly christened Marathon Music Works, this would be our first experience at the concert hall that is now in full competition with Cannery Ballroom, a venue with which we all seem to have a love-hate relationship. We couldn't help but compare the two establishments all evening, especially in regard to the parking situation: Much like at Cannery, you either pay to park close and safe, or save the five bucks for beer and park a few blocks away on a shady street. We chose the latter.
The rock-solid dudes at the door were checking IDs hardcore, and marking the old-school giant black X's on the hands of those under 21 — something we hadn't seen since the days of 328. Upon entering, we quickly realized why there was so much red tape at the door: There were lots of kids at this show. And by kids, we mean high schoolers. Which, by the time we bought a beer and had a look around, we realized was pretty awesome. Teenage melodrama and the innocence of adolescent puppy love has always been a theme of M83 frontman and lyricist Anthony Gonzalez's work. So, upon reflection, we decided that the preponderance of J.Crew-clad young couples — drinking ice water and basking in the excitement of seeing what might be their first "concert" on a school night — seemed appropriate for an M83 show.
I Break Horses took the stage shortly after 9. The quartet had all the classic shoegaze bases covered: big, distorted guitar; an electronic drum kit; droney synths; and a barely audible girl singing low in the mix. And it was all issuing from amid a hazy, back-lit, fog-filled stage. All we knew about I Break Horses going in was that, according to a friend, "they sound like M83." Turns out they did sound a lot like M83, if M83 was actually playing their instruments onstage. But more on that later. About halfway through IBH's set, we decided that this was material we'd have to check out when we got home. And apparently the rest of the crowd was equally impressed, as I Break Horses wrapped up their short-and-sweet set to a favorable and enthusiastic response.
M83 entered a spectrally lit stage and immediately filled the room with some slammin' synth-pop. Our first thought was, "We've never heard a four-piece band sound this huge." But by the time they started playing "Reunion," a song from last year's popular Hurry up, We're Dreaming, we noticed something wasn't right. We could hear a bass, but there was no bass player onstage. We heard electronic drums that definitely weren't coming from the drummer. We heard lush female background vocals but saw keyboardist/vocalist Morgan Kibby nowhere near a vocal mic. We heard layers of chorus guitars while Anthony and Yann Gonzalez were twiddling with knobs on their synths. So ... they were playing along with heavily programmed backing tracks. Bummerino Metropolis.
Here's the thing: Plenty of awesome bands play with programmed tracks. If you go to see Daft Punk or Justice, you're not expecting to see an eight-piece band playing orchestrated parts. But for some reason, that's what The Spin was expecting from M83. Instead, we got a beautiful light show and a super-lush front-of-house mix, but a bunch of knob turning and dancing from the Gonzalez brothers. Anyway, the youthful crowd clearly loved the show, and didn't seem to care or notice just how programmed everything was. The whole evening had a very European disco feel to it — something we can't say we've seen too often in Nashville. The song that summed up the evening was "Wait," a beautiful new tune that sounded fantastic from where we were standing. But again, even from the back of the room, we noticed that nobody onstage seemed to be playing most of what we were hearing. It was distracting, and dangerously close to karaoke.
M83 continued to plow through back-catalog anthems, although they strangely concluded without playing 2008's hit, "Kim & Jessie." As we walked back to our car, we felt as if the Wizard's curtain had been pulled back a bit. It made us appreciate a band like LCD Soundsystem, which delivers its synth-heavy krautrock anthems with world-class musicianship, or even Nashville's own piece Ponychase, a new-wavey four-piece that sounds just as lush as M83. But it was then that we realized, while surrounded by blissful teenagers, that our desire for genuine musicianship sounds an awful lot like something our parents would have said to us back during our days as punk rock kids. Are we getting old? Sigh. Get off our lawn, et cetera.