Friday, January 8, 2010

Transparent is OK

Yellow Fever, Haunting Oboe Music, The Eastern Sea
Emo's, 1/7

I've always viewed journalism as the history of the very recent past. When I consider a piece of music, I try and figure out why it sounds the way it does in the context of the music that has influenced it, the changes in the lives of the musicians since last they recorded, and events in the larger world that might have shaped their outlook. I believe this to be more useful than the personal-diary style of rock "criticism" that has proliferated in the modern era. Any individual has the right to react how they do to a certain band or song, but it doesn't necessarily have any connection to the realities that shaped the performance. For example, Joy Division are so musically singular that every time I listen to them I get downright gleeful. "Atmosphere" makes me positively giddy, and I actually consider Closer a pick-me-up record. But I certainly wouldn't begin a written piece surveying the band's work by saying "This band makes me so happy!" It would be misleading, to say the least. It's true, but it's not relevant to a third party who wants to know about the band, not the person writing about them.

My compulsion towards research biases me against bands who put jokey bios, or no information at all, on their websites and MySpace pages. And it follows that I have a great appreciation for groups that go out of their way to do interesting things, who challenge themselves in creative ways and invite deeper analysis by forcing themselves to grow and change. Haunting Oboe Music have not only created some great music by themselves, they've inspired great works of criticism by setting a higher standard for themselves and daring all those responding to equal their ambition and hard work. They were one of the first bands in the area I became aware of when I began making plans to move to Austin last summer, one of the first I went out to see, one of the first I went to go see a second time. I'll miss them, now that they're retiring their current name and lineup.

As for their performance Thursday, it was difficult not to view it without speculating as to the reasons for their demise. Most obviously, second drummer Anthony Johnson isn't in the lineup any longer. His absence was felt. As a five-piece HOM sound much more like a conventional post-Radiohead rock band. Ian Hunt, usually a guitar player, pitched in a bit on drums, but the frantic, live-IDM quality of the band with both Johnson and Nick Whitfield wasn't there. George Cain really dominated the lead vocals at this show, which wasn't the case when last I saw them. They seemed much more of an ensemble as a sextet. It's sad to see a good band weakened, on its last legs, but in a sense you could see how their sheer excess of options doomed them. The band's EP-a-month project succeeded as an end of itself, but they never quite found their way back to being a recognizable stage entity. There's so many great ideas on that yellow-sleeved "hits" CD that I never saw them even attempt live. And I have no idea how they would ever manage to take the next step and bring everything back together into a coherent album. By reforming under a new name with a new purpose, perhaps Cain and his cohorts will be able to take what worked best about Haunting Oboe Music and combine it with what the band always fatally lacked -- a sense of direction.

A band with something of the opposite problem, The Eastern Sea know what their end goal is -- a vehicle for the very, very fine songs of Matthew Philip Hines. Hines' instincts trend towards the minimalist and almost fragile, so as an electrified rock band the group is struggling still to figure out what they ought to sound like. Their quiet numbers sound much more convincing than their loud ones thus far, and they should feel comfortable enough not to use every instrument on every tune -- sometimes a song should just be guitar and vocals, and it's OK for the keyboard player and bassist to sway or clap. It's hard grafting a band onto what are basically folk songs and showing both restraint (if these guys come across as bombastic, they're doing something wrong) and sophistication. The added instrumentation has to bring new harmonies and melodies into the mix, but carefully as to not pull the compositions loose from their original moorings. It's promising that The Eastern Sea have some real energy on stage, especially their kinetic bass player Tomas Olano. Their music could come across as stuffy with the wrong presentation. They have kinks still to work out in the arrangements but they have the absolute right idea about how to present themselves, enthusiastic and unpretentious.

Yellow Fever are yet another one of those bands who add further weight to the argument that you should never, ever, make your musical judgements based on YouTube clips. I like their matching sweaters and their rickety, almost disintegrating equipment. I hate that they seem barely able to operate that equipment (it shouldn't take half an hour for a two-piece band to load in and prepare to play) and that they have no songs. Their singer has an intolerable habit of gutturally reinforcing their non-rhythms with toneless "eh eh eh eh eh" interjections. Their drummer tries his best to mix percussion elements with snare and kick to make their single-change songs more interesting, but there's not all that much you can do with that hateful two-chord staccato eighth note song three-quarters of the bands in Austin seem to claim as an original. Carrie Brownstein, you disappoint me.

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