Thursday, June 21, 2007

Free Music

While slowly (and somewhat unenthusiastically) getting caught up with some of 2007's new releases, I've been putting a lot of listening time into some live gigs from around the internet.

Eluvium, April 2007. Eluvium (Matthew Cooper) is one of my most-listened-to artists of the year. But his anodyne new album "Copia" really doesn't prepare you for the shoegazey power of his recent live shows. Gentle, repetitious piano and guitar licks slowly rev their ways into huge roars, and that's a trick that never grows old on me. I've long since accepted the fact that the North American concert calendar is surviving quite fine without me, but missing out on the Explosions In the Sky/Eluvium double bill really hit me hard.

Kristin Hersh, "The Thin Man", May 2007 It was already the best track on her new album, but this gentle, slinky live take actually improves on the recorded version. Kristin's voice is totally shot these days, but she still sounds sexy as hell if confined to a whisper. You have to pick your spots with this gig, as things can turn to shit in record time due to her fading, raspy voice. The encore version of "Me and My Charms" is particularly depressing. She literally can't hit a single note during the chorus, exuding not much more than a pained, hissing croak.

Low, "When I Go Deaf", May 2007. Somehow I'd never noticed that some 50 Low gigs had piled up on the Live Music Archive. Even though they wimped out on the dinner party-friendly version of "Violent Past", they made up for it by closing the show with a sensational rip through "When I Go Deaf", a perfect ending for a "Great Destroyer" fanatic like me who thinks that Low are at their best when they play and sing with urgency and guts, as if they're about to suck their final breaths.

J Spaceman, "Anything More / Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space", November 2006. I'm picturing Jason Pierce on stage, running through what has to be the 3830th career reworking of "Walking With Jesus", not to mention reinventing nearly every other song in his live set yet again. More accurately, he overhauled and rearranged the entire contents of his live set from start to finish, punctuated it with a spate of fantastic new tunes, and brought "Let It Come Down" back into the fold (it's about time). And I have to remind myself that he nearly died not too long ago, but is now back on stage doing all the things I just mentioned, almost as if nothing had ever happened. Enough tears for now, save them for one of the many highlights of these recent acoustic shows, particularly "Anything More / Ladies and Gentlemen". Even after many listens, I can suspend my disbelief and not know the changeover is coming, and the segue is so heartbreaking that I still get a lump in my throat even when hearing it for the millionth time. Hearing the crowd roar in recognition and starting to sing along merely cinches it. Jason said he was a gospel artist all along, right back to the Spacemen 3 days. We didn't believe him, but check out what he's done with "Amen", for instance, and feel your stomach melt into goo during the wrenching finale of "Goodnight / Funeral Home".

Arcade Fire, "Windowsill", March 2007. "Neon Bible" (a near-perfectly sequenced album) brilliantly positioned this as its penultimate song, occurring one right near the end of the record's gradual buildup toward it's triumphant, concluding ode to escapism ("No Cars Go"). Obviously, I am assuming that the black eye that is "My Body Is a Cage" doesn't exist. So what a disappointment it is to hear such a flat, lifeless version of "Windowsill", wedged nondescriptly in the mid-set doldrums. Recorded during the same week that "Neon Bible" was released, it starts magnificently with "No Cars Go" (yeah, they've tacked the album's natural end to the set's beginning, but somehow it works) but grinds to a halt starting with, of all things, a Gainsbourg cover. "Windowsill" pops up in this middle third, and all this is reminding me of the time I saw American Music Club in 1994, when "I Broke My Promise" wound up as a victim of the mid-set blahs even though I'd pre-convinced myself that it would anchor the set due to (like with "Windowsill") its general awesomeness and similar placement toward the end of "San Francisco". Arcade Fire get their second wind with "Neighbourhoods #3" and suddenly, it's a great gig once again.

Robbie Williams, "Come Undone", Knebworth, August 2003. I'm reading Chris Heath's "Feel", so what better time to check out arguably the pinnacle of Robbie Williams' career. I'm not simply referring to the Knebworth gigs, but this specific performance. Witness Robbie on the verge of breaking down before, during, and after the song (although this happened countless times at Knebworth). Witness the most adoring, frantic, going apeshit-for-the-man's-every-move crowd you'll ever see. Witness 125 000 people singing along to the single that helped lead to collaborator Guy Chambers' departure from the Williams camp. just because he hated it so much and didn't want his name associated with it. Witness Robbie get to second base within seconds of bringing a girl on stage from the crowd.

Robbie is a lot like Iggy Pop. A survey of his career reveals plenty of good songs but few truly great ones. Nevertheless, he's such a great performer that it scarcely seems to matter. The key ingredient in Robbie and Iggy songs are Robbie and Iggy, the music itself is usually secondary. Same goes for the gigs -- music is simply a vehicle for getting people out to the shows to see the performer they paid their money to see. The similarities don't stop there. For the "Come Undone" video, Robbie recreated a wild LA party in a series of flashbacks, hired real porn stars and models for the shoot, and had scorpions and cockroaches crawling on their faces and out of their mouths. This makes Robbie more punk than ... well, anyone really.

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