Sunday, June 23, 2013

Away with Murder

I rang in the first day of summer for 2013 by seeing Camera Obscura perform live. This is the fourth time I’ve been lucky enough to see them in person. Again, I am not one to write a lot about live music, though I just recently did (see Queen Elvis), but this is generally when something is strange or out of order about the night out - not specifically about the artist’s performance. This one is simply a case of silliness and what can happen inside one’s own mind when out at a concert alone.

In 1985, a handful of my friends and I went crazy over the synth-pop overproduced sounds of UK band Go West. We loved the oddly disjointed dance grooves of songs like “We Close Our Eyes,” “Call Me” (along with their many effects laden remixes), and the escapism and Rocky movie franchise worthy redemption song “Innocence.” So a bunch of us 14 year olds found a way to make the trek from the coast to Portland to see them live at the old Starry Night on an autumn night. We all spent loads of money on multiple cheaply made, but as expensive as all hell, T-shirts, sweatshirts, scarves, buttons and tour guides. There may have even been Go West shoelaces, sweatbands and sweatpants in the mix. It was a merchandiser’s wet dream. Opening the show that night, and not to be overlooked was Portland’s own Nu Shooz, who were huge in Oregon with their song “I Can’t Wait,” which was played 15 to 20 times a day on the ahead of its time (in a not so great way) pre-programmed, DJ-less, KSKD 105. This was about a year before the song was discovered by the Dutch and remixed by the Dutch using Madonna’s voice from “Into the Groove” as a synth melody line, turning the song into a world-wide hit. This was the night, when my good friend Eric decided that Nu Shooz singer Valerie Day had been “totally checking him out” during their set. None of us knew if he was kidding or serious, but we all were greatly entertained by the idea of a 25 year old front woman giving a 14 year old kid lost in a sea of faces the once and twice and maybe a thrice over. A similar instance occurred a year or so later, when a similar crowd gathered near the stage at the grand old basketball arena, the Memorial Coliseum, to see Eurythmics perform in Portland, riding high on their re-found chart success from the massive hit “Missionary Man” and their 1986 Revenge album. This time it was the two back up singers, who dressed, danced and swayed identically, that all 80s pop bands employed back then, who were checking Eric out from their platform to Annie Lennox’s left. Again, the rest of us were mystified, but highly entertained by this proclamation. I don’t mean to throw Eric under the bus here, because in retrospect, I admired Eric’s confidence and/or sense of humor, since I have always been incapable of believing that anyone could ever be ‘checking me out’ – especially from the stage. Plus, after having read Wendy Fonarow’s excellent ethnography Empire of Dirt – The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music, and her detailed description about the interactions between band and audience and the built in sexual energy that the environment creates, the entire thing makes some sense, whether these women were indeed checking him out or not. There can be a definite sexual charge that overcomes people derived from music and performance. Why else have there been so many groupies over the years for any demented old bloke with a guitar? Why else would teenage girls be reduced to tears and screaming uncontrollably when seeing their pop idols in person? Why else would I feel like proposing to Gwenno after seeing the Pipettes live? A simple ‘yes’ would be nice Gwenno.

What does any of this have to do with seeing Camera Obscura on Friday, June 21, 2013? Not much, but please bear with me. The first time I had the opportunity to see Camera Obscura was in the middle of an incredibly hot July 2006 weekend here in the northwest. They played at the Doug Fir Lounge on a Saturday night after a couple of plus 100 degree humid days and everyone I knew who might have been interested in going to the show was out of town due to the uncomfortable heat. Surprisingly, the basement and temperature controlled confines of the Fir found this to be the first concert I had ever attended that was cool and comfortable compared to the outside. At any rate, I stood awkwardly in the middle of the maybe half filled floor amongst a few younger couples who had worked their way in tight directly in front of my already staked out position. Paul Simon’s mid 70s hit “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” was playing over the PA, which I not only had fond memories of, because my mom always loved Paul Simon’s music, but because it made me realize how fitting it was for an entrance song for the band. It was at this moment, when I overheard one young guy lean over to his young girl companion and tell her: “Hey, I just heard this song the other day; they’re a totally cool new band!”  Being alone during their set allowed my mind to take in every detail of the band’s carefully constructed music, but started to wander when I felt like lead singer and main songwriter Tracyanne Campbell would not stop looking at me. She would glance in my general direction throughout key lyrical moments of each song and seemingly be staring at me, in the sparse crowd, during her occasional between song banter. The constant looks my way actually made me feel a little nervous, because I couldn’t figure out if she was looking at me in particular, and if so, why? If she wasn’t “checking me out,” what or who was she looking at? Was it simply a case of looking to a blank spot in order to avoid eye contact with anyone directly (as is often instructed to maintain stage fright), and it turns out that my fat head made for a good blank spot or “back wall” so to speak? When they played the atmospheric “Country Mile,” a song that always sends chills down my spine, I slowly moved my position. I didn’t want to continue to be in sight in case my emotions got the best of me. It didn’t work. Tracyanne’s gaze continued to spy me during the entire set. After the show, when stepping back out into a wall of stifling heat outside, I felt giddy from the great performance and silly from remembering Eric’s proclamations from 20 years prior and knowing that what I had been thinking was all in my head.

The next time I saw Camera Obscura perform was on the second leg of what must’ve been an extensive and exhaustive tour for their third album Let’s Get Out of This Country. This time, they played on Valentine’s Day 2007 at Portland’s Wonder Ballroom – a decidedly much larger venue. I had purchased a pair of tickets, hoping that a woman I had been seeing at the time would join me, but at the last minute, she cancelled. So, there I was again, standing near the stage, in a half filled venue and again feeling as if Tracyanne was looking right at me throughout their set. At one point, she and keyboardist and back-up vocalist Carey Lander, spoke to each other privately between songs, while both looking my way, before Tracyanne announced that since it was Valentine’s Day, they would be setting up a kissing booth on the floor after the show. My face filled with blood. This is when I knew that attending concerts alone is not a good idea, because I was losing my mind!

“People have been traveling miles just to hear us sing
It’s a February night I don’t want to feel anything
To get away maybe I could sell kisses
In Portland I tried my pretty hand at fishing”

These words come from the penultimate verse of “Away with Murder” from Camera Obscura’s 2009 fourth album My Maudlin Career and I couldn’t believe my ears upon first listening to the new album that spring time. This was getting ridiculous! This would only feed my insanity further! This tour found them landing in Portland again during the summer and on the same night as a Portland Timbers match (USL Soccer club at the time). It was a “Thirsty Thursday,” when the stadium served beer for much cheaper, inviting us all to drink even more of the terrible swill than one could ever consider buying in any other situation. The match went well and I witnessed a win and then quickly found my way to the Wonder Ballroom again just in time to see Camera Obscura take the stage. This time, the crowd was much larger and there would be no way for me to reach the front of the stage without forcing my way into tight confines and disturbing the delicate balance of the audience. I did have friends that were there, but they would’ve already found their positions up front, so I decided to stay near the back mini bar, purchased another beer and attempted to take my evening dose of immune suppressants to keep my kidney transplant safe (I do see the irony of this scenario). Unfortunately, for me, my little pill bottle that I always carry with me (making me sound like a Tic Tac enthusiast, since I rattle with every movement I make) spilled all over the floor. Being in the back, it was especially dark, and I needed to get those pills! I was able to pinpoint where they were on the floor, but the next hurdle to clear was how to reach them. In my drunken state, I was only able to dive bomb towards the pills like a crow attempting to swoop down onto fresh road kill on a busy city street. Eventually, with help from a nearby Good Samaritan, I had my pills back in possession and was able to enjoy the show. It was a sad display that ended my imaginary eye contact connection with Tracyanne Campbell.

So, how was the most recent show? It was fantastic! They performed what is now a very strong and deep greatest hits collection of songs from their last 10 years worth of material and they sounded pristine in yet an even larger venue – this time at the Crystal Ballroom - again, keeping me from my usual place near the stage. Such is the dilemma of being an early fan of a band with a continuously growing fan base. I do, however, find it interesting that Camera Obscura chose to record their latest album, Desire Lines, right here in Portland. I feel bad for Tracyanne, spending so much time and effort trying to track me down. I’m certain that between sessions, she could be found wandering the streets aimlessly, hoping to run into me.  Maybe next time.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now

Sometimes I believe that my life would be a lot easier to deal with if I could accept the idea that another person can like me in any way possible. Sometimes I wonder if I could somehow leap over this high hurdle that maybe I’d be able to find a way to love another and myself. How does one leap this barrier? Is it possible, because it doesn’t feel like it? Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who is unable to clear the wall, like the one kid who cannot do a sit up or pull up in grade school, or if that barrier is there for all of us and I am too narcissistic to recognize that it is a struggle we are all burdened by, or if my self loathing and navel gazing has led me to pass by more than one chance to avoid feeling alone all of the time.

Currently, I am in the midst of reading the book that my friend Mindy introduced me to: This Will End in Tears – The Miserabilist Guide to Music by Adam Brent Houghtaling, which may or may not be to blame for my recent resurgence of listening to the Smiths. Whatever the case, I highly recommend it for those people out there who immerse themselves into the music they love. The book is basically made up of an alphabetical list of a wide variety of artists and bands that have made music that in general has been considered somewhat of a downer. The breadth of genres and artist’s involved is impressive, as is the sheer amount of exhaustive research that went into each artist’s essay. These synopses, which are informative, are broken up into sections, which are opened with essays about miserable song themes such as disease, the rain, catastrophes, disease, death (murder), death (suicide), and death, while some specific songs are singled out for a closer look. The book ends with a Top 100 song list of the most miserable songs and it makes for a fascinating read.

What makes a song or an artist or band a miserable one? This is all way too subjective, but this book is a very nice introduction to an interesting dialogue. It makes one wonder what is our fascination with sad songs? We know that certain notes can have a mood inducing effect on people in general, but why would we seek it out? As Nick Hornby’s character Rob Fleming asks in his book High Fidelity, which came first, “the music or the misery?” Personally, I believe it’s the misery and the music is there to provide comfort, camaraderie and understanding. Though, there are instances where music can draw out deep levels of sadness that may at that moment have been buried safely away.

I offhandedly mentioned The Smiths earlier. I grew up with the Smiths and the Cure through my high school years, which like most people, is an awkward overly dramatic time filled with confusion and desperation, but I never really thought of the Smiths or the Cure as miserable, despite their legendary labels as such. Sure both bands have their strikingly dark moments, but I cannot listen to Johnny Marr’s music from those days and not feel energized and transported by his effervescent and inspired performances. Besides, the tag was clearly given directly to Morrissey and his lyrics, which admittedly can at times be so direct and honest and to the point that it’s hard not to wallow in the pits of loneliness and emptiness and worthlessness that he can emote (“Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” and “Well I Wonder” are prime examples of songs that spoke to my experience then and, well, now), but to me his lyrics and singing style have always provided more of a cutting wit and disgust with the way things are in general and individually. Sure a song such as “Half a Person” is deeply sad and pathetic really, but it’s hard to take seriously. Similarly, the Cure has entire albums that dwell on the darkest subjects (Pornography anyone? Disintegration?), but the very first song of theirs that I consciously ever noticed was the silly jazzy “The Lovecats,” and I have often felt that no band around can match their ability to write silly energetic pop songs like “Why Can’t I Be You?,” or “Friday I’m in Love.” Depeche Mode is also a band that has been slapped with the miserable label, and they can be, but I never thought of them as such. Their well known “Blasphemous Rumours” spoke to me as a young teen who was struggling with the idea of the existence of a God, but the story told through the verses is so heavy handed and over the top that it makes me laugh (especially with the breathing machine sound effects!).

It is all so subjective and really all depends on one’s mood at any time, or even over time and experiences that can tie those songs into one’s own life story. Sometimes it isn’t the so-called miserable songs that can drive one down a dark road. For example, I have a good idea why the positively warm song “The Letter” by Allo Darlin’ makes me want to break down and cry every single time I hear it (a song that inspired my recent dry and needs a lot of work short story That Smiling Face), but to this day, I have no idea why Madonna’s early celebratory dance hit “Holiday” fills me with lament and puts a lump in my throat.

There are hundreds of songs and albums that I go to for comfort and understanding when I need to find solace in my collection of sad songs and I have written about a lot of them either via album re-evaluations, end of the year reviews or as the basis for my weak short stories. If I am forced to name a few examples, it’d be a struggle. There is the entirety of Mark Eitzel’s solo acoustic album Songs of Love Live, which is something akin to punching one’s own bruise or picking at a scab, but even though the song that opens that collection, “Firefly” reminds me of my biggest regrets, it has also provided goose bumps and chills down my spine. I have always found myself attracted to the claustrophobic and hopeless words and sounds of Joy Division, but even the brighter New Order’s “Regret” can make me inconsolable. I find myself easily saddened by the brittle heartbreak of the Field Mice/ Trembling Blue Stars/ Northern Picture Library/ Picture Center family of heartbroken songs, or the deep baritone of Michael Gira’s Swans when he draws out that voice over an acoustic or on top of a giant arrangement. Or how can I forget how the Wild Swans’ Bringing Home the Ashes album from 1988 that provided me with a moping soundtrack for the emptiness I felt as a high school senior. And there’s always the hyper specific life moment that I will always associate with Abecedarians’ two amazing songs: “Wildflower” and “They Said Tomorrow.” I could go on and on, but there’s no need to. The book started an internal conversation for me, but it’s one that makes me curious about what music tears others’ hearts out and why they go to them even though they know that they will feel miserable.  Feel free to share!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Queen Elvis

For many reasons, I rarely write concert reviews. The main one being, there isn’t a lot of point. It happened. It’s not like a record, which can be found and enjoyed by other people at any time. Some nights an artist or band may not play up to their potential, so a bad review may not be an accurate reflection of their usual performances, or vice versa. However, every once in a while I’m either filled with all kinds of thoughts during a show that I feel that I have to share (whether you like it or not!), or simply need to sort out my thoughts about what just happened. In this case, I am trying to figure it all out.

My friend Jeff and I originally saw Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians play in the fall of 1989 at the old Pine Street Theater in Portland, Oregon. We were new friends and new to college. This was the first concert of dozens that we would see together as friends over the years. Hitchcock was touring in support of his 1989 album Queen Elvis. This was the second time I had seen him perform. What made those old Robyn Hitchcock shows so entertaining was his unceasing ability to tell amusing stream of thought stories as an introduction to nearly every song. He would ramble on and on throwing one’s mind down dizzying spirals of nonsense and moments of poignancy before launching into an oddly heartfelt Beatles inspired tune. Jeff was new to Portland, having grown up near Los Angeles, so he was fascinated by the intimacy of the venue and the pure inanity of the light “show.” He was used to seeing bands in 3,000 seat venues, while here in tiny Portland; I had seen many of the same bands on the same tours with 200 to 300 people in attendance. Meanwhile, I went through a fit when we walked into the Pine Street to see several rows of chairs lined up in front of the stage – something I had never seen before then or since.

With a small nod to nostalgia, we went ahead and attended another Robyn Hitchcock show as he tours with the Venus 3 in support of his newest album Love from London. I had continued to buy Hitchcock’s many releases over the years, but my interest has waned. Personally, I felt he peaked with his second solo acoustic album Eye in 1990 and after seeing him perform multiple times between 1988 and 1998; I had stopped attending in recent years. Yet, there we found ourselves, 23 and a half years older, on a Monday night, checking the time, because we were both facing an early morning of work and responsibility ahead of us.

The night began with the Peter Buck Band (or Peter Buck of R.E.M. with the Venus 3?) performing new songs that he has been working on for a solo record (he said a new single was released that day – I didn’t investigate). It’s all become a little incestuous. Buck has served as a guest on several Hitchcock albums throughout the years and now that both seem to live in the Northwest, they seem to be sharing a band. The Venus 3 has involved many Seattle punk rock luminaries from Young Fresh Fellows and the Fastbacks. It was surreal seeing Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks and many other bands (not to mention prolific good guy producer) and Bill Rieflin, who I didn’t realize had become R.E.M.’s drummer in the later years. This shocked both Jeff and I, as we have always associated his powerful style with the industrial bands we cut our teeth on 20 some odd years before like Swans, Ministry, Revolting Cocks, Lard and KMFDM. This would not be the only thing that would throw us off our game.

We now know why Peter Buck was not R.E.M.’s vocalist. He is a great guitarist and helped form a legendary band’s signature sound, but as a front man, his voice is not appealing. Neither were his new songs. They sounded generic - a bar band blues that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Friday night at a suburban Applebee’s bar. Personally, I was not impressed. However, a few songs in, local hero Corin Tucker, famously of Sleater-Kinney and now her own band, stepped in to sing two songs. They were both excellent. Musically, they fit her strong voice to a tee and she sang with her usual soulful passion. Buck and Bloch even played guitar lines reminiscent of Tucker’s own style. Then, Buck called out to the audience to bring up Mike Mills, his long time band mate from R.E.M. for a flawless rendition of his 1984 “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville.” This partial ad hoc R.E.M. reunion brought the phones out in force as much of the crowd pushed closer to the stage like the Paparazzi. I felt like maybe I was witnessing something special – something one of a kind and spontaneous – but at the same time, they just broke up within the last year and the okay country jangle of that old song brought back some memories and made me realize that I never bothered to try to see R.E.M. live. They were always a band where I liked a few songs here and there, but was not really a fan. After that moment, the set returned to Buck’s stale songs and goofy vocals.

It was all so strange. Peter Buck, an actual member of the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame, with his fancy guitar, was opening for Robyn Hitchcock at the tiny Doug Fir Lounge. Jeff and I were confused and not sure what to make of any of it. Front and center at the stage was a guy who dressed and emulated Michael Stipe from the “Losing My Religion” era, local news reporter Kyle Iboshi was standing to Jeff’s left, and we had 40 year old blond drunk party girls dancing and texting and taking pictures in front of us – as if they were forever 21. Before Robyn Hitchcock took the stage, we were confounded and exhausted.

Robyn Hitchcock finally took the stage and surprisingly, the crowd only thinned slightly (people seemed to know that all this weird opening act stuff was going to go down – though the ad just mentioned Peter Buck as a “special guest”). He started with a few acoustic numbers and then essentially the same band that played the first set returned and they played a variety of tracks from his last 25 years worth of records (though I could've used "Wax Doll"). The performance was solid and entertaining, but severely lacking his signature story telling. It lacked the spontaneity of all of those old shows I had seen so damn long ago.

I was hoping that writing out what we had witnessed would help make sense of the confusion I felt during the show and after. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. It is still confusing. Maybe I have seen too many concerts. Maybe I’m too jaded to just let go and have fun at what seemed to be a festive celebratory environment, or maybe my interests have changed. And though the Peter Buck set had the highest high of the evening with the quick appearance of Corin Tucker and secondly the Mike Mills led song, the best part was seeing Robyn Hitchcock again. Unfortunately, I have seen him do so much better.

* original painting by Robyn Hitchcock