Sunday, November 29, 2009

All of Us In Our Night

I kind of want to go see New Moon, the Twilight sequel, just because I'm so intrigued by the soundtrack. The lineup is a list of some really great bands! It includes Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Ok Go and the Editors, not to mention Death Cab for Cutie. Death Cab was a sellout long ago, but Bon Iver? Way to introduce the masses of fanatical preteen consumers to some really excellent music, music-selectors of New Moon, but now I have to be torn between loving these artists and hating the fact that they are going to be on every schoolgirl's ipod. Oh well. Grizzly Bear is an awesome and talented group based here in New York, and I'm happy for their success. And it's about time Black Rebel Motorcycle Club gets some attention. They are fantastic, but I feel like no one has ever heard of them. Have you heard of them?

But I guess it doesn't matter because all I've been listening to lately is the new Modern Skirts album, All of Us In Our Night. I saw this band perform about three weeks ago at the Mercury Lounge, as they opened for The Old Ceremony. I'd been wanting to see Modern Skirts play ever since Matt gave me their first album, Catalogue of Generous Men, a year ago, a collection of wistfully sunny and extremely catchy pop tunes with an unpolished charm. Ever since falling in love with that album, I'd been waiting for them to come to New York. I wanted to satisfy my curiosity and see if they were as lovely and vibrant live as they were on their debut album.

However, as I waited for them to come to New York, I didn't take the time to listen to their newest music, so when they came on stage and the first thing they did was turn on the synthesized pre-recorded background noise (I wouldn't really call it music, more like atmosphere) I was completely surprised. Then, they didn't play a single song from Catalogue, but did a whole show of songs from the new album plus things they haven't even recorded yet, so it was a sound I was unfamiliar with and not entirely satisfied by. This is just me, but to play recorded sound at a live show seems like cheating somehow, even if you have instruments and vocals to go along with it. But, I have to give those guys their due--they rolled up their sleeves and got down to the business of making music. Gone were the lilting piano rhythms and harmonicas of their past, replaced with much drums, some pretty amazing xylophone action, and solid guitar playing. It was not bad. It was not what I had been expecting, but it was good enough that I went and bought the new album at the merch table when they were finished and The Old Ceremony was setting up.

The Old Ceremony was a phenomenal live act. I had heard some of their songs before--they are a Chapel Hill band, so I was familiar with them, but had never seen them live either. From what I had heard, I was expecting a quietish, laid back sort of jam-rock. I should have known it was a night of surprises, because those guys blew me away completely. No, actually it was lead singer/guitar player Django Haskins alone who blew me away. He did things with his guitar that I didn't even know were possible. And he made inside jokes about having band practice in the kitchen of Pepper's Pizza, a Chapel Hill dive, that only I laughed at, which made me happy. Having felt a little homesick about not being able to go home for Thanksgiving, it was a nice moment of the universe bringing Chapel Hill to me, since I couldn't go to it. The Old Ceremony's performance was an awesome and eclectic mixture of rock, Americana, lounge music and Eastern philosophy (or so it seemed) supported by some of the best musicianship I've heard in a while. In comparison to the suave and masterful performance of The Old Ceremony, Modern Skirts drum-banging earnestness seemed naive.

And yet... although Peter and I were so bowled over we practically ran to the merch table and counted out our pennies to buy The Old Ceremony's two albums after the show was over, the album I've found myself listening to over and over has been Modern Skirts' All of Us in Our Night. For some reason The Old Ceremony, to me, is two-dimensional in their recording, with none of the life I saw on stage (but hey--fantastic use of a woodblock print as cover art on the album!) The recorded songs are clever and well-done, but bland and a little bit precious where they had been vibrant, layered, and brilliantly performed live. Meanwhile, where Modern Skirts had been a bit clunky and over-eager live, their recording is subtly superb.

In All of Us In Our Night, Modern Skirts has deviated from the spare pop of their debut and gone down a darker, more robotic, path of synthesizers, reverb, and percussion. Though it seemed disjointed onstage, on the recording the synthesized sound is deftly utilized, giving the music depth and texture that melds perfectly with their lazy-pop melodies. All of Us In Our Night is like night when compared to the daylight of Catalogue of Generous Men, but it is a dusky, haunting, and exciting night, filled with satisfying melodies, vaguely intriguing lyrics, and (my favorite) that momentum that builds within each song until, in the final track Like Lunatics, the energy is palpable. When it ends I take a deep breath, give it a moment to let the musical smoke clear, and press the repeat button.


jeff said...

Wow, Holly, I had no idea that you were a music snob! :-)

I'm kidding, kind of...I usually don't like it when people describe a musical artist as having "sold out." Music is clearly a bigger part of your life than it is of mine, so I'd be interested to read a post on what the term "sold out" means to you, and whether bands owe anything to their long-time fans.

Personally, unless you're talking about Sugar Ray or Hank Williams, Jr., I don't know if I would ever agree that a musical act has sold out.

But it's a conversation I'd like to have with you some time.

Lady Holiday said...

It's a good question, Jeff, and one that I have struggled with. I want little bands to become successful and appreciated. And yet I can never escape the fact (right or wrong) that I like a current band less if they have been featured on a commercial, tv show, movie, etc. For me, musicians should just be musicians and not use their talent to help sell anything else. That's what I mean by selling out. (there are exceptions, of course, like when America did the music for The Last Unicorn--that was art.) Also, I don't think musicians should play in stadiums. When a group reaches the point that they are playing in stadiums, then they should just retire, because a stadium kills the music and turns the whole thing into a spectacle. That's also selling out--caring more for the money and fame than the quality of the sound and the experience with your fans. It's just my three cents.