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One wonders if Colin Meloy et al get together once every few years and say to themselves, “As The Decemberists, what is the weirdest thing we can do next?” or if The Decemberists are just quirky people who get together and say, “We should really write an operetta. About fawns.”
Regardless, friends, The Decemberists. I’m nuts about ‘em. What some pass of as a self-conscious explosion of the emo hipster fedora persona, I like to think of as a joyous, innovative, uninhibited, artistic process that we’ve been privileged to listen to. When I found out that The Decemberists’ latest album (Hazards of Love) was an operetta, I was nervously curious. Perhaps, having signed with a major label, they were over-compensating with something mildly unpalatable to get back their indie cred? Maybe they’ve just gone bananas?
No! It took two listens, but Hazards of Love thoroughly won me over, and assured me that the band was still the brilliant, absorbing band I loved. It’s the story of William, a fawn by day and man by night, and Margaret, who is quite possibly a forest fairy. They fall in love, and start having nightly woodland dalliances, and the Queen of the forest – who rescued William when he was a baby and turned him into a fawn – is all mad. But she agrees to let him have one more night with Margaret, he will return to her in the morning (to die? It’s unclear). But then! Margaret is abducted by The Rake, who sings a lovely song about how he killed all his children, and then whisks Margaret away. This is all very convenient for the Queen, who helps The Rake get across the rushing river, happy to get Margaret out of the picture. But lovesick William goes inevitably after Margaret, making a deal with the river that if he can cross safely, and rescue Margaret from danger, they will come back and duly drown later. I don’t mean to spoil the ending, but yeah, they drown. But they drown kissing! So…love!
This stuff is nuts. But The Decemberists make it work. Last Thursday at The Riviera in Chicago, as they have on the entire Hazards tour, they played the operetta straight through. It amounts to roughly 60 minutes of continuous music – no breaks, no banter – during which the whole trippy, mystical story unfolded in front of us. Every now and then, during an instrumental interlude or a bandmember’s solo, one or two of the band would be able to duck offstage to grab a new water bottle or, I don’t know, plunge their fingers in an ice bucket, but otherwise the entire band played and sang for an hour.
One couldn’t help but feel grateful for such an obvious effort, and the result was truly a great show. Frontman Colin Meloy sings the part of William, grounding the narrative with his familiar voice. Guest vocalist Becky Stark (of Lavendar Diamond) sings the part of Margaret, and her ethereal voice filled the theatre in an enchanting way that is missing from the album, on which she sounds sweet and small. Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) sings as the Queen, and she brought the flipping house down. The show didn’t really bring the crowd to life until her first solo. I was sitting in the middle of the balcony, easily 200 feet from the stage, but when she belted out, “Your life for the evening/ I will retake by morning./ Consider it your debt repaid,” I kind of wet my pants in fright.
Although the album is a single work, within it are tucked all the Decemberists’ specialties. “Isn’t it a Lovely Night?” and “Annan Water” have Colin Meloy in the plaintive ballad mode of “Grace Cathedral Hill” or “As I Rise.” “The Rake’s Song” and “Repaid” have the same fist-pumping, jump-up-and-down quality of “The Infanta” or “We Both Go Down Together.” And the infectious effervescence that have made The Decemberists great are sprinkled throughout, in the four permutations of “Hazards of Love,” and William’s theme, “The Wanting Comes in Waves.”
The Decemberists have been touring this show for a good few months, so the fact that they produced 60 minutes of pure verve was commendable at least, and inspiring at best. The crowd went wild.
After a short break, the band came back and played another 50-minute set of their perennial favorites. It was so generous and, as is obvious, combined with the sight of Colin Meloy in suspenders to launch me even farther over the moon for this band. That second set – including “O, Valencia,” “Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” “Grace Cathedral Hill,” The Crane Wife trilogy, and “Sons and Daughters” – made me very happy I’d plopped down $25 for the concert tshirt I will undoubtedly wear at next year’s Pitchfork.
This being the third Chicago show the band has played this year, Colin Meloy asked at one point, “Man, Chicago, how many times do we have to come back here?”
Never enough, Colin, I’ll be there every time.
What’s the iPod/MP3 Shuffle? It’s just a way to get people to share music and foster some discussion. I started doing this on my Facebook page a while back and it’s been great seeing friends exchange comments on each others lists. Every Friday, I get out my 120 GB iPod (which has about 24,000 songs now), hit shuffle and write about the first 10 songs that come up. Sometimes the 10 songs are kind of conventional, sometimes there’s a lot of obscure stuff. So check mine out and please add your own shuffle or discuss other people’s shuffles!
Let’s pay tribute to the intricate comic genius of Frenchman Jacques Tati, the man behind Monsieur Hulot. I’m not sure how Tati would view the iPod, as a man who parodied technology, but I’m sure he would have had a great shuffle. And I’m sure you do too. So please grab your iPod/iTunes/MP3 player, hit shuffle and share the first 10 tunes that come up. Here’s mine:
October 3rd, Beat Kitchen Chicago
In the 1990’s, punk and hardcore started to fray into two very distinct categories — “mainstream” and “underground.” As much of an oxymoron as “mainstream punk” might be, it became a reality with the increasing popularity of bands like Green Day, Rancid, Blink 182 and several others whose wallets and fan base swelled. Through the 1980’s and early 1990’s, punk bands really had no idea that there was money to be made playing punk rock, which allowed a lot of freedom and creativity, giving us a scene that was diverse and interesting; limiting any stylistic choke holds and horrible “post” this and “proto” that genre titles. There was basically punk, hardcore and everything else.
While the Green Days and Offsprings basked in mainstream MTV adoration, bands like MK Ultra, Charles Bronson, Los Crudos (all who shared members at one point or another), Pretentious Assholes, Billy Builders and countless other punk bands around Chicago (and the country really) were continuing to write songs that were far too extreme for mainstream rock radio. The scene was the most outspoken the punk scene had ever been, commenting the political as well as social.
Recently, in celebration of the release of their discography, MK Ultra reunited for one night at Chicago’s Beat Kitchen. With support from another “one time only” reunion band, Pretentious Assholes, east coasters Failures, Milwaukee’s Herds and locals Harms Way, they proved that their music is still vital nine years after their break up.
Up first was Harms Way, which features members of Weekend Nachos and Convicted as well as ex-members of countless Chicago hardcore mainstays and favorites. They play metal influenced hardcore that sits somewhere between Infest and Cannibal Corpse, delivered at both, break neck speed and down tempo sludge. Saturday night was no exception. I listened to their set, bobbing my head while perusing the Residue Records distro table.
Herds, from Milwaukee Wisconsin delivered a thrashy hardcore punk attack that would be most comfortable in a musty basement. Reminiscent of many of the bands coming out on No Way Records and Fashionable Idiots (who coincidentally is their label). What makes them stand out is they’re a bit noisier and unlike some of their contemporaries, their songs break from the formula of fast and loud, introducing tempo changes and breakdowns without delving into the cliched “hardcore breakdown” territory.
Filling out the middle of the bill was Chicago’s Pretentious Assholes, whose punk pedigree is as impressive as their ability to meld styles. Featuring members and ex-members of Charles Bronson, Dischrist, No Slogan and the Repos, they brought a healthy combination of crust, grind and good ol’ fashion hardcore to the show. Musically, these guys would have fit just as well on the Apocalypticrust Fest that was going on at the Black Hole that same night, but I was grateful they played this show instead. Unfortunately, there’s no link on line for this band. To find like minded bands, check out their pedigree.
Following P.A. was NYC’s Failures. The one thing I can say about the midwest, specifically the greater Chicagoland area is that the last of the real maniacs and mongoloids reside within it’s scene (and I say that with nothing but love and adoration.) As soon as Failures started, there was a mass wave of bodies ramming into one another, jumping from the stage and trying to take the mic from the singer. This is why I love punk rock. None of it was contrived or postured. There was no sense of irony to the mosh or the stage dives. It was pure and youthful; a lack of concern for your own well being. With the exception of some technical problems caused by a couple destroyed microphone cables, Failures tore through a thirty minute set in roughly twenty minutes with no pause or acknowledgment of the audience. If you’re a fan of raging, tribal, breakneck speed hardcore, be sure to check out their full length and 7”. Neither will disappoint.
Finally, ending the night was a set from one of my favorite Chicago hardcore bands, MK Ultra. At one point in the 90’s, indie rock heart throb John Vanderslice played in a band of the same name, issuing a cease and desist order on the locals, despite the fact that the audiences didn’t really overlap. MK Ultra reclaimed the name and spent their set Saturday night picking exactly where they left off in 2000. It felt as if they never lost a step and played with the same vigor and energy that they did in their “heyday.”
Unlike the 1990’s incarnation of the band, there was very little political banter between songs and was replaced with genuine appreciation for the audience attending and a call to the punk scene to start talking about issues on stage between songs. Something that was time honored in the 90’s, replaced by either apathy, or an understanding that everyone in attendance operates on the same page.
The discography is now available on two LP’s, along with a digital download coupon, on Youth Attack records.
Hi. I’m Nicole and this is my new column, “Midwestern Housewife”. Ostensibly, it will be about parenting and my experiences being an indie parent in a J. Crew world. But I also want it to be a place where fellow moms and dads can discuss relevant issues pertaining to their kids, or simply to commiserate. So please make use of the comments section. I look forward to hearing about what interests you and I’m always excited to meet and hang out with people who, like me, enjoy being a good parent but who also understand that you can do so without completely losing your own identity in the process. Yes, Virginia. You CAN resist the pressure to become a Soccer Mom. (Or a Hockey Mom, for that matter—especially if you’re not particularly fond of either pitbulls or lipstick).
First, a little bit about me:
I’m currently an at-home mom with boy/girl twins who will turn 3 in February. Yes, it looks like a Toys ‘R’ Us exploded in my living room. Yes, multicolored finger-paint masterpieces are currently tacked up on the fridge. Yes, the dog occasionally sports tempera paint racing stripes and the cat has been known to cough up a Lego or two, but all of it is much more rewarding than slaving away as an office drone. Oh, and before you ask, yes, I do occasionally wonder what the hell I’ve gotten myself into.
I’m also heartily committed to indie/DIY culture, which often brands me as an outsider in the usual parents’ circles. Maybe “outsider” is too strong a word. Perhaps “unusual” or “unorthodox” would be more precise. For instance, I’m used to getting the stink eye from older parents when my daughter, Squeak*, wears the “Mama said knock you out!” t-shirt (complete with little boxing gloves applique) that I made for her. I’ve already had a discussion with one of the preschool teachers about my son, Winchie*, and how he protests when they play the occasional Raffi CD during class because, in his words, it’s “just terrible.” (On that same token, one of my proudest parenting moments came when the kids were packed in the car recently, ready to go to preschool, and Winchie asked if we could listen to The Clash. I put in London Calling and he rocked out in his car seat with his best pal, Thomas the Tank Engine. God! I can’t wait to see what he’ll be like when he gets older.)
While other parents might cringe at this, I love that my kids are unapologetically themselves. I realize that some of this comes from their age and that they haven’t yet learned inhibition. But this also means that they are still open to suggestion on all fronts. I love showing them that there are many different ways of looking at the world and choosing an unusual perspective is often times the best route to take. What can I say? I’m an indie mom raising a couple of indie kids, of whom I am extremely proud.
I wouldn’t know what to do with a kid who liked exclusively pretty little princess wear and/or Raffi. I guess I’d suck it up because you have to let your kids be who they are, but I’m certainly glad mine aren’t afraid to stand out a little. Is it because I played them New Order and the Sex Pistols in utero instead of Baby Einstein Mozart concertos? Doubtful. Besides, if their fetal movements were any indication, they much preferred Bad Religion and Ladytron.
But, by and large, my kids get along really well with the other kids in their class and, I’m happy to report, they love going to school and doing all of the usual preschool activities: painting, singing, reading, drawing, circle time, etc. They’re normal, well-adjusted tykes, like I knew they would be. It’s dealing with the adults where things can get dicey.
The teachers are great. I’m talking about the mom crew at the preschool. Oh, dear God. It’s like high school all over again. Some of them are excellent people indeed and I’m incredibly lucky to know them. Others, well, let’s just say that I don’t wear the right clothes and my car isn’t expensive enough for them to treat me with anything close to respect. Some of them assumed I was the nanny and were surprised to hear me speak unaccented English when they first met me. And they had no problem admitting this to my face! (Picture a group of tall, slender, typically WASP-ish women in their late 30s cackling with glee about how I look so much like their Central American-born nannies, they just assumed I spoke Spanish. Never mind that my daughter is a virtual mini me and my son has my exact laugh.) Yikes. So while there are a handful of preschool moms I dig, it’s not really a club I want to belong to. It’s just not a good fit.
Where I do fit and where I’m most comfortable are all the geeky craft places around town. (And please note that I said CRAFT and not art, despite my degree. There are differences, and craft rocks! It has all of art’s creativity and none of the pretension. But I digress…) So while I love to get my geek on and craft my ever-lovin’ heart out, oftentimes it’s just not feasible with twin toddlers in tow.
So what’s a girl to do? Volunteer for CHIRP and write a column about bridging the indie/DIY-Soccer Mom gap, that’s what! Neither the preschool moms club nor the childfree craft alliance will grant me a full docket of membership benefits, so instead I’ll do what I’ve always done and find my own place. Here it is. Thanks for being a part of it.
* These are my kids’ nicknames. I know they’re perfectly plausible first names for the spawn of Hollywood-types, but, fortunately, I’m no Nicole Richie.
Before our wedding, my wife and I went through our record collections to find songs that would fit not only on our wedding mix CD (which we gave out as a gift to our guests), but also songs that represent us as a couple. I somehow kept overlooking the Smoking Popes and their pop gems. At the 11th hour, it dawned on both of us that Mrs. You and Me would be a perfect song that would sit perfectly amongst the other songs we selected.