Friday, November 21, 2008

J’Ambience at Gulu Gulu, Lynn.

Tonight I sit at my regular table in the Gulu Gulu café, with friends. We watch a band I have never heard of before, and will likely never hear again. We get a little drunk while we take apart their rambling noises, and then dwindle in number steadily, returning home. We let the band’s music, and their attempt to “rearrange things in our minds” (as the DVD show that accompanies them announces), return to a suitable state of obscurity.

Not an auspicious start to a review of the band, but as I realize that I want to write about this gig, I know the band’s attempt at producing thought-provoking music of the mind is, in so many ways, inconsequential. The gig is not here to show me why ambient music usually provokes such contempt in me. There is no story in that, if you know my musical taste. J’Ambience playing here tonight is a great show because it is an entirely fitting end to the Gulu Gulu café, Lynn, itself.

I have had some really great times at the Gulu Gulu. It seemed like an underground center for a while – a place at the root of something energetic and exciting in a new nodal point of the city. I was even stirred to try and cast myself as the one pitching my music to other locals on occasion, playing songs to some friends and some indifferent strangers who came here for something quite different from my offerings. So I hope you’ll believe me when I say that I’m not now trying to just disqualify the sad enthusiasm of J’Ambience, although on the night I didn’t do much more than that. We laughed at the peace generated by the ends of the ‘songs,’ for example, and played ‘guess this image’ from the projection screen they used. In that respect, they entertained us well.

In general the band are genuinely trying to move us with their syncopated, processed guitars and rumbling samples. Even less cynical groups than ours though, drift off from it after a while. Shockingly, one of the two members of the band actually gets up and wanders off, mid-song, at one point, seeming to sum up the carelessness of the music for me. Over the three years I’ve been coming to Gulu Gulu, I’ve felt that kind of drift into irrelevancy in the place as a whole.

This is not just Gulu Gulu’s fault. We are the ones who make the scene, and the sterling efforts of a few – people rather like J’Ambiance – have been overwhelmed by the fickle disinterest of the rest of us. Even if you never saw Gulu Gulu, in its early fervor or its recent decline, the story of it’s demise is true of a million other equally hopeful attempts to generate a scene which have fallen because of… well, what? Many of the ingredients were there, but there was no explosion, and I don’t think anyone can truly say why, musically, the Gulu Gulu didn’t launch that moment for us.

The closure of the Gulu Gulu is a sad event for the part of the city I live in, but it seems that it is necessary for the next of these sparks to flare, and perhaps to truly ignite. I left tonight careless about J’Ambiance, but on reflection I hope they endure somewhere, or at least (to speak in terms suitable to their intellectual aesthetic) that their energy stays out there, still trying to make something that moves us.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

REVIEW: The National's "Boxer"

There is a very good chance that you, along with what I understand were about 71 million others, have heard The National before. The first song from this, their second album, was played in its entirety just before a victorious Obama walked to the podium this week, along with footage of the world he will, it appears, create (don't follow this link if you want to keep a clear mind about the band!).

Writing about a song that has been vetted until entirely harmless by a legion of political think tanks is not an appetizing prospect. I feel the need to claim that I (honestly) had the album playing in my car for weeks before it entered that kind of public domain. I say this not only to ensure you think me un-swayed in my musical judgment by my own political hysteria during this great, GREAT week, but also to try to convince myself that I'm always just ahead of the musical pack.

"A likely story," you retort.

Regardless, my job now is not to make myself look a little more 'in with the kids' (how could I be any more so), but to recover what I can of The National's potential from the ravages of political sterility. The National, whether you voted, whether you cared, whether you cried, whether you wrung your hands, are still a band you should love.

Love at least, in this incarnation. The band's eponymous first album is more Wilco than Interpol (perhaps apt, as they are keen to tell their story of relocating from the mid-west to NYC), and rather less engaging for that. When "Boxer" opens though, with the aforementioned "Fake Empire" track, they give us something remarkable. Matt Berninger's voice rumbles to us softly, as a series of close to false starts, first in drums and then in horns, make the rising melody seem both frail and a little hysterical. I can't stop listening to that fragile, breaking, song.

There are other highs too, in “Slow Show” for example, where Berninger tells us prosaically that he dreamed about his love for 29 yrs before he met him/her/it, and I believe him. The lyrics in general make me slightly weaker than I was. Verses like "Falling out of touch with all my/ friends are somewhere getting wasted/ hope they’re staying glued together/ I have arms for them,” from “Green Gloves,” sit tearfully with the loss I feel at my distance from others.

In case I seem to be a little overwhelmed by all this poignant, touching music, I want to say that “Boxer” is not the best album I’ve ever heard. It’s not even the best album this year. But it manages something impressive enough to have it stand out above many others: Even though it has in part been employed (sorry to democrats who might resist the notion) to manipulate, I’m happy to let it have it’s way with me over and over again.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Big Lick at Middle East Downstairs

I begin this time with a disclaimer. This is not a review of Big Lick, but of me. I am good friends with Kevin, the singer from Big Lick, and I've met almost every member of the band before tonight, some of them over the course of the last decade. My wife said I should write about the show, and I told her, ludicrously, that it would be unethical to do so, thinking to myself of my responsibility to my adoring readers. They might feel cheated by a supposedly honest assessment of a band that was skewed by my almost family ties to them.

But, as I find my feet in this space, I realize that worries about balancing my responsibility to remain objective and trying to be connected to a musical scene in this city are more than a little premature. What I am writing here, I am becomingly dimly aware, is a short story of my experience, and perhaps that is all I will ever be able to show for paying the ticket price at the door. So be it. I can narrate instead the reasons that objective journalism will have to wait.

My image of this night at the Middle East is wrapped up in a couple of other stories, distant in time or space. The first is of another gig, from my very first trip to Boston in 1998. My girlfriend of the time - now my wife - took me to see Big Lick play their CD release party at Tower Records on Newbury. In the blur of time between that night and this I recall very little, but the knowledge that I was there and now I am here makes me feel an unusual sense of rootedness, which is nothing less than intoxicating.

On the other hand it's Halloween, and that night recalls a lot less fun times since I've been here, when Americans' self-assured bravado in making a fool of themselves walked all over my unshakable (and believe me I've tried) English rigidity. My brother-in-law, also at the gig full of memories of the old days of Big Lick, tells me I should lighten up, but the cooler and 'crazier' they all appear, the more I stiffen. This feeling of exclusion from the party overwhelms the other emotion, of connectedness to this city, and I slump.

So when Big Lick come on I'm counting down the minutes until I can make my stilted way home. I'm sure you are waiting for me to tell you that they won me over: That they played a show so passionate and fun-loving that I couldn't help but lift my spirits to meet them. And that is all true. They are a great band that deliver song after song that can carry you into the pit (where my brother-in-law was swallowed whole) even if you stay firmly on the sidelines. But there is no story in that. This show - for me - was all about watching Kevin's face, smiling for just a moment at one point near the end of the band's set, as he looked over what they had done to about two hundred people in the space of thirty minutes. In a split second his joy was mine too, and the whole night was worth it.