Friday, July 17, 2009

Live: Japandroids + Little Girls, Dinowalrus

When: 7/10
Where: Cameo

I first heard the name Dinowalrus ages ago, probably well before I even started this blog. I didn't get around to listening until about six months ago, when the band e-mailed me a song. I listened to that song and my feelings on it were so neutral that I lost what interest I had (despite the band being named after a hybrid of two very badass critters).

It recently occurred to me, however, that this might be just the kind of band I need to hear live to appreciate. So I arrived early to Cameo to catch their set, and I can't begin to tell you how glad I am that I did.

Now, I know I've said about a handful of drummers that they were among the best I'd ever seen, so let me be perfectly clear - none of the drummers I've ever mentioned on this blog could hold a candle to Josh (I dunno his last name). He wasn't always in the band and it's kind of hard to imagine them before his arrival, because while the other two members are talented, his playing is what sets the band far ahead of its peers. It's not only the speed and complexity with which he plays, nor is it just the rich sounds he pulls out of his drums, it's the absolutely brilliant beats he uses. Few rock drummers even attempt syncopation and polyrhythm and most who do fall flat; it's extremely rare to find a drummer in rock music for whom breakbeats are second nature.

Dinowalrus (photo by Ted Gordon)
Dinowalrus (photo by Ted Gordon)

The other two band members aren't far behind in terms of technical skill. Their metalloid riffs, noise-rock freakouts and electropop grooves combine seamlessly. The wildman chemistry between Josh and guitarist/vocalist Pete Feigenbaum is explosive, while Kyle (again of indeterminate last name) has a calm, grounding presence on stage. Still, his steady concentration on his simultaneous bass and synth parts is anything but tame - after all, sometimes quiet insanity can be the most captivating.

I still have no real desire to listen to Dinowalrus on record - their lack of structure does not mix well with my lack of concentration. But I will be checking them out live as often as possible. Starting tonight at Cake Shop with Abe Vigoda. And know if you miss this show, you will have to live with that shame for the rest of you life. [MySpace]

I recently reviewed Little Girls' performance at the Woodsist Festival but it was good to hear them in a room that wasn't 105 degrees. In general, the acoustics were better except for the fact that the sound guy was asleep at the wheel - the band went most of a song without vocals and terrible feedback problems were still unresolved by the last song of the set.

Despite the hurdles, the band delivered a compelling if strange performance. The band members seem bizarrely disconnected from one another on stage - they play tightly, but with a palpable distance that fits well with the moody isolation of the music. The dramatics of frontman Josh McIntyre seem slightly put on, but his nervous energy is no doubt genuine. The dark bass riffs and reverbed, trebly guitar are fitting Joy Division-esque post punk, but there's something new here too, a genuine urgency as the young band begins to discover their own sound. [MySpace]

As for headliners Japandroids, I can't say I was ahead of the curve on loving them - Pitchfork was all over them before I gave them a try, but for the few weeks before this show, I was listening to their new album nearly non-stop. It's pop-punk at its best - simple and raw, youthful, catchy, and loud.

I wish I hadn't seen the band live. It's not that they aren't good - in fact, the band's two members are both excellent musicians and really rock out on stage. It's just that it was disillusioning to learn that a band that sounds so genuinely punk is really quite the opposite.

Reduced to its purest essence, punk has always been defined by its attempts to tear down the boundaries between musician and audience. Punk is the ultimate rejection of rock star idolatry. And as such, it's everything Japandroids are not. Guitarist Brian King soundchecked by moaning a pseudo-melody into the microphone for five minutes straight. Now, to be clear, King has an adequate voice, but despite his obvious conviction to the contrary, not one of remarkable beauty in any way.

The band members are older than I expected, given the adolescent sound of their music and lyrics. That in itself is not really a problem, but the band's blatant rockstar posing - including, hand to God, a fan positioned to give King's curls that windswept look - belies their innocent-sounding songs and that innocent-looking photo on the front of their album. These aren't exuberant young kids just trying to have fun, these are pop-idol wannabes.

Even the way they spoke to the audience between songs was condescending - they explained that they would be playing songs other than those from their recent album in order to play a decent-length set. Now, I applaud playing a good long set, but the band didn't have to explain that they'd be playing songs we might not know - I mean, assuming we all know all the songs on their album, assuming that we're all so unfamiliar with the ways of rock bands as to need some explanation for the set list, assuming there is a fundamental difference between them (rock stars) and us (fans).

That Japandroids have an attitude fundamentally opposed to everything punk stands for, that they are co-opting punk music to achieve the same ends as any contestant on American Idol, that they would rather be Elvis Presley than Johnny Rotten - none of this changes the fact that Post-Nothing is one of the best releases of 2009. What the show shattered was the hope that it might also be one of the year's most inspiring. Yeah, they're good, but kids, no matter what Japandroids say, DO try this at home.


Pat said...

I hate to say you don't get what "punk" means but I think you're missing the point in a lot of your review, and Japandroids has never claimed to be a punk band. They are a noise rock duo with elements shaded in the punk world, but for all intents and purposes they're just two guys that like making music together. I'm sure the fan was to avoid and 105 degree temperature situations because, let's face it, it gets hot on stages. Elvis Presley was more punk than the Sex Pistols could ever hope to be. He broke all the rules, defied the norm, and bucked all trends. The Sex Pistols were a glorified boy band that were put together to look and sound like an extreme version of The Ramones and The Clash. I understand you not liking a band's live show, even if you like their music, but I think you should give this band another chance without any preconceived notions and without that chip on your shoulder. Go to a show because it's a fun thing to do, not to cover it or impart your own taste on the music you're seeing. Let loose and the let the music move you as it does them when they're on stage.

radioflyer said...

Well, clearly, I disagree. I see what you're saying, but to me, rock music is inherently political and populist, it's about a lot more than the actual notes played. It's symbolic. A band like the Ramones or the Sex Pistols inspired by making kids see rock musicians as just like them. It's about tearing down boundaries, it's about counterculture, it's about empowering the powerless, it's so much more than sheet music and a lyric sheet could convey.

If I could divorce my feelings about music from any personal sentiment towards the musicians who make it, I would. But sometimes I learn something about the personality or politics or whatever of a musician that taints it for me. If you can completely separate the two, that's awesome, I think that's ideal. But I'm not perfect, and try as I might, if someone really offends me personally, I just can't quite hear their music the same way again. I don't know how most people are, if they aren't like me, then I suppose seeing Japandroids would be a good experience - they do play well.

Three small points:

1. Japandroids can call themselves a bluegrass garage-house band for all I care, but their music is meets my precise definition of pop-punk, and I believe my definition is fairly standard.

2. The fan was absolutely put there to give him a windswept look, but in his defense, the show was being filmed for Pitchfork TV or something like that, so they probably don't always do that.

3. I used to think the same thing about the Sex Pistols, but the more I've learned about them, the more I think they really do exemplify what punk rock is about. Yes, they were produced and managed from the start, they were artificial - but they were also real people, and the conflict this created, the impotence those kids felt because they didn't control the band, all the anger and frustration at being used and then beat up walking down the street for having an image that was kind of forced on them in the first place, to me this made Johnny Rotten epitomize punk even more than the Ramones and certainly more than the Clash - who, contrary to what you imply, openly stated that THEY wanted to be like the Sex Pistols (not the other way around). But that's neither here nor there, the difference I'm getting at is whether someone would prefer to be worshipped and seen as an idol or would prefer to inspire by being seen as a peer (and perhaps, though I stand by what I said about the Sex Pistols, that's an unfair accusation to Mr. Presley). Elvis aside, Brian King certainly seems to think he's above others and enjoys being seen that way. He's not - anyone can learn to play an electric guitar. That's the whole point of rock'n'roll.

Anyway, obviously, we'll have to disagree on this, but feel free to continue the discussion, as I'm definitely interested in your point of view (and perhaps would like to adopt it so I can start enjoying Post-Nothing again).

Will said...

No, he always puts the fan there. Whether it's to keep cool or look cool, who gives a fuck? I never post comments on blogs about anything, but your attitude just bugs me enough to say something.

I would say they are a "can't miss live" band, and two of the most genuinely nice guys I've ever met. So even if you can't divorce your feelings about music from your feelings about the musicians, you shouldn't have a problem listening to the record. Have you met the dudes? I have a hard time believing they'd "really offend you personally" if you actually had a conversation with them.