Friday, December 18, 2009

Live: The For Carnation

When: 12/17
Where: Knitting Factory

Mountains openned the show last night. They play ambient, instrumental noise-folk with acoustic guitars and crap ton of electronics. At first, I enjoyed the rise and fall, the noisy dissonance and the sheer volume. However, with no melodies, no rhythms and no real surprises, I got pretty bored and left after ten minutes. [MySpace]

I came back just in time for The For Carnation, the band of ex-Slint/Squirrel Bait experimental rock genius Brian McMahan. Squirrel Bait's hardcore punk forshadowed Nirvana-style grunge back in the 80's. By the time Nirvana started changing in the indie scene, McMahan had moved on to the highly experimental, angular, sends-chill-down-your-spine music of Slint, helping spark (for better or worse) the post-rock movement.

After Slint, McMahan formed TFC and began creating much more subdued, gentle music. That may sound like a terrible direction, but it isn't always bad. When TFC is at its best, it has the same disturbing tension of Slint, but without ever providing release - the music just retreats further into its own sinister mystery. Unfortunately, TFC hasn't been that consistent - in fact, there's so much variation, I have to give you a song-by-song review.

Songs #1, 4 and 8 were TFC at its best. Minimal, desolate pieces with hints of jumpiness, these represent the logical sound of grown-up Slint. Song #7 was similar but got a little dreamer and sweeter in places. But still, something unsettling was lurking beneath the surface.

Song #2 was a bluesy number with an almost avant-garde guitar solo. Not my favorite.

Song #3 was folky and featured McMahan's lyrics sticking way out in front. They were about finding stuff in your house that reminds you of your long-gone wife. It would be banal even if it weren't cliche.

Song #5 sounded like Yo La Tengo being extra chilled out. Yawn.

Song #6, I've just forgotten.

The hit-and-miss set was made worse by McMahan's choice in bandmates. Certainly, with his reputation, he could put together a good band, right? But instead he's playing with these guys. The bass player seemed pretty solid and did a lot of strumming very well, which isn't easy to make sound good. Because of the style of music, I couldn't figure out the guitarist's skill level, but at least he didn't do anything offensive.

The real problems were the synth player and the drummer. The synth occasionally worked, but at other times, it stuck out like a sore thumb. It basically destroyed the last song (#8, which otherwise was great). Holding down the root in a hyper-oscillated, slow-attack setting just distracted from the music. Maybe if I didn't know about synthisizers, it wouldn't have bothered me so much, but I just kept imagining what was going through the keyboardist's (or songwriter's) head when he thought that'd be really cool. I love me a good slow attack, but because the sound itself was so stark, fading in on every note just drew attention away from the song itself.

And worst of all, the drummer! Brian McMahan, why are you playing with this guy? The dude is awful, seriously awful. Okay, I have a hang-up about playing cymbals with timpani mallets because it sounds like crap. You don't have to be a trained percussionist to listen to something and realize it sounds terrible. Even when he hit the cymbals with real drumsticks, they sounded bad. The toms also sounded like shit, and he abused his hi-hat in a way I haven't seen since high school (i.e. using it as a crash cymbal). I know I sound like a snob, but this isn't about following arbitrary rules, it's about making the instrument sound good.

His beats were also pretty lame, though not as bad as his tone. He wasn't the world's steadiest, but I only heard him screw up the beat badly once. As a time-keeper, he was perfectly adequate, but there were so many missed opportunities for better beats and fills. Sadly, his failings distracted me from the music and cost me a lot of enjoyment.

McMahan, on the other hand, is great. He's been in music long enough that he seems semi-comfortable singing, but still delivers a lot of his vocals in vaguely tuneful spoken monologues. I've never heard anyone pull this off but him, and he still does it, just like he did with Slint. His voice is simple and soft and his manner of speaking renders the songs even more uneasy. With Slint, he established himself as an enigmatic, haunted figure, and with TFC, when they're good, he's only buried himself deeper in his psychological darkness. He's still the real thing. [Fan MySpace]

[Note: I accidentally spelled Brian McMahan's last name "McMahon." It's been corrected now. Brian McMahon was a guitarist in the Electric Eels, also an amazing but obscure experimental musician from the heartland, but definitely a different dude.]


daso said...

To me it seems that Brian McMahan is expressing the darkness from a place beyond it, or deeper than it, rather than being subdued by it. This is what gives the music such poignant, ineffable greatness.

radioflyer said...

Well put.