Alright, time to get the blood flowing again. Here's an old review I never ran of a live show that happened a long time ago but is still worth writing about.
When: July something
Where: Williamsburg Waterfront
Even thought of someone covering Unknown Pleasures makes me seethe. It's my favorite album ever of all time and anyone who thinks they are worthy of going NEAR it has as good as committed blasphemy in my mind. Part of me knows Ian Curtis was just a guy and deifying Joy Division is not exactly rational. But still, on an emotional level, Unknown Pleasures is sacred ground to me, and it's off limits for any mortal.
But, if I were going to pick two bands worthy of attempting to cover the album, Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof would surely not be far down the list. Two of the boldest, most innovative and most sincere bands to emerge in the last decade, Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof might have earned their chance to attempt this show. In some ways, that just raised the stakes, though, because if these bands couldn't pull of the seemingly impossible, it might ruin both for me forever.
But as soon as they started playing, my doubt melted away. The first notes switched on a magnet that pulled me towards the stage with a force I couldn't resist. The album opens with my single favorite song of all time, "Disorder." And as the harshest critic you could probably find, I have to say, they pulled it off.
Throughout the show, the band did justice to Joy Division's first masterpiece. Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart certainly embraces the spirit of Ian Curtis in his work, but he doesn't imitate him. Stewart's link to Curtis is not a put-on; he's genuinely a messed up individual with nervous, despairing, captivating energy. He constantly seems on the verge of breaking. That feeling of sickening tension is exactly what makes Joy Division such a riveting listen. It's a hard thing to capture genuinely, and most bands who try (Interpol, Crystal Stilts) come off (to me) as glorified cover bands.
The backing instruments matched Stewart's emotional, edgy performance, staying true to the spirit of the music and not rewriting anything. But despite their loyalty to the structure of each song, they did make the music their own, draping the skeleton of each track with their own layers of noise and sonic experimentation. Some songs, like "Disorder," stayed close to the original on every level, while at other times (e.g. "Day of the Lords," "New Dawn Fades"), the musicians on stage filled in their own interpretation of the original clouds of sound that fill the album.
Unknown Pleasures speaks to me in a way no other album ever has. Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof's performance didn't come close to that level of affecting, but their performance was still powerful and heartfelt. I never thought I'd admit anyone was worthy of playing a show like this but I have to say, it was a great concert that only increased my love for both these bands and for the original album as well.
By the way, Fang Island and Why? opened. Fang Island is a lot of guys playing crazy-ass guitar stuff, some hybrid of post-rock and metal. On each song, the guitars and synth built on one another to make a huge, heavy and surprisingly emotive sound. At times, the band seemed to tug at the heartstrings a little too much - the drama because an overdone trick. But overall, the complex, intertwining lines of guitars and synth were a good listen and the anthemic, booming songs rocked for real. Not really thing I'd write home about, but definitely a talented and enjoyable band.
Why? is pretty rad. Straddling indie rap and indie rock, the band uses big, open hip-hop beats and rhythmic vocals, but with a good deal of singing and rock instrumentation. I was surprised by the number of people in the touring band the extent to which Why?'s sound was created live, rather than with samples and electronics as with most rap acts. To be totally honest, all those musicians kind of made the band less cool. Vocalist Yoni Wolfe's brother Josiah on drums is pretty amazing to watch: he's added a vibraphone (essentially a metal xylophone) to the standard kit, and it's got to take tremendous skill to play melodies on that while also taking care of all the drumming. Yoni Wolfe himself is fun to watch. His songs are humorous and clever but with passion and a fair amount of self-deprecation. His live performance lived up to (but did not surprise) his recorded work - emotional, honest and smart. Still, I wouldn't say seeing Why? live is essential for casual fans. It's just about what you'd expect.