Monday, April 18, 2011

Live: Dinowalrus, Mr. Dream, Flotilla

When: April 9
Where: Shea Stadium

So Shea Stadium had some big festivally sort of thing a week ago and thoughtfully listed the bands on the flyer in a completely random order that had nothing to do with the order in which the bands played.  Honestly, that's a pretty rude move - whether it was just laziness and disorganization or whether it was some hippy-dippy idea about people being exposed to new bands, let's just be realistic here, no one is going to sit through twelve hours of music.  (Granted, set times were apparently listed on Facebook just before the show, but that was too little too late.)

However, missing the bands I'd made the trek to see does give me some fresh blood to suck the life out of.  So cheers!

The first band playing when I got to the venue was actually the one I had gone to see, Dinowalrus.  Frontman Pete Feigenbaum was singularly unenthused when I told him a few weeks ago that I was probably going to start blogging again, so of course, I had to make his project a top priority. (Being obnoxious is a hobby of mine.)  However, I hadn't seen the band in ages and it's changed dramatically in the year or so of my absence.

First, the only remaining member of the band I last saw was Feigenbaum himself.  I had heard through the rumor mill that they had a new drummer a while, but at the show at Shea, they had a new new drummer making his live debut with the band.  There is no way the band could replace their former drummer Josh Da Costa (do I have that right?), a rare talent and one of the best drummers I've ever heard, but the new drummer didn't seek to imitate Da Costa - which could have only ended badly - but rather put his own stamp on the band's music.  I used to periodically use the word "mathy" to describe Dinowalrus, but when Feigenbaum called me out on it and asked to point to anything that was not a steady 4/4 in pretty much their entire set, I had to admit I was wrong in my terminology.  But the absence of Da Costa has finally helped me figure out why I used the adjective "mathy" in the first place - while Dinowalrus is not mathy, Da Costa's syncopated, polyrhythmic style gave the music a feel of shifting rhythm, especially in comparison to most of Brooklyn's current rhythm-challenged indie bands.  Mystery solved!

In contrast, the newest drummer's beats fall within a much more straightforward four-by-four structure.  While he's far less interesting than Da Costa, those are impossible shoes to fill and he is nevertheless a superb drummer.  His commanding style meshed well with the more straightforward approach of new bassist/synthist Liam Andrew.  Andrew's predecessor, Kyle Warren (who was in the audience), played the roll of mad scientist, his performance always coming across as an experiment, the stage a laboratory.  Andrew's playing, while not texturally vastly different from the spacey concoctions of Warren, felt more concrete and surehanded.

While I can't say the net change for Dinowalrus is positive - Da Costa's shapeshifting polyrhythms and Warren's quirky sonic chemistry are sorely missed - the damage is not as bad as one would expect from a 67% personnel change.  The band's trippy, spacey textures and pop sensibilities have been recombined and what's lost in subtlety is made up for in pop appeal.  Dinowalrus was always dancey (in a heavily drugged-out post-rave trip-hop psych-punk way) but their experimentalism did soften the impact of their songs.  Now, with more heavy-handed backing, Fiegenbaum's songs finally live up to their crowd-pleasing potential, leading numerous people in the audience in earshot of me remark something along the lines of "wow, these guys are tight!"

The next band to play was Mr. Dream, a band that confused me greatly in as much as I could not immediately sort out my ambivalent reaction to the music.  There were some good aspects, some great aspects even - the band was tight, noisy enough, aggressive, skilled at their instruments and sufficiently catchy.  But yet something was deeply off-putting: the sense that everything in the band had been too carefully calculated.  There was something excessively deliberate about Mr. Dream; they not only wore their influences (Pixies, Velvets) on their sleeve, they seemed studied.  Rather than simply looking to their sources as a model for attitude or an unconscious source for sloppy rip-offs, Mr. Dream sounded like they had distilled a formula of chord progressions, bridges, choruses, solos and the like.  Although it's hard to say exactly what blew their cover, something about the band's compositions seemed stale, mechanical and overly academic (even if the academic study was how to make non-academic sounding pop).

The band's live performance didn't help matters.  While it's hard not to commend the band for their effort - and they certainly were lively - there was still the stink of something disingenuous.  That's not to say the band was overly aloof or were not really having fun.  Yet there was a lack of spontaneity.  Even the band's seemingly in-the-moment gestures seemed calculated, planned, studied and manufactured.  Although the band was not a carbon copy of anyone in particular (bass lines and guitar tones evoked the Pixies, while the vocals were distinctly 90's alt), they seemed somehow phenomenally unoriginal and vapid.

Closing out the lineup was Flotilla, a band that certainly lived up to its name's promise of wussiness.  However, the band did surprise me - I was expecting bland but instead got painful.  I really do salute singer Veronica Charnley for having the balls to take the mic with absolutely sincerity and uncouched in aloofness, irony or studied flawfulness, but I fled the room after only seconds.  Her shrill voice fell right in that window where the singer has too much technique for the genre and yet not enough technique to hide her technique - she's either had too many or too few voice lessons (or does a good impression of someone who has).  Replete with a grating vibrato, Charnley's vocalizations were admirable for their courage but ultimately intolerable, at least in the context of the band's music, which was more subtly but ultimately even more offensive.  Ultra-wimpy without being cute, the band falls squarely in line with the horrible post-2000 wave of baroque pop movement led by such shameful antirockists as St Vincent and Grizzly Bear.

This entire approach to music nauseates me to such a point that I can't even begin to explore whether Flotilla succeeded in their attempts - although I'd venture a guess at "no" based on Charnley's awkward vocal tone.  But to be honest, I can't assess the band's merit within their own terms because their own terms make my stomach turn.  With all the softened, variegated textures and stale-sour odors of vomit, rococo pop like this is an acid eroding every edge from pop and indie music.  There is no merit to be found in this sort of polished wimpiness - not in today's musical/social/political climate - except, I suppose, a dire warning of the dangerously watered-down state of contemporary music.

But even setting politics aside, Flotilla is at once painful and bland.  I'm sure they're lovely people and a damn sight less offensive than bands like Dirty Projectors or Freelance Whales, but still worth standing outside in the rain to miss.  (Sorry.)

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