It's hard not to fall a little in love with live music. Live music implicates and makes present a necessary sense of touch. All of the elements are there, seductive at a thoroughly formal level. Hands cradle instruments; fingers seek and press upon carefully considered triggers of sound. There are lips and ears -- embodied inputs and outputs to which we otherwise allow only the most intimate physical access. Live voice is the proximity of mouth to mic, alternately smiling, singing, or spitting into its mesh. The volume is overwhelming. It follows you to the bathroom or bar, and sound hangs on in your ears afterward, lingering like a scent, fading only over time.
On Friday, Cherokee St. arts incubator the Luminary hosted a sold-out performance by the atmospheric, enthralling, and deeply intelligent band Foxing, who returned to their home of St. Louis with tourmates O'Brother, Tancred, and Adjy. And in short, I loved it.
Not exactly analogous to a one-night stand, the love in live music comes in often unavoidable phases that come together as the whole story only after the night's over. Anticipation: the line that winds around the building before the show, as chillier-than-expected April wind creeps into your collar. Frustration: having someone too tall in front of you. Anxiety: worrying that you are too tall for whoever is behind you. Nagging: the unsatisfiable need for more vocals in the monitor, for which bands have yet to find a cool way to ask. The needs of the other: the merch that they entreat you to buy. Obligation: the merch that you do buy, enabling another day on the road. Dissatisfaction: the just okay third opener, whom you could have done without. Platitudes: Foxing singer Conor Murphy's thankful parting words to the crowd, that St. Louis is "the greatest city in the world." And finally, at least in my case, the compulsion to overshare the experience, to tell everyone, to want the world to know.
The show opened with the communicable youthfulness of North Carolina six-piece Adjy. Like a too-good student who emails the professor for advance access to the syllabus, Adjy were earnest, admirable, and awkward. The slow build of many songs eventually became anthemic and full, with soaring lead vocals bolstered by the interjection of supporting shouts. Then, during one song's extended middle lull, several of the members pulled paperback books from among their instruments and began to read, at once performing and affirming their romantic sensibilities. It was cute, although I imagine that they will one day look back on this gesture with a bit of blushing.
Adjy was followed by Tancred, whose recently released album Out of the Garden finds songwriter Jess Abbott expanding the intimate, almost secretive scope of her earlier work. With an eager and uncompromising fearlessness, Abbott's songwriting examines the variable effects of attraction, uncertainty, and strength. Her new songs simply ask to be turned up a little louder. Traversing sounds and textures of the 1990s, Out of the Garden offers welcome echoes of Veruca Salt, Nirvana, Weezer, and That Dog, among countless other points of departure. Abbott opened with a timely dedication to Kesha, "who needs it right now," before launching into the song "Pens," in which aggressively catchy guitars ratify the ominous confidence of the chorus ("I'm insanely healthy in my head / It's crazy how stable I am"). Throughout the focused set, Abbott delivered her lyrics with a subtle smile and almost victorious confidence -- the joy, it seemed, of someone who can transmute darkness into something big, beautiful, and fun.
Tancred was followed by the Atlanta five-piece O'Brother, whose heavy, moody music is what you might listen to after your high school football team just got crushed in the district semifinals. Throughout their set, it was hard not to feel an impatience for Foxing, to whom the night truly belonged. Their indefatigable touring schedule had brought them to this triumphant homecoming in St. Louis, surrounded by a capacity crowd that would, by the band's own onstage admission, doubtlessly impress the parents and girlfriends who were also in attendance. Before and between songs, Murphy and the other four members of Foxing frequently thanked their hometown for its support, and the crowd responded with the kind of protective, resolute enthusiasm that St. Louisans confer upon their perceived cultural patrimony, from pizza to parishes to professional sports.
Foxing opened with "The Medic" and "The Magdalene," two tracks that easily accommodate a roaring voice of an audience who they knew would will sing the words right back to them. Later moments were intense in other ways, as ethereal textures and complex sonic densities gave the audience more to inhabit, but less to hold on to. Spanning songs from 2014's breakthrough album The Albatross and their more recent Dealer, Foxing performed with cohesion and conviction that contrasts powerfully with their lyrics, which often convey a deeply felt ambivalence, indecision, and longing. They finished the night with a stretched-out version of "Rory," which builds on the early stabs of a single piano key to the powerful, unresolved appeal: "Why don't you love me back?"
If live music is at all like love, then we did.
Touring to support their second album "Escapements," Brooklyn-based indie R&B duo Thomas Mullarney and Jacob Gossett held forth mood upon mood.
The synth pop outfit of Emily Haines and James Shaw with Joshua Winstead and Joules Scott-Key delivered a stellar set to an amped crowd at the Delmar Loop venue.
Electro-indie band Joywave opened for Metric at the Pageant on Friday night.
The "local" music tag is often a negative signifier, separating the cutely ambitious musical endeavors of your friends from "real" artists. The year of 2015 saw St. Louis giving a resounding push back to this faulty notion, creating a slew of releases rising above local approximations of larger trends or tired genre pastiches. Releases from the Brainstems, Little Big Bangs, and Hylidae saw acts transcending imitation to reach pure synthesis of their influences. The resulting releases are resonant documents of the current local scene.
The Brainstems firmly fit into a musical tradition, but maintain a cerebral edge over the majority of their contemporaries. To pigeonhole the Brainstems in a so-called "garage rock revival" alongside an endless glut of Burger Records-worship is grossly irresponsible. The Brainstems have always displayed a biting wit and a knack for hiding outré influences within supposedly "simple" songs. No Place Else is a perfect showcase of this gift; an accomplished record with big ideas that still maintains the shambolic charm of previous self-releases.
Opening track "Stallioning" is a prime example of the group's stealthy incorporation of art-damaged influences, blending kraut-tinged guitars and motorik drumming into a song that includes the line "I'm a motherfucking stallion." Even at its most political, "No Place Else" still works as guiltless fun. Album highlight "Redline" accomplishes the previously unthinkable task of writing a danceable song about the inherent racism of St. Louis County's municipality divisions. On the lyrical flipside, "The Ooze" pairs the best musical composition of the band's discography with words about, well, ooze. This is the Brainstem's greatest strength. They're smart without becoming pedantic and primal without entering "pizza and beer" territory. This isn't to say that No Place Else is a perfect record (the spoken word track "People's Joy" feels like a throw-away), but that's part of the appeal. This is a damn good album for both the denim vest and black turtle-neck sets.
The Little Big Bangs' LP Star Power is another document of a St. Louis band leaping forward. Where No Place Else benefits from maintaining lo-fi aesthetics, Star Power instantly benefits from its increased production values. Opening track "Bang" is aptly named. From its initial moments, the change in production is incredibly clear. Simply put, this record sounds HUGE. Tracks like "Desperate" and "Situation" are raw yet display a previously unseen level of polish. This is Dirty, not Daydream Nation; Nirvana via Vig rather than Albini. So many bands have faulted from embracing sonic sheen to the point of cliché. Star Power is no such case. Every LBB asset benefits: Lucy Dougherty's throat shredding gains power in the mix, the intricacy of Ryan Macias and Eric Boschen's guitar interplay is far more pronounced, and the listener fully realizes that Drew Gowran is a fucking monster of a drummer.
LBB are steeped in the 90's indie guitar rock of groups like Sonic Youth and Pavement, influences the band directly acknowledges in the title Star Power, taken from a track off EVOL. The instantly hummable "Kennel" is a great riff on the group's sources of inspiration, its title and falsetto "woos" a nod to Pavement's "Kennel District." Despite these explicit references, Star Power never apes its sources, creating an urgent snapshot of a band at the height of its abilities rather than an era-specific tribute piece.
Hylidae's Intransitive exists completely outside of the local "dudes with guitars" realm, but is another brilliant fusion of sounds from a bygone era with contemporary aesthetics. The one-man project of St. Louis native Jon Burkhart, Hylidae is a concoction of 60s academic synthesizer composition, the kraut-sans-rock work of Harmonia, Conrad Schnitzler, and Harald Grosskopf, and the accessibility of Berlin School electronica. Burkhart melds this heady source material into taut avant pop-songs. In this sense, Intransitive is equal parts electronic music history primer and local dance music instant classic. The tape often delves into abrasive territory (it indeed opens there), but even noisy forays like "You Don't Say" and "Sorghum Syrup" are paired with a groove.
Surely to be a hit with electronic aficionados, Intransitive also features one of the best pop songs of the year, local or otherwise. "Unwound" is an incredible stand alone track featuring an almost maddeningly catchy synth-line. This song is undoubtedly the best in Hylidae's repertoire thus far, capturing both Burkhart's vocals and electronic wizardry at their peaks. In an alternate universe "Unwound," and the rest of the rest of Intransitive, for that matter, are undeniable club hits. Paired with No Place Else and Star Power, Intransitive is another gem in an extremely prolific year of St. Louis music. With releases this strong, St. Louis is slowly molding "local" into a badge of honor. Flyover-country is becoming a hell of a lot more interesting.