Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Live Review: Ezra Furman and the Harpoons 6.23.09

Calling all New Yorkers. If you are in this city and you haven't found time to hear Ezra Furman and the Harpoons perform, do yourself a favor.

The venerable indie-folkers will wrap up their residency at Piano's on Tuesday, and if they repeat their performance from yesterday night, many smiling faces will be heading for the exit at about 11:05 p.m.

The Harpoons vaulted through an hour-long set that was entirely as manic as Furman's gleeful howls. Even when he promised to play a slow song, that tune ended up being "God Is a Middle-Aged Woman," which in turn ended up being one of the loudest songs of the night, all gritty and pained – and painfully honest – but disarmingly goofy as well. While the guitar got dirtier and the drums got louder, he was gazing at the ceiling as he snarled, "Oh, God! / Won't you just say hello?" It's fair to say that when he was telling it, the sheepish and silly Furman took us places the Vatican – more to the point, your rabbi – never could.

But let's be honest: where the Harpoons' 2007 album, Banging Down the Doors, was a young thinking kid's folk gem, last night's concert was a lesson in the virtues of first-degree pop. Still, the band was as tight as it was carefree, and the background harmonies conjured irrepressible grins even – check that, especially – when they occasionally missed the mark. This foursome was on top of its game. Furman's thunderous acoustic guitar pulse, the top-of-the-beat intensity of drummer Adam Abrutyn, the swelling harmonica lines that Furman nailed–if you weren't listening to the lyrics of "Take off your Sunglasses," you might have thought it was the E Street Band minus the organ, playing "The Promised Land." Then again, if you were feeling a little less generous, you could also have thought it was a long-lost Tom Petty hit. The x factor rendering all these comparisons irrelevant? That was Furman's voice.

He tosses off effortlessly clever ironies and allegories of lovesickness with a whoop so filled with abandon it drowns out all those Dylan comparisons. It came as a bit of a disappointment that Furman didn't have time to kick the band offstage for a solo acoustic set ("American Highway" woulda been nice...), but I guess that's what the album is for. Last night's rock 'n' roll, little had I known, was for dancing.

Note: the photo is not from Tuesday's show. It is from his January 6, 2008 show at the Mercury Lounge in New York.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Time for the Boss to Pretend?

Bruce Springsteen reportedly put on a blowout performance at Bonnaroo yesterday, winning new converts in the heart of Tennessee. In addition to performing for almost three hours, the Boss joined Phish onstage and hung out with Okkervil River. Not surprising.

But let's be honest: did you really expect him to show up for the MGMT show? Does a guy who likes to "prove it all night" and "work all day in his daddy's garage" seem like he'd be game to "move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars"? Well, sure enough, it happened; check out the video above. Stranger things have happened, I guess....

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Live Review: Akron/Family and Women 5.31.09

What better way to wrap up a five-month stint of cultural immersion in Bolgona, Italy, than by escaping to a tucked-away club outside of town for a concert by two North American bands no Italians have heard of?

Akron/Family and Women put on a blistering double billing at the Locomotiv Club here this weekend. Each band threw its recent album into the fire and cooked it Pittsburgh rare, until the sound and feel from the record turned scalding but stayed super-raw, putting a totally new taste in your mouth.


Women opened up and quickly asserted that this show was as much theirs as Akron’s. Their brief self-titled debut album is a tube of tomato paste that you’ve left in the sun too long—highly condensed, and full of hazmat surprises. It’s rife with twists and turns and feels like a reference book of alternative influences. There’s the neo-naturalism of Grizzly Bear’s and Animal Collective’s old brands of freak-folk, manifested in a willingness to let an acoustic guitar and some co-oped vocals carry a piece, with the help of some trusty reverb (read: the first half of “Group Transport Hall,” featuring Women’s best melody). Women are at times industrial, at other times post-punky—as when their guitarists parlay an interface of two lightly distorted lines into a swirling cacophony à la Television. Often, the grittiness meets a sophisticated rhythmic sensibility that somehow propels the tunes ever forward, rather than halting and jerking them as Battles’ brand of math rock is wont to do.

Now imagine all this played by a band that listens to nothing but Fucked Up and My Bloody Valentine on the tour bus. At least that’s what it sounds like. Hiding from the drizzling rain beneath a tree outside the club after the set, I commented that the show was different from the record. “Yeah,” bassist Michael Wallace laughed. “Really different.” The song structures, even the instrumentation, stayed largely the same. But Women took their multidirectional vision, already steeped in lo-fi, and cranked up the volume to levels that (neighbors be grateful) can’t be reached in the basement. A friend who came with me to the show and who had hardly heard of Women before ended up calling their music “punk” and “hardcore;” meanwhile, I came away intrigued by the dejected, shoegazing quality that lead singer Patrick Flegel attached to his always distant vocals.

Check out this video of Women performing at CMJ last year via


Akron/Family, now a three-piece after the 2007 departure of original member Ryan Vanderhoof, lived up to their reputation as a live powerhouse and one that sounds just as distinct from their recorded selves as Women do. Contrary to Allmusic’s oxymoronic attempts to pigeonhole – apparently “Akron/Family are one of those exasperatingly unknowable bands” but “their music … falls squarely into the freak folk category” – Akron concerts feel like exuberant explorations of the many directions in which their songs can be taken.

If I had to give it a genre, I’d call these New Agers’ style “freak-jam.” Songs like “Everyone Is Guilty,” the opener of impressive new album Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free, swung about the spectrum of Akron’s sound. The trio jumped from a jaunty guitar groove to an intense communal chant of “Everyone is guilty” to a percussion-and-pedal section (different band members played a cowbell and a half-drunk water bottle and fiddled with a loop pedal); the tune eventually bloomed into a searing solo section.

The set closed with a simple ballad, sung in three-part harmony to the strumming of an acoustic guitar. The song’s only lyrics were, “Last year was a hard year for such a long time, / This year’s gonna be ours.” Although they did return for an encore of “Crickets,” the acoustic piece was a perfect capstone from this bearded threesome. The lyrics of their songs are effervescently positive and self-affirming, and at its best their music can feel like an unbounded spiritual release, sung in wild chants and deep, imperfect harmonies.

The photograph above is of Women's performance.