Billy Gray

Parquet Courts Packs Palisades

In Music on February 12, 2015 at 7:48 am

BYRON BAY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 27:  Andrew Savage of Parquet Courts performs on stage at Splendour In the Grass 2014 on July 27, 2014 in Byron Bay, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

“Hi we’re Parquet Courts and we’re from … here,” bassist Sean Yeaton told the crowd at Palisades when the rock quartet hit the stage at 11 p.m. on Tuesday. That introduction was the extent of banter from the band during the second of two sold-out shows at the nine-month-old Brooklyn DIY venue.

It was typical of the understatement Parquet Courts applies to its post-punk sound, a throwback ruggedness that has pushed the group to the front of the city’s fractured young rock landscape. The humble hello came between the tight, instrumental “Up All Night” and grungy, slow-fast “Bodies.” Then the stage diving erupted during “Black and White,” another track from last year’s Sunbathing Animal, the group’s breakthrough LP.
The group’s combination of workmanship and chaos buoyed the night’s energy.

Mr. Yeaton, Andrew Savage and Austin Brown (who split vocal and guitar duties) brought a coiled physical restlessness of half-headbangs to their performance. The band hewed closely to its studio sound while complementing the nine-month-old DIY spot’s beyond-barebones aesthetic. The aptly-named Mr. Savage was a standout as he handled the vocals on staccato shredders “Black and White” and “Ducking and Dodging” with a hoarse, blitzkrieg delivery more insistent than the sardonic detachment common to Parquet Courts’ recordings.

The group’s combination of workmanship and chaos buoyed the night’s energy through slow burns like “Dear Ramona.” But the venue’s unfortunate railroad apartment narrowness contributed to talky restlessness among the sold-out crowd stuck in the back rows and blocked from the stage by floor-to-ceiling columns. Complaints aside, with programming like Tuesday’s, Palisades, located under the J/M/Z tracks in Bushwick, could become a welcome redoubt from the spate of DIY venue closings that has decimated the scene in Williamsburg.

On the subject of inheriting mantles, Parquet Courts aren’t sonically shy about their fondness for greats like the Velvet Underground, Television and Pavement. But dry, sly lyrics that are alternately caustic and searching help make up for occasional derivativeness. And the confident weariness displayed at Palisades should transfer well to much bigger rooms.

This article first appeared in the New York Observer,

15 Carrot Gold

In Music on January 24, 2014 at 7:37 am

neutral_milk_hotelThe so-called J.D. Salinger of indie rock was at a loss for words.

After taking the stage and making it through the start of “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One,” (“When you were young…”) Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum paused, regained his composure and began again. Later, he admitted to getting choked up in front of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House during the first of the band’s three sold out shows there.

The crowd quickly forgave and breathed its own sigh of relief. After all, Mr. Mangum had famously suffered a nervous breakdown just after Neutral Milk Hotel released “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” That 1998 sophomore album grew from initial off-kilter cult classic into a canonical indie rock text during Mr. Mangum’s years of reclusiveness. If stage fright had led to the opening flub, who knew if this appearance would be Mr. Mangum’s last for another decade?

Despite that and other early glimpses of rust, an assured tear through “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three” (beginning with Mr. Mangum’s invocation of “I love you Jesus Christ”) put those fears to rest. The spectacularly bearded Scott Spillane (on horns), ruthless drummer Jeremy Barnes and shaggy Julian Koster (bassist, banjoist and singing saw-ist) diverted attention from Mr. Mangum, to his certain relief.

From there, the band launched into “Holland 1945,” a full-throttle rocker off “Aeroplane” that rang oddly hollow last night. Still, Neutral Milk Hotel was finding its groove. And the audience stayed rapt as the group moved from “Aeroplane”—an album whose oblique lyrics about semen-stained mountaintops and other oddities some interpret as an alternative history in which Anne Frank had lived—into a series of tunes from its lesser-known full-length debut, “On Avery Island” (1996) and the “Everything Is” EP (1994).

About midway through the set, Mr. Mangum’s bandmates left him alone on the stage for a transporting rendition of “Two-Headed Boy.” At this point it became clear that his nasally bleat—always an acquired taste—had achieved a more sonorous depth. The singer’s quiet confidence compounded the impression of running into the now post-adolescent kid you used to babysit.

The BAM crowd—mostly thirty-somethings dressed as though they’d come from Girls central casting—was in a protective, nurturing mood. Concertgoers mostly adhered to the no photography rule. They screamed “We missed you!” between songs. And there was a bit of tension when someone bellowed “When’s the next album coming out?” during a quiet moment. (Mr. Mangum recently emerged for a smattering of small shows, but the band hasn’t released new material since 1998.) Yet at this point any concern for Mr. Mangum’s lingering fragility seemed misplaced.

“You tell me, my friend,” he shot back.

The band’s own banter was minimal. Mr. Koster recalled the group’s salad days spent in a rent-controlled West Village apartment with a shoulder shrug that delighted the Brooklyn crowd, their residence in the city’s new center of cultural gravity confirmed. Mr. Mangum joked about the acid trip that led to the unreleased “All the Colors of the Rainbow.” A handful of guests came onstage, a reminder of how much Neutral Milk Hotel inspired not only freak folk (for better or worse), but also the quirky instrumental collectivism of Arcade Fire and its ilk.

The set lost some focus toward the end, with “Naomi” and especially “Oh Comely” (which Mr. Mangum also performed stag) being standouts. A thunderous standing ovation—most people sat through the show in general admission seats—brought the band back out for a four-song encore.

Neutral Milk Hotel closed with “Engine,” but the gang would have been wise to leave things with the baleful “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2,” the penultimate song of the show and the third Mr. Mangum took on his own. “Two headed boy she is all you could need/She will feed you tomatoes and radio wires/And retire to sheets safe and clean/But don’t hate her when she gets up to leave.”

No one had expected an answer to the question about future albums. But those last lines somehow provided assurance and cold comfort.

This article first appeared in the New York Observer.

Arcade Fire: ‘Reflektor’

In Music on October 21, 2013 at 7:34 am

indexArcade Fire has never been known for its sense of humor.

The sprawling Montreal ensemble shot to the top of the indie rock pecking order with three albums of earnest, plangent, fitfully electric anthems about childhood and death, with a sprinkling of geopolitical dirges and riffs on the corrosive influence of technology.

But on Friday the septet entered its first of two Brooklyn warehouse shows determined to crack some jokes. Fans were in on the first one. The CMJ week concert at the dingy 299 Meserole Street wouldn’t feature Arcade Fire as the headliner, but rather The Reflektors, an alias derived from the disco-tinged title track of the gang’s latest album, due out next Tuesday.

Less expected was a switcheroo at Friday’s show that had James Murphy (the former LCD Soundsystem frontman who produced “Reflektor”) introduce the Reflektors—or at least three of them—on a phony stage before a curtain dropped across the football field-sized warehouse to reveal Win Butler and company in their shiniest Studio 54 ensembles, launching into the lead single. This resulted in a predictable stampede, and hundreds of diehards who’d staked out a place by the decoy stage between 7 p.m. and 9:45 p.m were left to sulk along the perimeter.

“I’m sorry we played a trick on you,” Mr. Butler said midway through the faux band’s roughly 45-minute set. “We thought it would be funny. It’s not the first time we were wrong about that.” I’m paraphrasing slightly, because sound at the built-for-raves venue could only be forgiven by techno heads deep into their Molly stashes as the sun rose over East Williamsburg.

But I can say with pinpoint accuracy that no one in the crowd was laughing during the bum rush. Without the fake, audience members (most of whom adhered to the dress code’s formalwear option, with a few in costume) may have been more forgiving of the night’s other indignities, which included inept bartenders, the dreaded ring of porta potties and a dearth of old hits.

The night’s grimy trappings did evoke an after hours rave, which I suppose was the point. Arcade Fire, under Mr. Murphy’s guidance, is belatedly hopping on the dance music bandwagon two years after LCD Soundsystem retired, signaling the end of the disco-punk era. They also trail Daft Punk, which earlier this year brought “life back to music” with vintage analog beats. A more troubling comparison could be to Lady Gaga, whose recent penchant for—in Jon Caramanica’s words—“cheap experimental theater” is rivaled by Arcade Fire’s embrace of face paint, life-sized bobble heads and whatever the hell Regine Chassagne is doing  at the 2:30 mark here.

Granted, “Reflektor” doesn’t strive for steely techno, doomsday dubstep or club banger status. The plodding reggae homage “Flashbulb Eyes” came second and was one of the evening’s few true duds, sending the crowd toward interminable beer lines. Otherwise, the plush “We Exist” nicely conjured a New Wave B-side. On “Normal Person” and “Joan of Arc,” the band tore through some of its most straightforward, if somewhat straight-laced, rock. And the irresistible “Afterlife” recalled the best of the group’s Grammy-winning album “The Suburbs.”

“We’re not quite ready for primetime,” Mr. Butler’s Reflektors alter ego told the somewhat restive crowd of, by some reports, 2,000. “We’ve only played for 200 people before.”  The headliner’s “covers” of Arcade Fire’s “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” and “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” suggested otherwise, even if the live antics of the younger Arcade Fire—scaling concert trusses, drumming on each other’s heads—were absent.

Unfortunately, much of the goodwill restored by the band post-stage fake out evaporated like sweat into the rafters of the overheated 299 Meserole Street. The reigning kings of indie—because, really, The Reflektors in-joke was tired by now—abruptly left the stage after jamming through “Here Comes the Nighttime.” With the lights still out, the audience stood around like idiots for 10, 15, 20 minutes waiting in vain for an encore.

Mr. Butler reemerged to make an awkward, muffled joke about body odor and said, “We’re not playing any more songs. But we are going to play some dance music.” The crowd—or at least my portion of it—loudly booed. Recoiling a bit, Mr. Butler said, “If that’s super a bummer that we’re only going to dance with you and party all night, then go home.” (The dance party was over by midnight.)

Many fans did, the memory of “Neighborhood #3” standing out as a highlight, but the evening’s unfortunate bookends suggesting that Arcade Fire had gotten too big for this sort of block.

This article first ran in the New York Observer.