I’m not a big one for shit-used-to-be-so-much better. Because in most ways, it didn’t, every year has its own pleasures and disappointments, but one of the things I was talking about with some pals at work I really do think has change: in the ‘90s people cared enough to say so if something sucked. I only write about things in this blog that flip that switch in my head, and I don’t intend for that to change, but I figure I’ve got to start walking the walk instead of just ranting to my girlfriend for an hour after a show and leaving my blog with a Pollyanna glow.
I’d been wanting to check out the band Burglar for a while, I’m a major sucker for ‘30 cabaret-style music and Tom Waits, and really want to cheer for a band that’s doing something even a little off the beaten path. So A. and I left the Treehouse after a blistering, joyous set from the Media Whores, a bar full of our friends to go to Skully’s and finally check Burglar out on the night of their CD release show.
We arrived in time to see a large chunk of the Phantods set that sounded great; while I’m on the record as being a little turned off by the Mr. Bungle/cut up quality of their work, it had been over a year since I’d seen them and the edges got smoothed out just enough so all the focus is on the songs. Less showy and full of little knives, I can’t want to see them again.
Burglar did some very quick setting up, aided by the soundman, then left the stage again. Whoever was DJing between sets did an amazing job – Marty Robbins’ “The Story of My Life”, The Supremes’ “Baby Love”, great old doo-wop – to the extent that I joked the band better bring it or we’d see a real life enactment of the Onion article “Band Upstaged by Recording”. And then they didn’t come out for well over 30 minutes. At one point, Zachariah Baird – a name now burned in my memory because he organized this show –came out and said it would be another 10 minutes.
After that little announcement, most of the lights went down and what I assume was intended as “intro music”, moody exotica-styled instrumentals, was played by the DJ. At long last, the band came on, looking like they stepped out of a training wheels version of the Nick Cave GQ article, all dark suits, dark shirts, a good look but nothing snappy except the keyboard player’s fluorescent inserts in his jacket, the women a little more decked out, the mellophone player in a lovely red dress and the singer in a foam-green dress with a Maria Callas neck line and a classic-Cher hemline… and stood there and chatted.
I chalk this up to a young band mistake, it’s easy to think withholding is going to increase the mystery of your band, make the audience think you’re a big deal. Unfortunately, when you’re playing a club all it does it both irritate the audience that wants to like you (and could be having a drink and flirting somewhere with no cover charge and not paying club prices) and create a harsher light for you to be judged in. And after that, you need to come out and kick us right in the face. If you’re going to play the I’m-ready-for-the-enormodome card, you need to back it up by walking on stage and jumping straight into a great song.
They finally start playing and it’s a slow burn, kind of nice, with a sudden rhythmic shift to add some forced drama, but the sound was muddy, not swampy, and the drummer was sloppy, not loose. It’s a fine distinction but the minute you hear it you know. The next five songs all went in the same mode, with the same dynamics. The biggest problem with the songs is no one besides the Mellophone player (who was the highlight of the show) has a sense of space or silence, all the drama is created by sudden tempo shifts which created a career for Ha Ha Tonka but I find cheap and a little annoying.
The singer has a pleasant voice, but it doesn’t have grit, the kind of ugliness that makes it stick in your head. The playing is all okay – again, except for the terrific Mellophone player – but not spectacular. The bassist played an electric upright, but he didn’t use it for any of the sounds you want that kind of instrument for, no arco work, none of the way the woody thunk of an upright slips between the shining silver of an electric, none of the glittering melodic stuff that kind of bass can open up in a band. It could have just as easily been a P Bass and no one would’ve noticed. The guitar player and keyboard player need to learn what makes a solo good – there was a particularly painful keys solo about three songs in, that came out of nowhere, circled around the drain for a few painful bars, and then just sort of stopped – and also decide which of them is going to be the lead instrumental voice because right now, neither of them are doing it, their instruments blur into one mass of indistinct sound and not in good way.
Separate from how the players play, but in another way, not separate from it at all, is charisma. The lead singer is lovely and works her ass off, but she has to do too much of that work and it leads to her trying way too hard. Several times she tried to engage the guitar player in some flirty interplay but he could barely be bothered to look up from his hands. After the band’s been playing for a year, that’s an egregious mistake; if being stoic is his point of focus, he needs to keep staring at the audience, really intrigue us. If he’s going to be her one foil, he needs to Keith Richards it up and really be there for her. Otherwise, she might want to look into switching up who she wanders over and dances with because it’s drawing attention to the guitarist he isn’t interesting enough to keep in a way that might not be so obvious if he wasn’t the only one that’s happening to. The keyboard player and, to a lesser extent, the bassist had the same problem, too much staring at their hands and not enough looking at the audience or each other. This kind of music shouldn’t look so damn serious, or if it’s going to be that serious it needs to back that up with songs that kick our asses instead of just being okay.
I wouldn’t avoid them in the future if they were on a bill I wanted to see – they’re close to kicking my ass, but no part of the package is there yet. Keep fighting the good fight, kids, we’re all rooting for you.
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