I’ll get to the show, but first I need to get this off my chest.
Note to Rock bands: turn it down.
Some bands that I’ve seen live take advantage of all those amplifiers and stacks of speakers to expand their dynamic range beyond what is possible on a recording. With all that power the loud parts can pack more of a punch and the volume shifts can be more extreme and more abrupt. When bands use them the right way, the tools of the stage can make their songs move and come alive in new ways; their music becomes more dynamic, more exciting, and more enjoyable than any recording.
But when bands just turn it up and play as loud as they can, their music loses a lot of its power. Sure, it’s loud, but extreme loudness is meaningless if you’re always extremely loud. Songs flatten out and become less intelligible, less dynamic, and less interesting.
Case in point: Birds of Avalon. This is a new, energetic, heavy rock band that could be really good or could be really sucky. I saw them open for Magnolia Electric Co. and Destroyer a couple days ago in D.C., so I should be able to tell you if they’re any good, but I can’t. The songs were flat and unintelligible because they seemed more concerned with being heard than with being listened to. I think the lead singer might have a decent, squealing, whining voice. And I think their songs might have some intriguing qualities. But I can’t be sure.
Destroyer was somewhat more subdued and fared better. Here’s Supergenius’s review of Destroyer’s new album, Destroyer’s Rubies, which I love. That album has a lot of studio trickery and can be pretty dense, so I was curious to see how they played this stuff on the road. Not surprisingly, they don’t tour with the bari sax or the chorus of Dan Bejars that appear so frequently on the album. They play as a standard five-piece.
Bejar is a really good songwriter, so even though the live renditions lack the studio bells and whistles, they stand on their own as great songs. Highlights were “Painter in Your Pocket” (still on the RadioBlog) and “It’s Gonna Take an Airplane.” Some of my favorites from Destroyer’s Rubies, like “Your Blood” and “Looter’s Follies,” did suffer a bit as they were slightly rushed and flattened out. The band reached full volume before the dramatic climaxes of these songs, so they didn’t have quite the power that I was hoping for.
Bejar’s vocals on much of Destroyer’s Rubies consist of precise, barking, talk-singing. His delivery was somewhat less precise on the live renditions, but no less idiosyncratic. It was kind of stunning to see that croaky voice coming out of a human. Listening to his voice on recordings I imagined he would exhibit some preening eccentricity on stage, but he was pretty low-key, standing mostly still and singing with an eyes-closed half grimace. His performance was solid. Overall, Destroyer played a really enjoyable set of eight or nine songs and they attracted a bigger crowd than either of the other two bands.
Magnolia Electric Co.’s major selling point is the fantastic voice of frontman Jason Molina, who, I was surprised to discover, looks like a tiny math teacher. I think he has the best male voice for country music since Uncle Tupelo’s Jay Farrar, and of the two, Molina is the better, more expressive singer.
Magnolia Electric Co.’s 2005 album, What Comes After the Blues, consisted mostly of down-tempo acoustic country rock, which showcased Molina’s voice very well. At this show their set consisted almost entirely of electric guitar-driven rockers, which was kind of disappointing as I was hoping to hear Molina sing some of the lighter fare. But they did play some good Rock, so not all was lost. The Neil Young-ish “The Dark Don’t Hide It” was a crowd favorite. And they played with a lot of energy, especially the chubby, bearded, big-haired, cigarette-puffing guitarist wearing an ill-fitting, lightweight plaid shirt who stood up straight and shook his head vigorously as he rocked out. I did find my attention wandering during some of the more unremarkable songs–I noticed how many people in the crowd were wearing glasses and wondered how much different the world would be today if it weren’t for the invention of spectacles.