Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Wednesday, Sept. 26, Local 506
Some bands don't really add much to their music when performing it live--one local rocker described a show by English mope merchants Belle & Sebastian as "like listening to the album in my living room, only with a bunch of people standing in front of me." Then there's the kind of act--take any '80s hair band, for example--who try to hide their lack of depth with a pyrotechnic stage show. Thank god, then, for bands like the L.A.-based Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who during their Wednesday night set at Local 506, reminded the rapt crowd just why we go out and see live music.
Taking their name from Brando's gang in The Wild One, BRMC must be one of the most pre-hyped bands of the last few years, variously likened to The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, English shoegazers Ride and more. After a bidding war of sorts (Noel Gallagher wanted to sign them to his label), the band's eponymous debut album was released last spring to great hoopla.
After playing to hip crowds in more fashionable venues, the question that remained was whether they came to rock, or whether they saw Chapel Hill as a layover on their way to places with supermodels. After a Velvets-inspired set by L.A. eight- or maybe nine-piece The Warlocks (they all wore black, and it was dark up on stage), BRMC went on at well-past-your-bedtime-thirty.
The trio more than lived up to their hype, delivering a set (new songs along with album tracks) full of driving beats, lots of bottom and howling, swirling, fuzzy, wah-wah guitar. Live, the restrained, elegant intensity of cuts like "Love Burns"--thanks to lots of effects and amplification--possessed the kind of power that lodged itself deep in your gut. By the track "White Palms" ("Jesus, I dare you to come back"), the audience and band alike were digging in, carried along by the song's rolls and crashes. Another highlight was "Whatever Happened To My Rock 'n' Roll (punk song)"--probably the song people were waiting for.
Guitarist Peter Hayes and bassist Robert Turner both concentrated on performing: no poses, no pandering to the audience. In fact, except for a few "thank yous," a nod to The Warlocks and a single half-hearted, "Is everybody doing all right?" the mics were used exclusively for singing. But, by the end of the show, what initially could have been interpreted as arrogance felt like dedication to the task at hand. And, in a peculiar way, the band didn't seem to expect much of us other than our arms-crossed, head-bobbing attention (the archetypal Chapel Hill audience), and we didn't expect much from them other than rock. Neither party appeared dissatisfied with the arrangement. When the show was over, there seemed to be a tacit agreement between the band and crowd that there would be no encore.
A great rock 'n' roll show is all about the sound coming out of the amps, and with as much sound as BRMC generates, that's all you need. In short, no matter how good your stereo may be, loud guitar rock truly sounds best hearing it in person, where you can feel it wash over and through you. In that fashion, BRMC stripped the show down to its essentials and let the music speak for itself.
--David B. Thomas
with Modest Mouse
Thursday, Sept. 27 Cat's Cradle
For most alternative bands, it'd be daunting to take the stage before indie darlings Modest Mouse, whose show now includes a large film screen that flashes images ranging from funky stop-animation sequences to vividly color-saturated cut-out pics of diseased penises, disturbing fanged bunnies, scat, blind newborn critters and more. While most of the crowd was there to see Isaac Brock and crew, there was a contingent who'd come specifically to see The Shins, whose disc, Oh, Inverted World, was this summer's surprise pop album.
But, like so many amazing things that seem to explode out of nowhere, The Shins have a past: They're actually a reformation of Flake, (later Flake Music), a group that's been kicking up dust in the arid, non-fertile Albuquerque music scene since '93 (Modest Mouse took them on the road several times and Guided by Voices would always request them as the opening band when they'd play Albuquerque). Flake's James Mercer had begun songwriting alone as a side project, "choreographing" his ideas onto a hard drive where he could work with greater precision on sculpting the songs. Only later did he bring in his Flake bandmates, and the "project" was christened The Shins. Music fans this side of the Mississippi, however, had yet to be exposed to Mercer's revisionist takes on '60s pop.
That all changed with The Shins' debut Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop), a shimmering collection of instant classics neither bleak or oblique that exhibited a breathy wistfulness and sincerity that made the band a word-of-mouth (and critical) fave. Sonically, The Shins fit right in with the Elephant 6 collective--Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo--as influenced by Brian Wilson and the sort of songwriting found on the recent Nuggets boxed set of British Empire releases from the mid-'60s.
So it was hardly startling that the band opened with "Pressed in a Book," a Jeff Lynne-ish number that would sound right at home on a 30-plus-year-old album by the Idle Race or The Move. Lyrically, Mercer's songs are complex, linear stories that never rely on repetitive catch-phrase choruses but attempt to capture a moment or a way of looking at life, all from the POV of the guy who's gone beyond worrying if he'll get the girl and moved on to, uh, weightier matters.
To say the quartet is visually unassuming is an understatement: Mercer's earnest vocal delivery and disregard to fashion make him seem more a philosophy or religious studies grad student than a pop icon. While the set suffered from a muddy mix and boomy bass (cleared up mid-set) it didn't mar the beauty of Mercer's reaching tenor or the pristine backing vocals: I even overheard audience members singing along to "New Slang," an Elliott Smith-ish strummy acoustic number with a soaring chorus that was released as the album's single. "Girl Inform Me" is The Hollies with a thesaurus, and the GBV-ish "Caring is Creepy"--rife with spacey, Gary Wrightish (think "Dream Weaver") keyboard runs--exhibits the kind of brainy sensibility XTC fans knew to expect and savor (at least through English Settlement).
"This is adult music for adults," noted one musician-fan. Hearing the album's songs live was like waking up to a day with perfect weather and nothing to do: all promise and hope.
It was also wild to hear such astonishingly "pretty" music coming from such nondescript, non-prissy looking guys. Mercer writes the kind of songs that resound in your head after you leave the gig: Snatches of music poke through your consciousness like flashes of sunlight through the summer leaves. Now if they could just sparkle onstage ...