Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lineup in a Faraway Town

Sometimes I wish I lived elsewhere. Madison's a great town, and there's always plenty going on, but a recent trip to Athens, Georgia, for example, convinced me that I was living in the wrong place. But last Thursday I wish I'd been in Denton, Texas, at Rubber Gloves, for an evening with The Ladybug Transistor, Papercuts, and Brooke Opie. I'm sure there are plenty of other reasons to live in Denton, but this is the one that occurred to me last Thursday. (Incidentally, I'm not saying this kind of wishfulness is healthy in any way; certainly on any given Friday I'd rather be, glamorously, in New York or L.A. or London, but usually I'm stuck in Madison looking to see what movies are opening at the Sundance Theater.) The lineup at the Rubber Gloves has a kind of cosmic perfection: for a certain kind of music fan, all the stars were aligned for a perfect evening of folk-flavored pop music.

At my other blog, I've long gushed over The Ladybug Transistor as one of my all-time favorite bands, and I think I've been pretty consistent with that. Formed in the mid-90's by trumpeting virtuoso Gary Olson, their first two albums betray a strong Pavement influence, and don't distinguish themselves too strongly from other indie rock albums of the period, despite some interesting diversions into twee or 60's-styled songwriting. This latter development was emphasized more strongly on their breakthrough album, 1999's The Albemarle Sound, for which the band was fleshed out by members of Vermont's Guppyboy (later The Essex Green). On that album the band showed its hand with tracks like "The Swimmer," an ode to the Burt Lancaster film that would be a perfect fit for its soundtrack, or the instrumental "Cienfuegos," which sounds, deliberately, like an Ennio Morricone piece for a Sergio Leone movie. The album also contains two of the best pop songs you'll ever hear, "Meadowport Arch" and "Today Knows," delivered with Olson's impeccable baritone, which calls to mind a less out-of-tune Lou Reed. The band has delivered a live album, a single, three studio albums, and an EP since then, growing in critical acclaim even as the band's lineup has changed. Most recently a major creative collaborator in the band, Sasha Bell, left the band to concentrate her efforts on the equally praised Essex Green; as a result, their latest album, Can't Wait Another Day (Merge Records), might seem lacking at first to longtime fans. But it rewards with repeated listens, an album of remarkably consistent quality with a touch of acid in its lyrics that Olson embraces as an additional instrument. (The Ladybug Transistor, bitterly sarcastic? Who'd have thought.)

The Ladybug Transistor - Always on the Telephone

Papercuts, hailing from San Francisco, I first heard playing in our local Cinematheque here in Madison, where foreign, independent, and classic films are shown free of charge to we film buffs. Tom Yoshikami, the former curator of the theater (just resigned, sadly), had a habit of playing eerily appropriate music while the audience waited for the film to begin--French pop before a Godard film, for example, or A Hawk and a Hacksaw before an Hungarian film. I can't remember why he was playing the new album by the Papercuts, but I remember thinking, "How can this be an album by The Velvet Underground that I've never heard before?" I then became slowly convinced that it must be some spectacular, obscure band from the early 70's whose music was aging very well. When I learned it was a new band hailing from San Francisco, I was furious that I'd never heard of them before. (There are too many great bands out there to know them all, but it's always tiring to learn there's yet another one you'd love which has been making music behind your back.) I finally picked up the band's latest album, whose title, Can't Go Back, connects with the new Ladybugs' only out of coincidence. No, you can't go back, and this isn't retro rock, but a spellbinding, near-perfect collection of songs which could be equally appreciated by an audience in 1967 or 2007. The songs show a Donovan and Bob Dylan influence (it's easy to imagine Dylan covering "Take the 227th Exit," the only song which genuinely seems to belong outside of this decade), but there's also a feeling that the album's ravishing qualities couldn't exist without the current tidal wave of bedroom pop that's been gathering cultural momentum over the last year or two--it's an end product of a sudden, unexpected surge of good taste in popular music. I've yet to see the band live, but by all reports singer/songwriter Jason Robert Quever puts on a good show.

Papercuts - Poor and Free

If you were watching this set in Denton, the opening act would be Brooke Opie, a folk singer with an unapologetic love for many of the same influences that have set the Ladybugs and Papercuts on their current path. She's been bouncing around the Denton scene, playing in small, local acts like Archeopterix (rush judgment: good) and Mustachio (rush judgment: delightful), but has been gradually putting together a band to support her own acoustic songwriting. Her lyrics are clever without sacrificing emotion, delivered with a gorgeous voice and a natural sense of melody. The standout on her self-released CD of scratchy little demos is "Paper Skin," which opens up her sound into an atmospheric realm that, one hopes, is further explored on her next recordings. It's spooky stuff.

Brooke Opie - Paper Skin

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