Reviews of music, movies, books, art exhibitions, and more (with a philosophical bent)
MONO Constructs a Sonic Canvas
June 29th, 2017
(This review originally appeared in the Little Village)
MONO returned to Iowa City after just over a year touring on 2016’s Requiem for Hell. The crowd was oddly thin, but appropriate: it was perhaps the quietest that I had heard Gabe’s during a show. The band was illuminated with a quiet red light, and throughout their set the band seemed to play around its steadfast glow. The light was warm, and evoked a sense of patience that let each band member’s instrument enter into, and exit from, each song. The distinct contribution of each performer could be acknowledged and recognized. Both the band and the audience were equally engaged at the occurrence of sound as it sprang forth from the stage: All present were enraptured at its production, in its occurrence.
There’s patience and precision as MONO constructs a sonic canvass, tones like brush strokes that add together in time instead of space. The careful artistry allows the sounds to persist in obedience to the demands of the song — when the song ends it becomes drilled into a sudden silence that the audience respects before breaking into an awe-struck applause.
The songs built with a slow majesty, guided sometimes by xylophone, sometimes by keys, sometimes by guitar. The melodies start simply, announcing themselves and gaining a foothold before the rest of the band envelops and girds them. Delicate chords signal the termination of an instrument, a small break before the drum and bass introduce a new wave of sound that becomes necessary to the song’s culmination. Each performer is attentive to the needs and demands of the song. And in this way, the songs grow as a passionate surging wave of music, that the performers embody. The churn of distortion mirrors the cadence of the drums, which resonates and rumbles with the streaks of electronic sounds that the guitar allows to float above the rest.
Their music requires effort — the attention of the audience, the attunement of each instrument. As several songs were sustained by the guitars past the work of the drummers, the drummer would lean forward with the poise and air of an exhausted penitent. The guitarist, who had collapsed to the floor as he hunted the song, would seem overcome. But each new song would start anew, as if each was an opportunity for the quartet to explore a familiar landscape that needed to be recreated with each step. MONO thus demonstrated how, even when weary, fortitude —
shown through enduring continuation — is ultimately rewarded with its fulfillment in community.
Part of the effort is a work of restraint: As they play, they seem like Erich Zann, whose violin provides a weird defense against an onslaught nothing else can intuit. MONO is more tuneful than Lovecraft’s description of Zann’s music, and allows them to create delicate, textured explorations of hell without overwhelming the audience. Instead, their exertion creates a quiet place of solace, like the red light, amidst the noises that their instruments simultaneously urge forth but keep quietly contained — preserving the space. Sometimes, instead, the band would unleash the sound and spur on its frenzy — although even here, the guitar would shimmer delicately and allow the sounds to become a thunderstorm of joy, gliding over the mighty pulsations of the drums and the bass.
By the end of the night, one could occasionally overhear a conversation from the back. As a whole, however, MONO’s set was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful performances I’ve seen at Gabe’s. The audience, like the band, was aware that the moments shared approached what a theologian might call “sacred.” Something occurred in the room as we bore witness to the music. Beauty happened — but like all beauty, it faded into silence as the lights went on and the crowd dispersed into the cloud-filled evening.
Reflecting on St. Paul and the Broken Bones
July 19, 2016
(This review originally appeared in the Little Village)
I had low expectations for the North Liberty Blues & BBQ festival, which hints at the unmentioned “brews” in the space of the ampersand. In part this is due to my opinion of North Liberty as a cookie cutter town, the perfect setting for Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier” from OK Computer to serve as a constant background soundtrack. As I wound down Zeller onto Jones and saw a panoply of suburban architecture sprouting up before the fields, my suspicions seemed confirmed. Getting out of the car in the middle of the vast parking area, I walked toward the brightly colored bouncy slide and was overwhelmed by the aroma of cooked meat (which, as a vegetarian, still never fails to smell good). Looking out into the sparsely shaded field and to the sun blazing, it seemed like a bad idea that would be made worse.
I walked past the food vendors, noticing the long lines that seemed to be moving swiftly enough to keep hungry festival-goers from any sort of mutiny. Everyone was smiling — which seems like it should be a cliché about North Liberty’s niceness, even if it isn’t true. I found my way to the entrance, and then floated around in the shade of one of the tents provided. It was quite nice — especially because Kevin B.F. Burt was playing in that tent. Although it made conversation difficult, it was perfect. It’s sometimes easy to forget how talented Burt is due to his ubiquity in eastern Iowa, but in the context of the Blues & BBQ, his talent with the guitar and the harmonica was quite clear.
The other opening acts were fine, playing blues music in a way that allowed the power of the formula to shine through individual solos. I love the blues, but only made the long trek to North Liberty for one reason: St. Paul & the Broken Bones. I’d seen them play the Mill and at Hinterlands, and was beyond excited for the opportunity to see them again — for free.
By the time the band entered, presaging lead vocalist Paul Janeway’s perfectly executed dramatic entrance with beautiful instrumentation, the sun had set. The sky was a perfect shade that would rest between Imperial Navy and Indigo in any self-respecting box of Crayolas. The white tent next to the stage offset this color perfectly, a luminous contrast point beneath a crescent moon. A few stars were there for context, but the texture of the dark blue, enabled by some trick of the clouds, made the absence of stars worthwhile.
The true star, though, was Janeway. The Broken Bones are an incredible band - the horns, the guitars, the keys, the drums are impeccable and talented - but Janeway performs at another level. As he had the first times I'd seen him, he exploded onto the stage in a full suit and dazzling white shoes covered in sequins. His suits, one quickly discovers, are almost instantly drenched in sweat (although this show was far cooler than others had been), because, once the microphone is in hand, Janeway soars.
Janeway is the antithesis of the kind of person one would expect to see on The Bachelor. He’s short, bald and portly. But he moves with the grace of a trained dancer, spinning and strutting across the stage. During instrument solos he suddenly will strike some sort of statuesque form — the perfect form. Each step has the appearance of weightlessness, as though one of Rilke’s angels or Kierkegaard’s Knights of Infinite Resignation were deigning to alight upon the earth. Each step is beautiful, and helps transform Janeway into raw sex appeal — an appeal that resonates deep within everyone in the audience, in spite of his physique and being drenched in sweat. In fact, it’s after seeing him move his body — balding, sweating, suited — with such seemingly effortless grace that I felt it unnecessary to watch Madonna ever again. His body becomes the focal point of everyone — and Janeway feeds off the focus of the crowd. When he is overcome by a song, as tends to occur during “Broken Bones and Pocket Change,” he’ll throw his body to the floor of the stage and inch his way across it, holding up only one hand as a testament to the spirit of music that guides him. The microphone is a powerful prop throughout the show, jumping from one hand to the next in a quick motion, or being put onto the stand — only to be torn from it, as Janeway feels the needs to sing even more.
The only thing that could possibly vie for the audience’s attention is Janeway’s voice, and the voice is a marvel. I have listened to many live male vocalists, but I never have heard a voice with such power, such passion, such precision and such range. He can hold notes with rough edges and then soar tenderly over the band in a flawless falsetto. His voice can bump and jump from one octave to the next and back again, a worthy companion to his body in space. The voice can shade with subtlety, then blast forth with heartbroken abandon, and move back to a small location between notes within the phrasing of a particular word. His voice is an unstoppable force that no audience member can contain — although no audience member ever would ever dream of asking this of him. His voice and body work in tandem to physically express the diverse range of instruments on the stage, as though he were the rod that collected the entirety of the band’s energy and transferred it to us, his fans on the ground.
Because Janeway’s talent causes him to outshine even those denizens of the heavens, it’s easy to forget the band until Janeway points them out. And once one hears, one understands the soul of the song; the soft jazz tones that slide out from the trombone like smoke from a cigarette left unattended in a nightclub. The baritone saxophone provides the sound of soul, deep and smooth. The guitar work, featured during different of the encore numbers, is flawless, but in an exciting rather than a boring way. The musicians are clearly well-versed in the origins of soul, bringing it to life creatively. One senses nothing derivative, or anything that seems to emulate one or two acts in particular. They’re not a “revival” act; instead, they use traditional songs as the only vehicle possible for sustaining the truths they’ve experienced.
Part of that truth is contextualized by Janeway’s experience with Christianity. From the beginning of the set, when he told the crowd he would “take them to church,” to the end of the first set when he announced that he’d been singing songs in church since he was four years of age, the religious dimension of St. Paul and the Broken Bones (including, of course, the name) was clear. In some ways, Janeway’s explicit mention was superfluous. When he sang about sanctification, the audience was already drawn into the holy as we sat in the grass and chairs, as we stood in the crowd, hands waving in the air in a way reminiscent of Charismatic Christian and traditional Black services. There was no mockery: it was the spirit of what Christians call god, translated into a secular BBQ festival. We were in a church built of the world, of nature, consisting of the community around us. The blast of the horns, the guitars and drums, the voice sailing and floating all around this backdrop concretized the space. As he sang, the power built impossibly long and loud until the instruments took over, in a moment of actualized grace.
Most festivals I have been to take place either in cities or in natural amphitheaters. The choice of Centennial Park, which I’d originally despised, was perfect as the sky went to a blackness that seemed, in its infinite expanse, to be the only space capable of containing the band’s energy. There was no boundary to the horizon, as the grassy vastness is set slightly on a rise. No trees. No buildings. No mountains. And the sense of the infinite graced St. Paul and the Broken Bones, whose power participated with it and was communicated to us, the congregation, below.
The encore was riveting. They moved from a “church song” to a cover of the Beatles’ “She’s so Heavy,” to a final song that kept coming to a close, Janeway replacing the microphone, only to rip it off and start singing again, the band keeping pace. He’d lie on the floor, overcome, only to leap up and start pouring his heart out to the audience once again. The band played faster, and he kept up, and the intensity brought a mighty crescendo to the night, a crescendo of triumph and joy, earned by having introduced us to a more capacious vision of how we can live our lives. It wasn’t a Christian concert — I’ve been to several of those in my life — but it was a concert where I could clearly feel the presence and majesty and dignity of what others have called god in the past.
I left the show with a heart that had been broken but exposed to how big it needed to grow. The band, in that space, showed the smallness of my normal operating assumptions about life and music, and dared me toward the infinite range of power that’s possible. They transformed ache and pain with a grace that makes it beautiful, visceral, powerful. It was the third time I’d seen the band, but it was the best of their performances and an absolute present. It was for free, a true and real gift offered by North Liberty. I think differently of the town, now, although I imagine that St. Paul and the Broken Bones gave far more than they’d even expected possible.
"The Origins of Works of Art: Rich Opportunities for the Thrifty Aesthete (A Heideggerian Review of Music and Art)"
June 15, 2016
(This review originally appeared in the Little Village)
The upcoming week offers an unusually rich trove of aesthetic encounters for the inhabitants of Iowa City, many of which are intentionally transparent about the nature of the creative process as something nurtured by art itself. Much art — whether music, literature, painting, sculpture, or theater — springs from the artist’s attempt to communicate or convey a truth that has been revealed. This truth is rarely factual, or even propositional in nature — instead, it’s a new way of understanding the world. These revelations are always available to us, and we often encounter them happenstantially — those wordless encounters with truth, for example, that leave us speechless when we watch a particularly powerful sunset or see the striking form of a winter eagle soaring down from the skies to snare a fish from the river.
Sometimes movies hit me in this way, sometimes music will do the same. The paintings of Marc Chagall always make me want to open my mind to the universe, the way that Emily Dickinson’s poetry does. Most of these aesthetic encounters require that I translate the truth I witnessed in the art into another art form — I’m not a nineteenth-century poetess in Amherst, and I lack the fine motor skills required of a painter. I do enjoy narratives, however, and find that the ways that I echo back or reflect whatever truth I have experienced through my own way of inhabiting it results in a strikingly different product.
This emergence of art from art is common, far more common than we know (ask any artist where she finds inspiration). What is less common is having a broad canvas on which different examples are presented for your enjoyment. This week provides a range of distinct aesthetic encounters; places to explore what art can do at its most self-aware, moments where it spins gold into platinum.
MusicIC (multiple venues — Wednesday, June 15–Saturday, June 18)
The first possibility is the MusicIC programming, presented by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature. In its first year out from the Summer of the Arts organizing umbrella, the 2016 MusicIC program offers a series of intentionally inter-aesthetic experiences that expands on its origins with Hancher and the School of Music six years ago.
John Kenyon, director of the UNESCO City of Literature, is excited at the opportunity to, he says, “explode the definition of literature” to include music — especially as musical and literary narratives have a history of interconnections. This follows the desire to further democratize literature and open up the possibilities of music to those who believe, wrongly, that such things are overly complicated.
Part of this democratizing process is making the high quality selections available for free (Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday) or for a very low fee (Friday night’s presentation is $12.50 a person). These programs are compact and designed to help introduce audiences to possibilities of beauty in places they may not have searched for them. It is possible to overlook the connections to literature and simply embrace the joy of music — but, especially on Friday night, as writers read new works inspired by Mendelssohn, Kenyon’s hope is to get audiences to rethink and expand their awareness of what literature and beauty might mean — to find “lyricism and prose in performative appropriations.”
You can see MusicIC at 7:30 on Wednesday (“An Hommage to Hayden”) and Thursday (“Beethoven’s Brilliance: The Difficult Resolution“) at Trinity Episcopal Church (320 E College St, Iowa City). Friday’s Englert performance, also at 7:30, will feature readings from Robin Hemley, Daniel Khalastchi, Amy Margolis and Sabrina Orah Mark as well as music by Mendelssohn, performed by the Solera Quartet. It is a one-of-a-kind presentation designed to let audiences leave filled with wonder.
Saturday is a morning program especially for children, “What Dvorak did on his Summer Vacation: How Iowa Inspired Dvorak’s American Quartet,” at 10:30 a.m. at the Iowa Public Library.
Dis/Unity: A Service
Space Place — Saturday, June 18 at 8 p.m.
Another excellent opportunity for Iowa City will be Saturday night’s presentation of Dis/Unity, in the Space Place (formerly BJ’s Records) above the Deadwood. Another Englert co-commission, following upon the wonderful presentation of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore last month, Dis/Unity will allow the audience to witness how creation starts to come together. Looking to ways that art can confront the racism that weighs down our society, Dis/Unity is an interdisciplinary performance involving dance, multimedia and visual art. As with MusicIC, Dis/Unity is a free event that provides a behind-the-scenes look at how art and creativity co-ordinate and come together in meaningful and beautiful ways.
Other musical events abound: those who are headed to Codfish Hollow to watch Built to Spill on Saturday should arrive early enough to see the art gallery and the setting in which the band will perform before enjoying the music alone.
Those who complain about the sameness of mainstream cultural options — the neverending slew of sequels and prequels offered at the cinema or the way that each summer’s hit songs sounds like those of the previous year — are fortunate to live in a place that offers — for free — chances to engage speculatively with art, looking to its interconnections and how they are formed. Please consider stopping in to admire something different, something beyond the ordinary rut in which you may have unknowingly found yourself. Become exposed to a more transparent presentation of the kinds of truth that make art occur. Hopefully, becoming attuned to these events will provide you with experiences of truth that will promote your own creative works, with greater richness than another day at the Cineplex could offer.
"The Milk Carton Kids Become Adorable as They Adore Each Other"
May 31, 2016
(This review originally appeared in the Little Village)
I was first introduced to the Milk Carton Kids when they opened for Over The Rhine at the Englert on Sep. 24, 2013. It was a Tuesday. I had spent the weekend watching my grandfather, whom I loved deeply, die and become deposited in earth next to his wife. Given that context, the Milk Carton Kids were the perfect balm: the sweetness of their performance, the simple joys it yielded, spoke to me. It was restorative.
May 27 allowed me another chance to see them perform in that same venue. Watching a performance for a second time is, or perhaps should be, very different from the initial experience. A good performer can find you where you are — happy, sad, indifferent — and provide a sensory setting that excuses you from the everyday cares anchoring your personal experience. For the philosophically inclined, a second encounter allows you to recognize and appreciate the immediate delights, but also think past them to ask background questions: What is it that makes this performance good?
Anyone who has heard the Milk Carton Kids senses part of their appeal. They embody precision: an expertly timed interplay of ten fingers, twelve strings and two voices. The effect for those not primed to like harmonies over acoustic guitar, when moderated by external speakers, or even headphones, is something light and ephemeral. Watching it in person, as Joey and Kenneth (as they refer to themselves on stage), provides something more worthy of awe. Their stage is almost empty, holding only two water bottles, a single microphone and a stool. The function of the stool is to hold a leather valise that Kenneth Pattengale carries onto the stage, opens, and carries out with him at the end of the show. Without lights or other instruments, the audience is encouraged — perhaps even compelled — to focus only on them. They make it easy to do so, standing so near to one another that the fingers of one guitarist end up reflected as a ghost hand on the other guitar. Joey Ryan is taller than Pattengale, and stands stick straight as he plays. Glimpses of his face beneath his endearing flop of dark hair show limited expression, something that approaches the presentation of boredom (but one senses that this appearance is only that — an appearance — as he hits each note perfectly).
Precision, I realize is something that we tend to value in performers of all sorts. When I watch the [Iowa] Hawkeyes play football or basketball, I'm most enamored of running plays whose execution in space and time explores in a harmonious burst of moving parts. the same is true of the wrestling team, as each competitor wishes to move his opponents' body precisely. The Hawkeye volleyball team plays best when they have precision, each player moving in a predetermined place. Baseball, even, is miraculous to this extent: human bodies moving relative to a random factor with a perfect and precise sense of timing - to hit the ball over bricks and ivy, to stretch out to snag a throw to second base and instantly launch it to first - is human excellence at its best.
Precision on its own is admirable, but seeing it contextualized in the creation of beauty (rather than mere physical prowess) is, at least for me, even more remarkable. It’s one reason why I enjoy music as an art form: Each performance occurs only once and disappears instantly into the past. I am not of the school that wishes to record a performance on audio or video, as I’ve found such recordings to be only the faintest echoes of what appeared, moment by moment, during the time of a show. As patrons of live theater or live readings realize, the magic comes when watching a performance occur in real time — and seeing the performer realize a pre-planned vision in real time.
The whole of the Milk Carton Kids act is a performance or pure precision, and the joy of seeing them live is watching the mechanics of this performance at work. When I first saw them, I was too lost in the ways that their voices slid near to each other, the precise way that they emphasized volume, pitch and the sound of language. This time, I glimpsed a larger sense of their performance, which started when Ryan came onstage to introduce their opening act, Margaret Glaspy. Such introductions of an opener from the main act are very uncommon to begin with. Tying it to a brief stand up routine (with comments about the weather and regional and geographical differences, delivered with eloquence) is more unusual yet. Ryan plays his own straight man well, providing deadpan delivery that’s self-aware in being hyperbolically self-dispossessing. It’s a good routine that fits him well, and the Milk Carton Kids build this into their act as the two singers speak to each other.
Humor also demands precise timing when performed. What I had interpreted as breaks between songs (the performance) during the first show I now realized were part of the band’s overall performance. Periodically, Ryan will speak into the microphone as Pattengale steps back to play guitar, listening earnestly as a visual stand in for the audience. No matter how ridiculous Ryan’s comments might be, Pattengale listens attentively, not laughing, playing his guitar. This Englert performance revealed how both perform continually throughout the show, taking different roles. There’s an intimacy involved in their collaboration: they draw near to each other in their respective strengths. The awe-inspiring pace of play and precision of the vocals, however, require a trust and dependence on the other that is merciless and unforgiving. The pace and pitch, the knowledge of lyrics, the volume, is so perfectly attuned with the other that it presents the audience with a model of how to work alongside another. It is an intimacy where neither person disappears into the other’s shadow — and, joking or not, such work is no laughing matter.
As they performed, I realized that their appeal transcends mere timing, a quality any technician can master with practice. They also are personable and charming — They still looked like “kids,” three years later. This fact is aided by a self-presentation of a certain kind of “adorable” rooted in a Platonic ideal of a doting grandmother’s affection. They’re clever, well-dressed, well-behaved, erudite and seem well-mannered. Perhaps it was partly this that led to the Englert’s crowd that night — I saw young kids and old couples with a blend of beards and business attire that showed how the Milk Carton Kids transcend simple demographic appeal. But this kind of adorable is blended with what appears to be a genuine sense of respect that each has for the other. In a way, they become adorable as they adore each other.
At the same time, the Milk Carton Kids are not playing for each other. This intimacy is a performance as well as each other component of their show. Like Father John Misty, who performed at the Englert in 2015 with a similar sense of stage presence and ironic humor, the Milk Carton Kids are responsive to their audience and the surroundings, able to improvise beyond the script in ways that enhance, rather than disappoint, the crowd. Unlike Misty, who drenches himself in faux-rockstar distance, the Milk Carton Kids provide an appearance of intimacy, as if they were still the dreamy sorts of young men who were the secret crush of every other shy student in the school. This adds to a sense that their music is timeless. They comment with apparent disdain on how they are compared to Simon and Garfunkel, but defang this truth by making jokes about how Ryan — the taller one — is the Garfunkel of the group. The truth of the situation becomes the target of a joke, of humor, delivered with a seemingly effortless and yet perfectly precise sense of timing.
I’ve brought up Father John Misty mostly because Misty’s style of hyperbolic, ironic self-performance is akin to much of the Milk Carton Kids in an underappreciated way. I would argue that irony — often delivered through meta-commentary that creates the appearance of distance between the two performers (such as when Ryan suggests he’ll be playing lead guitar for a song, jealous of Pattengale’s abilities, or when Pattengale says that being able to play guitar like Ryan is an easily accomplished task) — keeps the precision and intimacy from becoming too precious, too sickeningly sweet. Without this ironic distance from themselves and the singer-songwriter-folk-acoustic-duo “type” that they inhabit with wry detachment, they would be unbearable to listen to: Their lyrics, including gems like this verse from “Stealing Romance,” would feel stifling and insufferable if delivered straight: “Why feel foolish? we’re smiling/A grade school romance with wine/I’ll be the tick-tock in your wristwatch/Be mine”
It’s almost too precious for words: the image of well-dressed white lads strumming guitars and singing simple metaphors that suggest love. This metaphor is particularly apt to the whole of their performance — it merges intimacy and precision in a lovely way that opens to the other as an invitation to join. But at the same time it is a relatively banal, harmless image. It’s safe. Perhaps this is the cost of their precise vocal and guitar interplay — they need to have relatively simple lyrics, often delivered with a light humor that never succumbs to the temptations of parody, that will allow the audience to attend to the medium rather than a distracting message.
One of the more memorable moments in the performance — one that I believe gives the clearest picture of the mechanism behind their show — emerged after Ryan delivered his comments on becoming a new father. After the audience was done laughing, Pattengale said: “And now here’s our song about death.” The audience laughed again, and they played a sweet song that held the audience rapt. The change between registers is made possible by the fact that these strands are always held in tension between them — beauty, intimacy, nothingness. To name one thread, or another, simply isolates it against the backdrop of the others in place. We can laugh, but we’ve known the truth of them all along.
All of this, of course, suggests that a Milk Carton Kids performance is complicated — and it is. They weave together beauty, intimacy, precision, and humor. The intimacy is a coming together that remains self-aware at maintaining a respectful distance. The beauty is something that stands out from the humor, which is delivered in a deadpan way such as to target nothing and nobody at all. The humor — and the nihilistic undertones of it — allows the beauty to emerge in the way that it does. This, I would argue, is what has led to them receiving awards for being the “Best Duo/Group of the Year” and offering the “Best American Roots Performance” and “Best Folk Album of the Year.” Their performances make their albums better than they should be — a performance that requires their silences and distances as well as their joined and merged vocals and guitars.
After seeing the show, I was no longer surprised that some hear them as being “bland” or “vanilla,” and also not surprised that their performance had so powerfully touched me while I was still mourning my grandfather. They’re masterful performers, and very intentional about their ironic presentation. It’s a kind of performance that appears as intricately fabricated and as fragile as a Fabergé egg, however. The audience last night consisted primarily of middle class and upper middle class white people: people who can afford to find the beauty over a nihilistic chasm of woe. The beauty provided in their charming interplay is a balm for certain kinds of existential sorrows, but it remains something light and easily crushed by other demands — racism, poverty, war, famine. To be able to hear these songs is a gift afforded by privilege. That it requires privilege to write such songs and to appreciate them is not wrong, of course, but it remains a limitation. Even this privilege, however, is balanced: The Milk Carton Kids still offer free digital downloads of their first two albums on their website, an attempt to provide worlds beyond NPR listeners access to their meticulous construction and attempt to breathe beauty into a world too frequently hidden behind the armor of irony to otherwise find it.