By Gabriel Mathews
In the smallish, dimly lit Neumos, even bigger bands can feel intimate, low key. I say this having never seen a “big band” here, this being my first time ever at Neumos. But compared to the last time I saw Wye Oak, opening for Dirty Projectors at LA’s Wiltern, this was the definition of an intimate gig. Especially if intimacy is directly correlated to sweat: Seattle’s been experiencing a heat wave that will apparently go down in history, and Neumos was a boilerroom.
Pattern Is Movement were certainly covered in sweat. The hirsute Philadelphia duo, comprised of Andrew Thiboldeaux on vocals and keys and Chris Ward on drums, defied everything I’d expected of them and then some. All I’ve ever read about Pattern Is Movement, which is admittedly not much, has described them as an elaborate, polyrhythmic math rock act, equally influenced by Don Caballero and Stereolab. While they definitely retain the Stereolab thing, the music these guys made at Neumos couldn’t really be called “math rock” by any rubric. Rather, they offered their own weird take on neo-soul, with vocal modulation sometimes reminiscent of James Blake, weird twisting string loops, and powerful drumming. As if to cement their new aspirations as baby-making music-makers, their set climaxed (no pun intended) with a cover of D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel?” These guys are doing interesting things, it’s worth checking out. Plus, they sell pillow cases with their faces stitched into them.
After the minor tragedy that was the Sharon Van Etten show I saw last week, I was a little worried that Wye Oak would also suffer from SVE effect (i.e. an extreme bias towards lesser new material over back catalogue material). This would actually have been much worse for me as Wye Oak’s Civilian was my favorite album of 2011 and one of my favorites ever, and this year’s hard-left-turn Shriek just really doesn’t hold a candle to it in my book. Frontwoman Jenn Wasner is an amazing vocalist, but an even better guitarist. On Shriek, she plays not a lick of guitar, finding it no longer inspired her as an instrument. Instead, she went for the bass, and Wye Oak’s music went from incredible, melancholy guitar rock to woozy, groovin’ dream pop more suited to Wasner’s side project with producer John Ehrens, Dungeonesse. I’m all for artistic exploration, and I fully appreciate Wasner’s need to get out of her comfort zone, but the entire musical tone of this band shifted with Shriek, and I felt I’d lost a dear friend.
Thank god, then, that the heavily sweating Wasner (“This is the farthest north we’ve been on this tour, and also the hottest I’ve ever been in my life.”) and her partner-in-crime Andy Stack did an excellent job of not only balancing new and old material, but of making the new material rock significantly harder than it does on record. It was not until this show that I’d even really registered the magnificence of the towering (pun intended) bass riff that dominates Shriek highlight “The Tower,” and the synthy bridges of “Glory,” “Schools Of Eyes,” and “I Know The Law” got cranked so hard volume-wise that these poppy little tracks actually began to feel like rock songs. Additionally, it should not go unmentioned that Wasner’s voice is still unparalleled, perhaps even better on the newer material, where she reaches into the high end of her gorgeous alto more frequently than before, and with even better results.
But it was, of course, the older tracks that thrilled me the most. After a string of Shriek songs, Wasner picked up her guitar, and the excitement was palpable. When they busted into “Holy Holy,” off of Civilian, the crowd lost it. The squalls of noise that rule over this song even got carried over into the somber “Plains”. Later in the set, we got the perfect trifecta of “For Prayer,” “Dog Eyes,” and “That I Do,” all of which rocked unbelievably hard. Stack’s skills need mentioning, too—he famously plays the kit with only his right hand most of the time, while the left hand plays keys and samples to fill out this duo’s sound. It’s truly impressive to watch from up close. (Stack and Wasner were an item for most of the band’s tenure, but his recent move to Portland from their hometown of Baltimore suggests that this is no longer the case. Let’s just be glad they managed to keep working together as a band in spite of this, unlike, say, Handsome Furs.)
After closing their set with Shriek’s one perfect pop gem, “The Logic Of Color,” the band left the stage for a comically short pre-encore break (“I don’t know why we engage in this silly ritual,” said Wasner. “But we do, so, thanks for indulging us.”) Then they did their recent A.V. Undercover version of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” followed by the absolutely necessary night ender “Civilian,” which nearly brought me to tears.
One final note about Shriek: This is the first album on which Wasner sounds genuinely happy. And that’s great. But sometimes, and this is also true of Van Etten, I’m sort of disappointed when artists who do sad so well (Civilian and The Knot being masterpieces of depression and loneliness) get happy. I realize this is selfish, but I’m still glad Wasner had it in her to pull out the old melancholia for an altogether excellent set.