Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Getting It All Together...

I’ve often said that I’m not a big fan of best of/greatest hits albums. Why? Oh, I don’t feel like getting into that right now. I thought I did but I don’t. So…right. Ok, well, this post is focusing on the best of album’s attractive cousin, the compilation album…that is collections of (non-album) singles, and/or b-sides, EPs, radio sessions, stray soundtracks songs, etc, etc, etc. But wait…is this attractive cousin good from afar but far from good? (Seriously, I apologize for that one…) Yes, definitely maybe, but that’s sort of the beauty and the danger of a compilation album, you can sometimes get an assortment of outstanding material that represents the best of everything said artist was about at any given time in their career, or just a bunch of flaky ‘fans only’ fluff that most folks will buy and listen to once before taking it to Great Escape and hoping it doesn’t get a pass. For completists these albums are essential, but more often than not they don’t contain everything that could and should be included in such a collection, and releases like this are usually half baked cash ins from the label looking to fulfill a contract, throw out a stopgap between proper albums or squeeze a few more bucks from fans after the band has split up.

But, as alluded to, there are exceptions, and here are a few of my favorites…

Tones of Tail – Everything!: I love side projects. I’ve been planning on writing an entry on them almost since the inception of this blog, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. (Funny, “blog” still isn’t recognized by spell checker in MS Word…get with it, Gates!) There are occasions when a side project will actually trump the band(s) that said member(s) came from…enter Tones on Tail, a deal Bauhaus guitarist Daniel Ash started with roadie/pal Glen Campling while Bauhaus was still around, put out a couple of dark, quirky singles and then added drummer Kevin Haskins after Bauhaus fell apart to release the Pop album in 1984 before themselves disbanding where, as we all know, Ash and Haskins picked up Bauhaus bassist David J and formed Love & Rockets. So…having said that, as compilations go, Tones on Tail’s double disc Everything! is just that…every single track the band ever recorded…sorta. There are a couple radio edits here and there, but all you need is here. The first disc is the Pop album, easily the most accessible of the group’s output and the one that sounds closest to either of the two aforementioned and related groups more known to the general public, most notably Love & Rockets (well…sorta). Groovy, sexy, morose, there’s a little something here for everyone, from low key synth pop (Lions), to sinister non-rock (The Never Never is Forever), to wicked dance (Performance), to the flat out bizarre (Slender Fungus) and just downright lovely (Rain). Disc two is the singles, extra tracks and remixes, more often than not on a more experimental bend, but ever charming in their eeriness. Disc two also contains the underground dance hit (later sampled by Moby) GO! complete with “ya-ya-ya-ya!” chorus, as infectious a piece of murky pop as you’d care to hear. Anyone who is either/or a Bauhaus or Love & Rockets fan should certainly check this album out, but folks who are neither yet enjoy mostly fun, slightly dangerous and all around good synth oriented dance pop will definitely find quite a bit to shake a cheek to with Tones on Tail.

The Smiths – Louder Than Bombs: I got this album for my 17th birthday, a gift from Susan and Cybil (sup, ya’ll?), and from here my lifelong love affair with the Smiths officially began. Though a collection of singles, b-sides and BBC Sessions, here in the States this one is basically considered an album proper, or rather double album as it’s a full 24 songs in length. The wonderful thing about Louder Than Bombs, as compilations go, is that there are absolutely no throwaways, and not only are some of the greatest highlights of the Smiths’ career found here (they were a fantastic singles band after all), but most every other song that isn’t “one of those” (again, I leave it to you to decide what is what) would have fit nicely tucked amongst the tracks of any of their four albums. Plus, though it does not run chronologically, Louder Than Bombs is a nice run down to the development and maturation of the Smiths sound from beginning to near end, and works very well as a starting point for anyone looking to pique their curiosity. Also, as a side note, this is THE compilation to own, and while Hatful of Hollow and The World Won’t Listen have their redundant charms, the two or three (or is it ten?) best of and singles collections out there, while containing the same heartbreakingly wonderful music, are cheats to fans and do not showcase much of the Smiths’ sound in the way it was intended. But I still love you, JM.

Morrissey – Bona Drag: Moz chimes in again, this time with his first collection of solo singles post-Smiths. As with the aforementioned Louder Than Bombs, Bona Drag works as a) a proper album and b) an excellent place to start checking out Morrissey’s solo career, especially early on. I would almost argue that it’s really all you need until Your Arsenal, but then JT will start fuming and sputtering and that just isn’t pretty. Plus, Viva Hate has some very essential album tracks and Kill Uncle has that one song that isn’t too bad…I can’t think of what it’s called though (‘cos there really isn’t one, tee-hee). But for proof that the magic of the Smiths was in a large part due to Morrissey’s talents – vocally, lyrically, melodically, etc – you really have all you need here, with gorgeously fantastic A-sides – Piccadilly Palare, Everyday is Like Sunday and Suedehead – but equally as strong (sometimes even stronger) B-sides – Will Never Marry, Hairdresser on Fire, Yes I am Blind. True, it’s a bit dated in parts (oh, 80s…), but this isn’t so much a distraction to the songs as a reminder of the times…times when Moz was clever, concise and constantly catchy. (BAM…take that alliteration!)

The Pixies – Pixies at the BBC/Complete ‘B’ Sides: Our favorite band from Boston has not one but two super great compilation albums. Cool, huh? First – Pixies at the BBC is possibly my favorite of the two because while most of these songs are widely available elsewhere, in many cases the versions are more than just BBC raw, they’re drastically reworked from their album contemporaries, allowing a unique perspective to some familiar tunes in a truly embryonic form. As an introduction to the band (not sure why I’m holding on to that idea here in this post) Pixies at the BBC might not be the most ideal first listen, but honestly isn’t too far off the mark either, representing many of the key elements that made (make?) this band so important. And so second – as if four gr-gr-great albums and one on par EP weren’t enough, the Pixies were known for some pretty groovy B-sides, which is where the Complete ‘B’ Sides comes in nicely, collecting all their A-sides’ backers plus a few strays for a collection that rocks and socks almost as solidly as Surfer Rosa or Doolittle (well, ok, that’s a stretch). With excellent tunes like Manta Ray, Weird at My School and Into the White, plus inspired covers of Neil Young’s I’ve Been Waiting For You and Winterlong, among others, it’s easy to see why the Pixies are considered one of the greatest “classic alternative” (or any genre) bands of all time. Different (sometimes weaker) versions of various album tracks and a few seemingly partially developed one-offs toward the end somewhat lessen the impact of this collection, but that doesn’t mean that Complete ‘B’ Sides isn’t a worthwhile, even a vital, part of any Pixies fan’s CD shelf…almost more so than Trompe le Monde. (There, I said it.)

The Church – Hindsight: The Church have several comps out there and heck, 1984’s Remote Luxury is really a consolidation of two EPs, but here in the states we like to mash things up. Anyway…if you can find it, pick up Hindsight because this one serves a dual purpose. First off, and somewhat to its detriment, it’s a collection of album singles and select tracks, all stellar music and serving well as an introduction to the band between 1981 and 1986, so basically pre-Starfish. But second, and most importantly, it’s a collection of said singles’ b-sides and other stray tracks, some of which have popped up here and there as bonus material on various re-releases, but most of which remain as obscure as Hindsight is itself. Running chronologically, this album not only displays many of the highlights as the Church developed their post psychedelic sound, but also a few ideas and tracks that while good, fun or interesting in their own right, just weren’t up to snuff either musically, thematically or from a recording perspective. This just goes to show that even when a band is in a creative streak and can seemingly do no wrong (ok, Maybe These Boys…), there are still a few clunky skeletons in the closet. Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t some great obscurities to be found, but looking over the track list right now it’s obvious that numbers like In a Heartbeat, Fraulein and You’ve Got to Go, while certainly bred from the same fingers as Of Skins and Heart and Blurred Crusade, were just a bit too raw and unpolished to do much more than hang the back end of a single. Meanwhile, on disc two, Autumn Soon, As You Will and The View shimmer as much as anything from their respective sessions and yet don’t quite fit the feel of the albums they fell from. So, at the end of the rant, what you’ve got with Hindsight is a peak at some of the best of the best, but also a bit of the grit that is certainly at the basis of any song by any band before that perfect arrangement, recording or producer gets hold of it and pushes it to the next level. And sometimes it’s just a band song.

Joy Division/New Order – Substance: In the 70s and 80s, especially in the UK, non-album singles were still very much en vogue and, often as not, a collection of these worked as well as any given album, sometimes even better. Enter Joy Division and New Order, who, for all intents and purposes are “the same band” except of course the former contained enigmatic singer Ian Curtis and the latter was the remainder of the band spending the rest of their career trying to get out from under his shadow…and somewhat succeeding – but that’s not what I’m here to talk about (I don’t think, we’ll see). Releasing two albums called Substance is certainly a nod from folks in this camp that while the two bands are certainly very different, they both come from the same place, which is indeed a very dark place, and which is very evident on Joy Division’s outing. The nice thing about this Substance on CD is the inclusion (though split up a bit) of the An Ideal for Living EP, the band’s first proper release, full of cranky riffs and shouted punky bravado. The rest of the collection is songs from various singles, b-sides and Factory Records samplers, including the big one, the daddy-o, the one even my mom has heard (ok, not really), Love Will Tear Us Apart (and I’m hoping it gets stuck in all your heads, ha-ha!). But also present are equally important (nay, even more so as they represent a more accurate presentation of the band) songs like Digital, Transmission, Dead Souls, Komakino and the lovely Atmosphere. Admittedly this Substance is a bit scattershot, partially because it doesn’t run chronologically, but mainly because Joy Division’s sound was often all over the place, minimalist yet dense, and that density was achieved in several different ways and more cohesive on their two proper albums. Here it’s a bit of a bomb blast here and a firecracker there, so the continuity is somewhat lost, though the music (with a couple of exceptions) is fantastic. With that thought in mind, New Order’s Substance 1987 does run chronologically, from the late Joy Division song Ceremony to the relatively big hit True Faith. It’s a fascinating journey from the depths of emotional depravity as they shed the skin of their former band (and singer) and began to develop a sound and style that became uniquely their own, morphing into a type of pop that actually made dance music cool. I’ve lamented more than once that New Order seemed to spend a lot of time perfecting their singles but not as much time with their proper albums, which in the mid 80s sounded more like riffed off afterthoughts than attempts at making solid music, and even the re-workings of knockout songs found here on Substance 1987 are brittle, almost demo-like in comparison. I guess what I’m almost saying is that Substance 1987, while the perfect introduction to the brilliance of New Order, might also be about the only thing you need with a couple of notable exceptions (call me if you want to know what they are). Also, for those of you who dig b-sides and remixes, Substance 1987 has a second disc that basically runs the same track list on the reverse side, a mixed bag collection vocal dubs, instrumental versions and a couple of the band’s best songs of their early period, Procession and 1963.

Monday, September 13, 2010

There's Only One Volume 2

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted one of these, so refer to this entry here for the “rules” of There’s Only One…and here are the next five:

Broadcast – The Noise Made by People: Every Broadcast album (and I’m including the catch all releases Work and Non Work and The Future Crayon in the mix) is an intriguing and worthwhile exercise in deconstructed electro-pop. But The Noise Made by People is the only one with the full band, before 3/5 of them left for whatever reasons. The thought here is that this is the sound, rather noise, that instigated all the hype (noise) in the first place, and so it’s not only the logical place to start (or W&NW as I did), but ultimately the most satisfying listen by the end of the spin ‘cos it’s the only one that feels “full” as in “complete,” whereas Haha Sound and Tender Buttons, etc often feel more like sketches or skeletons of songs with their minimalistic charms. But hey, if that’s your bag then by all means jump, and I’m not saying it isn’t mine, I’m only telling you that the way these folks crafted songs back when they were a full unit is something to marvel at.

Tim Buckley – Goodbye and Hello: Tim Buckley’s sophomore effort is a step forward within the same vein of his debut, taking the guise of the drifting minstrel to even greater shimmering heights, his endearing songs of love both conquered and forlorn propelled by a voice that could melt butter and shatter glass within the same breath. Though at heart always a singer/songwriter, he never again delivered another album where this principle was at the core as he wandered liberally into free jazz and white funk, relying more on the work out delivered by both his band and his voice for creating the backdrops of a rhythm and a groove or simply a melancholy atmosphere than composing structured, cohesive material throughout. As mentioned before, this sometimes came through with stellar results but just as often fell flat, leaving the listener wondering and a bit saddened (for all the wrong reasons). With Goodbye and Hello, Buckley was able to harness the ambitions of his genius and coerce them into solid melodic numbers that went far beyond the standard routine of “guy with a guitar” yet remained grounded enough for even the most jaded heart to break away its rock encrusted shell.

John Cale – Paris 1919: Most all of John Cale’s early solo work could be the one to have, though most folks would probably pick his first release, Vintage Violence. I’m sticking with Paris 1919 partly because it’s the first album of his I ever heard, where I first fell in love with his quirky vision of pop music and realized that Lou Reed was (willingly?) suppressing a fantastic songwriter in their tenure together with the Velvet Underground. But even more so, Paris 1919 is able to invoke a powerful atmosphere of desperation, of fear, of anger and even a strand of light whimsy all within the confines of a three minute song. In many ways it sounds like a period piece, an 18th Century Dylan sitting at his piano forte with a string quartet waiting for him to show them the chords and pulling magnificent thoughts and melodies out of the air as if they were simply waiting on his hand. In that respect, these songs are distinctly refined yet carry a certain rustic quality that underline the best aspects of rock n roll, and throughout Cale makes it all seem so simple with his casual delivery, just a guy passing through, happy to share a moment in song but moving on to the next stop as soon as he’s finished. He would certainly parallel these moments in future releases, but never with as much grace or elegance, relying more on musical shock and awe (a chicken died, folks) than the poetry of music in its purest form.

The Chameleons – Script of the Bridge: Being a huge fan of both this album and their third effort, Strange Times, it’s hard for me to choose, especially because they both spring from a like creative source and yet take those roots and sprout into two distinctly different trees. But I think you need to hear the one before the other, that is Script of the Bridge before Strange Times, and so if you can only have one, logic points to the former. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with either, but at the end of the day Script of the Bridge manages to inspire to great heights as well as lull you down to pleasantly thoughtful lows, while Strange Times’ majestic wail is more a dirge to the loss of, well, so many things that to penetrate its gorgeously intricate shell can be a bit daunting on days when you want that wild eyed and free Chameleons brilliance without the sobering thoughts of dashed hopes.

The Church – Starfish: The big hit here…the one with “that song” on it. My reasoning here is that while they have albums I like more, this is the one you can start with (as I did) and then jump either forward or backwards and it will all make sense. Arguably this thought is more so with the latter leap because Starfish is the culmination of nearly ten years of pop mastery cultivated into final a play out of perfection, but there’s enough far reaching ambition to tilt the listener two albums into the future with the genre breaking Priest = Aura, and from there the boys rocketed into the stratosphere (quite literally) and nearly 20 years later show no signs of slowing down or turning back. Meanwhile, back in 1988, Starfish provided layer upon layer of fantastic instrumentation, lovely melodies and lyrics that made you think twice about going out into the night alone...and still does today.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Goin' Solo

It’s a pretty obvious, even expected move when the lead singer for a band decides to take the stage on his and/or her own. Often that signals the end of the group, but sometimes it’s just a chance to do a little something different and showcase a few tunes that don’t quite fit the style of the band they front. Unfortunately these solo efforts can be watered down versions of the groups that made the singer (in)famous, but sometimes you get a nice slice of a different perspective from a gifted songwriter, and the leaders of some of my favorite bands have put out some of their best work as solo artists, including but not limited to Neil Halstead, Rhett Miller and I’m looking forward to Fran Healy’s first solo excursion next month. FYI, these are also, in my opinion, slots 1, 2 and 3 of the greatest songwriters of my generation.

But I’m not here to talk lead singers going solo. Instead, I want to nod to a few solo albums from the sidemen of various groups, so often overlooked when What’s-His-Name is so dreamy and who more often than not turn out something completely different from the bands they normally support.

Isobel Campbell (Belle & Sebastian) – Though she now has proper solo albums under her own name, Belle & Sebastian alum Isobel Campbell’s first forays on her own were under the moniker of the Gentle Waves, and this name pretty much describes the music therein. The release I’m most familiar with is Swansong for You, a collection of ten modest ditties reminiscent of her more obvious contributions on the B&S album Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant. The sound, like that of her band’s, is retro, focusing mainly on other veins of low key 60s pop – like chamber and bubblegum – with washes of strings and flutes over lightly strummed guitars, whisper soft vocals and the occasional harpsichord (the latter giving an almost medieval flourish to a couple of tracks). One or two mid to up tempo numbers are thrown in here and there to accent an overall feeling of ease and relaxation, but even then you won’t get too worked up, because the Gentle Waves are just that, a soothing backdrop for a calm setting with a book or a lover or a half forgotten memory.

Mitchell Froom (Producer – Crowded House, Suzanne Vega, Los Lobos, etc) – Most noted as a producer, Mitchell Froom started out as a keyboardist before making the transition behind the other board (ha, ha). One of his musical endeavors, as a performer, is Dopamine from 1998, a sample of which I heard awhile back as a DFD song of the day and knew I had to get my hands on the rest of the album. Dopamine is a mixed bag of part cabaret, part 60s film score, part avant-garde, part (other) world music; a series of mini soundtracks to films your mama doesn’t want you watching. Imagine a richer, fuller Angelo Badalamenti or a sexier, less sinister Tom Waits. This is a slinky carnival of weird, macabre fun, one moment in your face and the next backed off in a corner (and sometimes both within the same song), but always satisfying in its somewhat unsettling way. If you’re interested in either of the aforementioned artists, or off kilter movie soundtracks, or just interesting music, Dopamine is right up your back alley.

John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers) – After leaving the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a few years of bottoming out and self-discovery in the 90s, John Frusciante began releasing a slew of solo albums that were initially intended to bring in money for drugs. And yet despite that less than aesthetically pleasing motive, his musical output remained artistically interesting if not downright outstanding. My favorite of these, Shadows Collide with People, came out after he got his life back on track and rejoined the Peppers. Of everything I’ve heard from his non-RHCP output (and there’s a ton), Shadows… is the most pop accessible, but this in no way diminishes the quality of these alterno-driven rockers and ballads. Present throughout are his ever-emotive melodies both vocally and via his highly underrated guitar work, especially on tracks like Carvel, Regret and the absolutely fantastic Omission. For anyone exploring outside this album (‘cos I know you’ll all run out and get a copy at my word), Shadows… will not prepare folks for the lo-fi folk freak out of his debut, Niandra Lades or Usually Just a T-Shirt, and like-minded material, but less “studio slick” releases like To Record Only Water for Ten Days and his latest effort, the majestic The Empyrean, hold enough ties to identify a distinct and highly enjoyable John Frusciante sound…which I will point out is all over many of the major radio hits for the Peppers in the 21st Century.

Martin L. Gore (Depeche Mode) – As Depeche Mode’s principle songwriter for most of their twelve albums, as well as taking lead vocals on several key tracks, this one might be considered a bit of a stretch, especially because while Dave Gahan may be the lead singer the group, Martin L. Gore is the assumed leader for those of us who think we know the what’s up. Dig? ANYWAY… Both of Martin’s solo releases have been cover projects and I’m especially fond of the first one, Counterfeit, as through this release I was introduced to a number of songs, and subsequently their writers, that I may not have been otherwise. The approach is similar, though more minimalistic, to that of any Depeche Mode album, so there’s a certain and obvious familiarity throughout. However, Counterfeit offers a moody, electro vibe that showcases less Martin’s ability to make interesting bloops and bleeps with a keyboard and more a) his sweet, plaintive voice and b) just how amazing these songs are, which in turn gives further dimension to (and therefore appreciation of) Depeche Mode’s influences as well as the band itself.

Murry Hammond (The Old 97s) – As I've stated in a previous post, the Old 97s bassist’s first solo effort might be the best thing to come from the whole of the Lone Star State. This collection is a quiet, brooding reflection on life, sin and salvation from a completely different viewpoint than that of the front man he plays sidekick to, with a set of old school hymns, reminiscent country tunes and mindful originals encapsulating Hammond’s religious beliefs and expectations in a way that is immediately sincere, warm and inviting. Recorded in a church, the sound is both soulful and eerie, conjuring the image of a lone player strumming with hope and longing amongst the shadows of his and the world’s sin. It’s an album for darkened rooms and pensive thoughts, about as far from the toe tappin’, hand clappin’, knee slappin’ swing he helps make so infectious with his fellow Texans in Old 97s, and the end result is satisfying in a completely different way.

Roger O’Donnell (The Cure) – Roger has always been my favorite member of the Cure (who said it has to be Robert?), and when I heard about this solo album coming out back in 2005, I literally did a back flip (in my heart). Basically a project to showcase the Moog synthesizer, everything – from leads to bass to percussion to sweeping noise passes – is created using nothing but that instrument. The results are a series of understated “non-songs” that create an emotional and sonic landscape far from the catchy pop licks he’s most widely known for in the Cure. And though a couple of tracks grasp at recognizable form and "pop" structure with the presence of some very charming female vocals, courtesy of partner Erin Lang, the main focus here is the diverse and interesting world of the Moog. For Cure collectors this will be nothing more than an interesting sidepiece, and at times it does get a bit technical, but those interested experimental, minimalist post rock along the lines of Cluster, Harmonia and the like should definitely take a close listen.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

In Brief

Robert Plant’s choice to cover not one but two of my favorite Low songs (Silver Rider and Monkey) from one of my favorite Low albums on his latest stint with Band of Joy, might be one of the coolest things to happen in quite awhile. Talk about the old school nodding to the new school. Plant approaches these two brooding beauties with a sense of reverence that you would think should normally run in the opposite direction, and just shows the man’s respect for a well-written song. His takes are admittedly similar to the originals, but to me he propels both to the next level with the idea that no matter how simple a song’s theme or structure may be, it can be built upon and maintained no matter how grand or scaled back.

I’ve yet to listen to the rest of the album, but if he handles those songs with half as much care as these two, it’ll be yet another worthwhile addition to his catalog.

Check it all out here.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Performance Review: She & Him

On September 1, 2010, She & Him played the Ryman Auditorium…and I was there.

I’ve had my ups and downs with She & Him…and lately mostly downs. But if there’s one thing I’m good about it’s second, third and twenty-eighth chances (shut up, Joshua Thomas Reese or I will cut you), and so when at nearly the last minute I was offered a chance to get a second row seat at this show I just couldn’t pass it up.

Being virtually unfamiliar with She & Him’s second album, Volume 2, I got my hands on a copy and had this to say to the aforementioned JT:

I have to say that I was really concerned that this was going to be leftovers from Volume 1, but was pleasantly surprised. I think it's a far superior album for three (3) reasons. 1) better songs...less “amateurish” and naive, 2) way better production - still “lo-fi” but not trying to be 1964 and 3) I was prepared for her voice and for it to suck so I didn't have any big expectations (that last one is fully on me). Now there are instances when it reminds me of Volume 1, and I don’t like those bits as much, but overall it’s its own deal, which in a word is great. With that in mind I'm currently listening to Volume 1 again and I'm "enjoying" it in the sense of familiarity, but the parts that bugged me still do and the parts that were endearing, while by no means diminished, are not enhanced. Long story short...sophomore slump my eye, Volume 2 is the album Volume 1 should have been.

So, with that in mind and after an appropriate and expected amount of ribbing from JT, I tottered off to the show. No, I didn't really totter and I don’t even know how, but it’s late and I’m tired and that’s what’s sticking.

The opener was the first gig for NRBQ alum Al Anderson’s new band, The World Famous Headliners, who slung out about ten or so numbers of rock-tinged country (or was that country-tinged rock?) and delivered a rather enjoyable if somewhat long-winded set. And then Zooey and M and their crew came on…

I won’t say I was blown away by the show, but I was certainly impressed, thoroughly enjoyed myself and at the end of the night had a new found respect not only for Zooey as a musician/performer, but for her songs as well, including and especially those found on the group’s first effort. I was curious to see how an actor turned pop star (for lack of a better term), especially one so enigmatic as Zooey Deschanel, would present themselves in a musical, non-acting environ. And then of course there’s M Ward, a somewhat veteran of the indie rock scene for a number of years, who is known as a bit of a musical eccentric and has finally gotten a bit of hard earned and well deserved notice thanks to this project. So, as I was watching these two perform (backed by a super top notch band), I had these thoughts…

  • Zooey: Cute, nervous, detached from the experience
  • M: Humble, professional, frantic yet controlled guitar play

Zooey was certainly a very individualistic performer, in no way playing rock or movie star – especially in the sense of playing up to the audience – delivering her frank and confessional songs with an aloof almost indifferent manner – as if us being there didn’t seem to matter and she’d be equally happy playing them in her room with nothing in front of her but a DCFC-postered wall. Though often coming to the very edge of the stage she never once looked down or seemed to make eye contact with anyone. This was an endearing yet at times distracting aspect of the performance, ‘cos the audience wants to feel that you the performer are there for them specifically. And Zooey certainly said thank you a bunch as well as gave the it’s-so-awesome-to-be-here spiel about the Ryman that everyone does, but there was the distinct impression that she wasn’t going to open up any more than her voice, songs and general presence would allow, playing the part of the bright/wide eyed Tammy Wynette-esque starlet who “can’t believe this is happening to me” to a T. So perhaps this was just another role for her, that of the distant ingénue, though JT says she’s just a stuck up biatch and Karla says she’s just weird. Maybe, I dunno, but for better or worse it was all part of the show and by the end of the set she had either loosened up a bit or I had been brought under the power of her off-kilter charms, because I was going along with it all as if it were everything I had hoped for.

The music itself was a rehashing of just about everything from both albums, and I was surprised that the first couple of songs were from Volume 1 - which to me meant they were trying to deliver the ebb and flow of a solid set and not cater to the well known “hits” or showcase the new material. Plus, when most of your songs are roughly three minutes and you don’t do much talking in between, you can burn threw quite a few in a relatively short amount of time. Meanwhile, the performances themselves, though certainly inspired, were pretty representative of the album versions, with two female back up singers to add harmonies and shake tambourines, etc. Having said that, while they did follow their album counterparts almost verbatim, the songs benefited greatly from the “live vibe” and the near complete removal of the aforementioned “1964” sound that was so prevalent, and for me detrimental, to those on Volume 1 especially. Bottom line, it was just a good band playing good tunes – rough, raw and ready for anything.

But the real magic occurred when it was just She & Him, that is to say the two of them, and after about ten songs the band left for a bit and Z&M first ran through a very nice rendition of Wouldn’t It Be Nice with Zooey on ukulele and M on acoustic guitar, his lower register harmonies a very pleasant fit to the laid back delivery of the song (though I couldn’t help but hear the Brian Wilson bits in my head). It was in these stripped down moments that I realized just how amazing Zooey’s voice is. While a few times during some of the more up beat numbers she was a bit drown out by the band (which may have been a mix-cheat from where I was sitting), when it was just the two of them and the mic (or not) she really let loose and, dare I say, opened up to us, and at no time was that more evident or moving than on the show closer – a haunting, impassioned, downright animalistic performance of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ capital C-lassic I Put a Spell on You that had folks cheering, screaming, laughing and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few tears fell. It was truly powerful.

The folks I was with complained that they wished there had been a bit more of him to go with the she, and M, while everywhere with his guitar playing, providing ample backing vocals and being an overall presence as the band leader, only took lead vocals during the first encore – a reworking of Buddy Holly’s Rave On (if there’s a recorded version of this somewhere please let me know) and an all guns blazing, true to the source rendition of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven.

And with these and a couple other covers from the set, I realized that She & Him are in many ways a tribute band (as opposed to a retro band) to the spirit of the roots music that splintered into and created the classic rock, pop and country that even your parents look so fondly on today. And the idea of a tribute denotes a feeling of love and admiration, so at the end of the day that means that She & Him isn’t some cash in of a movie star using her celebrity to make a few more bucks and gain a few more ego stars for her sash. Zooey and M truly love the music of those times, to perform those songs for themeselves and others and to be inspired to write like-minded tunes that carry on the tradition and the spirit of what all boils down to rock n roll.

Check 'em out here.