Wednesday, June 11, 2003
This evening I took one of my best friends with me to see the amazing
Swirlies. They weren’t the headliners, but as far as she and I were
concerned, any bill that the Swirlies play on is a bill that they OWN. We’ve been listening to them since we were sophomores in high school. The mix tape that I made for her of their first two proper albums, 1992’s Blonder Tongue Audio Baton and 1996’s They Spent Their Wild Youthful Days in the Glittering World of the Salons, remains one of the totemic items of our friendship. Unfortunately, we were too young to see the Swirlies play live in the early ‘90s, and by the time I first heard their music, they were virtually defunct. Thank God for second chances,though, because Swirlies auteur Damon Tutunjian finally managed to get together a comparatively stable touring lineup and release some new material. Their most recent mini-LP Cats of the Wild Volume Two is their first proper release in seven years, and it’s wonderful. The Swirlies’ fusion of My Bloody Valentine whammy-bar delirium, Stereolab’s synthesizer droning, and Sentridoh’s low-fidelity confessionals is still as tuneful and disjointed as it was ten years ago. This performance was the second time the band stopped through Austin this year (the first time was for a criminally brief showcase at the South by Southwest festival in March).
The first band, the Apes, was extremely fun to watch. I remember listening to their first album a long time ago and not liking it at all, but this performance left a much more positive impression on me. They’re a guitar-less quartet consisting , of organ, bass, and drums. Don’t let this instrumental configuration fool you into thinking that the Apes can’t ROCK, because they do. Every song of theirs takes two or three cool riffs and blows them up to seismic proportions. The bass is run through a distortion pedal, which easily compensates for the lack of electric guitar, and the drummer plays so hard that every time he hits the snare it sounds like a gunshot. The organ wasn’t loud enough in the mix, but I could tell that the organist could play quite well (and she was also very cute). The singer, a longhaired twig who moved like a woman and screamed like a man, took lots of cues from Mick Jagger when he wasn’t doing lascivious things like sticking his butt in the air and humping the stage. He spent most of the time offstage singing in people’s faces and playing with their hair (no, my friend and I weren’t exempt). I’d definitely see them live again.
The second band, Need New Body, cracked my SKULL open. I remember telling one of the members that their music was “a soundtrack to a movie that will never exist because life is unfair,” and I still stand by that assertion. Picture Danny Elfman and the Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 making a record together and you’re not even close to the cinematic cacophony that this quintet cooks up. There were lots of repetitive bursts of junk percussion, goofy voices, skittering bass lines, keyboards played so staccato that they almost sounded like loops, and banjo strummed like a rhythm guitar. They jumped from one idea to the next without a single moment of silence. They shifted from skronk to jazz to country and back seemingly every couple of seconds. One song sounded like a bulldozer being driven through John Tesh’s house during piano practice. Two members jumped off stage to dance to their own music, and some of the other members broke down laughing in the middle of their own “songs.” Need New Body definitely subscribes to the Frank Zappa School of deceptively “stupid and untalented” music that could only be played by exceptionally smart and talented people.
The Swirlies completely exceeded my expectations this night. At SXSW, they played a set that held everything together just enough to remain on the right side of the divide between “shambolic” and “sh*tty.” It was the same kind of sensation that people used to get from watching the best Pavement shows, in which they were always on the brink of falling apart but never did. This time, though, they were TIGHT. They returned to Austin with a different bassist and female vocalist than they had at SXSW, and both of them were much more confident on their instruments. They nailed every transition perfectly, half of the time without even looking at each other to do it. Last but not least, they were extremely LOUD. From the opening strains of “Jeremy Parker,” the second song of their set (and the only one that they played from Blonder Tongue), there were people sticking fingers in their ears and stepping back from the front of the stage. Even the soundman begged them to turn their guitars down: “I can’t hear a thing from back here!” Fortunately, they didn’t listen to him. They didn’t even take forever and a day to tune their guitars in between songs. Tonight, the Swirlies OWNED. Then again, they are my third favorite band on the planet, therefore they can do no wrong.
The Lilys were supposed to play after the Swirlies, but only
singer/guitarist Kurt Heasley made it to Austin in time for the show because the band got into some trouble with the law. Needless to say, he played a solo set that night. The Lilys have a habit of changing their sound drastically every other album: their first two albums were pure shoegazer, whereas their next two were slightly diffuse 1960s psychedelic pop. I didn’t know what to expect from Heasley tonight. He began with a very slow and plodding version of “Claire Hates Me” from the Lilys’ 1992 debut In the Presence of Nothing. For the first few songs, his voice kept cracking and his guitar playing was extremely clumsy. He was definitely suffering from the absence of his band. However, as the set progressed he became more comfortable, and the songs experienced a dramatic upswing in quality as a result. The crowd began chanting, “Free the Lilys,” which was fair enough: if they can free Ol’ Dirty Bastard, surely the Lilys could’ve been spared the indignity of rotting away all week in a Texas jail. Fortunately, the rest of the band was bailed out in time for the next evening’s show in Dallas, and they performed a superb set. This evening, though, Kurt didn’t do too badly by himself.