November 12, 2006

Live Review: Make Believe w/ Ecstatic Sunshine, MVSCLZ and Video Hippos @ Emo’s in Austin, TX (11/7/06)

The new album by art-rock pariah Tim Kinsella’s umpteenth band Make Believe comes with an intriguing backstory. When drummer (and cousin) Nate Kinsella received word that he’d be doing two months’ time in a county jail in Oklahoma for disrobing at a Christian rock venue last year, the band responded by writing and recording Of Course in less than a month.

The results are just as slapdash as one would expect. Songs that showcase the band’s unacknowledged knack for catchy choruses (“A Song About Camping”) are juxtaposed with the band’s most unrestrained moments of bashing and wailing (“Another Song About Camping”). Snippets of synthesizer abuse (“Bisect Duality”) and audio verite (“Florida/Oklahoma 12/05”) are scattered across the record. Even the artwork, which consists of various drawings that Nate did while in jail, reflects the album’s quick gestation.

Despite (or because of) this, each member of the band turns in his most accomplished performance yet. Tim’s singing is stronger, and his lyrics are more lucid; Sam Zurick’s guitar playing is as nimble and freewheeling as ever; Nate continues to play in time signatures that can only be notated by hieroglyphics; and Bobby Burg holds everything together with bass lines of dub-like simplicity.

This evening marked the fourth time I’ve seen Make Believe live. This show bore the unfortunate distinction of being the least attended of the four, mainly because the Rapture --- whose popularity has persisted despite the waning of the disco-punk craze --- was performing on the outside stage of Emo’s at the same time. However, that didn’t stop about 50 people from staying inside to demonstrate their loyalty. (Admittedly, I did sneak a peek at the band to catch their rendition of “House of Jealous Lovers,” which sounded even better now than it did when I saw them play in Houston two years ago.)

Opening act Video Hippos is a Baltimore duo that consists of a singing drummer and a guitarist. They compensated for the absence of a bassist by playing along to synthesized backing tracks. True to their name, they played in front of a projector that displayed random scenes from cartoons and military videos. Their overwhelmingly loud electro-punk songs reminded me of Parts and Labor, but they were neither as tuneful nor as catchy. However, I found it endearing when the drummer ran off stage between songs to give hugs to random members of the audience. I assume that the presence of his middle-aged aunt and uncle in the audience filled him with goodwill.

Second act MVSCLZ (pronounced like “muscles”) is reportedly the alter-ego of Assacre, a local one-man band who is both indescribably funny and shockingly talented. He wore a red bandana, Star Trek glasses, a fake mustache, a torn muscle shirt and rolled-up shorts. He spoke in a fake French accent, frequently admonishing the insufferably staid audience: “Why are you American men so scared to dance? I am a terrorist, and I have come to invade your land with the terror I am singing!” He frquently contorted his voice to match his backing tracks: a soft croon for the lounge ballads; a throaty, stentorian drone for the industrial songs; and a demonic growl for the hair metal epics. He spent long portions of his set making goofy poses and forcing the audience to dance with him. His set was, for better or worse, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Next up was Ecstatic Sunshine, a Baltimore duo whose press sheet succinctly describes their modus operandi as thus: “Two guitars, two humans.” On their debut album Freckle Wars, guitarists Matthew Papich and Dustin Wong cram as many riffs, arpeggios and textures into a three-minute song as it can possibly stand. Freckle Wars sounds like the world’s greatest math-rock record, but with the rhythm section punched out of the mix. Listening to it is a test of patience: how can I ride the buildups and breakdowns of the music without my head trying to fill in the blanks with imaginary bass lines and drum beats?

Conversely, Ecstatic Sunshine’s live show is a revelation: while watching it, I felt no need to fill in the blanks. Papich and Wong strangled their guitars with the glee and abandon of two college students jamming together in a dorm, unconcerned with luxuries like bassists, drummers and audiences...which they probably WERE before Carpark Records came along. Their enthusiasm forced me to shake off my preconceptions. I got lost in the moments when the line between lead and rhythm dissolved, when Papich and Wong’s guitars synergized to form a tower of reverb and fuzz. I danced and head-banged along to the music. The rest of the audience loved them just as much. In the seven years I’ve been regularly attending concerts, I’ve only seen an audience demand an encore from an opening act thrice. Ecstatic Sunshine sated our demand with a two-minute volley of noise that sounded like a flock of wild geese.

Despite the 14-hour drive from Santa Fe that Make Believe endured to get to the show, only Tim showed any visible signs of fatigue. He didn’t do as much stretching or as many fake yoga poses as he normally does, and he coughed and sneezed a lot between songs. The first words he said to the audience were: “It’s difficult for me to project because I have a lot of snot built up in my skull.” He then spoke briefly about the long drive, and asked the audience if they had anything more interesting to talk about. A man in the back shouted, “Dems won the House!,” which didn’t prompt a response from anyone.

Later on in the set, a particularly excited (and, of course, drunk) audience member grabbed Tim’s mic stand in order to maintain his equilibrium. This accidentally caused the microphone to hit Tim upside the head. Tim then snatched the microphone from the stand so furiously that the stand broke in half. Once the song ended, he gently admonished the guy (“I know you’re excited, but that really hurt!”). Tim spent the rest of the set standing closer to Nate’s drum kit to avoid further altercations.

The band focused on Of Course material and lesser-known songs from their previous releases (“Television Cemetary,” “Abracadabra – Thumbs!”). Aside from Nate breaking two drumsticks in one song and Bobby’s bass going out of tune in another, this was the best Make Believe show I’ve seen, from a purely technical standpoint. Although Tim’s lack of energy was disappointing, this wasn’t an off night for the band by ANY means.

No comments: