The Passion of the Weiss

Sometimes I rhyme slow, sometimes I rhyme quick. But most of the time, I don't rhyme.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Beards, Blazers & Glasses: Voxtrot, Silversun Pickups, & Elefant

VoxtrotIt's unquestioned dogma at this point that the proliferation of MP3 blogs and online music criticism sites has been a boon for indie bands, as people are increasingly turning to the Internet to find out about new music. In fact, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! and Arcade Fire probably should have tithed a percentage of their album sales to Ryan "Pitchfork" Schreiber personally. This isn't to say that both of their albums weren't outstanding. They were. It's just that prior to the Internet, the idea of a Merge Records group and an unsigned band garnering such buzz after one album was unthinkable. This trend seems perfectly tailored to indie music, which had typically struggled to play catch-up with the marketing and distribution muscle of the major labels.

For the consumer, this is generally good. Not only do they get access to more information, but MP3 blogs let people to download music for free, letting them decide whether or not they like a certain band. This has almost eliminated the damning feeling that you used to get when you'd hear a song on the radio and love it, only to pick up the album and realize that that there are only two decent tracks on the album (also known as what happened to me when I bought the first Lox album, LL Cool J's Phenomenon album, the Jadakiss album...okay let's not go there).

And yet few people are discussing the unmistakable fact that bands are skipping the whole "paying your dues" element that has characterized music in the past. Gone are the days when a band would have to relentlessly tour album after album just to accumulate a decent sized fan base. Now all you need is a good Pitchfork review, positive words from some influential bloggers and you'll move 50,000 units. Easy. This is the musical equivalent of skipping college to play in the NBA. You might have all the talent in the world, but in the big leagues, you're going to be playing with grown men and Ben Wallace doesn't care how many points a game you averaged in high school.

Enter Austin-based Voxtrot. Perhaps the biggest MP3 sensation in the last five minutes (c'mon it's the Internet, there's a guy who's recording a demo in Iowa using Pro Tools and he sounds just like Neutral Milk Hotel.), Voxtrot captured the blog world's attention this year and last with their stellar EP's, 2005's Voxtrot, and 2006's Mother, Sisters, Daughters & Wives. Even Pitchfork got in on the action, giving the band a solid review for both of them. And I'd even argue that P-Fork's review was low, as those EP's constitute some of the best music I've heard all year. (check out Voxtrot's Myspace page for samples).

I even joined in on the Voxtrot hype, writing an extremely laudatory concert review of a March show that the band played at the UCLA Cooperage. Not only did I find the band's live performance stellar, but I was amazed that they managed to rock such a school cafeteria. Not bad.

But just two months later, thanks to the deafening hype of the Internet and the strength of their EP's, Voxtrot landed a plum gig, opening for Elefant at the Wiltern, one of Los Angeles' larger venues. To understand how big the Wiltern is, Spoon headlined a show at the Wiltern last year, as did the Pixies, as will the Raconteurs. It's not huge, but it's typically a place for veteran bands touring their third or fourth full-length album. Voxtrot has not even released one.

Granted Voxtrot was the opening act, but judging from the size of the crowd, just as many people were there to see Voxtrot as were there to see Elefant. Understandably, the band seemed nervous when they took the stage, with Voxtrot frontman (far left in the hot tub below)
discussing their first gig in LA, last year at the Silverlake Lounge, where they ended up losing $350. Suddenly, one year later, they had seemingly arrived, getting to play in one of LA's most fabled venues. Unfortunately, the larger setting proved one unescapable fact: the band isn't ready yet for prime-time. Despite the impressive lyrical and musical chops displayed on the album, the band hasn't yet devised a stage show to match. Immediately, after taking the stage, concert-going partner/expert basketball blogger/Matisyahu expert Nate Jones, turned to me and could only exclaim one thing over and over again: "I can't believe how bad they sound."

Indeed the band just seemed flat, their instruments seemingly not equipped to fill the gaping ceilings and art-deco walls of the cavernous Wiltern. Whereas at UCLA, the band's transitions seemed to build and build until each song reached a soaring apex, they fell flat on their feet in front of the thousand-plus people packed into the venue. As much as I loved their EP's, these were not the songs I remembered, as each one seemed hopelessly tinny and thin. In all the shows I've ever been to, I've never seen such a drop-off in performance in such a short amount of time.

Ultimately, Voxtrot's lackluster performance revealed several flaws in the architecture of this new digital age. If a band can catch fire among Pitchfork and the MP3 blogs, they seemingly get a free pass to skip stages that should be crucial in their development. Rather than learn how to finely hone their stage show in progessively larger venues, bands are being thrust into situations they aren't ready for. Voxtrot being a perfect example. If My Morning Jacket still plays in the Henry Fonda, a noticeably smaller venue than the Wiltern, than there is no way that a band like Voxtrot should be playing the Wiltern, even as an opener.

And yet, it isn't the fault of the bloggers or Pitchfork, there is simply nothing that can be done about it. Ultimately, it will probably end up being good for the music world and allow for quality independent labels and bands to make decent livings. But all in all, for every Lebron James that will arrive fully formed in the NBA, there will be four or five Jermaine O' Neal's, players who might need a bit of seasoning until they hit their peak. And that's where a band like Voxtrot falls right now. They have the goods to become top performers in the league, but right now they probably need a few years of experience before they reach the All-Star game.

Passion of the Weiss Rating: 5 crucifixes out of 10

The Silversun Pickups
Definitely the highlight of the evening, the Eagle Rock-based Silversun Pickups came on first and delivered a taut yet raucuous 35 minute set. Running through tracks off of last year's Pikul EP and from their upcoming LP Carnavas (which from what I hear is outstanding) , the Pickups blew me and Jones away. Then again, if you've lived in LA for the last three or four years, it's been almost impossible not to see the Silversun Pickups, who seemingly play every two weeks in this town. (I'm pretty sure they must get their mail at Spaceland and The Echo.)

However, despite their relatively large imprint of Los Angeles' finally blossoming music scene, I'd come late to the Pickups' bandwagon, which has grown increasingly large in recent months, as multiple bloggers have expressed an admiration for the Pickups songs and sound.

And the sound. Well, they like the Smashing Pumpkins. A lot. Not in the derivative, I'm trying to copy their sound sort of way. But in the inspired and influenced by sort of way. The comparisons are un-mistkable. Brian Aubert, the Pickups' lead singer sounds quite a bit like Billy Corgan, especially live and both Nate and I independently came to the Pumpkins conclusion. If you add the fact that both the Pumpkins and the Pickups have the same intials and a female bassist in both bands, and well, the comparisons seem to make more sense. (side-confession: the Pickups also get bonus points for having a cute girl in the band).

While I liked their Pikul EP from last year, I didn't love it, despite the fact that "Kissing Families" (you can listen here) was one of the best songs I heard in 2005. But in person, each song seemed to burst to life. I'd rate both Voxtrot EP's well ahead of Pikul, but live, there was no comparison, as Pickups lead singer Brian Aubert had an undeniable charisma that radiated throughout the Wiltern. If you live in LA, you might've seen them play before, but even if you have, I'd recommend checking them out again. They were great. And judging from the songs they played off of Carnavas, this could be the album that gives them a national presence.

Passion of the Weiss Rating: 8.6 crucifixes out of 10


Somehow, the "oh, we're so edgy in our press kit" band pictured above managed to headline this show, despite being preceded by two bands wildly more talented than they are. If I were Elefant lead singer, Diego Garcia, I'd probably cry myself to sleep every night, knowing that I had to be on tour with two bands whose worst songs are still legions better than my best ones.
Unfortunately, life isn't fair. Elefant lead singer Diego Garcia probably won't be crying himself to sleep every night because apparently Diego Garcia is a hearthrob, who happens to look like Jordan Catalano.

Therefore, Diego Garcia is probably a happy man. But the genius of the band Elefant is that no one seems to know the difference. They got signed to a major label and apparently they have thousands of fans, enough to sell out the Wiltern. But I know the difference. Elefant is one of the lamest bands I've ever seen.

First off, judging from the demographics that turned out for the show, their fan base seems to consist of shrieking 16-year old girls who used to be N' Sync fans but have graduated to "adult music." Second, they record for Hollywood Records, the same label as Hillary Duff and Regis Philbin. It is owned by Disney. Rock and Roll, whoo!!!!!! Third: the band's name is Elefant, spelled with an "f." Can you get any fucking lamer?

Elefant makes music for people whose favorite band of the decade thus far is The Killers. Picture Interpol and Bloc Party being crossed with 30 Seconds to Mars, Jared Leto's band and this is what you'd get. Large bold and shiny, well-produced music, with enough atmosphere to fill up a large hall, fronted by one of the lamest people in rock and roll.

How lame is Diego Garcia? Well, please check out this song lyric that he sang at the concert:

I offered her some chocolate and beer/
she said 'No'./
I said why?

He actually wrote that down. Some people just radiate poseur. Garcia is one of them. This band is awful and the most insidious thing about them is if you don't listen to good music, you wouldn't know the difference. What Collective Soul was to grunge, this band is to Indie Post/Punk. Never ever go see this band live, never ever buy their albums, never ever speak of them in my presence. I'd rather watch a DVD of old Carmen San Diego re-runs than have to see this modern Diego live. Then again, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego was kind of awesome. You know who isn't awesome? Elefant.

Passion of the Weiss Rating: 3 crucifixes out of 10


At 9:21 PM, Blogger Duke said...

funny shit. i didn't make it to the show (couldn't justify the price/venue, tried to weasel tix out of the publicists but acted far too late). the shins weren't even ready to play the wiltern when i saw them there. i also saw the shins at the Uni Amphi and that was even suckier. so it's best that the wiltern wasn't my first voxtrot show. rest assured the SSPU album does sound a lot like prime Pumpkins.

I finally got around to reviewing the Little Ones/kelley Stoltz echo show. You oughta buy the stoltz record and give it a few honest listens. It will sneak up on you.

At 10:49 PM, Blogger CrimeNotes said...

Elefant is the worst thing I've ever seen. They opened for the very good Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in NYC a fewmonths back. My friend and I watched Elefant and for the first two songs, we thought that this was an indy rock parody band -- a Spinal Tap without winking. We thought it was clever. But as their set continued, it became clear that they were serious. Very, very serious.

At one point in the night, the lead singer dangled his boot over the crowd and invited an audience member to take it off. For awhile he played one-booted, then took off the other one, and whipped it into the balcony at high speed. It looked like the toe and heels were pretty sharp, and while this kind of thing might have been a good story if it involved Johnny Rotten or Kurt Cobain, coming from that fuckhead, it was a lawsuit waiting to happen.

The sock-footed asshole had the most pretentious, obnoxious stage presence I've ever seen. Between the close of the set and the start of BRMC, he came out on his own and tried to get the crowd to cheer for him, apropos of nothing.

And then he did something even more obnoxious. He started asking for his boots back, and shouting at people for not handing them up. So after flinging his boot at unsuspecting (and bored) audience members, he came out begging for his footwear. Pathetic.

At 1:23 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

The saddest part about the show too was the squeals that assclown got from the girls in the audience. When they were old enough to be legal, I'd have to admit that they drew the best looking girls I've seen at a show in a long time. All of them in rapture for this guy, who has obviously become convinced he was Jim Morrison. Lamentably, I saw them open for BRMC too (Elefant actually gave me press passes and I actually bad felt having to mercilessly rip them in my review..oh well) BRMC might not be the most authentic band in town either, but they still played an incredible live show and Howl is a great album, which is more than I can say for anything Elefant could ever hope to produce.

At 4:05 PM, Blogger Nate said...

I was so, so let down by Voxtrot. Based on their EP and from the hype they were getting, I was really excited to see them. They need some label money behind them, because their fucking equipment was terrible. They sounded like a band playing at a frat party. And their lead guitarist is a dork. He looks like Napoleon Dynamite and stands in the back the entire time. What kind of lead guitarist stands in the back corner during a performance?

The Pickups were quite entertaining. I think "Kissing Families" being picked up for a VW commercial might have given them a little more confidence. And there is no way that they were not Smashing Pumpkins fans growing up.

No comment on Elefant. I think Crime Notes hit it right over the head when he said he thought it was a joke at first. Because they really are a joke.

At 6:11 PM, Anonymous silawe said...

I could not agree with you more about bands no longer paying their dues. Is there a way we can fix this problem? When I saw CYHSY at the El Rey all I could think was, "Huh"?

p.s. you also forgot to mention that the Silversun Pickups also have an Asian in the band just like the Pumpkins. He plays drums but seriously I could not resist.

At 6:22 PM, Blogger Passion of the Weiss said...

I honestly think it's just gonna' be the nature of the beast. I don't wanna' play the It's All Pitchfork/MP3 blogger's fault because I do respect their taste most of the time (Fiery Furnaces/Animal Collective excluded). I do think that it's a good thing that Pitchfork seems to have tightened up their critical standards a bit more which whgih. But then again, I don't know what you can do when bands put out good albums. The downfall of the whole indie band scheme is they don't make a whole lot of money so they can't hire proper sound, stage and lighting guys for their shows, not to mention better instruments. I have no problem with this at SPaceland or the Echo or the Troubadour, but if you're playing the Wiltern or even the El Rey, you need to be able to bring it. I think this is why bands like Wilco, My Morning Jacket are incredible live. You can't mess with the vets. Though I do confess to loving Arcade Fire (your favorite) Wolf Parade and Go Team live as well. Supposedly, these majors are now serious about signing indie acts and giving them creative control. I think the Decemberists album will be a real litmus test to see if in two albums Colin Meloy isn't writing his version of "Lafitte Don't Fail Me Now." I guess we'll see.

And on the Asians, I think I'm gonna' have to re-write that post to be about the Asian takeover. I totally forgot to mention the Pickups' drummer, plus the girl singer in Deerhoof, plus Ramesh Srinastava the frontman of Voxtrot is Indian which is South Asian. I'm very pleased with all this. Now if only David Berman of the Silver Jews can become more famous than Matisyahu I'll be a happy man.


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