It feels wrong to post anything today, mere days after the attacks in Paris and Beirut, without noting the violent ends to which extremists will go and the myriad ways in which we respond. Many of us treat music as a safe haven and a bridge between beliefs and borders. Surely the events must touch a particular nerve in musicians and music lovers familiar with Le Bataclan, one of the sites of Friday’s violence. So I’ll open with this video from yesterday of a man who towed his grand piano behind his bike, parked it outside Bataclan, and performed John Lennon’s “Imagine.” And I’ll direct you to this poem by Jack Gilbert, who fiercely insists that “there will be music despite everything” — despite the sorrow, despite the slaughter.
Flock of Dimes
As one-half of Wye Oak, Jenn Wasner has created brash, folk-tinged rock alongside drummer & keyboardist Andy Stack. The Baltimore native has since ventured out with solo work under the moniker Flock of Dimes. Though the full album has yet to be released, Wasner is road-testing the songs as she tours with EL VY (more later on the side project of The National’s frontman). If the Flock of Dimes songs we heard on Wednesday night represent almost-but-not-quite-finished products, then we’ve got some true sonic candy to savor in the months ahead. These are majestic, effects-drenched pieces — so full-bodied that you wouldn’t guess they’re the product of a single performer.
For most of the opening set, Wasner was half-hidden behind an array of keys, dials, and guitars — but there’s no hiding that voice with its shimmering energy, like a dream that visits by night and haunts through the day.
Speaking of hauntings, one of my favorite moments was when Wasner polled the 9:30 Club crowd: “How many of you have seen a ghost?” [whoops, hollers] “How many of you have had sex with a ghost?” That was followed by more hollering, to which she responded, “Okayyy, so WAY too many people just cheered.”
I’m always leery of making comparisons, and those of you familiar with Wye Oak will need no prompting to give Flock of Dimes a try. But for the uninitiated, this music reminds me a bit of Lykke Li — the dramatic, echo-laden layers, the reverb on guitar turned up, all producing an aura of melancholy mystery. Yet Flock of Dimes avoids the trope of floaty synth-pop that leaves you lost at sea. Even in gauzy, soaring moments like “Curtain,” there’s a sense of foreboding, an insistence in the percussive build-up. This will not lull you into complacency so much as it will precipitate some revelation.
The opening set included “Semaphore,” performed live for the first time and preceded by a good-natured vocabulary quiz (semaphore is a visual signaling system in which the person holds a flag in each hand — and I know this only because ::whispers:: it appears in a Snow Patrol song). I couldn’t resist capturing a little clip of it, which you can listen to here. Trust me when I say it sounds utterly transcendent — my iPhone isn’t built to capture the nuances.
“Tbh I didn’t understand anything you said but I loved the show,” read the Instagram caption to a fan pic of EL VY. It’s an affectionate sentiment shared by many regarding the collaboration between The National‘s Matt Berninger and Ramona Falls/Menomena’s Brent Knopf.
Berninger enunciates his lyrics clearly enough. If they’re incomprehensible, it’s because trying to parse the meaning of an EL VY song is like navigating a labyrinth of loosely-assembled signifiers. Take the jaunty, jokingly self-aggrandizing/self-pitying “I’m the Man to Be,” for instance.
There’s a reference to the Katong mass transit line in Singapore, the Malin+Goetz line of skincare products, and a complaint about scoring an 8.6 on a f*#@ing par 4. The refrain is bawdy. In the video, Knopf reads Borges (Labyrinths, of course). I am in love with this ridiculously catchy song.
EL VY’s debut, Return to the Moon, combines everything we love about Berninger’s dark, brainy humor and distinctive baritone with Knopf’s slinky, textured arrangements. The touring lineup adds Andy Stack of the aforementioned Wye Oak on drums (Train’s Drew Shoals plays on the record) and Matt Sheehy of Lost Lander on bass.
The set opened with the pulsing, twilight mood of “Careless,” before moving into the lonely lyrics of “It’s a Game,” juxtaposed against a thin, silvery synth line (the characters Didi and Michael are references to Minutemen’s D. Boon and Mike Watt, whose friendship inspired some of the album lyrics).
One of my favorites of the evening was “Happiness, Missouri,” its sharp, quick-step percussion building into an echoey, cavernous number that evokes the intensity of an unhinged insomniac. Berninger revealed that the previous night, he leaned too far into the crowd while performing this song and tipped over, seemingly in slow motion, while the smartphone-wielding crowd stepped back, continuing to record, and … let him fall. “Hey, maybe someone should catch that guy?” Berninger queried while the DC crowd roared with laughter. “It was the one time I managed to hit the high note: Wiiiiiiiiiide awake while someone counts the minutes,” Berninger concluded, before the lights dimmed again for the next song.
The set was interrupted by an in-ear monitor malfunction that produced another moment of hilarity. After Berninger’s crew member gave him a replacement earpiece, the former quipped: “Now I’m back in my cocoon. All I can hear is my voice and the click track…” prompting Knopf to play the opening measures of Für Elise.
With just one album out, the band augmented their set with a perfectly danceable cover of Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy.” The show ended before 11pm, but there were no complaints from the crowd — not on a night when both the opener and the headliner delivered sonic gem after gem.
What’s next from EL VY? Knopf recently remarked, “I like to underpromise and overdeliver,” so perhaps we’ll have a second record to look forward to. In the meantime, pick up Return to the Moon (digital /physical) and catch Matt + Brent + co. on tour.
I think the world’s about to end / I don’t need your love, I just need a friend, Berninger intoned in “Need a Friend” to close out the night. I just need to talk to you for a second, I just need a break from the sound ’cause it’s killing me.
In context, the lines seem both lonesome and sardonic. This weekend, they feel just right, as we read the news and seek the comforting embrace of song.
Our heart wanders lost in the dark woods. Our dream wrestles in the castle of doubt. But there’s music in us. Hope is pushed down but the angel flies up again taking us with her. . . . It is no surprise that danger and suffering surrounds us. What astonishes us is the singing.
–Jack Gilbert, Horses at Midnight Without a Moon