Reviews

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

Author: Andrew Phillips
02/01/2005 | Popmatters.com | www.popmatters.com | Live Show Preview
Bear with me; I've only got an hour before I have to pick up my brother. So you and I, we have precious little time. You see, not long ago I slipped some words into a headline: "My little brother likes Bright Eyes, and I do too." Well I lied to you, and in print, which makes it that much worse. It was just for effect but still, it feels dishonest, especially now.

At the moment I'm at home, a few blocks from the club, waiting for Conor Oberst (a.k.a. Bright Eyes a.k.a. the hottest shit around) to finish his set. Then it's time to escort my 17 year old brother and his friend home for the night -- they're staying over. As far as they know I'm still holed up in the back of the club, nodding along to Oberst's trademark keen.

Ah, but they'll never catch me. I'm streaming the show over the internet. Everything I'm missing is up live on NPR's website, so I'll know exactly when it's time to leave.

Oberst's voice is sharp, bereft and awkwardly atonal, perfectly suited to my computer's mini-speakers. His moans may be "honest and true", but his words border on the voyeuristic…

I'm not sorry that I left. Of course, I'm not sorry I went either.

Let's clean the slate. I've transcended the morbid curiosity, I've surmounted the kitsch, and I'm ready to admit my love for opening act Tilly and the Wall, tap shoes and all.

Earlier, as the group took the stage, I listened to simple acoustic guitar chords melt around jangling keyboard melodies. The members joined in the percussive duties, stomping the bass notes with their feet as tap dancer Jamie Williams filled in the treble. Banging tambourines and pounding acoustic guitar filled in the rest, creating a surprisingly full-bodied backbone. The occasional electronic back-beat augmented the music's danceability and added a soft, booty-shaking edge.

...I like Joanna Newsom and Frog Eyes so I get the idea of alternate visions of vocal beauty. Still, Oberst is cracking every note. If there was ever a time for a backing track…

Tilly and the Wall's duo of female vocalists swaggered their hips in time, lips delicately forming the words to a set of expertly crafted pop tunes, delightfully executed and beautifully presented. Williams often broke away from quintessential tap-dancing, characterized by arms stretched above her head and to the side, with bops of her head and mouthed vocals. She added a bit of indie respectability to the moves, attacking them with seriousness unmatched by her puffy, frilled tap-dress. If you asked her what she does, she'd tell you she's a percussionist, not a tap dancer. She'd be right.

...How nice, he dedicated a song to Tilly and the Wall. To be fair, Oberst has been the band's largest proponent, taking them on tour and promoting them vigorously. So maybe something good will come out of his success. Maybe others will claw their way over him…

Black -- well, negligible anyway. The light served little purpose. The ladies from Coco Rosie took the stage silently, invisible under shadowy blue gels, faces draped in black clouds of mascara. The songs matched the dark and eerie atmosphere, dirges where throaty vocals were thrown across a hail of digital noises.

...OK, I've got to give him credit, that's a pretty cool drone and, under the guitar, it works. Why'd he have to start singing again…

As the girls played, sketched images of strange animals, Indian symbols and cryptic languages were projected behind them. Appropriately depraved line-drawings of sailors with gigantic penises popped up every now and then, tips buried deeply in the mouths of mustachioed women. As I watched I prayed for the gathered mass, hoping that their parents dropped them off instead of coming inside.

Wow, Connor, a slide guitar in a rock song. That is ingenuity. Next time though, get a country boy to back you, not some indie kid. I can't see you but I know it's an indie kid. Why? Because he's got no twang …

Pained wails spread across the room, warped soulful moans like Macy Gray on a suicidal streak or Billie Holiday through a distortion petal. Coco Rosie's cut-up, cawing vocals were underscored by the vocal styling of a beatboxer decked out in an Indian headdress -- perhaps some kind of ancestral dedication to a past that clearly isn't his? It was a constant battle, getting the sound-man to give our "Indian" friend the necessary juice, but as time wore on, he managed to step out, slipping in dark otherworldly noises between impressive vocal beats.

...Go Connor, way'ta assail the president. Sing it, baby:
When the president talks to god
are the conversations brief or long?
does he ask to rape our women's rights
or to send poor farm kids off to die?
will the president recommend an oil hike
when the president talks to god?

Not a fan of subtlety, eh Connor?

Working the same vocal territory as neo-folkies such as Joanna Newsom and Josephine Foster, the Coco Rosie ladies lace the genre with a cold, robotic aura, one distinct from that of their peers. Disconcerting indeed. There's clear division in the crowd. Faces are either lit with exuberance or hanging in pained anguish. I'm watching a young man's eyes, strained and contorted. Go ahead kid, cry. At a Bright Eyes show your tears are a badge of courage.

...Jesus, are all this guy's songs about being drunk and lonely? "The sound of loneliness makes me happier". What does that even mean?

Toward the end of their set the girls let the beatboxer move to the front of the stage. He began to freestyle as the girls moaned discordantly over a simple electronic beat.

Wait, I think he's done. I better get down there…. Hold on, the kids are clapping now screaming.... No, wait. Great!! He's back.

As the first minute passed the rapper's words gained fire. He turned, still spiting, as Williams from Tilly and the Wall reemerged for a tapped duet. The rap flew forward, hard staccato shots, as the strange spectacle unfolded. Electronic beats, screaming vocalists, tap-shoes, and freestyle-rap. It doesn't get much better than this.

So maybe I'm a cynic, but I'll give credit where credit is due. While Oberst's particular pretensions don't appeal to me personally, I'll give him a nod for recognizing other great talent. Maybe I was hasty in leaving; maybe there's more to the man than just….

Shit. Sorry, but I've got to go pick up my brother.


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