• 2012

Yearly Archives: 2012

The Shins – Hordern Pavilion 25/7/2012

Let me start by saying I’m one of those rarely encountered casual fans of The Shins. There are many thousands of Shins lovers with much more love for The Shins than I, and although for many years I held a slightly fearful belief that listening to Oh, Inverted World in its entirety more than three times would turn me into a Shins fanatic, I’m reasonably happy to report that it hasn’t, and I exist in a contented place between total indifference towards the melodic folk-pop stylings of The Shins, and worshipping at the altar of James Mercer.

I like the music of The Shins very much, and Mercer, who these days essentially is The Shins, is the biggest stumbling block between like and love. As frontmen go, Mercer has always been relatively aloof in live situations, and I can’t help but feel a little frustrated by a sort of mismatch between my initial perception of him as indie rock’s warmly accessible everyman, and what he’s actually like on stage.  Watching last Wednesday’s show at the Hordern, I would have liked to see Mercer show a little more willingness to engage with his audience, but I don’t doubt his aura of shy brilliance is incredibly appealing to others.

All the same, seeing the prodigious singer-songwriter and his newly assembled band was an unexpectedly delicious treat. Nothing reinforces just how sensational songs like Saint Simon, Port of Morrow and 40 Mark Strasse (one of the highlights of the night) are than hearing them played by a band at the absolute top of their game. Each song was given a tight, confident, finely-nuanced treatment by the sextet – a well-oiled machine bringing The Shin’s lush layers and lovely, wandering melodies together with precision and grace. There were sublime moments when Mercer’s coolnesss would dissolve and his impassioned vocals commanded absolute attention – in the crescendoing final chorus of Simple Song, the gently stirring September, or during the band’s rollicking, muscular performance of So Says I. Mercer’s match on stage is his lead guitarist Jessica Dobson, effortlessly firing off thick, shimmering riffs, owning each moment in the spotlight with a glowing, masterful stage presence.

The encore was rounded out with a swirling, spacious, extended  jam on One By One All Day that clearly wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but for someone still coming around to The Shins, it was an impressive show of musicianship that made for an inspiring end to the evening.

Sound-wise, The Shins are pretty damn close to flawless, but helmed by an overly reserved frontman, their audience’s attention was left flagging at times, bringing the overall mood of the show down with it. While the acoustics at the Hordern were unusually outstanding, it was clear this wasn’t the ideal venue for a band like The Shins. A more intimate setting, where Mercer’s subtleties could be better appreciated, would have turned a fine show into a truly memorable one.

Why tribute albums (usually) suck

The rock tribute album is one of those daggy trends in music and marketing that just won’t die, despite the fact that we’ve been bombarded with thousands of truly, offensively awful ones, and the rest are generally pretty average at best.

The idea seems good in theory: a diverse collection of acts come together to perform their versions of songs by a legendary artist or band that has in some way inspired and influenced their sound or identity. The listener gets to indulge in an albums-worth of fawning nostalgia shared between themselves and the contributing artists, while hearing their favourite songs in a refreshing new light. Sounds fun.

So why is it that when I first heard about the new Talk Talk tribute album (entitled The Spirit of Talk Talk, due out in September) my immediate reaction was mild excitement, followed by a bout of uncontrollable shuddering and gagging?

There are an uncountable number of bargain bin tribute albums out there, and most of them fall into the ‘out to make a quick buck’ category. Cheap, nasty and haphazardly flung together by a bunch of bands you’ve never heard of in an unapologetic bid to cash in on the name of the original artist. And then there are your ‘Gregorian Monks Sing The Misfits’ style tribute  albums, which are so devoid of any semblance of taste, dignity or compliance with anti-torture laws that the fact that people actually buy them is irreconcilably disturbing.

But there are plenty of tribute albums that do have artistic merit, and many with genuinely good intentions behind them too. But even these ‘decent’ tribute albums usually end up being kinda disappointing.

Tribute albums are really only of interest to people who are slavish fans of the artist being paid tribute. You already know every song on there and you know exactly how it should sound. The contributing artist isn’t just doing a cover. It’s a tribute. To a band you really fucking love. Living up to your unreasonable fangirl expectations is a tall order.  It’s already a rare thing for a band to play a cover like they own it, but the idea of a tribute raises the bar even higher.

If you hear an artist do a cover song on their own album, it serves as a nod to their influences, something that the listener can appreciate simply as a means of putting elements of that band’s sound in context. But on a tribute album, where every song is a cover song, the listener is much more inclined to draw strongly considered comparisons between the original and the tribute. A tribute version might actually be a really decent cover, but because those niggling comparisons are always there, within the context of a tribute album, it rarely ever feels completely satisfying, when you know you could just go back and listen to the original instead.

Plus, when you’ve got so many artists with varying levels of committment on the one record, it’s pretty difficult to end up with entire album of consistently decent tracks, and the not-so-good ones are far more jarring than they should be, like nasty little surprises that undermine your attempts at unbiased enjoyment.

All that aside though, the biggest problem with tribute albums is that the very idea of them is tainted. There are just so many terrible ones and ones that should have been good but weren’t, that it’s hard to be enthusiastic about the arrival of a new one.

A tribute to the greatest experimental rock band of the late 80s and early 90s

So, I’m not particularly excited by the Talk Talk tribute album, (although anyone who steps up to the plate to appropriate any song from their later albums is pretty damn ballsy in my book) but like any sort of nostalgia driven release, it’ll at least be a reason to go back and rediscover what made the original songs so great. Which I suppose is the utlimate intention of a tribute album in any case. So in one way at least, the rock tribute album does have its place.

Prince – Allphones Arena, Sydney, 11/5/2012

Prince encore at Allphones Arena, May 11th 2012


With a discography that spans 32 years of enormous hits and colossal misses and a predilection for bizarre, grandiose public announcements, Prince is an ego of mythic proportions. Prince is still waiting for the rest of the world to realise, like he has, that the internet is a ridiculous fad.  He thinks suing his fans for taking photos of him is an OK thing to do. He thinks people should be banned from covering his songs, yet a significant proportion of his catalogue is considered borderline unlistenable by most sane people. But hey Prince, it’s cool, you can say whatever you like, because you’re a freaking genius.

There was an intense feeling of fanlove in the crowd at Friday night’s Welcome 2 Australia concert at Allphones Arena. When the beglittered one finally emerged from within the Love Symbol shaped stage, 40 year old women shrieked like schoolgirls. All of us were there because we love Prince and wanted to tell him so at the top of our lungs. But, speaking purely for myself here, as someone with tremendous admiration for his musical talents and an affectionate fascination for his egotistical rants, I really don’t believe he has any obligation to tell us that he loves us back.

Prince proved he is still one of the world’s most formidable performers. No, he’s not the limber purple pocket rocket he was 20 years ago, but he still struts, he still swaggers, and when he rips into bangin’ versions of Jam of the Year, Mountains and The Cool he still funks the house down like nobody else. What sat uncomfortably with me was Prince’s insistence on patronising, stereotypical stage banter. Sure, he appreciates his fans in his own way, and he probably figures he’s just dishing out what the crowd wants to hear, but his straight-faced “we love you”s and his repeatedly insisting that “Sydney, we on a first name basis tonight” just felt kind of insulting, and the audience quickly seemed to tire of it.

When Prince isn’t singing, dancing, or shredding (and by God, to watch him manhandle that telecaster is to bear witness to one of the true wonders of nature) his stage presence is flat out weird. At one point, about a dozen audience members were invited on stage to dance, and by Prince’s total lack of interaction with any of them, it was clear they had been warned to keep a respectful distance from him. Awkward. You get the feeling the man is constantly conflicted by a sort of throwaway contempt for the large majority of his fans, and the burning need to evangelise to us. He prostheltyises to us in the form of Love Thy Will Be Done, the unremarkable gospel song he wrote for Martika in the early 90s which would have been one of the low points of the night if it wasn’t so amusingly overzealous.

It’s these odd, somewhat ill-timed song choices that made the flow of the evening falter a little. Gold is a big, burning stadium ballad, but it wasn’t the jamming hot opener everyone was hoping for. The 10 or so minute sans-Prince intro to Purple Rain was truly agonising, but when Prince finally took the mic, he sang it as well as he ever has, and his soul searing guitar solo made the wait oh so worth it.

The best bits of the night were the parts that were pure posturing, pure tremble-before-me, ego stroking indulgence. “How many hits Prince got?” he boomed as he triggered a string of backing tracks to hit songs from his disco light flashing, piano shaped synthesiser. “These songs can’t be recreated by a band… because I am that band” he proclaimed, launching into a medley including When Doves Cry, Hot Thing and Sign O The Times. The band returning to the stage to bust out the deliciously spare funk of Kiss to a display of age defying Prince dance moves will go down as one of the most exhilarating concert moments of my life.

He may be past the days of singing lewd, cuss-word peppered sex anthems, but when he’s on stage, in complete control of his band and his own unparalleled musical prowess, Prince is still a total badass. He made us wait almost 20 minutes in the dark for an encore – a rocking but all too brief version of Peach. But in exchange for almost 3 hours in his awesome presence, it’s the sort of punishment I’m more than willing to take.

Prince, we’re not worthy! You don’t need to pretend to suck up to any of us – just play the hell out of those songs, and nobody will forget you’re still the funkiest MF around.

Freaky geeky Mountain Goats fans

OK so it seems not absolutely everyone was vibing on the rabid extremism of the crowd at the Mountain Goats show last Sunday night. My friend Emily walked in with no expectations and admitted she was “startled” by the whole affair. It’s gotta be said, the crowd that night were really something else. I really don’t think John Darnielle was exaggerating when he remarked on how “fucking awesome” (ie completely batshit) the crowd were. Yes, a few people in the audience were losing their shit and displaying some fairly confronting physical overreactions to the whole thing, and yes, any sort of fanaticism should be viewed as disturbing on the whole, but seriously, in this era of shockingly lame audiences, dammit, (worried over analysis of the situation aside – they’re probably just normal people?????!), this is what I want to see in a crowd – it was rock ‘n’ roll, it was awesome and at the end of it pretty much everyone walked out of there happy to have been witness to the glorious freakishness of it all. Somewhat bewildered maybe, but still pretty stoked (just ask Emily).

The Mountain Goats – Metro Theatre, Sydney, 6/5/2012

Years of incessant touring have not wearied the Mountain Goats or their fans. Since 2003 the extraordinarily prolific John Darnielle has toured Australia (rotating troupe of band members in tow) as regularly as he’s put out albums, and on Sunday night’s show at the Metro there were no shortage of fans seeing him for their fifth, sixth or seventh time. Two things were apparent by the end of the Mountain Goats’ set – that John Darnielle is a performer of extraordinary generosity, and that his fans are more than willing to take everything he’s giving and make it their own.

At what other gig will you see blokes fist pumping and finger pointing with furious conviction to acoustic guitar driven folk rock, and friends swaying, arms around shoulders in the wide-eyed crowd, singing along with joyous abandon to darkly anthemic ballads about child abuse, mental illness and domestic rage?

The audience’s devout adoration is palpable the second Darnielle appears on stage and begins with the warm, gentle build-up of For Charles Bronson. Between every line his smile beams through the crowd and by Damn These Vampires and Birth of Serpents, he is bounding around the stage with barely contained energy and joy. The fervent admiration of the audience has ramped up and imploded into sheer elation, the crowd now feeding off each other as much as they are off the band. Darnielle looks at the audience through geeky glasses and sweat soaked hair and shakes his head, grinning. “Seriously, great fucking audience… I’m gonna be telling people about you guys for quite sometime”, he says, and he sounds utterly sincere.

It’s this sincerity that endears his fans to him. His anecdotes, some metaphorical, some candid, all of them touched with his poignant humour, flow generously throughout the night. There is plenty of laughter, and an intensely observant silence as he shares several new songs with us from the piano – the solemn White Cedar and the exuberant The Diaz Brothers, which he explains was inspired by watching Scarface with his infant son.

Darnielle has an incredibly rich catalogue of songs to delve into, and at one point he digs out 1994’s Love Cuts the Strings for the die-hards, but for the most part this was a please-all set drawing heavily from The Sunset Tree and Tallahassee, two of The Mountain Goats’ finest moments  The bleak, gorgeous Game Shows Touch Our Lives is startlingly triumphant, the crowd roaring the lines “People say friends don’t destroy one another / what do they know about friends?” back at Darnielle with telling veracity. By the time he’s wrenched the desperately passionate last lines of International Small Arms Traffic Blues from his vocal chords, the set is coming to its close, but the energy in the room is at fever pitch. The encore is rapturous – three all-time favourites ending with The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton.  Darnielle pummels his guitar to exhaustion, inciting the crowd to raise Satan’s horns to the high heavens during that delirious “HAIL SATAN” refrain.  Looking around for something else to do with all his manic energy, he leaps behind the keyboard, bashes the final chords of the song out of it, then takes a last look at the audience, smiles his wide crazy smile, and leaves.

The Metro show was one of those rare events where audience and performer both, at times, seemed equally overcome with gratitude for the other’s presence. Even if, or perhaps especially if you were seeing John Darnielle for your eighth time that night, you were left astonished by just how damn much this guy gives. His immeasurable generosity manifests itself in a contagion of joy, and in those moments where every strained lyric and every fist pump expresses the singular, shared experience of everyone in the room.