Violent Femmes

Review: Ought – More Than Any Other Day

Rust Is Just Right is not a very large operation, so we may overlook some albums when they are first released.  However, when we eventually catch up and listen to some of these records, we are not going to let the fact that we are ten months behind stop us from writing a review.  The point of all this introductory nonsense is to explain why we are reviewing the debut album from Ought in February of 2015 even though it was released in April of 2014, but the only necessary reason should be that More Than Any Other Day is a fantastic rock record that electrifies the listener with both its furious energy and its thought-provoking experimentalism.

The quickest description that I could use to describe Ought’s sound is “Alec Ounsworth fronting a Fugazi-inspired punk band”, but as you should expect, relying on the reductionist rock-crit namedrop cliche does not paint a full picture.  Tim Beeler’s vocals do mostly recall Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but that doesn’t cover the spectrum of emotions and contortions that his voice undergoes to match the twists and turns of the music.  For instance, Beeler’s use of dynamics in songs like “Clarity!” bring to mind the theatrics of the Violent Femmes, and that dramatic touch helps create a memorable, slow-burning epic.  He may not have the the most extensive vocal range, but his speak-sing style is effectively used in a song like “Around Again”, as when the band stops and Beeler asks “Why is it you can’t stare into the sun but you can stick your head into a bucket of water and breathe in deep?”

Musically speaking, Ought blurs the line between punk and post-punk, and in the process does an excellent job of making the lives of critics that much more difficult–in other words, it is not as easy to define the distinction as it is with, say, Viet Cong.  Ought often does engage in the full-fledged fury of a more traditional punk band, but they still allow room for experimental sonic elements that makes it hard to pin down to a single genre.  Consider the catchy and frenetic “The Weather Song”, which veers from a jittery verse into frenzied finish that is reminiscent of Wolf Parade (especially with the unusual presence of keyboards), as well as “Forgiveness”, whose use of a violin as a drone adds in a touch of the Velvet Underground to the band’s sound.  I am unsure what is more impressive: the fact that from song to song, it is almost impossible to pin down where Ought will go next, yet the band switches gears in a way that doesn’t give the listener whiplash, or the fact that despite the fact one can spot all these diverse influences rather easily, the band organically incorporates these elements into their sound so well that one cannot pin the “copycat” label on them.

Though only eight songs long, More Than Any Other Day is a dense but rewarding album that reveals itself on multiple listens.  Initially, the most striking element of “Today, More Than Any Other Day” is probably its dramatic tempo and stylistic shifts.  Then you may notice the odd lines of “I am excited to go grocery shopping.  And today, more than any other day, I am prepared to make the decision between 2% and whole milk” that is referenced in many reviews, but you go back and see that it’s not merely a non sequitur but in fact a riff on the previous line that “I am excited to feel the Milk of Human Kindness”, either an allusion to Macbeth or the Caribou album, and now you have to reconsider how all these elements fit together.  The good news is that the album is so great that it is worth the extra effort.

Catching Up On The Week (Jan. 16 Edition)

A few #longreads as you prepare for the new year to begin in earnest…

Amid a crowded field of new releases next week, the long-awaited return of Sleater-Kinney stands out from the rest as indie rock fans welcome the return of the beloved 90’s band.  So it’s no surprise that the band is getting write-ups in most music publications this week, including Pitchfork, Grantland, and Nylon.  We’re probably missing other tributes as well, but we’ll try to make up for it by linking to their performance on Letterman last night.

Another new release that we can’t wait to hear comes from another Pacific NW favorite, as The Decemberists return next week with What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.  The Oregonian looks at how the band helped shape the Portland music scene over the past fifteen years, which while giving the city a new national profile also riles up some locals, as evidenced by a few of the comments.

One upcoming new release that we’ve neglected to mention before is the latest record from Belle and Sebastian.  In order to rectify this, here is Pitchfork’s insightful musical influence feature “5-10-15-20” with the band’s leader, Stuart Murdoch.

Diffuser is taking a look at “The Roots of Indie”, and their latest installment examines the history of the Violent Femmes, one of the most unique successes in rock history.

And finally, a small dose of light scientific reading for your weekend, as NPR takes a look at why some cultures respond to musical cues in different ways.

Project Pabst 2014 Recap

We gave recaps for a couple of the bonus shows that came courtesy of Project Pabst, and now it’s time to give some thoughts on the main event itself.  Overall, it was a pretty fantastic experience, feeding off the successful aspects of MusicFestNW with an even better lineup and nicer weather (the sun was shining just the same, but with none of that unpleasant August heat).    If this becomes an annual event, we’ll welcome it with open arms, but it’ll be hard to top this debut.

The mascot for Project Pabst and Scotland's national animal.

The mascot for Project Pabst and Scotland’s national animal.

I’ve lived for over 15 years in Oregon and have spent time in Portland on countless occasions, but this festival marked the first time I had poked around the South Waterfront.  It’s an area that the city has thrown a bunch of money at for redevelopment, but for some reason a few towers of condos haven’t spurred people to come down and spend money in that area.  And if you look closely at the gravel pit from the photo above, you can see why.  That said, parking was convenient enough (for ten dollars) and public transport ran smoothly, so clearly this spot should be able to handle an influx of hipsters as necessary.

Violent Femmes up on the stage.

Violent Femmes up on the stage.

Since I had to make the hour drive up each day, I skipped a couple of unfamiliar acts, but made sure to at least catch an old favorite, the Violent Femmes.  Though I came in half-way through and probably missed alternative radio staples like “Blister in the Sun” and “Add it Up”, I did get to enjoy “Gone Daddy Gone”, “Country Death Song”, and “Black Girls”.  The group showed why they would be a blast at festivals, engaging with the crowd with great jokes and keeping things fun and loose.  They may be basically a nostalgia act at this point, but no one should be complaining.

While the sun was pleasant for the audience, Red Fang would best be enjoyed in a grey thunderstorm.

While the sun was pleasant for the audience, Red Fang would best be enjoyed in a grey thunderstorm.

It’s always a blast to see these hometown heavy metal heroes, but Red Fang really brought it at this festival.  I’ve seen the band headline numerous shows around town, and for the first time the band had a proper mix, at an outdoor festival of all places.  Both guitars and vocals came in clearly and at the right volume, and it made it easier to enjoy crowd favorites like “Wires”, “Prehistoric Dog”, and “Blood Like Cream”.  It was the perfect soundtrack for driving around and committing some misdemeanors (and maybe a felony or two), but luckily no one actually took up that challenge.

Phosphorescent with some breezy jams

Phosphorescent with some breezy jams

I enjoyed Phosphorescent’s 2013 album Muchacho quite a bit, so I was eager to see Matthew Houck and his friends perform live.  He kicked things off with the best track off that album, “The Quotidian Beasts”, and it did not disappoint–the song builds off Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” chord progression to provide ample space for gorgeous and thrilling solos.  The mood was pretty chill for the most part, which was perfect for the afternoon, but the band was able to keep the momentum going even through some of the ballad-filled lulls.

I assure you, those ants are Tears for Fears

I assure you, those ants are Tears for Fears

We took a break during Rocket from the Crypt’s set, partly because I can never forgive the band for not being Rocket from the Tombs, and sampled some of the foodcarts and the free “PBRcade”.  Being originally from Louisiana, if someone is offering a Muffuletta sandwich you’re goddamn right I’m going to order one, and even if it wasn’t great, it’s better than most options.

Tears for Fears were an unconventional headliner that made a lot of people scratch their heads (as they explained, they were a last-minute replacement for Kate Bush (yes, this was a joke)), but the crowd definitely seem to appreciate it.  The instrumentation was pretty spare, allowing a lot of space in the music, and probably could have benefited from some additional backup vocals.  They stunned the audience with an aching cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” (even if it failed to include the best part of the song as some would argue), then proceeded to capture the hearts of the hipsters in attendance with an Arcade Fire song.  I checked out at this point to get across town for Built to Spill, but as I exited they launched into “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, so I hung out a bit right outside to hear one of the best songs of the 80’s live.

Speedy Ortiz keepin' the dream of the 90's alive

Speedy Ortiz keepin’ the dream of the 90’s alive

I was glad to catch the end of Speedy Ortiz’s set, since Major Arcana was one of my favorites from last year.  They draw from some of the best parts of Pavement and the early grunge era to write crunchy, meandering (in a good way) alt-rock, and while they could improve on their stage presence a bit, it was good to hear some noise.

The Thermals up on the main stage, and deservedly so.

The Thermals up on the main stage, and deservedly so.

The Thermals are the true hometown heroes, and they proved it with their blistering 45-minute set that tore up the main stage.  Granted, it was still early in the day and the crowd was a little sparse given their considerable effort, but the band played with a furious intensity that only let up when Hutch had to confront a bee on his microphone.  It’s always a treasure when the band throws in some tracks from Fuckin’ A in with the classics from The Body, The Blood, The Machine.

Shabazz Palaces rockin' the laptops and drums.

Shabazz Palaces rockin’ the laptops and drums.

Shabazz Palaces were a change-up from the rock-heavy lineup, and while it was nice to have some hip-hop, the duo’s set was a bit monotonous.  Sure, it was groovy for a bit, but there wasn’t much shape to their set, and it was hard for the newcomer to really latch on to the music.

GZA taught Portland the finer points of astrophysics

GZA taught Portland the finer points of astrophysics

GZA thrilled the crowd with not only a performance of Liquid Swords but also by tossing in some Wu-Tang classics, with plenty in the crowd ready on-hand to provide some of the missing parts.  Liquid Swords can be a difficult album to get into, but with the help of an excellent backing funk band GZA was really able to get the songs to pop and come alive.

Modest Mouse putting an exclamation point on a great weekend.

Modest Mouse putting an exclamation point on a great weekend.

We had seen Modest Mouse a few months earlier as they started touring once again, and while that was a fine show, it was nothing compared to how tight the group was for this performance.  Holy shit, this may have been their best show yet, featuring such highlights as “Night on the Sun”, “Broke”, and “Doin’ the Cockroach”.  The group at this point has evolved so much over the years, transitioning from a power trio into what seems to be an 8-or-so piece in its current incarnation, with dual percussionists (as has been the norm since Good News) and multi-instrumentalists handling horns and strings.  With its revolving-door-like lineup, it can often appear to be some sort of musician welfare program, and I say that with the best of intentions.

On Sunday night, after a brief delay at the start (it was fitting that Modest Mouse was the only band unable to start on time the whole day), the band effortlessly ran through their extensive catalog with nary a hiccup, beginning with “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”, which in a nice bit of symmetry was the final song of the encore from the time we saw them back in May.  The band easily moved throughout their extensive catalog, capturing both the big hits and the rare gems alike.  As mentioned above, the rare early single “Night on the Sun” was especially memorable, with Isaac putting his gruff delivery to good use and firing off some especially wicked solos.  Though Isaac was battling a cold, the audience wouldn’t have noticed if it wasn’t for his announcement, but it did lead to one of his many funny anecdotes during the show; at one point he claimed to be bad at the “in-between song banter”, but anyone who’s been to a Modest Mouse show knows that’s far from the case.

The encore ended with an especially stirring rendition of “The World At Large”, augmented by a coda which made excellent use of the full band with horns and strings helping deliver extra power to that gorgeous instrumental ending.  The finale of “The Good Times Are Killing Me” provided the perfect conclusion to a festival put on by a beer company, with audience engaging in a gregarious sing-along with the band as the lights flipped back on.

* * *

For the most part, the crowds at the festival were excellent, though I want to make special mention of the audience at this last performance.  I’ve been to hundreds of shows over the years, and I’d never encountered a larger group of pure assholes than the ones that were ostensibly there to be “entertained” by Modest Mouse.  If you’re heading out to grab beer while the band is performing a rarity like “Night on the Sun”, then maybe you should just ditch the show entirely and go get wasted out in Old Town; believe me, the pisswater available at the show was not worth the trouble.  It was infuriating to see people just try to force themselves through groups of people when there were clearer paths available that were also easy to spot.  At one point, a bro tried to barrel through, pushing into me but armed with an excuse that “hey man, let me through, I’m carrying wine, so I gotta be careful.”  If you’re concerned about the safety of your wine, then maybe you shouldn’t be attempting to bulldoze multiple people as they’re dancing along to “Doin’ the Cockroach”.  It was just an unrelenting stream of assholes constantly behaving in this manner, and it nearly ruined an otherwise perfect ending.  Considering that the rest of the festival went off without a hitch, perhaps in the future they should consider cutting off alcohol sales before the last act, similar to how they’ll cut sales late in a baseball or football game.  Other than that, it was a total success.