Monade, The High Llamas and The Sea and Cake at the Union Chapel

I have too much to say about this show, so strap in, pour yourself a hot chocolate, grab your best spectacles and read on!

Last night was my first trip to The Union Chapel in Islington. I got off the bus a couple of stops too early, walking up Upper Street for about 10 minutes on my way there. I passed 3 other churches on the way, each looking more magnificent than the last. When I finally arrived at Union Chapel I could hardly it would be so tall, yet there was a line of indy rockers, ready to rock out, so I made my way over. I paid my £13, spent my last £10 on 4 cans of John Smith’s and found myself a seat near the aisle with a view of the trap set. I knew I wanted to see what John McIntire was up to more than anything else. This strategy paid off. Between 7:30 and 8:00 more people filtered in, I examined the stunning church around me, and took in some amazing entrance music that sounded like the string arrangement in the last ½ of Nobekazu Takemura’s remix of Yo La Tango’s Danelectro. It probably was another Takemura I haven’t heard yet, and it played between all of the intervals. It really set the mood and made the anticipation that much sweeter. One other thing I noticed during the intermissions was that the crowd seemed to be very American. This was not nearly as bad as the Superbowl the night before, but strangely annoying. They should quit following me… 🙂 Anyway, on to the show…

Monade was up first, in what I would later find out was their first performance, when the singer of the High Llama’s pointed it out. Monade is Jim O’Rourke, who has produced everyone and everyone’s mom, including Stereolab, The Sea and Cake, Sonic Youth and Wilco. He also has a number of his own projects under his belt. Laetitia Sadier from Stereolab joined him, along with an unknown rhythm section. I imagine this was probably the first time she’s performed live without Mary Hansen since she was killed in a biking accident in London last month. Given that I’ve never heard her sing without Mary Hansen’s accompaniment, the first few songs sounded very lonely. I could’ve been reading that into it on my own, or it could have been really there. In either case, it was there for me, since I missed Mary Hansen’s voice next to Laetitia’s. It was also strange when the male bassist would sing along with her. Mary Hansen will indeed be missed.

You could also tell there was a composed anxiousness from these performers, who have all got tons of experience on stage, but none as a unit. There were a few near-mistakes in the first few songs – nothing that leapt out as terribly bad but a few unexpected ‘errors’ fed the energy of a raw, experimentation with new material. For instance, Laetitia would be concentrating so hard on the chords she was playing on guitar she would sometimes pull away from the microphone accidentally. There was also the really silly entrance before the first song, where they all got ready to play, and then Laetitia realized she didn’t have here pick. She fumbled though her corduroy pockets in front of a full room of antsy customers who all seemed to be enjoying the humanity of the moment. Towards the end of the first song, she busted out some trombone, but it wasn’t exactly the best tromboning I’ve ever heard. Still fun though!

The music itself was splendid. It sounded like a paired-down Stereolab. I got the feeling they are still working out some of the mixing issues, because Jim O’Rourke’s Nord Electro keys often drifted into the background. Again, it didn’t detract at all for me, as all of the rawness translated into untold enthusiasm elsewhere. One thing that stood out (for all but one song) was the de-emphasized rhythm section. It seemed to be very squarely on the shoulders of Laetitia and Jim. No complaints here. More than anything else, what really made its mark on me was Laetitia’s voice. She slides in and out of French monotone to a scary, accurate range that seems to come out of nowhere. In one song, she started singing before Jim O’Rourke’s synth line crept in, which created a perfect-pitch ‘reverb’ to her words on entry, trailing off just after her voice. It was a creepy and effective technique that really took me by surprise. You expect a singer to match key to an instrument, not to be so perfect that a keyboard can join in unnoticed. Her voice simply transformed into a synthesizer, and continued to do so throughout the refrain. I was also blown away by how accurate her voice sounds live to the quality on her recordings. There is no difference at all from what I can tell, further evidenced by the sometimes-strange facial contortions she makes to hit some notes. Real singing does not usually look pretty. It was really refreshing to watch someone bare all on stage like that, rather than look good and lower their register. Her voice was given the spotlight throughout, and she seemed to take advantage of that liberty even more than she does with Stereolab. This was all I could’ve hoped for and more, especially for their first performance. Everyone at ATP should run to check this out (I hope she will be there – Jim O’Rourke is confirmed).

I must confess to knowing very little about the High Llama’s. They are Irish, and very Stereolabesque, for lack of a better word. There are six guys as follows:

-Drummer on trap set

-Percussionist on vibes and Roland drum pad with effects (playing with four mallets at once and twiddling drum pad effects)

-Keyboardist on two keyboards (sounded like a Rhodes and a Farfisa to my ears, although from what I understand the Farfisa does not travel well, so it may have been something else, or at least this is why I hear Stereolab does not travel with theirs)

-6 string Guitarist/Banjoist (about a 50/50 split between the two)

-6 string bass

-Singer/12 string guitar/keyboard (also could have been a Farfisa, not sure)

The singer was really humble and polite. Probably a weird thing to say in a music review, but it really came through. The first things he said on stage was that he really loved Monade’s debut, and that it was an honor to play with them and Stereolab. The guy just oozed ‘nice-guyness’. His singing was a bit ‘folksy’ for my taste, but I have to say his brief speeches between songs really endeared me to the authenticity of his singing. When he wasn’t singing, the songs broke out into very Stereolabesque territory, meandering everywhere, with slight variations on a theme. I enjoyed them more as the set progressed. One thing that made the biggest impression on me was how amazing the vibes sounded in that church. Wow! They rung out with the most luscious authentic reverb I’ve ever heard. Amazing…

I need to preface the rest of my comments by confessing that The Sea and Cake are my favorite band. I have easily listened to them more than anything else in my collection for the last three years solid. In my estimation, Archer Prewitt is the best guitarist since Johnny Marr and John McIntire is the best drummer ever. Add to that an uncanny musical chemistry between the two, the discordant vocals of Sam Prekop, his own excellent guitaring, bass work that knows its place, a healthy does of synths, and you have the definitive modern band. Nearly every song has vocals, but most allow at least half the song for the instruments to breath.

Sam Prekop’s vocals were brilliant. I still don’t understand what he’s on about most of the time, but one thing that really impressed me was how many of the vocals were different now. That is a dedication to writing, and the first evidence of their commitment to endless revision and a gift-giving live show. I wish I had words to describe Archer Prewitt’s guitar, but they are failing me. I can only compare it to the diversity of Johnny Marr, never requiring the focus, always delivering when it’s given. I also never realized how much singing he does, and how well he does it. Can’t believe I missed his solo stuff until now…

What really distinguishes both Tortoise and The Sea and Cake is that every song gives John McIntire a chance to shine in some way. He drums like a man possessed. The look in his eye is of a completely immersed consciousness, pounding precisely with a funk uncommon at half his speed. He rotates, massages and lends dynamics to beats in a way that no one else has ever done before. His funk is curved at a swing that doesn’t exist in time – just in rhythm. He literally massages the snare with his stick (to what effect I’m not sure), while drumming at 160 bpm. To watch him play subtle background rhythms is engrossing – to see him gain focus in their finale is awe inspiring. I have simply seen nothing like it, and am really regretting not having paid more attention to Tortoise when they played DEMF in 2001. Later that same day IIRC, The Roots’ drummer blew me away in his DEMF 2001 15-minute finale, but this is something altogether different. You need to hear it, learn it, then witness it live, with all the added variations that slide past unnoticed unless you watch him in action. One very minor detail that explains some of what needs to be seen is that with one hand, in the middle of a song, he unscrewed a tambourine from the foot pedal to which it was attached, did it in a way that it only shook once when he grabbed it, again when he lifted it, and one last time when he plopped it on the ground (it was still mic’d throughout this process). He did all of this while drumming with his other foot and hand, and each of those shakes was not only in-time, but perfectly accented the guitars that were dueling in the foreground.

The synth-man just came along for the tour – he is not an actual member of the band (they usually do this bit after recording, or have it sequenced while playing live, I suspect). He was this bigger crew-cut-lookin’ guy who totally looked out of place, but he had some sweet tricks up his sleeve. There was some sort of pen device he was using to play all of their legato synth solos with. That was really cool to see – the guy was literally writing music (I should know better than to throw out such a horrible pun towards the end of such a long review ;).

If I have any complaint at all about the show, it’s that The Sea and cake were trying out the material from their new album ‘One Bedroom’ live for apparently one of the first times. While I was really excited to hear what I haven’t bought yet, their music is crafted with such care that it often takes about 4 or 5 listens to start to hear it, and about 20 to really get the idea. Usually after hundreds I still pick out nuances I’ve missed. So when they only played about 5 older songs, I didn’t get quite what I’d bargained for. This is not to say the new stuff wasn’t great. In one of the first songs they played, Archer Prewitt busted out a rare solo that was mind-blowing. I’ll point it out when I get the CD. In that dueling guitar song I mentioned, Sam Prekop had his own solo, which I think is really unusual, and very cool to see.

The encore came quickly, to a crowd that was very subdued (it was a church full of people sitting in pews after all). At one point in between songs, Sam Prekop even said “Shhh…”, joking about how quiet it was in there. I’d love to see them in a more animated venue, although this was good in its own reverent way. So this finale lasted for about 15 minutes, in which John McIntire got to do three show-off songs. In two of them he completely recreated the beat from the original, in a way that was still recognizable, but completely reemphasized. These were also three of my favorite songs. The end of the last song even extended into a droney drum and guitar dialogue that explained all of the chemistry between Prewitt and McIntire. After only 75 minutes I wanted more. After only 15 minutes of uptempo McIntire madness I really wanted to hear The Man Who Never See’s a Pretty Girl That He Doesn’t Love Her a Little, which is his opus and probably my favorite song by them. But I was happy to have had an introduction to them live, knowing that they will probably stop back through here in May on their European tour. With all this music, it helps so much to know the songs inside and out before you see the live performance, which inevitably breaths new life into that material, no matter how well you know it. Good musicians will reinvent it and show you some more of what you can barely keep up with through speakers alone. It is precisely what music should be. It is what inspires me more than anything else these days.

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