Sandblasted Standards 

Thursday, Mar 6 2003
Photo by Susan Anderson

at the Henry Fonda Theater, February 23

The French Jewish chanson singer Serge Gainsbourg at a Nazi rally. Lawrence Welk doing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock. Backstreet Boys headlining Lollapalooza. A more unlikely bill could hardly be imagined than underground success stories Tortoise and the Mountain Goats playing to a packed house in the heart of Hollywood.

John Darnielle, a.k.a. the Mountain Goats, was raised in Claremont and received early encouragement from Upland-based tape label Shrimper, yet he moved to Ames, Iowa, in 1995 and never looked back. Darnielle has since amassed a catalog of hundreds of songs and upward of two dozen albums, most of them recorded on a boombox and shrouded in tape hiss. Announcing that he hadn't played SoCal since his mid-'90s departure, he ran through a dozen detail-oriented songs about romantic dissolution in the boonies. "This is a love song," he said, "but only if by love you mean bouts of heavy drinking and staring contests." Joined by bassist Peter Hughes, Darnielle made clear that his songcraft has come a long way since his early days. Back then everything was sung in a neck-bursting nasal yelp and accompanied by a callus-forming acoustic strum inspired more by hardcore punk than Bob Dylan; nowadays he records for 4AD and only 3/4 of the set was played in that obsessive-compulsive style. A handful were delivered in a tender whisper, barely audible over the hum of the crowd.

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"It's always been my contention that if you write good lyrics, it doesn't really matter what kind of musical arrangements you use for presenting them," Darnielle said in a recent interview. His music is hyperliterary, no doubt, and indeed the most exciting thing about this bill was how radically heterodox the two performers were. Where he was prickly and exacting, the headliner, Chicago's Tortoise, made squishy sounds filled with low-end melodies. Their music led to the invention of the term post-rock, and during a largely wordless set, you could hear why their compositions necessitated a new category. The five members switched instruments freely, leading to all manner of odd permutations — polyrhytmic Reich-like vibes offset by bass and keyboards; dual drum set clatter layered in synth effects and punctuated by jazzy guitars; a jagged Hendrix riff smoldering into a lockstep groove. An enormous projection featured alternating close-ups of the players fingering their instruments, but it wasn't necessary: The sound alone got you that close to their adamantly musical music.

at the Palace, March 2

Finch's two sold-out nights at the Palace confirm that the groundswell of all-ages enthusiasm for emocore is now translating into serious receipts. Less pedestrian than Jimmy Eat World yet not as challenging (or exhilarating) as genremeisters Glassjaw, this youthful California quintet are lyrically anguished and structurally ambitious, yet sufficiently blunted (on record at least) to comfort conservative radio programmers.

Setting the stage for Finch, the Movielife's ultra-energetic post-pop/punk is always worthy, rarely spectacular. Promoting their second full-length, Forty Hour Train Back to Penn, this Long Island five-piece battle the Palace's cavernous acoustics with admirable gusto behind fresh-faced Vinnie Caruana, a front man who's cloned too many MC moves and often lets his passable vocals descend into shouting. "10 Seconds Too Late'''s breakneck oom-pah beats and the bombastic finale, "Hand Grenade," stir up quite a circle-pit, but seem structurally and stylistically aimless, lacking that singular ingredient that'll leave a lasting stain.

Beneath Marilyn Manson-esque red banners, Finch are instantly in a different league. Opening with squatting vocalist Nate Barcalow accompanied only by pre-recorded loops before the full band catapults into life, Finch are more brutally snot-nosed than their sole album, What It Is To Burn, suggests. Yet beneath the requisite guitar-tossing and last-day-of-school chanting, Finch respect their tunefully artful arrangements, which tell a story in themselves. Finch are approaching angst-core from an alt-metal angle, and it shows in relentless double-kick salvos, strep-throat screeching and kaleidoscopic twin guitars. Renowned for their fans' sing-alongs, Finch duly lead the faithful through the anthemic "I Miss You'''s sudden collapses and furious re-entries, while the somberly received new one "Worms of the Earth" hints at heftier things to come. With an average age of 20, Finch lived up to their minor-phenomenon tag tonight, and their lithe confidence and broad palette suggests a ready-to-burst reservoir of ability and ingenuity. (Paul Rogers)

at Spaceland, February 26

If you've ever pored over a favorite painting with a magnifying glass trying to pinpoint the source of the magic on the canvas — and come away with a case of eyestrain — you know how useless it is to focus too closely on any one component of an artistic statement. So it was with the Biblical Proof of UFOs performance at Spaceland on Wednesday. You had to dig the way Ray Piller milked those "lead bass" notes for maximum tonal juice on the low-riding "Summer Song," but the riff itself wasn't all that exceptional. And the manner in which singer-guitarist Joey D. built his dynamics on "Passive Aggressive" was admirable, but he was basically just bouncing back and forth between the two most obvious chords in the alterna-rock handbook. There was something astonishing about drummer Mike Peffer's atomic-clock timing. He was like a marionette on their set closer, "Two Minute Warning," playing as if some unalterable percussive force were pulling his strings; but seeing the way he cued off the other two indicated that the drums didn't tell the whole story either. You really had to take a step back from the frame and look at the whole picture to understand why you just couldn't stop moving your ass: three musicians so locked into one another's rhythms that the space between the notes was every bit as compelling as the notes themselves.

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