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Burning Questions 

Thursday, May 15 2003
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Photo by Gregory Bojorquez

GLASS CANDY & THE SHATTERED THEATRE, PAPER LIONS at Spaceland, May 9

Glass Candy & the Shattered Theatre have been described as a hit-or-miss live act, and Friday’s miss was the kind that leaves marketplaces in flames. Allah only knows what we did to deserve this. There was very little in the way of warning — Candy’s Love Love Love is a delicate and vexed record; it sounds like a fairy trying to escape a paper cup. The album’s landscape is not cluttered with much architecture — this is music like a swept-clean desk, chord progressions registering as seldom-touched mementos. But Ida No’s vocals are the piercing, desperate kind, the breakdown-in-a-cubicle kind. On disc, the flatness of the music works; it’s the mundanity the songs struggle against. Live, however, the songs are just flat. The band stands paralyzed, like a defendant standing mute. Whenever the vocals threaten to pierce the somnolence of the evening, in roll thick blankets of drum machine. For this night, at least, Glass Candy is the musical equivalent of cellulite — present, pallid and unnecessary flesh.

Paper Lions are looking Athens, sounding DC. They’re post-punk, clearly, but what does that mean? For our purposes, let’s say it’s a complication of punk’s schoolyard aggression. Post-punk means anger isn’t necessarily served by fast and loud, sadness isn’t just an acoustic guitar in a field of gray wheat. Sad and angry themselves start looking kind of dubious; who came up with such easy definitions? For whose benefit? Paper Lions are all about uncertainty, and play into the requisite gray areas of their genre. Their music is shaped like a brittle and burning question mark; the songs have the sort of anguish that is either the sound of being overwhelmed or the price of conquest. But here’s the catch: Their question’s vague; it’s more a question than specifically their question. For the moment they sound more competent than unique. But this small paragraph isn’t a gallows they’re being led to — this a young band with passion and drive. In a couple of years they’ll be leading us to the noose.

THE POSTAL SERVICE at the Palace, May 5

Glitchy and kitschy, the Postal Service’s packed local debut was as smartly conceived and smoothly executed an hour of pop art as anyone could wish. On its recent Give Up, this side project of Death Cab for Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard and DNTEL’s Jimmy Tamborello updates the synth-duo formula with hard-drive-era sleekness. But onstage, with Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis as a full-fledged third member, it was both more musically ambitious and more fun.

Tamborello hung impassively behind his G4, but front man Gibbard swayed as joyously as his partner’s beats allowed, running back to a drum kit every few songs to toss some percussive energy into the mix. Lewis’ guitar and keyboard work were more assured than her vocal harmonies, but the duet “Nothing Better” was charming — the song is modeled on “Don’t You Want Me,” but her and Gibbard’s moves were pure “You’re the One That I Want.” With the Palace’s light-show capabilities used to full effect, the sense of having been dropped into Grad Nite at Videopolis circa 1986 was sometimes hard to shake — Gibbard even read a prom invitation for a fan. (She accepted.)

But it wasn’t all froth: Tamborello’s backings were significantly retooled and extended from their recorded versions, and the set, though framed by the hook-driven “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” and “Such Great Heights,” also found room for the rumbling, barely rhythmic “This Place Is a Prison.” Even the spaces between songs were often filled with slabs of un-dance-friendly electronica, and a late-in-the-set feedback duel was surprisingly raw. The encore was the sole misstep: A tranced-out cover of Phil Collins’ dreadful love theme from Against All Odds (you know: “Take a look at me now”), complete with back-projected video clips of Jeff Bridges’ undersea smooch with Rachel Ward. All souls can be redeemed; not so with songs. (Franklin Bruno)

 

THROWING MUSES at the Knitting Factory, May 7

Never subculturally “indie” enough for purists but too thorny for mass acceptance, Throwing Muses have long been an undervalued band. But not an unloved one: The audience’s sympathy outweighed its disappointment when KCRW’s Tricia Halloran announced that co-founder Tanya Donelly was at the hospital instead of the second show of this two-night stand, owing to an otherwise undescribed “incident” with her young daughter. (They’re both okay.) Donelly’s absence barely mattered: She officially left the band after 1991’s The Real Ramona; since then, Throwing Muses has been Kristin Hersh’s baby.

Hersh seems more at ease performing now than she once did, though she still has exactly one stage move, a snaky, head-swiveling shrug, like someone’s hippie-ish older sister shyly imitating Jim Morrison. But her musical confidence is absolute. Her voice veered from coo to cackle, and her rich-toned guitar work — that’s a Gibson SG through twin Voxes, gearheads — was both heavy and precise. The two male Muses understood their roles perfectly: Drummer David Narcizo articulated the songs’ trademark tempo shifts forcefully and without clutter, while Bernard Georges’ busy bottom end mobilized their circular chord progressions. “Mercury” and “Pandora’s Box,” from their recent self-titled “reunion” album, sounded like they’d been in the set for years, while material from uneven midcareer albums (University and Red Heaven) benefited from the same power-trio treatment.

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