Monday, November 22, 2010

Eisley: Over the River and Through the Wood Tour

My first experience with the musical side of Web 2.0 was in fall 2007, when I discovered both and Pandora.  Frustratingly, I found that I needed both of them: was more diligent in giving me useful recommendations, but its "type an artist and we'll play more music that sounds like that artist" mode was (and remains) nowhere near as strong as Pandora's.  One shared victory of both sites was Eisley: throw in a generous helping of Rilo Kiley along with a pinch of random indie pop and a dash of female-vocalist rock, and the good folks running both systems decided Eisley was a can't miss.

They were totally right.  Fall 2007 saw me listen to entirely too much Eisley, so much so that my charts never recovered from my binge.  "Invasion," from Eisley's second album Combinations, will forever be the song I associate with fall 2007, in the same way that Mae's "The Ocean" is summer 2005, or The New Pornographers' "Sing Me Spanish Techno" is fall 2010.  And in the height of that infatuated season, I had the opportunity to see Eisley in concert, though I never ended up going--in part because I couldn't convince any friends that they, too, wanted to go see Eisley in concert.

Part of that is because Eisley's music is awfully tough to categorize.  The right place to start is probably "pop/rock," which is sufficiently broad as to be useless.  There's a dose of acoustic rock, flirting with but never actually touching folk.  A number of their songs have a dreamy, surreal feel to them, but "psychedelic" is not even close to the right word.  Other influences might include "singer/songwriter," which I've only recently accepted as a genre, and "alternative," which I still stubbornly do not.  Finally, there's a strong indie pop element throughout most of Eisley's work.

That raises the question of that now-cliche label, "indie".  To a musical literalist, Eisley is an indie band now, because they're not signed to a major label.  (This is a recent change; up until early 2010, Eisley was signed to a division of Warner Brothers.)  But plenty of music critics will argue that "indie" has evolved from a label of a band's signing status into a genre of its own.  I suspect that whether Eisley is an "indie band" is largely a matter of perspective: if you're someone who memorized every track on Mass Romantic in 2001 but gave up on The New Pornographers by 2005 because Twin Cinema was too popular, then the notion of Eisley as indie is frankly laughable.  But if you're someone to whom "2010 in music" suggests a steady diet of Drake and Ke$ha, then Eisley is probably just another band that you don't hear on the radio.

All this genre-bending and label-defying can be a good thing--if there's one thing that Eisley is not, it's generic--but it can make their music nearly impossible to describe:
"Sure, I might go to that concert with you.  What sort of music do they play?"
"Uh, well, I guess it's mostly rock, but there's a lot of indie pop in it too, not that they're necessarily an 'indie band'... you really just have to hear it."
"Okay... what are their songs like?"
"I mean, they sing a lot of songs about love and happy people, but then there's this surrealist element that shows up when they start singing about animals growing out of the garden or aliens taking over your body."
I'm pretty sure I've given this actual pitch to try to convince a friend to see Eisley with me.  It wasn't any more convincing then.

Thanks in part to a greater sense of independence in concert-going (but mostly to living in a city that has more abundant public transportation in the part of the city where the concert venues are), I decided it was totally okay for me to go to this Eisley concert on my own.  I'm very glad that I did go, because the combination of venue, opener, and set list is something I doubt I'd ever be able to experience again.

 As Eisley is a band of four DuPree siblings and one cousin, it's fitting that another DuPree, younger sister Christie, opened for them.  (Christie was backed up by yet another DuPree sibling, younger brother Colin.)  Christie DuPree's six or seven songs' worth of opening set were probably the loveliest and lowest-key experience of my concertgoing career.  Both Christie and her music are impressive in how genuine and sincere they are.  The natural comparison, of course, is to her older sisters: her singing voice is a natural contralto, lower than either Stacy's or Sherri's voice.  But her vocal resemblance to Stacy in particular is striking, especially in the soprano register or through sustained notes.

The only knock on Christie DuPree that I've heard is that she hasn't developed as a songwriter enough yet to distinguish herself from the army of acoustic-guitar-wielding female singer/songwriters that patrol the nation's coffeehouses.  I disagree, but to the extent that these critics are correct at all, give her time.  She's young--only twenty--and she's only been at this for a couple of years.  Christie DuPree already has the raw vocal talent, and she comes from a family where "writing good music" comes in the genetics, so I'm already expecting some big things.

On top of that, she's a fantastically nice person, something far too often overlooked in the development of young independent artists.  (Career-development-wise, I suppose it doesn't matter how friendly Jason Derulo is when he's on the radio every time you turn it on.)  After she finished her set, I had the chance to chat with her for a few seconds (sorry, Haley Williams, but your tenure as my biggest girl singer crush is ended) and buy her EP (possibly the indiest thing I've ever purchased: this was a CD-R in a plastic sleeve with the words "Christie DuPree EP" handwritten in black pen), and that alone would have made the evening totally worth it.

But then I wouldn't have gotten to hear Eisley, and that would have been a real shame.  Eisley wasn't touring in support of a new album, instead doing a good old-fashioned romp across the US to play some music.  That, along with Eisley's rather limited catalog, really puts them in a sweet spot for touring: they easily have enough content to put on a satisfying show, but they're more likely than not to play any given song.  (Lesson learned: if you're the sort of person who goes to a concert and figures to be heartbroken if you don't hear one specific song, go see that concert immediately prior to the release of the band's third album.)

Eisley's set list was weighted toward music off their full-length albums, but that was about the only bias in their music selections.  They played half to two-thirds of both Room Noises and Combinations, which took up the majority of the show.  It was fun to see Eisley delve into tracks from old EPs, but as a fan, the most encouraging thing about the show was their new material.  Three of the songs Eisley played were new, slated to appear on their third album (which should release in the spring), and if these songs are any indication, that new album is going to be very, very good.  "Ambulance" in particular is easily one of the strongest things that Eisley has ever written.

But the most distinguishing thing about this concert wasn't the inclusion of new music, it was that the show was entirely acoustic.  (Fans of the band probably noticed a surprising lack of Garron and Weston, the bassist and drummer, in that picture.)  When polled, two-thirds to three-quarters of the audience (including myself) admitted to never having seen Eisley in concert before.  The expressions of the DuPree sisters changed from delight to surprise, then to embarrassment, when they started counting those raised hands.  Sherri even apologized to the fans, saying this probably wasn't the best circumstance to see Eisley for the first time, and Stacy lamented that they weren't "very badass" that evening.

Badass Eisley is great, no question about it.  But toned-down, intimate Eisley is in some ways better.  The show was so relaxed that both Stacy and Sherri took some liberties with their vocals, trying a little improvisation and playing with the rhythms a little.  Stacy tended to overdo it a little, but then again, if I wanted to listen to the album cut of each of their songs, I could just as easily sit in my room and do it.  If it's going to give me a unique concert experience, I'll tolerate some mixed-results experimentation.

One more thing that deserves mention in that "unique concert experience" category was the venue, Swedish American Hall.  I love this venue.  It's easily the least pretentious and most charming venue I've seen in the Bay area.  It's a century old and features some beautiful architecture.  There wasn't any alcohol for sale, which might have been a deterrent for some concertgoers but suited me just fine.  Best of all, their were chairs, so I could enjoy my live music in comfort rather than stand in an awkward semicircular clump around the state and be subject to the whims of six-foot-three guy.

In fact, thinking back on it, none of the nine unforgivable concert fouls were committed at this show.  I'll conclude by leaving you in jealous contemplation of a concert full of good music but sullied by neither weed cloud nor totem-pole couple.

Currently listening: "Sun's Light and Willow's Shade", Christie DuPree

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Mae: (E)vening

This may well be the last collection of music that Mae ever records.

Think about that, Mae fans.  Here is a band that's been part of your life for years, and this EP might be the last thing they ever say to you.  As sobering a thought as that is, it's the right mindset to listen to (E)vening.  This EP is certainly a departure from the first two "seasonal" EPs, and in just a year and a half, we've come a long way from the ebullient exaltation that the beginning of the day offered.

Instead, (E)vening plays out like a giant catharsis, the emotional capstone to Mae's oeuvre.  The mood is reflective and serene throughout, consistently recalling the past, asking us to remember--or not giving us words at all, just making us think.  Even the most ostensibly upbeat and energetic track on the EP, "I Just Needed You to Know," is filled with questions of "do you remember?", and the only other two tracks on (E)vening that have words are even more nostalgic.

The EP has either 7 or 9 tracks, depending on how you look at it; three tracks are movements of one larger piano piece, the appropriately named "Seasons," that forms the focus of the EP.  Counting "Seasons," over half of the album is instrumental, and nearly all of that is piano.  It's like a victory lap for Rob Sweitzer, newly reunited to Mae for this EP and the Goodbye, Goodnight tour; it's obvious that Mae is glad to have him back, and the longtime fans certainly are too.

And in the end, Mae's longtime fans are exactly the audience for (E)vening.  It's not a collection of music that's going to get much if any play outside of the most dedicated fans of the band.  Nor is it a collection of music that's really going to get you excited about Mae if you heard it in isolation; it's certainly not the rock-out Mae of "Someone Else's Arms".  But it is gorgeous and introspective and in many respects exactly the right album for Mae to leave us with.

Currently listening: "Golly Sandra," Eisley

Mae: Goodbye, Goodnight Tour

This was a concert five and a half years in the making.

(That's longer than Isoceleria has been around!)

Ever since March 2005, The Everglow has been at or very near the top of my list of favorite albums.  It's nearly impossible to describe why--I've tried in the past and failed miserably every time.  But it probably has something to do with it being a really, really good album.  The musicianship is outstanding, the scale and execution of the concept are impressive, and the emotion that drives the album (avoiding both traps of being either hipster-ironic-tongue-in-cheek or over-produced-insincere) is genuine.  It definitely has something to do with some personal factors that are even more difficult to express.

Yet, despite my five-year love affair with The Everglow, I never managed to see Mae in concert until last Wednesday.  Mae has been back and forth with their releases since then, but nothing could erase the brilliance of The Everglow, and their enthusiasm and sincerity always seemed like they would produce an excellent live show.  And somehow, I've managed to miss them in concert despite adoring their music since I've known what a concert was--not for lack of trying.

When I found out that Mae was coming to Bottom of the Hill, which has recently become my very favorite place in the Bay area to see a concert, there was no question that I'd be at that concert.  And when Mae started throwing around phrases like "Goodbye, Goodnight," suggesting that this might be their last tour as a band, I jump in it.

Opening were Windsor Drive and Terrible Things, both of which turned out to be reasonable openers for Mae.  Windsor Drive was a fine complement to Mae's gentler, acoustic side, while Terrible Things more closely matched rocker-Mae (or closer still, Anberlin).  I hadn't heard of either band prior to the concert, but seeing both bands turned out to be worth my time, something that can't necessarily be said of every opener out there.

Mae themselves turned out to be everything I've been waiting five and a half years for them to be.  Despite some fluctuation and unfortunate drama with their personnel over the last year or two, Goodbye, Goodnight Mae is Everglow Mae--and that's the only way we fans would have had it.  They were enthusiastic, energetic, and obviously grateful to their fans (to the point of taking pictures of the audience after the concert), and they sounded remarkably cohesive for having not really toured together as a band for years.

While halfway a tour in support of the (E)vening EP, Mae's set list featured songs from every album and every era of their music.  The concert was unsurprisingly Everglow-heavy--apparently there are many, many Mae fans out there who feel the same way I do about that album--with about half to two thirds of the album getting played.  We also got to hear a little over half of Destination: Beautiful, the band's first album, from all the way back in 2003.  The rest of the concert was a smattering of Singularity, the seasonal EP's, and a couple of B-sides/rarities.

Prior to the concert, I made a list of ten songs, saying if Mae was going to play just ten songs for me, I'd want it to be these ten.  I hit seven out of ten: "Embers and Envelopes" and "Sun" from Destination: Beautiful and "Suspension," "Someone Else's Arms," "The Ocean," "Breakdown," and "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making" from The Everglow.  They left off "All Deliberate Speed" from D:B (which surprised me a little, because I think it's a well-known song, and it features a sing-along-ready chorus) and "The Fisherman Song" and "Boomerang/Two Birds" from (M)orning (which surprised me less, since they're both sort of niche songs that undoubtedly took center stage at the Morning tour last year).

Hands down, the best chunk of the concert was the encore.  The main body of the concert had somehow gone by without either "Sun" or "Someone Else's Arms," so during the "let's clap for five minutes even though we all know the show isn't really over" session, I turned to a friend and asked "There's no way Mae play a concert and doesn't play 'Sun,' right?"  A minute later, I got my wish, as Dave Elkins climbed back on stage with an electric-acoustic guitar, smiled, and said "Here's an old one."

As I stood there thinking the concert couldn't get any better, the entire band rejoined Elkins on the stage and launched into the piano-heavy "We're So Far Away".  It's a nice track, and I'm not about to turn down anything from The Everglow, but it seems an odd track to include by itself in a time-constrained encore situation.  But just as it does on the album, the concert "We're So Far Away" was really just a buildup to the sheer exuberance of "Someone Else's Arms," and there was no better way that Mae could have ended the show.

Mae gave its fans more than an hour and a half of music that night, and it was an excellent capstone to the five and a half years of music they've given me already.  If Mae decides to keep on making music after this tour is finished, I'll of course eagerly await it.  But if not, it was a fitting way to say goodbye and goodnight.

Currently listening: "Mass Romantic," the New Pornographers

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Way of Kings

Epic fantasy authors probably hate comparisons to the Wheel of Time--and Brandon Sanderson is probably more sensitive to those comparisons than any of them as the author who had the monumental task of finishing out the Wheel of Time. But let's face it: the Wheel of Time is our generation's defining fantasy epic, and it's a testament to that series' longevity and influence that every fantasy series from 1990 through 2010 (and probably beyond) is going to be compared to it.  Sanderson's new epic series, the Stormlight Archive, is no exception.

The most striking difference when comparing the Stormlight Archive (or at least The Way of Kings) to the Wheel of Time is that the central conflicts of the two settings are designed very differently.  From halfway through the first Wheel book, we know exactly what the central conflict is: the forces of the Dragon Reborn (the good guys) against the forces of the Dark One (the bad guys).  There are a lot of characters who can rightly be considered protagonists, but it's obvious from the first chapter of the first book that the central one, the most important character to the story, is Rand al'Thor, the Dragon Reborn.  And there are a lot of characters who can rightly be considered antagonists, but it's obvious from the flavor text to the prologue (not to mention his big-bad-guy name) that the big bad guy is the Dark One.

In contrast, after a book of Stormlight, we don't know who or what fills the role of central conflict, primary protagonist, or primary antagonist.  In that regard, Stormlight is closer to emulating George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, which deliberately avoids the distinction of "main character"/"big bad guy" (or really even of protagonist/antagonist at all), and whose central conflict is basically a tapestry of a bunch of smaller conflicts that all happen to influence each other.

But that's not necessarily an apt comparison either.  Stormlight, at least after one book, seems to have a central conflict--we just can't necessarily comprehend what it is yet.  It has definite protagonists in the forms of Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar, though we don't know which (if any) of them is the "most important".  And a conflict as climactic and apocalyptic as what's been hinted at has to have an antagonist behind it, but after the first book, we have literally no idea who that is, much less what its motives and intentions are.

It's not immediately clear whether that ambiguity is a good or bad thing, but in truth it's likely a little of both.  It's nice that we don't know exactly where the book is headed, so we have to remain invested in every character and every story arc.  But it's also a little disconcerting that there's no apparent structure or destination in mind.  Worse, even high-concept epics that do have clear destinations don't exactly have great track records of completion.

To what extent does Brandon Sanderson actually intend to finish the Stormlight Archive?  It's a cynical thing to wonder, but that cynicism is unfortunately justified in comparison to other contemporary epic fantasy series.  George RR Martin hasn't made any apparent progress on A Song of Ice and Fire in the last five years.  Terry Goodkind did finish the Sword of Truth series, but only after many more books than were probably necessary and enough shifts in setting, supporting characters, antagonist, and motivating conflict to make it seem like three or four series half strung together.  And Robert Jordan actually died before he could finish the Wheel of Time.  Obviously it's a tragedy, but it serves as a reminder that even the best laid plans of fantasy authors don't always come to fruition.

That said, the Stormlight Archive has a better-than-average change of reaching its ending.  Brandon Sanderson is relatively young (middle 30s) and seems to be in good health.  The series is slated to be comprised of ten books, and ten is such an important number in the setting that I honestly believe Sanderson will end the series at ten books.  That's not to say there won't be bloat in the later books as Sanderson (inevitably) realizes he isn't telling the story as quickly as he needs to, but the promise of a logical stopping point in the series makes its finish seem more likely.

Even more convincingly, Sanderson has progressed incredibly well in his pursuit to wrap up the Wheel of Time.  The first of Sanderson's contributions to the Wheel of Time books was scheduled to release in 2009, and we got it in November 2009.  The second was supposed to release before the end of 2010, and we got it in November 2010.  The Wheel of Time books are not small undertakings--neither in terms of pages nor the expectations of demanding fans--but Sanderson's demonstrated ability to deliver a large volume of high quality work while still maintaining a schedule is the best evidence that Stormlight will eventually reach a proper and timely conclusion.

The bigger question, of course, is do we want to read the Stormlight Archive all the way to its conclusion?  At least after The Way of Kings, the answer is mostly yes.  It's obvious that Sanderson has sunk an incredible amount of time and effort into world-building, and his effort has paid off.  I'm already invested in the setting, and I definitely want to know what's going on.  The characters are mostly good too, though at this point I think I'm more invested in the mythology than the characters.  It's a dangerous road to walk--remember how many Lost fans were disappointed when they didn't realize until too late that Lost was about the characters, not the mythology--but I don't doubt the characters will grow even more interesting as the series progresses and we've spent some time with them.

The Way of Kings has only three centrally important characters, and they're all intriguing enough to keep me reading about them.  The Kaladin chapters are generally the best, as the character development in them is both believable and interesting, but Kaladin's backstory is far too lengthy compared to the insight it gives to his character.

In fact, the biggest criticism I can give The Way of Kings is that it's too long.  The one-thousand page mark in books is sort of like the three-hour mark in movies: you better have something truly extraordinary going on, or you're not holding my attention anymore.  Way probably could have cut down to two-thirds or three-quarters its size and still been all right.  And granted, it necessarily has its share of expository elements that won't need to burden future books, important if pedantic details like explaining how the monetary system works, or noting the cultural significance of a certain style of clothing.

To come full circle and close with another Wheel of Time comparison, many readers have already wondered if Sanderson will develop "Jordanitis"--with some complaining that he already has--that is, devoting so much of the book to description and detail that very little ends up happening.  Honestly, he very well may.  But part of the reason that the readers of the Wheel of Time grew so frustrated with Robert Jordan was that we had to wait indefinitely for each book, never knowing how long it was going to take to hear more of the story.  So when a new volume was released that didn't actually tell any of the story, it was more than a little disheartening.

Where Sanderson seems to have surpassed Jordan, at least so far, is in his discipline.  As long as Brandon Sanderson remains vigilant about consistently telling his story, we will read it, even if it takes ten thousand pages over fifteen years.

Currently listening: (E)vening, Mae (review to follow)