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

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