Seeing Angel Olsen play Madrid is a bit like watching your childhood best friend meet the roommates: it’s beautiful, but sometimes you need to duck out of the room. Olsen is here, here being Europe, to promote Phases, 2017’s collection of folk/rock anthems that didn’t make it into her four previous albums. It’s a tour for the fans, who’ve filled the thousand seat theatre. She promises the crowd she’ll play any song we like. I catch myself wondering if anyone else is having an out-of-body experience.Like the Orpheum in San Francisco or Boston’s own Opera House, Madrid’s Calderon is capped with a neck-achingly beautiful ceiling and impossibly low-backed seats. The fluttering vibrato of Olsen’s voice in “Iota,” and even the power-ballad of “Never Be Mine” are swallowed up. Standing is difficult: the chairs, which are covered in dark velvet, keep everyone firmly anchored in place and exactly one arm- rest away from the nearest neighbor.
When I got there, late last Thursday night, the Sinclair had an unusually low-key energy. It kind of felt like the Powers That Be had pushed back Twain's stage time (they were opening for Darlingside) to do a late-night sound check, or like the venue had been delaying things with a recorded set list but the speakers had conked out. Even with the low audience hum, it was that quiet, and there was that little energy. And having listened to Twain’s label debut with Keeled Scales (Rare Feeling (2017), more info here) a few times through now, the reality of their live performance was awkward; I had been expecting the coherent, and (occasionally) profoundly listenable sound that defines tracks like "Solar Pilgrim" and "Freed from Doubt," and instead found myself struggling to follow along. I'm sympathetic, though; all it takes is a coffee house experience or two to know that it's really, profoundly hard for acoustic groups to command attention, when that attention isn’t already there.
The night began with The Star-Spangled Banner and a man in a black Morphsuit. The anthem, sung by concertgoer Kayla M. Salmon, was the highlight of an impromptu talent show hosted by Coast Modern, Tuesday night’s headliner in The Sinclair. This goofy, no-stakes “talent show” was the perfect icebreaker that seemed to forewarn the audience, “Don’t take anything you are about to see or hear too seriously.” And there’s nothing serious about Coast Modern.
From Los Angeles, Coast Modern is an indie pop band that sounds like they are from Los Angeles. Their music is an amorphous mixture of mischievous energy and dog-day lethargy. To hear this contradiction, listen to a track from their eponymous debut album released last year. The band consists of lead singer Coleman Trapp and guitarist Luke Atlas - who, by the way, was presumably the man in black spandex.
I’m gonna preface this write-up with a clarification, of sorts; something I’ve been taking for granted but never bothered to articulate (before now). Unless I say otherwise – and it’d take a productive imagination to think up any relevant scenario(s) – these bits are reviewing specific gigs; not the group, band, whatever you want to call it, that’s performing outside of how they present at the gig and how that jives with prior exposure. Before any of the reviews, if I haven’t already, I listen to relevant discographies, but unless I wanna take a God-like stance on “getting” the dynamics of a group from one measly gig (let me assure you I do not, don’t think my rabbi would be down w that anyway) these reviews are just reviews of the gigs they purport to cover. EOM. Having prefaced this then, I have to say that Monday night was not a great gig.
If you listen to their tracks on Spotify, lyrics aside, the Mountain Goats (historically) sound almost exactly like a mixture of those names on the “related artists” list; Neutral Milk Hotel, The Thermals, The Magnetic Fields, Okkervil River, etc. Their sound is cohesive, the music comforting in a way NMH or Beirut are, and not to get personal but they were all I listened to freshman year during my first big depressive episode. The band is, to put it simply, relatable and easy to enjoy- even if and maybe because sometimes it’s all blended together in a folk-jazz-indie kombucha mix. But their tour's House of Blues gig last Monday night (led by front man Darnielle and opened by Mothers) absolutely shattered any expectations I had- and only, somehow, in ways that had me wondering why I don’t listen more.
Leaving Harvard square, we saw three people in a car lean out all three different windows at once to energetically flip off the car behind them. The car behind them stopped and the driver got out. “Shit shit shit,” said Ariana, the Advocate’s Art Editor. “They’re gonna fight.” The guy stomped up to the driver’s window of the car in front of him and affectionately embraced the driver through his window. Our uber driver whistled. “I thought he was going to deck him,” he said. A minute passed. “Do you even like Takashi Murakami?” my friend Sam, art board member, asked quietly. I thought about it. “No.” “Me either.” But there we were, suddenly at the MFA. There were a lot of bright lights, and a lot of people smoking out front where signs said you weren’t supposed to smoke. We trekked on over two lawns, a parking lot, and the ramp for trucks with large deliveries to get to the press entrance.
Moses Sumney isn’t taking interviews right now. But his manager is happy to put this writer and a photographer on the list for Sumney’s Monday performance at the Sinclair. Her message - or maybe it’s Sumney’s - seems pretty clear. Meet the musician through his music. Questions can come later. (Another possibility is that the Harvard Advocate isn’t exactly the sort of media outlet that Sumney, fresh from collaborations with Solange and Beck, and recent mastermind behind the genre-defying soul/folk/synth/choral creation that is Aromanticism, is going to entertain. But you can decide for yourself.) Anyway, we go. They are, after all, free tickets to a Moses Sumney concert.Live, Sumney embodies the same certainty that an interview refusal kind of implies. He jokes with the crowd, he heckles, he splits the audience of mostly-college students to self select into a two-part harmony by asking us whether or not we were rejected by Harvard College.
For all the praise that has been to Karl Ove Knausgaard in recent years – and James Wood, in conversation with him at the First Parish in Cambridge, cites him as one of the most lauded foreign novelists of the past decade, alongside Elena Ferrante – he hasn’t gotten enough praise for being a child prodigy. Wood correctly notes that what Knausgaard’s new book, Autumn, immediately reflects is innocence.Autumn comprises a series of missives to an unborn daughter. It includes dozens of brief and obliquely vivid comments on objects – “Apples,” “Daguerrotype,” “Earth,” “Silence,” and so on. The seeming purpose of this is to give the daughter a solid understanding of what she will have been gotten into. Does the author’s innocence qualify him as an authority? James Wood says that most writers would have been afraid to write the way Knausgaard does of blood’s involvement in blushing.
When I first saw the oak outside the Brattle Apartments where Elizabeth Bishop once lived, I was twenty-two, and it was summer, and I cracked open my window to look out at its branches, heavy with leaves, and the air was thick and smelled sour, and I thought of that line in “Crusoe in England” where she writes “I’d shut my eyes and think about a tree, an oak, say, with real shade, somewhere,” and I thought of all her poems I had read and all the letters I had ever held in my hands and all the lines she had written about New England and Nova Scotia and Brazil, lines that I repeat to myself as I walk to class and home again. And those were what informed me that this home could never really be just mine, and that one day I would long for something and somewhere else, as Bishop always had. In one letter Bishop once wrote that she “always felt a sort of guest,” in the places she lived, and if it is late enough at night I wonder if I feel that same way.
Claire Messud and I met outside, under the blue umbrellas of Pamplona Cafe. The day was cloudy but the author wore a thin grey sweater and a smile. She’d arrived a few minutes past the hour, which most students would probably call early, but Messud began by apologizing: she’d bumped into a former student in the lobby of the English department and had to say hello, probably with a hug, the same way she’d greeted me. We sat and ordered coffee. Next door, a baptism was happening at St. Paul’s. A fire truck screamed past, and I asked about last week’s reading at the Harvard bookstore. “I suppose one way it might be expressed,” Messud tapped her cup, “is that I’m writing a cliche of frustrated narrative expectations.” She was referring to the suggestion, or maybe it was a complaint, that The Burning Girl, her newest novel, lacked the kind of sexiness that defined the bestselling The Woman Upstairs or 2006’s The Emperor’s Children.
Earlier this year, Tank and The Bangas’ Tiny Desk contest-winning video went (deservedly) viral. NPR’s been hosting the concerts since 2008 (there had been 550, viewed a collective 80 million times as of November 2016), and the yearly contest is going on its fourth cycle now. But as much of an NPR fan-girl as I am Tank’s video is the first I remember watching the whole way through. Because, and maybe there’s no other way to put it, Tank, and The Bangas, are artists in a spectacularly new way.This past Thursday the group came up (they’re from and based in New Orleans) with Sweet Crude to play a gig at The Sinclair. Sweet Crude opened, starting exactly on time (and maybe I’m not going to enough Sinclair gigs but that has never happened to me, not once, not even within 15 minutes of the posted time) and right away had the half-full crowd completely rapt.
Poking fun at Pitchfork Media –– indie tastemaker slash never-ending bastion of cultural snobbery and Portlandia material –– is an act that is facile to the point of being self-defeating. This is the website, after all, that pioneered the decimal-digit review score and worked itself into logical convulsions deciding whether Andrew W.K. was ironically dumb or just dumb, and whether there was any discernible difference between the two positions in the first place. To call Pitchfork hilariously overwrought might be the most redundant statement in the universe. To call it pretentious would be lazy. Pitchfork is certainly both of those things, but more than that it has become a cultural artifact, Rolling Stone for the brunch-goer. When Pitchfork launched in 1995, however, it was essentially a local hub for Minneapolis area bands and college radio station diehards.