Musings, Nits, and Praises: November 2006

Musings, Nits, and Praises

A farrago of all things deemed blog-worthy by a music-loving, poetry-writing, humor-seeking English teacher

From a Late Nigh High-Rise

The spare, whispering synthesizers and distant industrial noises that open Matthew Ryan's latest album, From a Late Night High-Rise (available digitally on December 5th), immediately evoke a sense of isolation and ache. Given that Ryan began writing the album shortly after the death of a close friend and the sentencing of his brother to 30 years in prison, the sorrowful tone of the album comes as no surprise. Ryan's vision isn't bleak, though. Amid the turmoil is a resilient hope: "I'm full of doubt/Still I believe" — "Victory Waltz."

The amalgam of sadness and hope makes many of these songs some of the most moving and universal of Ryan's career. A gifted and articulate songwriter, he has always displayed a knack for crafting poetic phrases, and he creates plenty of intriguing imagery on High-Rise — "Our igloo/Will soon be/In poisoned silver pools" — but the lines that ring with the greatest poignancy are the simplest. As the driving "Babybird" climbs to its crescendo, Ryan declares, "And if you wake up scared/I hope you're not alone/I hope you're not alone/I hope you're not alone." Elsewhere, on the aforementioned "Victory Waltz," he gently offers devastating truth, singing, "The ghost of living is worse than death."

The beauty of simplicity extends to the arrangements of the songs. The unadorned instrumentation throughout much of the album allows Ryan's raspy, world-weary voice to step to the forefront of the tracks, adding to the intimate feel of the album.

The pervasive tone of High-Rise is in one sense a strength but in another sense a weakness. Ryan's latest press release says the album is "a movie without a film; it's a novel without a book." Lyrically, High Rise is akin to a good novel, with Ryan masterfully exploring facets of the human condition. Musically, though, the album verges on a tired sameness at times, with a surplus of slow tempos and songs on the latter half of the album recalling earlier melodies.

Still, it's the slow, delicate tracks such as "Gone for Good" and "Victory Waltz," or the subdued uptempo numbers like "Babybird," "And Never Look Back," and "Everybody Always Leaves" that are the strongest songs. "Misundercould" and "Love Is the Silencer," Ryan's rocking efforts on High Rise, are the weakest. In fact, "Love Is the Silencer" will leave you wishing for some silence.

Despite its weaknesses, From a Late Night High-Rise is remarkable for its beauty and sincerity. Though it lacks the variety and polish of his previous release, Regret Across the Wires, it's a more daring and challenging record. Ryan has crafted from his catharsis an album that is concurrently thought provoking, heartbreaking, and uplifting.

BNL at The Backyard

When I was about six, I won a He-Man action figure through a contest sponsored by Nestle Quick. As a boy in the mid-80's, that was tantamount to winning the lottery. The problem with winning a contest when you're six, though, is that it sets you up for years of disappointment: If I enter a contest, I'll win something. How easy! Over the next twenty-one years, I entered a lot contests but won zilch. Oh, sure, I snagged a few small prizes for being the X-number caller to a radio station, but some of those things shouldn't have really even been considered prizes. The worst was a copy of Starship's Love Among the Cannibals I won when I was in fourth grade. (If I didn't use that record as a frisbee, I should have.) Nonetheless, I kept entering contests, thinking that I was bound to win one sometime. Lucky for me that sometime came when I won the BLAM blog contest for the BNL show in Austin! When I got the call from Nettwerk, I wanted to roll down my car window and high-five complete strangers. It's probably best I didn't, though. Memphis is 13th on this year's list of most dangerous cities for a reason.

Originally Janet and I had fourth row tickets to the show with a good friend of ours, Matt. By winning the contest, we were able to give our original tickets to two other dear friends, Robert and his wife, Allie. Barenaked Ladies + good friends + Austin, TX + The Backyard had all the makings of a fantastic night.

On the evening of the show, we grabbed an early dinner, then piled into the Robert and Allie's vehicle and headed out to The Backyard. The Backyard has long been one of the most beloved music venues in the Austin area. Located in the rolling hills west of town, it's an open-air ampitheater surrounded by centuries-old oak trees and . . . a strip mall? What?! Apparently the five Michaels and seven PetSmarts already in the Austin area weren't enough. Rather than taking a dirt road to a parking area and then walking a winding trail to the ampitheater as concert-goers used to do, we drove around utterly dumbfounded until we found a cop who gave us directions to The Backyard's parking. The walk from the parking area to the ampitheater is a bit surreal now because of the development. The venue used to blend into its surroundings, but now it looks more like an oasis at the edge of an asphalt desert. Fortunately, The Backyard itself is still the same.

Since we arrived an hour before Mike Doughty began his set, we had plenty of time to buy t-shirts and hot beverages. No amount of hot chocolate could counteract my being underdressed for the weather, though--t-shirt over long-sleeve t-shirt and jeans. But what's a little frost bite when you're seeing your favorite band? (It was only in the low 40's actually, but it had been 89 degrees the day before, and I guess I was trying to pretend it was still warm.) I don't remember too much about Doughty's first few songs because my wife and I were a bit preoccupied as we waited for the meet and greet: Sharpie? Check. CD? Check. Camera tucked away in a secret compartment of Janet's purse so venue security can't harass us about having a camera even though we're allowed to have one for the meet and greet? Check.

After ten minutes or so into Doughty's set, we were ushered backstage to meet Barenaked Ladies. I thought backstage would be some sort of room, but it was basically just a closed off area outside. I assume The Backyard has an indoor spot for bands to mill around, or maybe they just hang out on their bus. I guess I could've asked the band about it. Anyway, I didn't want to come across as a fanboy (not entirely possible, I know), so I decided ahead of time what I'd ask them about once we exchanged introductions: barbecue. Knowing how fond the guys are of the glorious smoked meat, I figured at least one of them would've had some on Friday. Sure enough, Ed had gone to Kreuz in Lockhart and feasted on every kind of meat they had to offer. (I think BNL needs their own show on the Food Network, where they visit various BBQ restaurants across the country.) Since it was a pre-show m&g, there wasn't much time to chat (I had a chance to chat with them a bit longer after a show at the Erwin Center in 2000), but it was a memorable experience just the same. I'd be a BNL fanatic based solely on my love of their music, but the fact that they're unpretentious, amiable guys who genuinely appreciate their fans makes them that much more likeable.
Still beaming with delight after the meet and greet, my wife and I took our seats for the rest of Mike Doughty's set.

When BNL finally took the stage, I was ecstatic. As usual, the band was witty and energetic. Ed and Steve were in top form with their improvs, joking and rapping about Kreuz's BBQ, the strip mall, Alamo Drafthouse, the Dobe Theater, Ed sleeping with the bathroom light on after getting freaked out the night before, and a myriad of other topics. Kevin's take on "The Banana Song" was hysterical as well. And, of course, there was the "Angry People" choreography replete with "Cool It Boy" snaps and a breakaway vase. Classic BNL.

But their knack for humor is only a small part of what makes Barenaked Ladies so incredible. In a recent show review I read, the critic said the guys don't take themselves too seriously, but they're very serious about their music. How true. For 24 songs and nearly two and a half hours, the band proved themselves impeccable musicians and singers, as equally masterful with frenetic rockers as with stirring ballads. (Incidentally, I don't think there's another singer in rock music with a voice as powerful as Steven Page's.) With so many "swappable" songs each show this tour, I got to hear some older songs I'd never heard them play before--"Grade 9," "A," "Shoebox," and "Some Fantastic" (I had only heard the quasi-Devo version they did on the Stunt tour). The songs from BLAM were phenomenal too; I was especially thrilled to hear "Bull in a China Shop." And, if all that wasn't cool enough, they played "When I Fall" (my wife's favorite song as well as Robert's) and "Call and Answer" (Matt's favorite song). In my estimation, they're two of the most poignant and beautiful songs the band has ever written.

When we stopped for some late-night nourishment on the way home at Magnolia Cafe, the five of us couldn't stop gushing about the show. There are plenty of talented bands, and plenty of them put on great shows. But there's nothing like a Barenaked Ladies concert. Nothing. The guys possess a singular combination of songwriting craft, musicianship, intelligence, and charisma. Of the six BNL shows I've gone to, this was the best--and that was even with losing feeling in my hands and feet halfway through the show.

We Have a Winner (And It's Me!)

What could be better for a Barenaked Ladies fanatic like me than having fourth row seats to their show in Austin next week? Winning meet and greet passes and front row seats, of course! I'm like a little kid at Christmas right now.

© 2006 Musings, Nits, and Praises | No part of the content or the blog may be reproduced without prior written permission.
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