There are many elements that go into making a memorable concert experience. Among these are:
- The general rowdiness / attentiveness of the crowd. A rude crowd more concerned with chatting about their day than listening can ruin a show for everyone.
- The mood of the listener. If your cat is dying, the best performance in the world seems unimportant, as you are otherwise distracted.
- The mood of the band. Even performers have off days.
- The skill/talent of the band. This is the most obvious one, and it is what most reviews are more or less about.
- The skill of the sound guy.
Let me talk for a bit about that last item. A concert works like this: a band rehearses (or not) and gets a general idea of how they want to sound, then they go to a completely new place, with completely unknown acoustics and electronics, and a stranger pumps their sound through some amplification. In most cases, the band just has to hope that the guy managing this amplification knows what he is doing.
Astute readers will note that we at EvilSponge encourage listeners to try both recorded and live formats. A band really only controls what you hear in a recorded setting.
That is not always the case. Go back and read some of EvilSponge's early live reviews, specifically of shows at The Echo Lounge (R.I.P.). The soundguy at that club was under the (mistaken) impression that every band he worked with really just wanted to sound like Black Sabbath. The mix at The Echo reflected this belief, and the average concert-goer got the impression that the bands who played at the Echo all were vaguely metal-ish, no matter what the band actually was trying to do.
Now go and read some reviews of shows at The EARL from, say 2005 to 2009. During that time, The EARL had a soundguy named Curt Wells, and Curt believed in the concept of minimal monitor amplification. That is, what Curt did was pretty much just try to capture what the band was doing, and then make it a little louder so it filled the club. We have often remarked how, during Mr. Wells' tenure, it was possible to have a discussion with a fellow concert-goer during the between-bands time period.
Sadly, Mr. Wells left The EARL a while back. And now there is a new soundguy. This is, really, the second show i have seen with the new soundguy. The previous show was a Venice Is Sinking performance from a few days before, and i noted there that the band sounded kind of muddy. However, Venice Is Sinking have some odd instrumentation, and it can be a little challenging to mic piano, violin, and horns, while not allowing them to be swallowed up by the natural loudness of drumming and/or electric guitar, so i was willing to cut some slack. However, during this show i came to a different conclusion. It seems that the new soundguy at The EARL is under the mistaken impression that every band really just wants to sound like My Bloody Valentine. The sound in the club is WAY too loud, resulting in an almost painful distortion of the sound.
This show was a good test case, as i have seen The Pains of Being Pure at Heart several times, and have a general idea of how they should sound. The band is not loud per se, but rather their sound is dense. They rely on a layering of their sound, with two guitars and two voices complementing each other. There is a lot going on in their songs, and this can be mistaken for loudness. There is a difference, and the difference is distortion. Think of, say, Let It Be by The Beatles. Phil Spector (that crazy-haired dude who killed that actress a few years back) produced that album in his signature "wall of sound" style. It is a dense album. Then go listen to Led Zeppelin II. That album is just LOUD. Does that difference make sense? The Pains OBPAH are not loud, but their sound is dense. These are completely different concepts.
So, the current mix at The EARL emphasizes loudness over density, and that can be a real problem. This performance, for example, was the Kip Berman show. Or, rather, it was the "when Kip steps on his overdrive pedal, all you hear is guitar" show. Co-vocalist Peggy Wang appears to have not been micced at all. In fact, the only time i really heard her sing was when she shouts "die" at the end of each line of the chorus of the song, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, which the band ended their set with.
Otherwise, the sound was mud. Or, rather, the sound was a sheer wall of Kip's overdriven guitar. The club was pretty crowded too, and if you were there, please believe me when i tell you that they are much better than what you heard that night! Kip's guitar needed to be turned down by about 35%, while all the other instruments needed about a 25% reduction in volume. That would have allowed the layers of music to actually blend together, yet still be heard over all but the very shoutiest of the trendsters chatting at the back of the bar.
Oh Curt Wells, why have you forsaken us?! New EARL sound guy -- not everything needs to be so loud! Really!
Okay, thank you for letting me get that off my chest. Now that i have ranted about the poor sound quality, let me go over the actual musical content of the show.
The EARL is running shows on time now. First band Gold-Bears were on stage and performing by 9:01 PM. Wow. I am very grateful to The EARL for trying to make things happen earlier, especially on weeknights.
Gold-Bears thougtfully hung a banner to let everyone know who they were.
Gold-Bears are a local four-piece act that i have never heard of before, but apparently are doing well as they have just been signed to Slumberland Records. They had a classic indie rock sound that at times reminded me of early Sharks and Minnows, and at others of All the Nations Airports-era Archers of Loaf. The songs were catchy with lots of guitar. One song they did stole the guitar riff from Tommy Gun, and when i heard that i perked up, hoping for a Clash cover. Alas, they re-worked that guitar part into a new song, which is actually pretty clever.
Not doing actual Clash covers.
I happily bounced in place for the half hour of their set. I liked the band so much i bought their first two 7" singles, which they had for sale at the show. Gold-Bears are a fun, indie rock act. You will probably be hearing more about them here on EvilSponge in the future.
Up next was Twin Shadow, a band that i had vaguely heard about going into the show. They were another four-piece act, this time with a female keyboardist.
The keyboards and synths really drive their sound, which, when combined with the deep voice of the vocalist, is vaguely similar to She Wants Revenge. They had that same sort of pseudo-disco synthpop feel to their sound. Tracers wanted to compare them to Spandau Ballet, but i think there was also a hint of A Certain Ratio in the mix. That is, the band was doing a mix of synthpop and disco-funk.
Not sure if he wants revenge.
It was kind of fun, and very contemporary. There are lots of bands doing this sort of thing right now, and i saw several of them at SxSW this year. I don't think Twin Shadow were as good as Los Impostors, but they were at least as good as Small Black, and definitely better live than Class Actress. I bet that i would enjoy listening to their records.
Finally, The Pains (everyone kept abbreviating their name) were onstage about 11. Imagine that -- a weeknight at The EARL and the headliner was onstage before midnight. Thank you, thank you, thank you, EARL! Now, as i ranted above, The Pains did not sound good, but that wasn't really their fault.
It was also packed out, making it hard to get good photos.
They played a set heavy on the music from their just released second album, and as i am not familiar with that record (yet) it was hard to follow the songs through the sonic mud. However, when they played This Love Is Fucking Right and Teenager In Love, i was able to mostly fill in the sonic gaps with what i know i should have been hearing. The new music they played was catchy and very similar to the rest of their music, so if you like what they have been doing so far, i think it's a safe bet that you will to continue to enjoy their music.
I can clearly see Peggy singing, but couldn't really hear her at all.
Just hope that you get a better sound mix than we did!