Live: Stars Like Fleas and Au at (le) poisson rouge
Stars Like Fleas Au (le) poisson rouge Saturday, January 26
There's a reason I've seen New York's Stars Like Fleas more than ten times--not because they're always great, but because they're always trying something different, always reaching for new shades in music they've played before, always defibrillating song structure with fits of noise and improvisation. In short, because they're always challenging themselves--a practice that makes for good performance because they come prepared and commit to their imperfections. Most bands aim to conjure and control their music; Stars Like Fleas give the impression that the best they can do is reign it in, like it's chaos they've rehearsed for. (Think fires, which, no matter how much you prepare for them, still involve fire.)
Stylistically, the music's a hodgepodge: collapsing vernacular folksong into "expert" stuff like jazz and electronic composition; riding long passages of clatter and rustle through big, pretty ballads; blending acoustic timbres like bass clarinet and harp with tone generators and waves of echo. And the musicians--I've seen them with six and ten; on Saturday they were eight--are convincing as both primitives and professionals, chirping like birds with as much glee and focus as they sail through 64th notes. Granted, Stars Like Fleas is a band for patient listeners, and there's something cumulative in the reward of seeing them multiple times. But there's vibrancy and dedication in each show I vouch for, regardless of where you draw your music/bullshit boundaries--I glanced at my guest's face nervously throughout this one, mistaking her drawn expression for boredom when it was actually mild breathlessness.
The Portland, Oregon keyboard-and-drums duo Au--pronounced "'ey you"--was not a band I liked. But I had to wonder why other people there did, because I was already sitting down and drinking beer, and it seemed like a more interesting use of my time than going to the bathroom. (Which I did do, twice, and have to recommend the hand-dryers at Le Poisson Rouge, which are quite innovative and disarming, and deserve more explanation than I can give them here). Anyhow, Au collected various contemporary indie-pop tropes--calypso beats, oversweetened vocal melodies, passages of arrhythmic pattering, moaning, tiny bells--in a spirited performance of sub-par songs. The moments of immediacy--the pop stuff--were near grating; the moments of experimentalism--the formless, moaning stuff--felt like spice more than committed improv, like they were happy just signifying improv because improv connotes danger.
Maybe I was spoiled by the uncut idiosyncrasies of Stars Like Fleas, but it depressed me to watch Au in the way it depressed me to watch any band perform non-commercial music and still brush completely with the grain, to brainlessly throw their arms around minor trends without showing any inclination to start one themselves. (It's odd when unknown bands sound like other unknown bands, and I couldn't help but think that while Animal Collective were an easy comparison for Au, they sounded even more like Dodos, another semi-known indie duo that most people will never hear. The comparison cheapens both of them, and makes me pine, naively, for artists who have the heart to be original above all.) Anyway, that Au headlined the show and seemed to draw more clap-noise from the audience than Stars Like Fleas is nobody's fault, just a reminder that people tend to like their their art music in bite-sizes. But if, as promoters and PR company Force Field put it, this was an "East Coast vs. West Coast battle between our favorite avant-noise-pop (both probably listed as 'unclassifiable' on iTunes) bands," there was no contest, unless you threw in the hand dryer as a wildcard challenger. --Mike Powell
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