Because indie-rock bands always rock way indier when everything is red
The National + Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
September 7, 2005
Shows like this make me uncomfortable. Two bands are playing (or three, actually, but I was getting pierogis when Qatsi was on). One band is the headliner; they’ve been around longer, and they have more records and a record deal with a respected indie, so they play last, and they play for longer, and the sound is somehow better when they’re on, and they have five different T-shirts for sale. The other band is the opener; they only have one album, and they put it out themselves, and they haven’t been around for all that long, so they play earlier and for not as long, and they only have two T-shirts for sale, and that’s all as it should be. Except somehow something happened, and some wires got crossed, and the opening band starts getting internet love, and all of a sudden they’re getting press and filling venues by themselves. And then boom, they’re more famous than the headlining band, but they’re still opening. And so the crowd noticeably thins when they get done playing, and you end up just feeling kind of sorry for the poor headlining band. It doesn’t happen too often (last time for me was Piebald and Thursday in 2001), but it sticks in your head when it does. And it’s worse when the headlining band deserves to be headlining and the opening band deserves to be opening.
I’d never paid any mind to the National, the headlining band, before going to the show last night, maybe because they have a thoroughly boring name or maybe because the world has no shortage of Brooklyn-based indie-rock bands with three albums and a handful of decent press clippings. I’d listened to Alligator, their newest album, exactly once, but I was reading something or doing something, and it sank into the background, and I walked into the show for some reason thinking they were an alt-country band. They’re not an alt-country band. They’re a rumpled, stylish, retro-mope-rock band (I say Echo and the Bunnymen or Peter Murphy and my girlfriend says Billy Idol, so basically Interpol), and it turns out that they’re pretty great. Matt Berninger, the band’s singer, has a smoky purr somewhere between David Bowie and Leonard Cohen and a sort of charmingly roughed-up presence, like an alcoholic lothario after hitting rock bottom and being physically thrown out of a bar and landing in a pile of garbage (this happens in movies sometimes). The band has a trancey, expansive force, ornate curlicues of violin or piano dancing through churning walls of polished haze. It’s appropriate that Warsaw looks something like the rooms where they always have proms in 80s movies (wooden floor and curtain behind the stage, warm red lighting, disco ball throwing dots of light everywhere); they’ve got exactly the tragic grandeur that the climaxes of these movies need. Every song seems to be about a breakup of some sort. They’re the sort of band that has a few songs that turn into rocking-out whirlwinds of expansive depression, but they throw these songs haphazardly into the middle of the set, preferring to end it in a sad, resigned sigh of a song. I’m thinking they’d probably be huge if they dressed nicer or if the multi-instrumentalist who provides those lovely little violin twirls didn’t turn out to be a pudgy longhaired dude in a stocking cap. And yeah, it’s sad to see a full room empty out halfway before their set is over, but then maybe they couldn’t have filled this room by themselves anyway.
Download: “Wasp Nest”
The band that did fill the room was Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who just self-released their self-titled debut album a few months ago. CYHSY is a good band, but they don’t have anywhere near the force and presence of the National. They do, however, have a memorable (though dumb) name and a fashionably fuzzed-out drama-queen indie-rock sound and huge internet love. They remind me a whole lot of the Dismemberment Plan if someone had swapped that band’s Nation of Ulysses records for, I don’t know, Siamese Dream or something. Their singer is a short guy with dark hair who looks a lot like Travis Morrisson, and they toss off their music with the same casual mastery, like it’s the easiest thing in the world to play intricate, homey indie-rock. They don’t, however have the D-Plan’s spazzed-out dynamics or melodic hugeness, and they don’t have that band’s sense of communion with the audience, that thing where they talk to them as equals and make them feel perfectly at home at the show (CYHSY barely talks). Most importantly, they don’t have the Dismemberment Plan’s sense that something is at stake, that they’ll explode if they don’t play these songs and get these things off their collective chest. They’re just a band playing, which I guess is good enough.