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Stereolab + Espers
March 18, 2006
My first St. Patrick’s Day in New York City, the reunited Pogues playing a couple of blocks north and the Chieftans playing somewhere else, and I end up at a Francophile lounge-pop motorik post-rock show in a fancy seated venue with no bar. This is what happens when you make plans without first consulting a calendar.
I don’t have a whole lot of baggage when it comes to Stereolab. When the band was hitting its fuzzed-out blissed-out retro-futurist peak, I wasn’t really trying to hear any bands that didn’t get shout-outs on the liner notes of Rancid albums, and I haven’t done much back-catalogue investigation mostly because they have way too many records. But the Stereolab records I have heard tend to have hooks, big molten-liquid waves of ecstatic guitars and horns occasionally rising through the bloopy synths and dispassionately cooed vocals. There wasn’t a whole lot of that coming from the stage on Friday night; instead, the band’s phasers seemed stuck on lull, their woozy burble-murmurs never quite swelling up into anything memorable. It certainly wasn’t unpleasant, especially paired with the trippy nonrepresentational animations projected on the screen above them and especially when a comfortable beer buzz and cushy seats factored into the equation. But it also never got past the level of pleasant, a pillowy indistinct mush that worked better as background music than as any sort of focal point. The band switched up instruments constantly, but they never broke a sweat trying to keep the audience engaged beyond a few goofy little dances from Laetitia Sadier, who these days bears an almost unsettling resemblance to Brenda from Six Feet Under; my idea that long-running British bands play so many enormous summer festivals that they always know how to rock a crowd has been effectively disproved. Stereolab’s last five albums or so haven’t gotten great reviews, and the reasoning seems to be that they’re sounding like themselves too much, that they’ve fallen into a rut; nothing I saw on Friday makes me want to argue with that. They’ve been around forever, and they’ve gone through the awful death of a long-running member; maybe they’ve lost their passion for performing. Or maybe they never had it in the first place; this is, after all, essentially studio music, and I probably shouldn’t have expected a mind-bending live show.
Voice review: Anthony Mariani on Stereolab’s Fab Four Suture
At least half the reason I wanted to go to the show in the first place was the opening act, the Philly trio Espers, easily my favorite thing to come out of the whole Devendra Banhart-led psyche-folk wave of two years ago. Chuck Eddy told me that Espers is basically a prog-metal band like Opeth but with all the metal parts taken out, and he’s basically right; the band has a mystical spaced-out primal-dread take on the whole trad-folk thing, all hypnotically slow acoustic-guitar figures and narcotically calm female vocals and ominous-but-soft peals of feedback. When I interviewed Banhart a couple of years ago, he insisted that the whole neo-folk scene wasn’t folk at all, his main evidence being that the people in Espers listen to Black Sabbath, which is a pretty weak thesis defense but a pretty accurate indicator of the implied stomp in Espers’ almost-goth flutes-and-violins swirl-throb. Onstage, Espers rolls deep: twelve people onstage at one point, enough musicians to perfectly recreate every last one of the muted flourishes on their records. They probably didn’t need all five guitarists, but their numbers made them look more like a cult commune than a band, and that suits their music just fine. They probably fit much better at the dank warehouse spaces where they usually play than they do at NPR-friendly midtown venues; one of these days, I’m going to have to see them in their natural habitat.
Voice review: D. Shawn Bosler on Espers’ Espers