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Lambchop w/ Yo La Tengo
(Le) Poisson Rouge
Thursday, April 19
Better than: A slow, sensuous makeout session, punctuated by the occasional slow, sensuous yawn, which ideally is taken more as a sign of relaxation than boredom, but whatever, stop reading so much into it.
Well here unfolded a lovely surprise: Last night’s opener Charlie Horse was none other than Yo La Tengo, flying under the music-snob radar, here to celebrate their “favorite holiday: the day Lambchop comes to New York.” Georgia, Ira and James offered up a beautifully mumbled set—Georgia using brushes on the drums throughout–in a nod to the headliner’s unnaturally restrained palette. By the end they had added Lambchop’s pianist for color, remaining rather muted all the same.
While packed with tables and standing fans, (Le) Poisson Rouge demonstrated a mature silence throughout the night: someone might have been severely shushed, had they dared to make a sound. But the scene was rapt, frozen, vulnerable only to a smattering of whispers that often managed to seem, if not part of the show, an appropriate peripheral event.
Yo La Tengo rounded out their performance with plenty of crowd-pleasers: a Kinks cover; a tribute to Art Jenkins, of the Sun Ra Arkestra, who had passed away that day; an acoustic take on “Sugarcube” and a sultry roll through “Our Way To Fall.” The songs got recognized and applauded at the first bars; it was clear that this sector of subtle-rock connoisseurs knew what luck this was.
And then: jeez. Well. Okay. Kurt Wagner, in a black baseball cap, took the stage with his band, picking up a guitar whose headstock was bristling with uncut strings. It’s the sort of thing you might be ridiculed for, unless you played with the cool micro-dynamics Wagner did, wringing vibrato sometimes from the neck, such that the transparent wire quivered in the spectral light and fog. Lambchop’s set was fraught with these low-threshold perceptions, jazzy gradations of almost similar ideas. At a certain point you remembered the strings, this bizarrely sloppy detail in an otherwise fussed milieu, and wondered: well, why is it normal to trim them?
They played, of course, smoldering songs from the soft Mr. M, mutated entirely by choices too immaterial to pin down—”Gone Tomorrow,” “Mr. Met” and “Kind Of” nonetheless bright in the mix. These bled out into older work like “Soaky In The Pooper,” much the way the five instruments themselves (guitar, bass, drums, synthesizer and grand piano) would braid together to make one gesture in a song. They also played a birthday number—specifically for a woman named Lila, the lone audience member to confess a birthday, who sat on stage and sipped a free drink and swung her foot semiconsciously to a shy or at least elusive beat.
We saw a sensitivity to space, reaction to the air. It doesn’t take much to turn heads when this kind of stillness binds a room. One derails on the question of what the band did and when, or on a genre tag as ridiculous and difficult to parse as “alternative country.” Instead the primacy of their filigreed tone fine-tuned the senses, making us re-hear even the incidental static. With so much power behind so little noise, the band is a monumental ghost, a boulder reflected in the lake. I’d quit biting my nails two weeks before, but the surface tension here caused a relapse, and left one index finger raw.
Critical bias: A big part of what makes music stick to me is the quality of its atmosphere, which is to say I do most of my listening on headphones, at the office, and need a sound both minimal enough to thrive in fluorescent light and commanding enough to block out whatever passive-aggressive conversation may be dominating the newsroom at any given moment.
Overheard: A guy who, after every song, declared “All right!” in a not-very-loud but certainly loud-enough-to-be-heard-in-this-context voice, causing nearby concert-goers to trade uneasy glances with each other, unsure if the voice’s owner was being very stoned or very sarcastic (but quite sensitive to the latter possibility).
Random notebook dump: Oh how it sucks to be a drink-laden waitress weaving through this or any other crowded mess.