Better Than: Watching Fox News coverage of the election over and over on your Tivo, in a kind of schadenfreude blitz.
Easy enough to reflect on the beauty of a snowy New York night once safely inside the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where the Australian band Tame Impala played a scorching set last night. After a harrowing voyage to Brooklyn over the East River, (the bridge log-jammed, the roads, as my cabbie confided in me, “slickly,”) I was only able to make it for opener the Amazing’s last song. Though the band’s name is absolutely terrible, they have quite a pedigree, including in their corps, Johan Holmegard and Reine Fiske, on loan from Swedish psychmaster outfit, Dungen.
It was a real shame to miss the entire set as the five piece closed with an expansive stunner that filled the room with warmth, driving memories of the chills away. (Briefly–starting to reflect on escaping the chills actually made it pretty easy to recollect how goddamn cold and unpleasant it was outside.)
Expansive and escapist ended up being the key words of the evening though, as Tame Impala came on a little after 10 for a loud, joyous, and utterly controlled hour and fifteen minutes. The psychedelic rock band from Australia, dressed unassumingly except for keyboardist Jay Watson, who was wearing a suit, managed to avoid the most difficult challenge for band with such prodigious skill. They almost never lapsed into highbrow jam-band territory and made sure to avoid any indulgence. Noodling was kept to a minimum, much to the delight of a dialed-in, polite crowd, who, even when they moshed, made sure not to disturb their neighbors, jumping straight up and down.
The band opened with “Be Above It,” the first track from their terrific 2012 long-player Lonerism. The song, though it’s a fair example of Tame Impala’s standard sound, contains several of the rougher elements that they’ve employed to great effect on the new album. The underlying chant of “gotta be above it,” supplied live (with impressive breath control) by relatively new drummer Julien Barbagallo, adds a subtle tension to the song. Kevin Parker’s vocals fly high above that tension and the wall of melodic noise in between, quite literally escaping the track’s underpinnings in a fashion that works in conjunction with the lyrics. As Parker sings “and I know that I’ve gotta be above it now” his voice transcends the mix.
These are the kind of serendipitous coincidences you get when a band plays with this kind of depth of sound, and then complements that roaring maw of layered guitar, keyboard and synth with excellent, unpretentious songwriting. As the band chipped steadily away at the best songs in their catalogue, adding instrumental interludes with drum solos and jaunty keyboard supplements, this lyrical/musical harmony kept reappearing. The song “Alter Ego” from the 2010 album Innerspeaker, (the album that got Tame Impala noticed in the States) provides a good example. The simple lyrics, which essentially tell their addressee to chill and stop worrying, are enveloped by a blanket of psychedelic guitar. But then, when the key lyric of the song emerges, it’s given a wide berth, ensuring that anyone listening will remember that “the only one who’s really judging you is yourself. Nobody else.” It’s wonderful writing, and because it’s woven into the music so well, it doesn’t feel uppity or condescending. The goodwill ensured by these lyrics was helped by the fact that the band, particularly Parker and Watson, were quite charming. Parker was relatively astonished that the crowd had made it out in such numbers, calling us all “soldiers” and congratulating everyone on the election of Obama while pumping his fist humbly. “I’m not really much of a political guy,” he said. “But I can feel when shit is like, going crazy, and I think you averted that.” Watson added that the band was “neutral like Switzerland, but we like Obama.” To which Parker nodded enthusiastically, and, reminding everyone of his Australian origin, claimed that “Obama is a legend” (Legend being an overused compliment for anyone admirable in Australia, similar to the way we use genius here.)
And at a show like last night’s, it’s hard not to just throw hands up and add Tame Impala to the swollen ranks of our new quotidian geniuses, at least when it comes to songcraft. The last, best thrill came on the penultimate song of the band’s set, their zen mission statement “Desire Be, Desire Go.” A standout track from Innerspeaker, the song provides a welcome respite for any working stiff; its lyrics, which bemoan the grind of “every day, back and forth” and ask “What’s it for?,” instantly relatable for those trapped in the rat race. And yet, the depth of the song, especially played live last night, provides an escape for anyone open to the kind of expansive psychedelia which Tame Impala are quickly mastering. Snow forgotten, the crowd vibed along, getting lost in the trippy visual mutations on the backdrop and escaping into a breadth of sound that was transportative, taking us all out of ourselves for a little while and prolonging, for that time, any and all considerations of just how the hell to get back home safely.
Overheard: Some older gentlemen, discussing the band member’s ages: “They’re fucking children.” “Yeah but they have more hair than you’ve ever grown in your life.”
Overheard 2: “Do Australians know about encores?”
Critical Bias: I really like Tame Impala. But I was grouchy about the weather. So that could’ve translated into a bad attitude and it TOTALLY DIDN’T. So that means I’m objective, in my opinion. Yup.