Only real hippies wear rugs on their head and shoot rainbows
Espers + Brightblack Morning Light
June 23, 2006
Friday night was probably the biggest night in Brightblack Morning Light‘s career thus far, but you wouldn’t know it to hear them. It’s been said in everything I’ve read about the duo, but they take the whole hippie thing probably too far, past the point of self-parody and into a sort of transcendent goofiness, calling themselves Nabob and Rabob and going on about their Native American blood and the cabin where they live. It’s easy to make fun of this stuff, but it’s impossible to do so without acknowledging that they’ve put together maybe the best indie-rock album of the year, a hazy, blissy groove-fog with long vamps bleeding slowly into one another and formless vocals processed within an inch of their lives. The album sounds like a total studio creation, its lazy guitar flutters and unhurried bass rumbles and rippling funk percussion all melting together so perfectly that it must’ve taken a lot of work. But onstage at the Mercury Lounge on Friday, they were shockingly faithful to their recorded sound, all the instruments meticulously mixed into a bleary wall of snooze. The day of the show, the band had received huge props from both Kelefa Sanneh at the Times and Stephen Deusner at Pitchfork, and so the club was packed-out and buzzing; I’m pretty sure most of the tickets sold just that afternoon. But the band didn’t seem to notice at all. When they did talk to the crowd, their voices went through so many effects pedals that nobody had any idea what they were saying. In fact, everything onstage seemed to be run through a gauntlet of effects, even the hi-hats. The band’s songs differ from each other just slightly, the slow-core riffs and Rhodes quivers only morphing slightly from one song to the rest. And the band treats its live show something like a DJ set, barely pausing between tracks and letting everything ebb and flow with plenty of patience and space. My friend Seung: “You know what this really reminds me of? All the instrumental tracks on Ill Communication.” She’s right, but it’s a bit better than that. Another comparison: Madlib, all the funk so sleepy and blunted that it’s practically implied.
The band doesn’t look like much onstage. The girl has white-chick dreads and big weird glasses. The guy had his head behind a speaker all night, I never got a good look at him from where I was standing. The band had two drummers and a percussionist, but drums didn’t come anywhere near dominating their sound. Instead, all the percussion worked like rain, a steady background thrum. After a while, someone got up onstage and started playing a flute. It was all pretty hilarious in a way that didn’t at all compromise its awesomeness. I have no idea whether anything this sleepy has a real chance of blowing up indie-style. But after freak-folk turned into a big contest to see who could be the most irritatingly, self-consciously weird, it’s oddly refreshing to see a band willing to let its obvious eccentricities take a backseat, to focus instead on groove. If nothing else, they’ve made an album that works as amazing background music for when I’m writing reviews, and I’m thankful for that.
Download: “Everybody Daylight”
Brightblack Morning Light was the show’s main attraction, but they weren’t the headliners. The Philly neo-folk collective Espers is every bit as languid and hippyish as Brightblack, so they made for perfect tourmates, but that didn’t stop the crowd from making a slow but constant exodus from the club during Espers’ set like they were the Diplomats at Summer Jam. Espers’ debut album and its new follow-up are the best things that the whole 2004 psyche-folk wave produced, and their proggy spaced-out Ren-Faire/Fairport Convention mysticism is as creepy and ominous as it is pretty. Onstage, they take up a lot of space: four guitarists, a drummer in a Crocodile Dundee hat, the bearded guy from the No-Neck Blues Band banging on a wooden stick. All the numbers mean their songs end up sounding more cluttered than they do on record. I’m guessing they don’t all get together to practice all that often, since they make Brightblack sound tight and focused. Every song spirals off into a long mood-piece before ending, and there are long pauses in between songs where everyone figures out what they’re doing. And so the band swings constantly between gorgeous and boring. In a warehouse with rugs on the wall and candles burning everywhere, this wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s not really performance music in the nightclub sense. Some of the prettiest moments came toward the end of their set, when most of the crowd had already left and at least a few others were sleeping on the benches off to the sides of the club. And as much as I liked some of it, I didn’t stick around for encores. I had the gist.