Live Review: The National/St. Vincent; Help Wanted Nights reviewed; Honey & Darling/Jake Bellows tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 5:39 pm September 20, 2007

St. Vincent’s Annie Clark performed alone last night at Slowdown with just her electric guitars, her duo microphones, her cabinet of sampled beats and noises, and no, it wasn’t as stellar as her July show at The Waiting Room when she was backed by a real band, but it was still pretty durn good, and at times, downright great. Is she the next Polly Jean Harvey? No, she’s too clean for that, too nice, too cute, too sweet. Still, she knows how to play that guitar, how to grind out the noise when she wants to create a ghostly pop sound while keeping afloat the delicate melodies heard on Marry Me, which might be the best female-voiced indie album of ’07.

I was less enthusiastic about The National, but that’s probably because I wasn’t in the mood for their brooding, dense sound. Though all six members were busy doing what they do, I wondered how they’d sound as a four piece, with their music stripped to the bare essentials. After the first few songs, you pretty much got the gist of what they were about. Missing was the dynamic depth heard on their records, as everything came at you at the same speed and intensity. The sold-out crowd, however, loved it.

* * *

I was told last night that first week sales for the new Good Life album exceeded the first week for Album of the Year, and that the CD even entered the Billboard charts — an achievement. So what’s my take on the album? Well, since you asked:

Beautiful Loser
Review: The Good Life, Help Wanted Nights (Saddle Creek)

Forget the fact that this is supposed to be the soundtrack to a film penned by singer/songwriter renaissance frontman Tim Kasher. You and I haven’t seen the movie, which may or may not ever get made.

The fact is, all of The Good Life’s music is theatrical at its very core. Their last record, 2004’s Album of the Year, could have been used in a moody, off-off-Broadway musical, each song telling a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl story of love and betrayal, all with a single broken heart. In Kasher’s world, the loser protagonist always is well-written and clearly defined. It’s the antagonist (presumably a composite of every woman who Kasher ever slept with) that could use a little more character development. They can’t all be heartless bitches, can they Tim? Maybe they can.

Help Wanted Nights tells that same lonely story all over again, but simpler, easier and with more clarity. Our hero once again is the slouching, insecure, slightly damaged loser we’ve all come to love — the antithesis of every horny fuck-and-run cocksman you remember from your favorite ’80s hair-band.

Kasher’s men are rarely in control in any relationship, having either just been dumped or are about to be, but never destined for happiness except for that short-lived moment of a one-night stand that precedes a cold-light-of-day reality that it won’t be anything more than that. In Kasher’s world, it’s the women who are the cocksman, always in a hurry to leave that familiar so-so gigolo the next morning.

Take the soft-shoe opener, where Kasher pines, “Either you love me or you leave me but don’t you leave me on this picket fence,” or the bouncy, bass-driven “Heartbroke,” where our hero suffers Joe Jackson-inspired frustration when he realizes his ex is already getting some. “I see you’ve found a way to pass the time,” he says. Her reply: “I like him, he’s a lot like you.” Ouch.

Musically, Kasher and Co. take the simpler-is-better route, stripping songs to the very basics of melody, counter-melody and rhythm (with a guitar solo thrown in for good measure). Each shortish tune ends simply, concisely, without any over-the-top flourishes. Good thing, too, because too much drama would have pushed these lyrics into rather maudlin territory.

Taken as a whole, the CD is the least cluttered of anything Kasher has ever recorded, either with this band or Cursive, revealing a level of song craft that all-too-often can get lost in the din. Its very simplicity is a lesson that his pal and label mate Conor Oberst could benefit from.

In some ways, the collection is a throwback to simpler, better times, when songs were three minutes or less and recorded to be heard on your FM radio instead of a computer. All of them, that is, except for the 10-minute-plus closer, where Kasher asks yet another potential lover, “What are you really after? / What are you hoping to gain?” Chances are, it’s not you, pal, or your droning feedback that buzzes for three minutes after the last organ tones fade, presumably to allow for all the end credits to scroll across the screen.

Help Wanted Nights is a thinking man’s (and woman’s) pop album, a collection of tragic love stories where the hero doesn’t get the girl because, well, he’s just no damn good, and in Tim Kasher’s world, there are no happy endings. But I could be wrong. After all, I haven’t seen the movie.
Rating: Yes

* * *

Any band that writes a song called “Tony Wilson” is all right in my book. Such is the case with Honey & Darling, who opens tonight for Jake Bellows and Alina Simone at The Waiting Room. H&D’s music is sweet and sassy and a little sad, and if you go to a lot of Sokol Underground shows, you very well may recognize the wee frontwoman as the person who either took your money or handed you that flyer after the show. Check out their quaint acoustic ditties at their MySpace page. $7, 9 p.m.

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