by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
The best part about music criticism other than the free CDs is following young bands, watching them from their first performance, seeing where they’re headed, and in the case of an act like It’s True, watching them burst into flames just as they begin to reach their zenith.
Along those lines, it’s a pleasure to watch So-So Sailors evolve right before my eyes. When I saw their “debut” at The Slowdown a few months ago, their music was interesting, but the band, especially frontman Chris Machmuller, seemed tentative and unsure. It was, after all, their first gig. What did you expect? But if they could pull something off in that situation, and pique your interest to see them again — and then again like last night — well, they must have something going on.
I wouldn’t call last night’s set, played in front of about 65 people at The Waiting Room, a “night and day” performance compared to the Slowdown set; instead it was more like “night and daybreak,” when the light is just beginning to come up and you can begin to make out features in the landscape that were invisible only a few moments earlier. So-So Sailors’ sound has become more visible, but not all the features are well-defined.
Their first song last night turned out to be their best — a tune that took advantage of the two-piano attack (Machmuller on one keyboard, Dan McCarthy on the other across the stage) along with Machmuller’s voice. As I’ve said before, if you’re expecting the pained screech-howl that he uses for Ladyfinger, it’s not there. Instead, Machmuller sings with a sweet, high voice reminiscent of very early, quiet (and forlorn) Neil Young. And when he pulls out his alto sax, you can’t help but smile.
As a whole, all the songs and arrangement last night were very Young-ian; there was even one soft tune that I thought could be a Neil cover. The formula calls for the rest of the band — Alex McManus on guitar, Dan Kemp on drums and Brendan Greene-Walsh on bass — to come in after a quiet intro verse by Machmuller and the keyboard(s), turning songs into crashing, grand rock odysseys that are arty and jazzy and bittersweet, especially after everyone pulls back again at the end, inevitably leaving Machmuller and the keyboard(s) to walk away alone into the dark.
Machmuller’s voice did lose some of its oomph toward the end of the set, like a balloon slowly deflating, eventually getting lost in the mix (especially on the last song). But that will only get better over time. It already has, compared to their debut. There’s a buzz around town about So-So Sailors, and there should be because they’re doing something that’s beyond the norm for this neck of the woods. It beacons back to ’70s rock, but without the chug-a-lug stomp or tired Americana twang. It’s both nostalgic and completely modern, and sounds like it’s still being distilled. I can’t wait to see where they take it next.
Ted Stevens kicked off the night with a solo set that was at its best when he loosened up and let himself be inventive with his electric guitar rather than merely sing over chords. He played some licks last night that took his sound in an entirely different direction than I’ve heard either with his past solo work or with Mayday.
The Bruces were a highlight. The line-up was Alex McManus on electric guitar and vocals, and Steve Micek on drums. Micek was as much in focus on stage as McManus, playing inventive, almost improvisational drum fills that gave a backbone to every song. This wasn’t McManus folk, it was McManus rock, but with a keen appreciation for melodies — I’ve seen Alex do solo electric sets in the past that, quite frankly, were simply too dissonant for my taste. Instead, these were terrific songs with downtrodden and oftentimes strange lyrics painting stark, unique, lonely images. At times, it reminded me of darker Silver Jews material, but McManus’ voice is richer and more soulful than David Berman’s. Add Micek’s throaty drums and it came together as a special treat, one of the best live sets of music I’ve heard from McManus.
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The Young Love Records caravan pulls into The Waiting Room tonight — Setting Sun, Quitzow and Landing on the Moon (for more info, see yesterday’s blog). $7, 9 p.m.
The English Beat returns to The Slowdown again after just being here in March. This time, the more impressive Fishbone isn’t along for the ride. Instead, the openers are Bad Manners and Chris Murray. $20, 8 p.m.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2010 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
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