Smile Politely

Some Things Will Never Change

And so ends the Pygmalion Spring Show Series.

An excellent idea, executed well.  Much like Murder By Death’s new record. But we’ll save that for later; first, let us discuss the joy and brilliance of the Pygmalion show format: regional if not national headliner supported by local heavy-hitters. The penultimate concert at Krannert found Common Loon and Elsinore showcasing newer material and celebrating with friends & fans alike. With the combination of a locals-only bill and the show being free, it culminated in a sense of community. 

The crowd at The Highdive Saturday night was a bit less jubilant and more jumbled & stumbley. In a good way. There certainly were cheers and shouts; it was an enthusiastic crowd. But the tint of whiskey seemed to dull somewhat the familial feeling and give a heightened sense of macabre. Which was perfect. The hollowed-out whispers of Grandkids and the spaced-out wails of New Ruins and the ghost stories told throughout the fabulous final set by Murder By Death. Expecting the unexpected, I left satiated (and sauced).

Groove music is probably not the most precise way to describe Grandkids’ sound; however: Vivian McConnell sings with her shoulders; Evan Metz’s guitars got that chillwave-meets-Fugazi thing going; Adam Gorcowski’s deft maneuvering between basslines and melodies enthralls; and of course, Phil Sudderberg’s drumming is so steady you don’t much notice him until he really lets loose — then you very much do. The band was nervous starting out; McConnell said so herself to the crowd. The honesty was endearing. However, most impressive was how the band turned that nervous energy into a passionate performance: holding back with the groove, trying to keep calm; then, tearing through their old radio hit “Ethylene,” they did rise as the singer sings, as did the dynamic and decibels. All that tension transformed, and tore through the room with a volume and presence not lost on the audience. An auspicious opening indeed.

New Ruins brought a different kind of energy. Whatever the opposite of nervous is. Perhaps that could be bored or stoic, but that is wholly inaccurate. They were absorbed, and absorbing. They’ve been playing out their most recent record This Life Is Not Ours To Keep since late last year, not stopping for anything, seemingly. The crowd thinned a little, but they made up for it with walls of guitars and melody. The tight songwriting and performance permeated the hall of The Highdive. I was excited to see so much interplay between Elzie Sexton and Caleb Means’ vocals, from an album so heavy in Sexton songs. The aggression and angst in the Means-penned “Stance” really shook the shoulders of the room. Sexton crooned with his usual baritone, but his performance peaked when he took the leads, tearing apart his guitar seemingly for the sake of his amplifier, back turned against the audience. Roy Ewing and Andrew Davidson, having put in hard time out at Earth Analog with producer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine, Califone) threw down grooves worthy of and earned by analog tape. New Ruins finished their spacey set with a new track, “Western Divide,” whose hooks seem familiar but fresh at the same time. Which is why New Ruins are beautiful, they do that.

If there’s one thing one can expect from Murder By Death, it’s consistency. They’ve the consistency of rye whiskey. Now, I did in my preview of this show imply, if not describe, their sound maturing from western gothic-influenced punk to more indie/punk-influenced alt-country; however, there’s always been storytelling, and there’s always been that saloon vibe, a stranger lurking in the corner, speaking in swear-words and curses out the side of his mouth or between his teeth. There’s Death at the door, in a Poe by-way-of Troma kind of way. Needless to say, the crowd was excited.

More cheers and screams and yells were heard from the crowd that The Highdive has heard at least since Cursive, if not HUM before them earlier this year. Doubtful though it is that their switch to Vagrant has sparked such a mainstream appeal — more likely is the devotion of their fanbase that’s been around for most if not all of the length of their decade-long haul. 

There is one discernible shift since their move to the “major” indie: either Adam Turla has had some sort of dental work, or he really decided to start sounding like an old dude. The early records up until In Bocoo Al Lupo there is a distant, thin quality to his voice; but by the time we get to their newest effort, Good Morning, Magpie, Turla’s serenade swells into a croon, replete with denture-driven lisping through a yawpish old man’s diaphragm. It’s indescribably pleasurable.  If not a little jarring. I honestly wondered if on the new records they’d gotten Rick Ruben to dig up some other decrepit country star of yore to do guest vocals with them, but no, that is not the case. All Adam.

The narrative (both literary and meta-) of the new record is maybe hackneyed and obvious for a band that makes barbrawl tunes and movie music for the Eastwood set, but the idea of a man going out into nature and coming out with his skin still on him and an album in his brains is yet appealing. Bearvsshark did it. But this was more of a Walden-style adventure. A man on his own. Like Bon Iver, minus the crying.

As the man sang, “your stories are the same, but the ends have all changed.” Fuck it, I don’t care if I burn in Hell this summer, it’s beautiful right now.

All photos and videos by Troy Stanger. For all the photos from the show, check out Smile Politely’s Facebook page.

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