Small Wonder – Wendy (Father/Daughter, 2014) + Performance at Rough Trade NYC on 2/6/15

“All children, except one, grow up.” – The Adventures of Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie

Henry Crawford is, without a doubt, one of the strongest and honest musicians in the indie world today. As a songwriter and contemporary of Crawford (we’re about the same age), I have to say that he is one of my musical heroes, among the myriad talents of music collective The Epoch. As Small Wonder, Crawford crafts delicate, fragile, heartbreaking, tender, raw, honest, and exceptional bedroom pop. Such is the case with Wendy, an incredible piece of art, and my personal favorite record to be released in 2014.

I had an opportunity to see Small Wonder open for Natalie Prass on Friday at Rough Trade NYC in Brooklyn. I didn’t get a chance to stick around for Prass (darn L train and living in Jersey!), but the night was still an experience. It’s been said that Crawford’s live performance is very different from his recorded output, and that’s true. But that doesn’t mean it’s any weaker. It was exciting to see Crawford perform, stripped of synths, electronic beats, or backing vocals. Just him and an electric guitar. And despite one song that didn’t personally resonate with me (which utilized the repeated line “wanna be a black bear in American places”), the experience was emotional, intimate, raw, and beautiful. As an audience member, I felt like I was in a dialogue with Crawford, like he was able to break through the wall between performer and spectator. There were three songs I definitely did not recognize from his recorded output (but later scoured the Internet for, haw haw). One involved mentions of Johnny Cash and June Carter, another used the word “Psychosomaticon”, and still the other, (his last for the night) made reference to Franz Kafka. That song, “Amerika”, may be my new favorite of Crawford’s output, and it’s kind of a shame it’s not available on any release (to my knowledge). Crawford had a moment in his set where he told a story about how this older woman gregariously punched his shoulder on the bus, thinking he was someone from her high school. As she walked away, she said something along the lines of “Take care, Henry”, which was an intriguing anecdote. That story embodies what Small Wonder’s music is all about. That even by not knowing someone personally, you can still connect with what they’re saying in a way that their words could have emerged from your own mouth.

This common thread is visible in Wendy. Crawford is able to put his words and feelings (and subsequently the feelings of countless others) into this work. I’m a huge fan of the use of motif in music, whether a repeated lyric, or a melodic idea. There is a particular melody that travels through several songs on Wendy. It first appears in “Ball Lightning” on a synthesizer, then again in Crawford’s vocals on “Lost at Highway”, and finally in the bridge of “Until I Open My Wings”, where it is played on piano. In an album, it’s especially inviting to hear that repeated idea somewhere else on the record, because it’s almost like seeing an old friend spring up again.

Wendy is a diamond of a record, full of moments of synth-pop, raw gospel folk, and brutally honest and sobering lyrics. Crawford has a knack for saying what you’re probably thinking (if you are a twenty-something, like me, then especially so). It kind of feels like this is the interior monologue we all have, yet don’t talk about. In 2014, Wendy was a wake-up call of a record for me, and was perfectly timed with my entrance into the “real world”. On the hinges of my graduation, I felt like the air Crawford describes on “Until I Open My Wings”: “Don’t let me out into the world.” Above all, it is a testament to the redeeming and revitalizing power that music can have, as said on opener “Ball Lightning”: “With my strength spent, with my heart cold/I put my faith in rock and roll.”

These are songs that tackle hard topics. “Suddenly Suddenly,” for example, deals with the certainty of death, but it also functions as an affirmation of what life is all about: the journey that you take, even if it is “long and narrow.” On “Until I Open My Wings”, there’s a sudden epiphany of self-reliance: “You’ll have to do this on your own.” That’s the crux of this whole aural journey, and what it’s all really about, something Tom Robbins once said so eloquently: “We are our own dragons as well as our own heroes, and we have to rescue ourselves from ourselves.”

The most positive track, and the most life-affirming (yeah, yeah, I know that sounds corny) is closer “Wind Let Loose”. After all of the news flashes, wake-up calls, and reality checks we’ve had, we get this promising feeling, that in the end, there is always hope. And if you’ve fallen, you’ll get up stronger than ever. At the end of this record, Crawford states, “I no longer was emptied of all the things I thought I’d one day lose.” Even if things are lost or broken,they can be found and mended. What a beautiful thing that is to know.

Favorite Tracks: Literally every single one.

Where to Go from Here: Bellows – Blue Breath, Told Slant – Still Water, Sharpless – The One I Wanted to Be, and essentially anything put out by The Epoch. They’re a brilliant, creative bunch.

Advertisements

Bright Eyes – 3/8

So on Tuesday I got to see Bright Eyes in concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. For anyone who doesn’t know, Bright Eyes is one of my favorite artists (and I’ve been listening to the group ever since one fateful day in the 6th grade, where a friend of my sister’s made a mix CD with many songs not featured on any of the group’s albums).

The first song I ever heard by the group was actually “N’en Parlons Plus” a French song where Conor Oberst was featured on vocals. From then on, my sister and I grew more and more attached to the music of Bright Eyes (her a LOT more than me, haha!). In the 7th grade, for example, I received Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, one of two 2005 albums, and the more experimental of the two. It grew to be an album that played on repeat for at least two months straight for me at the time (I can probably go on into detail about it in another post). However, as time went on, Bright Eyes reached more toward a folk/political style (which wasn’t a bad thing at all, but at the time I preferred the more experimental/electronic efforts that pitted Oberst at more personal topics). As I entered high school and the years went on, my connection with Bright Eyes started to change. I grew to listen to other bands and pick up other albums. Eventually, by my freshman year of college, I found that I didn’t really share that deep of a connection with Bright Eyes than I had first thought in middle school. When I initially heard that I would be seeing the band live, I was somewhat, but not entirely, excited.

I still wasn’t really overjoyed about going to the concert, and even after the openers Wild Flag and Superchunk I didn’t really feel that pumped for the show. I had recently listened to the band’s latest (and last?) effort, The People’s Key, and initially did not jump to many of the songs. Sure, the free downloads of “Shell Games” and “Haile Selassie” got me pretty excited for the album, but the dialogue interludes tethered between the tracks left me pretty disappointed regarding the overall album. Needless to say, when the concert opened with said dialogue from album opener “Firewall”, I was pissed. I’d gone through years and years of listening to the group (especially in my teenage years), and this is what I got. I didn’t expect much, but I was immediately disappointed. So they’re just going to play the new album beginning to end, I thought. Then, something happened. Conor Oberst came in with the initial guitar part of “Firewall” and I found myself slowly drawn in (in retrospect, the guitar part alone in the beginning of that song is great, and the dialogue works so well as a build-up to it). Even the dual drummers that came in (which I thought looked a bit pretentious at first) threw new life into the song. This was where I saw how a live performance could far surpass the original album recording. (Another thing to know about me: Ever since I was little, I always upheld the album versions of songs over their live recording brothers.) Boy, was I wrong that night. (And the band didn’t just play The People’s Key, and I’m fairly certain there was no dialogue beyond the opening…though I left before “One for You, One for Me”, so I don’t know if the show closed with it).

“Jejune Stars” was up next (another song off the new album), and I found the frantic frenzy here to be more captivating (though the live version at times just seemed like a wall of sound). Altogether, the song grew on me a bit more.  “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” followed, and aside from the obnoxious girl sitting next to me (who got up to start dancing, and she danced OFF BEAT!), the performance was great…it definitely brought me back to that same experience I had with Digital Ash, and it wasn’t the only nostalgic experience I had that night.

I’m not totally sure on the rest of the order, but I’ll take it song by song as best I can. “Four Winds” was pretty good, though verses got switched around and I hadn’t really listened to Cassadaga. “Bowl of Oranges” was pretty impressive, and I especially loved the trumpet melodies (not just for this song, but also “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now”). The performance of “Shell Games” saw Oberst take a more pop stage presence, as he plunked around on a keyboard and then swapped over to vocals. Not a bad performance, but being the recording purist I am, I could have used the synth strings in the actual recording! “Approximate Sunlight” saw a similar setup, and while I was impressed by the performance, there was really no connection between me and the song. “Arc of Time” was another take from Digital Ash, though it was not very impressive (and sadly, whenever a take from Digital Ash in a Digital Urn popped up, not only would I recognize it, but so would the annoying girl next to me!). I was very surprised to hear “Falling Out of Love at This Volume” from 2000’s A Collection of Songs Written & Recorder 1995-1997, and eagerly awaited more early tracks (particularly from 1998’s Letting Off the Happiness, though no dice there…I do see that 3/9’s set list had “Padriac My Prince”). “Beginner’s Mind” followed, and while it was somewhat impressive, again it was from the new album (so I didn’t really have a connection to it, yet my sister cited it as her favorite off the album). “Cartoon Blues” was impressive, though I had never sat down to listen to it before (off of the Four Winds EP). “Something Vague” was another surprise (off of Fevers & Mirrors), and another song that drew me in…the trumpet instrumentation here was just awesome. “Hot Knives” and “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” were other songs that popped up (and ones that I had heard in the past, but I never really grew that attached to). Needless to say, both performances were incredible. “A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key)” was honestly a bit of a disappointment for me (as I searched around for an acoustic guitar player on stage only to realize the synth man was playing a guitar loop!), and it was another song off the new album. Even though the instrumentation here was more experimental, it came off a bit hollow. “Old Soul Song” came up next (off of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning), and while a pleasant surprise, the performance left me wanting more.

Then came “Poison Oak”. One of my favorites off of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, the live performance did not disappoint. I was captivated by Oberst’s solo performance on stage, and drawn in to every lyric/melodic line he sang. Once the rest of the band came in, it mirrored the actual recording with the same build in instrumentation/melody (“But me, I’m a single cell”). However, just getting a chance to watch this song performed live was more than enough for me, and “Poison Oak” was definitely one of my favorites of the night. “The Calendar Hung Itself…” followed, and while I appreciated the kickback to Fevers & Mirrors, I wasn’t totally drawn in for the performance (and I definitely didn’t see it coming…the initial guitar rakes made me think of “At the Bottom of Everything” more immediately, something that Oberst may have used to deceive the audience). “Lua” was a good closer for the set, but definitely not one of my favorite songs by the group.

After the song, I was confused as the stage was empty (the band had already gone off stage), yet the whole audience was roaring with excitement. I later found out that this was supposed to be the band’s encore (but it honestly didn’t feel like an encore…it felt more rehearsed, more expected, rather than spontaneous…though I guess that’s how most encores work at concerts). I can’t say I was disappointed by the encore because they couldn’t have picked a better song to lead back into the performance after “Lua”. Once I heard both drummers smash along to the beat of “Gold Mine Gutted”, I was fully overjoyed. This was a song that took me back. About a minute and a half passed of the drummers vamping the rhythm until Oberst finally strolled back out to play along the opening keyboard melody to the song and fall back into pop-star mode. I couldn’t care less at this point, because the performance itself was so impressive. Another highlight of the night. If there’s one thing I can say I took from it, it’s this: That’s how you come out for an encore!

“Lover I Don’t Have to Love” followed (which I liked, but sadly the girl next to me also liked, so unnecessary dancing/swaying off beat ensued…). I wasn’t particularly impressed with that performance either. Finally “Road to Joy” rolled around (which cued me to believe the show was over…I mean, how can you top “Road to Joy” as a show closer, especially after one of the last lines of the song/Oberst’s cue to the rest of the band to just destroy: “Let’s f*** it up boys, MAKE SOME NOISE!”). I was thoroughly impressed with the performance, and didn’t want to leave my seat! However, since I had to catch the train, I left (possibly early/missing “One for You, One for Me”?) If I did, it’s another new album song, which honestly makes no difference to me…The People’s Key has yet to really grow on me as an album/as a Bright Eyes disc I’ve connected with.

Altogether, it was an amazing experience. I still believe that the Rush concert I saw a few summers back was my favorite concert experience, yet I didn’t feel all of the same nostalgia I felt here (especially because I had a longer connection to Bright Eyes than I did with Rush at the time). The whole set was incredible, and the fact that it was seated and indoor were extra pluses for me! I also appreciated the lights/visual effects on-stage. Definitely an awesome concert experience (and hopefully not my last!)

Favorite performances: “Firewall”, “Jejune Stars”, “Bowl of Oranges”, “Falling Out of Love at This Volume”, “Something Vague”, “Hot Knives”, “Poison Oak”, “Gold Mine Gutted”, “Road to Joy”