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    Wednesday, April 25, 2007

    Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, Shearwater and Xiu Xiu @ Bowery Ballroom, 4-8-07

    It was a tripleheader designed to raise indie-fanboy goosebumps. With a lineup this spoiled for talent—Casiotone For The Painfully Alone opening, Shearwater batting second, and Xiu Xiu headlining—I made sure to snag a ticket on the day of the sale date. I would've happily have gone to see any of the artists individually; in fact, I'd narrowly missed seeing all three back in my San Francisco era due to extentuating circumstances. This time around, I had the date prominently circled in my calendar to make sure there'd be no way to miss this show.

    Owen Ashworth, the man behind CFTPA, was already in the middle of his first song when I walked in. He was hunched over his setup of electronic instruments, pressing buttons and looking engrossed. He didn't look up to sing either, keeping his head ducked down. In one sense, the shy persona fit his music perfectly, because both come off as insular and private l and are about the inability to connect to others despite how much you need to. But as he'd complete a song and mutter "Thank you" bashfully, it also seemed like he was lacking a performative element. I liked watching Ashworth sing well enough, because I'm a fan of all his albums (notably his most recent, Etiquette). And that's not to say that I didn't also get chills of self-identification as the opening notes to "Bobby Malone Moves Home" began. However, aside from a decent Prince cover with Xiu Xiu's Caralee McElroy, there wasn't much added that night I couldn't have gotten from playing the albums at home.

    The contrast was all the more glaring when Shearwater took over. Originally an Okkervil River side project led by Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg, the band has become more and more driven by the latter with each subsequent release. On the recently rereleased Palo Santo, their best album to date, Meiburg's stamp is especially indelible. Live, he was even more dynamic, drawing out every impassioned wail and incensed coo. He commanded the stage no matter whether he was on keyboard, guitar or banjo, closing his eyes and looking up cringingly at particularly pivotal moments. With a flop of dirty blonde hair, a choirboy face, and a bleached spotlight worshipful enough to be a halo, he looked angelic. Yet his high-note howls and defiant strumming made him sound more like he was fighting to keep his soul. Throughout the Palo Santo-intensive set, it was impossible to look away from Meiburg, who resuscitated even the songs I tended to skip. Everything in this band's hands became louder, livelier, more pressing and more necessary that night, until Shearwater ultimately clinched its position as the best performance I've seen this year.

    Sandwiched into the front row, I watched the only-here-for Shearwater fans filter out after the middle set and the cultic, sing-along Xiu Xiu fans advance forward. It was a telling exodus as Xiu Xiu is clearly not for everyone. Messy, therapeutic, damaged and equally sadistic and masochistic, they're not for most people, although I count myself among the serious devotees. After all, I like the messiness, the confrontation, the avant challenge and boundary demolishing involved. In person, Xiu Xiu mastermind Jamie Stewart didn't disappoint, walking onstage with heart-patterned shoes and a guitar emblazoned with an Anne Frank sticker. Backed by his cousin Caralee McElroy and drummer Ches Smith, Stewart tore straight into a weird, discordant riff. It was post-industrial electronic maybe, or the scrambled outtakes to Inland Empire, or Philip Glass's nightmares. Whatever it was, it had to also be considered Stewart's attempt to externalize the chaos, to take all the internal rubble and render it into something approximately as scarred. It was as amazing and powerful as I'd hoped, as long as you were willing to buy into the conceit. Judging by the stunned, solemn silences that lapsed between songs, I'd say the crowd did.

    Fifteen minutes into performing, Stewart was already sopping wet. He'd given the first three songs his all, goosestepping across stage, beating the shit out of a drum, singing like he feared for his life. But like every Xiu Xiu album, the moments of energy had to be disrupted with slow, difficult experiments. The mood-shifter of choice this time was The Air Force's closer "Wig Master," interpreted here by McElroy and punctuated by a flute solo. It wasn't until the momentum was turned back up though that my favorite moments came. The band's rendition of "I Broke Up" was fantastic for example, sounding just as perverted and dysfunctional as the lyrics demand. "Yellow Raspberry" was hard to forget as well, with its menacing, stampeding and militaristic percussion. The people around me were singing along to lines like "You became a bag lady's son/ beating off nonstop to the escort pages" angrily, triumphiantly and finally cathartically, glad to be in a place where noise was beautiful and for one night, we felt like no one was alone.

    * MP3: "Bobby Malone Moves Home" - Casiotone For The Painfully Alone from Etiquette [Buy it]
    * MP3: "Red Sea, Black Sea" - Shearwater from Palo Santo (Misra version) [Buy it]
    * MP3: "I Broke Up" - Xiu Xiu from Knife Play [Buy it]

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