24 Oct, 2012

Freelance Whales at the Bluebird Theater

The concept of “guilty pleasures” is not an ideology I want to subscribe to. Taste is obviously subjective, so why should we feel ashamed of liking something? On the other side of the coin, it’s a sentiment that isn’t without truth: there is a certain bitter taste of remorse that comes with the realization of actually enjoying something that is considered by most as either 1) a waste of time 2) an unfunny joke made at its own expense. Mainstream media these days is, let’s face it, mostly shit. So yeah, if you’re embarrassed of the fact you that you sometimes find yourself bobbing your head to Bieber, Minaj or Ke$ha, go ahead, continue feeling embarrassed (if you think they actually have merit, then that’s a completely separate matter and I would consider professional help). I can confidently say that I’m fairly deft at avoiding the radio at all costs, so my idea of a “guilty pleasure” is skewed. Still, I take pleasure in it, and I am indeed guilty.

Herein lies the core of my guiltiness; the Indie Rock scene has gotten a lot of flack for producing loads of artists who possess only a pleasing aesthetic rather than any genuine artistic substance. While this argument is valid in many cases – owning an impressive collection of cardigans, button-ups, and tight pants doesn’t expressly mean you’re a musician, unfortunately – I feel obliged to admit that sometimes I really like to sit in my room, watch the snow fall, and listen to indie-alt-folk bands with high-pitched male vocalists (who often wear thick-rimmed glasses) whilst sipping a cup of Earl Grey. SUE ME, ALRIGHT?

I can’t exactly remember who introduced me to Freelance Whales a few years ago, or if I simply stumbled across them one blustery afternoon. But I do recall how I was immediately smitten with their sound: lyrics like vignettes weaved from childhood memories, stitched with golden threads of nostalgia (sample lyric: “You swept all the red from my cheeks, I didn’t hear you come back inside/I light up the gas in the den and stand there in the thin winter light/But, oh god, that curve in your spine, a question mark, a doctor’s sigh/Was framed by the windowsill”); as if you were sitting in a rocking chair in a modestly decorated cabin amongst the depth of Muir Woods and heard softly-picked acoustic guitar, banjos, and bubbling synth melodies floating through the treetops from the other side of the hilltop. Although I like to tell people that I’m mainly into 90’s alt-rock and future-garage (which I am, I promise), baroque-poppers like the Whales will always have a place in my heart musical preferences.

Opening the show was Geographer, a 3-piece shogazer/pop outfit from San Francisco. The group formed in 2008 and has since released two LPs and an EP; their sound could be described as 16-bit bedroom dream-pop with a generous amount of synths, vocal melodies, and, yes, a cello. Their live presence can also be succinctly abridged as “breezy, pretty-sounding, crowd-pleaser.” Trust me, the crowd was pleased.

Judging by their recorded tunes, I would have expected a quieter, more toned-down performance, but Geographer rocked out quite a bit more than I predicted. Frontman Michael Deni – who looks strikingly like Bret McKenzie’s estranged cousin – primarily focused his energy on synth chords and strumming on his Stratocaster. Deni also used a MIDI controller to loop vocal melodies and harmonies, which added depth and texture to the live sound. Drummer Brian Ostreicher provided most of the percussive elements in the set, which gave Geographer’s soundscapes less of a processed feel. He also vaguely looked like Phil Selway at a distance, but mostly due to his baldness.

Unfortunately, after a while I found it more interesting to observe the crowd than the actual band. A few feet from me were some bros having spiritual jam-dance moments: eyes closed, heads twisting and shaking in every direction, yet subconsciously aware to not spill their drinks. When Nathan Blaz broke out a trumpet, the audience, as per usual when horns are introduced in a live setting, overreacted. It’s like these kids have never seen brass before.

Geographer had a good energy, a developed sound, and raised comparisons to Wild Nothings’ composition style. Deni’s (frequently falsetto) vocals were near pitch-perfect, and the instrumentation was balanced and got a lot of people dancing – some more enthusiastically than others, of course. But it pains me to say that as nice as it was, their set was, ultimately, forgettable. It’s just as if something was missing. But then again, they’re only a 4 year-old band, and there’s still a good chance they’ll find that something.

I really hate to be that guy who says shit like: “Yeah I thought their new album was alright, but I’m really more into their older stuff,” but this sentiment fits exactly what I think of Freelance Whales. 2009’s Weathervanes has been a soft, bedroom, wintertime stand-by listen since it was released (I even have that shit on vinyl, son). Their second LP Diluvia came out on October 9th of this year, and having listened to it on several occasions, I can confidently say it’s not my favorite. Sure, there are elements of the record that surpass the maturity of some parts of Weathervanes, but the overall wispy, yearning spirit that I came to define as a major characteristic of the Whales was lacking. This is why I wasn’t 1000% excited about seeing them live, but it was certainly still worth it.

Freelance Whales’ Judah Dadone

Freelance Whales’ Judah Dadone

Freelance Whales’ Kevin Read

Freelance Whales’ Kevin Read

As they took the stage, bespectacled frontman Judah Dadone told the crowd over a slowly-arching atmosphere of intertwined guitar and banjo-picking that they almost didn’t make it for the show this evening from Salt Lake City. How heartwarming a tale. And thus they launched into their set, opening with the two first tracks off Diluvia, “Aeolus” and “Land Features.” Dadone’s tenor perched atop the background chanted vocal harmonies was like a songbird, and swirling glockenspiel and synthesized melodies transported the Bluebird’s audience into a trance-like state. If I wasn’t watching the band through the viewfinder of my camera, I would have closed my eyes and let the notes wash over me.
Freelance Whales’ Chuck Criss

Freelance Whales’ Chuck Criss

The Trumpeteer!

The Trumpeteer!

The 3rd song was “Generator ^ 2nd Floor,” one of the most popularized tracks on Weathervanes. The nostalgia-heavy anthem was more dependent on guitar riffs and sounded heavier than on the album, but the idea was expressed just as well, as if the lyrics were written in the dusty crawlspace of your childhood home and the melody was always there, embedded in your heart, sometimes hummed softly under your breath when nobody was around. This was followed by “Ghosting” another song found on the second half of Weathervanes. All things considered, Dadone’s high-pitched, breathy vocals were the shakiest and most deviant aspect of Whales’ live sound; the rest of the band carried their weight by contributing with different facets of instrumentation and vocal harmonies. However, this was plainly apparent only when the vocal leads were exposed and bare, and with some help from his friends, Judah was able to support the group well enough.
Dadone going for it.

Dadone going for it.

Highlights of the set, for me, were mainly found in songs where the band’s dynamic elements were spotlighted: “Spitting Image” featured the lovely Doris Cellar on lead vocals with plentiful synth sweeps and swiftly-picked banjo riffs backing her; “Red Star” had a slower, more somber intro where Dadone’s voice shined with Cellar’s accompaniment, only to pick up with accentuated trumpet melodies and arpeggiated synth loops that called to mind a Beach House-esque timbre; my favorite Whales song “Location” was performed in a stripped-down, minimalist interpretation which was downright enchanting. Essentially, the band sounded best when they were all working together, on those undeniably infectious 5-part harmonies and persistently interconnected compositions.

Dadone and Criss

Dadone and Criss

Glockenspiel’n

Glockenspiel’n

Read looking worried.

Read looking worried.

When their last song of the “real” set (“Emergence Exit”) hazily faded out and the crowd wooed for more, the Whales anti-climactically walked off stage, knowing they would be back for more in mere moments. And when they returned for encore, it was the strongest they sounded all night. On “Broken Horse,” Dadone’s voice was considerably stronger and less shaky, with only the sparse instrumentation of a clacking woodblock and muted trumpet and banjo behind him. “Starring” was far more upbeat with emphasis on electric guitar riffs and twee synth leads; oh, and let’s not forget, a roomful of people fervently clapping their hands to the beat. After that they vanished off stage just as they arrived: together.

The show was over, so I walked outside. It was snowing. That was just too perfect of a feeling to describe. I don’t feel guilty for enjoying this show, I’ve decided. Yeah, there were flaws, but everyone knows it’s all too simple to fall in love with imperfections. As I felt those first flakes of the season fall on my nose, I could understand why I fell in love with the Whales upon hearing them: their songs conjure up a feeling if you let them. And that feeling is just as comforting as revisiting the days you spent lounging around on a lazy summer day as a young child. Complete bliss.

Review and Photos by Sigmund Steiger. 

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