i grew up with the edward gorey illustrated version of t.s. eliot’s old possum’s book of practical cats. the poems about a group of eccentric cats is what andrew lloyd webber used for most of the lyrics to cats. webber introduced the storyline of the heavyside layer, which is like the kitty afterlife, and only one of the cats can raise up during the jellicle moon. the bulk of the songs are treated like testimonials by cats as to why they are worthy to go up to the heavyside layer. once the lights go dark you are in the graveyard with them frolicking around with the sprightly score. cats is horribly/wonderfully dated with spandex, leg warmers, songs heavy on the keyboard and unison singing. the performers seem to really enjoy the show and according to the program more than a few of them have been with the production for years. it seems that the cast live, eat and breath cats. my only complaint would be about the choreography. the dance numbers, and there are a lot of dance numbers, are very safe and a little too cute for me at times. the strength of the songs and the energy of the performers make the show work. oddly, in the end you find yourself rooting for a cat to die.
before i gush about the xiu xiu show at holocene, i would like to say how much i enjoyed tune-yards, one of the openers. i knew nothing about merrill garbus (the woman behind tune yards) before the show, she caught me by surprise and had me stupefied. as i texted a friend merrill is like the “fantastic child of laurie anderson and ani difranco”, odd sounding and fantastic. probably one of the best openers for xiu xiu possible.
now for xiu xiu, i’ve talked so much about the melancholic genius of jamie stewart and xiu xiu that i’m bored of it. alas, this show was just further proof of it.
the last proper xiu xiu show i saw they were a four piece, this time they were down to a duo, going drummer and bassless. so they were back to the keyboard/guitar/electronic/cymbals group of a couple of years ago. for this tour jamie teamed up with angela seo, who i know nothing about. i can tell you that the sound for this show was a lot harsher than past tours, it reminded me a little of power electronics of the 90’s that morphed into the noise scene, and it made it awesome. this direction tears into the raw emotion of jamie’s lyrics, making the wounds feel fresh. i was crushed in the best possible way. plus they get major bonus points by using the korg ds. long live xiu xiu.
the clientele were at doug fir the other day. they were charmingly british and played their gentle music wonderfully. that’s about it.
dear god i hate myself is exceptional album. xiu xiu has alway been the project of the gnarled mind of jamie stewart. over the years he recruits friends to help him record and perform. the last couple of albums have had basically the same group. that moved xiu xiu to a more “band like” sound, fuller and a bit tidier. dear god comes off a bit like a solo album from the lead singer, a return to the sparser sound of the earlier albums. broken electronics and distorted guitar complements jamie’s cracked voice. lyrically, this is xiu xiu’s strongest album in some time. jamie has reached a new level of sublime perversity with the perfect dose of anger and revelry. so far 2010 is an excellent year for music.
more musicians should release albums the way joanna newsom did with have on one me. for music nerds like me, it’s annoying to know that an album is done but won’t be released for months. not much was known about have one on me until about a month before it’s release, it made it so much more exciting. when i heard that it was going to be a triple album, i was sure it would be extraordinary. my first listen was on a sunset train to seattle, since then it’s been the soundtrack to the house. the first couple of listens i couldn’t pay attention to the lyrics, i was so absorbed in the swirling sound that is a great stylistic step for joanna. the symphonic sound from y’s has been pared down letting the roughness show, just a little and just the right amount. joanna’s voice is maturing to sound very much like kate bush and tori amos, the way she bends words and her fantastical storytelling is distinctly her’s. i get the feeling that joanna had a vision for this have one on me, and worked furiously until it was ready. there’s a sense of urgency about the album, i really think this works well for her. i can’t find a meandering or boring moment in the two and a half hours of music. very well done joanna.
my new thing is walking down to portland center stage for the weekend matinée, it’s a bit easier to get rush tickets that way. this saturday i was the only one in the rush line, so i easily got into the sold out the 39 steps. i have never seen the 1935 movie version and purposefully avoided the recent pbs version so that i wouldn’t know the twists. this production opened a week ago and has been getting good reviews. the staged version of the alfred hitchcock classic is a farcical take on the movie, with a wit often compared to monty python. i’m generally not a fan of that kind of humor, so i went in a little skeptical. for good reason i have a “portland center stage can do not wrong” attitude, i have faith in them.
the 39 steps is a great production. i wish that i liked that pythony sense of humor. i did laugh, just nowhere near as much as the rest of the crowd. i think that kind of comedy tries too hard, i like it subtle. i was able to look past the gags to see the quality of the performance. the four actors had a great sense of timing, and were up for anything. the two leads lack a little chemistry, but make up for it with gobs of charm. the other two actors portrayed dozens of characters, sometimes changing “seamlessly” mid scene. if you see it, you’ll understand the quotes. i enjoyed the hitchcock references throughout the play, they were very clever. i’ve come to expect some creative and interesting staging from pcs, they do wonders with a minimal sets. for the 39 steps cargo crates turn into inns and doors on wheels proved to be quite versatile. the highlight for me were the shadow puppet transitions, it’s amazing what can be done with shadow puppets.
the 39 steps is certainly not going to be play of the year. that doesn’t mean it’s not a crackerjack of a production worth seeing.
i think a lot of people around my age have some sort of history with suzanne vega, either with the “tom’s diner” era in the late eighties or with the “blood makes noise” time in the early nineties. suzanne had a good part in defining the early 90’s college rock sound that was all the rage. i certainly listened to her quite a bit during that time. i haven’t followed her too closely over the last fifteen years, but i did always notice when she had a new album out and always considered going to see here when she came around. when a friend suggested going to see her i said yes. i’ve never seen her live and i was curious as to what she would be like after so long. i considered getting some of her recent albums, but decided to go in ignorant.
i’m glad that we ignored the advice of our friend and got there before eight, suzanne and her band came on promptly at eight for the first of two sets. she is touring for close up vol. !, love songs, it’s a collection of acoustic re-recordings of her older songs, so the set was filled with her form of love songs. i was happy to hear four or five songs i knew, including one from the (recently deceased) sparklehorse/danger mouse album dark night of the soul that i didn’t realize she sang. she was great live. no offense to her, she is a smart and strong songwriter, but there’s not much that’s super special about her music. suzanne does have “it” though, she seems personable, approachable and funny, when she performed we were sucked in. the group i was with all agreed that her guitarist and bassist were distracting, and they seemed too safe for what they were doing. they were a little to wankery for us. the best parts were the songs involving with string quartet, whom i think were from the dark night of the soulseattle rock orchestra, they took the show to another place. very impressed suzanne, very impressed.