The wide-ranging sounds of "Memory Like a Sinking Ship" was one of the high points of this set from the Photo Atlas. The way the band's usual wiry energy was threaded together with colorful, incandescent moody passages and hanging melodies around confessional, self-effacing lyrics like, "If this is a dream, why am I the last one to figure it out," gave the song a surprisingly sonic and emotional resonance and dynamism.
If you'd never seen these guys before, you got to see the band in high form. If you had, it was like seeing these guys at a new peak, especially in terms of how well integrated the sound and energy has become across the board. The group seems to have tapped into some deeper reserve of energy to keep up what was already a hectic pace. Frontman Alan Andrews mentioned that this show was a bit out of the ordinary for the band because the outfit normally plays "seven songs, twenty minutes and then out the door." With that, the band got back into the excellent track from its latest album, Stuck in a Honey Trap, "Bleeding Colors."
The whole thing gave you a new appreciation for how Bill Threlkeld plays. He doesn't just play fast, melodic, spiky riffs; instead, he throws in other bits and pieces of sound into the song to ramp up a tuneful sense of urgency in exactly the right moment and pulling that back in others. This feat was helped in no small part by Josh Taylor and Mark Hawkins who both created a tight rhythm with bursts of texture to modulate the momentum perfectly.
Naturally, the guys reached back and played early favorites like "Handshake Heart Attack" and "Jealous Teeth" early in the set, and when Andrews came close to the front of the stage and sang, plenty of people knew the songs, even newer songs like "Move It Darling." Probably the most enthusiastic response of the night came at the end when Andrews called up members of In the Whale and The Epilogues up to the stage, and Eric Riley and Nate Hammond came up respectively in time for "Red Orange Yellow."
It wasn't just members of the other bands that came up to sing, though, but various people in the audience and one adventurous wag did some crowd surfing. The Photo Atlas's impressive turn opening for the Dirty Few a few weeks back was noteworthy, but this show was even more impassioned and energized than that.
Earlier in the evening, the show began with New Lungs from Omaha. The three piece had that kind of splintery yet angular lo-fi rock sound that came in the wake of Archers of Loaf and Sebadoh -- kind of punk, kind of garage. Singer/guitarist Danny Maxwell had a bit of a Lou Reed, dark poet to him, and that served as an interesting contrast to the dense, distorted melodies and rhythms of the music.
In the Whale followed with a set of material taken both from its 2012 debut EP, Cake, along with a pool of newer material. Eric Riley attempted to get the crowd riled up by reminding them this was a rock show, and in the end his efforts paid off. People often marvel that a two piece such as this can make such a big sound, but this observation has rarely been quite as true as it is for these guys. Nate Valdez uses a Fender Twin Reverb guitar amp, as well as an Ampeg bass rig.
He's clearly done his homework, as his rich and sharp guitar tone makes what were sometimes bluesy guitar riffs sound like these guys are going more for a Melvins or Dinosaur Jr vibe. And it's not just in the overall sound but also in the fact that they sound like they're not trying to be quite like anyone else. Valdez and Riley both sang and played with a spirited display of raw rock and roll that we don't see often enough. For the final number, the duo brought Erin Jo Harris up, and she added yet another layer of soulfulness and attitude.
The Epilogues had a little trouble with its lighting rig in the first third of the set or so, but the guys didn't let that get in the way of putting on a fine performance. "This is how The Beatles did it," joked bassist Jeff Swoboda, eliciting a heartfelt laugh from singer/guitarist Chris Heckman. The way the group's sweeping, kaleidoscopic, atmospheric melodies were shot through with fluid but distorted guitar work and rhythms made every song feel like an elevated emotional state.
One song in particular sounded like a Gary Numan tune, if Numan had collaborated with Catherine Wheel. Heckman seemed so swept up in the moment, his singing felt like he was reliving the original inspiration for the words yet again. Clearly he'd done these songs before, but his delivery here felt fresh and real. It didn't hurt that the band was engaging and had a good sense of humor about the lighting situation and about themselves generally.
Personal Bias: I've been a fan of the Photo Atlas since first seeing the band at the Climax Lounge in November, 2004.
Random Detail: Ran into poet and experimental musician Max Rommerdahl at the show.
By the Way: I never really cared for the Epilogues. This show, however, changed my mind, and Cinematics is a pretty good album.
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