It felt like the summer broke just in time for Titwrench 2012, and when things got kicked off a bit after 8 p.m. on Friday night, the climate inside Glob suited the music of opening act, Cardinal Veil. Julie Slater has played violin solo before and used the instrument in interesting ways, but for this show, she definitely added some new dimensions, with looped lines echoing and streaming to creating a haunted, melancholic, vibrant minimalism, like the perfect soundtrack to the dusk outside.
Throughout the night, the sets ran smoothly and efficiently, so much so that there wasn't a huge gap between bands. At nine acts, this definitely made a difference in the schedule for the night, so it seemed like there were maybe five minutes before Death in Space got up to perform. A lone female act, as well as a Titwrench and Girls Rock alumn, Death in Space played a nice, white Gibson SG with three humbuckers. The sharp tone and rapidly picked leads made it sound like surf rock from time to time, but she also hit drones, over which she played Robert Smith-esque leads without using the same tonal palette. Overall, her songs resembled Chrome-like sketches without the evil.
Seattle's ADC began its set with a sample that sounded like it came from one of those 1950s PSAs about sexual behavior. Then a SONAR-like tone sat in a pond of modulated white noise interrupted by higher pitched noise. The effect was like watching a TV for video anomalies for signs of communication from the other side through the black and white chaos of endless pixels. Later on, a sound that resembled a plasma cutter slicing through steel came in along with what could be described as an electric frog abruptly vocalizing.
Kate Warner of Mirror Fears sampled an '80s R&B song for her first number and collaged it with her own synth work and vocals to create a song that sounded like it was constantly expanding and collapsing. Most of her set, though, was this richly melodic synth pop that at times recalled New Order circa Technique and Dare!-era Human League.
Vocally, Warner was reminiscent of Sinéad O'Connor without the lilting affectation. For the final song, Warner brought Julie Slater back to the stage for what she described as a "seven minute ambient song." While the track probably didn't and couldn't inspire dancing in any traditional sense, its shimmering, downtempo melody was brightened by moments of tonal incandescence and seemed pretty compelling.
Mariposa's Madeline Johnston set up a chair near the front of the carpet that served as the "stage" and plugged her small, acoustic guitar into a delay pedal. With just those components and her delicately resonant voice, Johnston created subtle layers through her repetition of guitar lines. Her singing added accents to the minimal music to create an overall musical structure, and each spare lyric was a brushstroke of sound so unexpectedly affecting it was like listening to Joanna Newsom from The Milk-Eyed Mender but even more understated.
Believe was a duo that included Alejandro Archuleta from Slight Harp/Psychic Handbook and Kim, the lead singer of Oakland's No Babies. The dark, bassy synth music at times recalled anything Vince Clarke might have done but more dense and robust in the low end. Kim gestured dramatically and danced about, which made the vibrant projections cast upon Believe more dynamic. Archuleta clearly kept the music flowing in real time, even as he used loops without dropping a note, resulting in the kind of atmospheric music that picked up where some of the more interesting proto-goth synth acts of the '80s left off.
Always impressive, Bigawatt was a full band this time around with a bassist/bass clarinet player, a drummer and a violinist, alongside mainstay Marisa Demarco. Musically, it was akin to the dark cabaret of Love Life but less rock and more experimental. At the end of the set, the band performed a song wherein Demarco seemed to take samples of her voice and process them into raw noise, over which she sang in a more conventionally melodious manner. Demarco has a uniquely powerful, resonant and commanding voice. Instead of trying to do something you might expect, Demarco infuses her music with the kind of idiosyncratic imagination we need to see more of these days.
For the Kitty Crimes set, it looked like people had stopped sitting down and paying respectful attention to the bands. Not that the latter had ceased but the sitting down sure did, because it seemed like everyone got up to dance. You could hardly blame them. Maria Kohler had great beats with both strong electronic percussion and buoyant synth work, and she knows how to command an audience. She also seemed to have an endless supply of clever turns of phrase that she was able to plant perfectly in every moment.
The last act of the night inspired MC Piper Rose to get the crowd to crouch low to the ground and start chanting "Wu" louder and louder as we stood up. A healthy skepticism about cover bands of any kind is well in order unless you're very afflicted by the good sense-destroying malady of nostalgia. But some make you appreciate the band of choice in a new way.
Lady Wu-Tang was the latter because these five women had the act down, and the sheer enthusiasm of their performance got you excited about this music all over again -- especially for those of us not lucky enough to see Wu-Tang the first time through. Especially great was the cover of "C.R.E.A.M." and the final song of the night, "Wu Tang Clan Ain't Nothing to Fuck Wit." Good thing this band was the last of the night because no one could have created more excitement and enthusiasm in the crowd than Lady Wu Tang this time of night. Or any time of night.
The trio Cthulha incorporated drums, violin, piano and precise, lilting vocals into their performance. The band was tight enough that it could play broken melodies, seeming to tear the songs apart, and then come back together kind of like an experimental jazz band. The songs would also escalate into complexity and then free fall into a forceful simplicity. The last song, "Keep On," found Monica Demarco playing the strings of the piano like a zither in the beginning, while singing with her gift for soaring resonance. Overall, it was slightly reminiscent of an old Chicago band called Maestro Subgum and the Whole.
Mano played next with just her acoustic guitar. For this show, she told us she would play some covers, mostly happy, upbeat songs before delving into the deep dark material. Mano has always been a solid performer, but she seemed especially confident for this performance as she engaged the audience with gentle, playful humor.
Her cover of "Bowl of Oranges" by Bright Eyes definitely highlighted the more upbeat end of Conor Oberst's songwriting. When Mano went into the original compositions, it wasn't the music so much that was dark as the lyrics that bravely laid out Mano's psychic vulnerabilities with refreshingly unvarnished meditations on the gnarly emotional side of a breakup. She closed with a cover of "Heartbeats" by the Knife instead of Morrissey, having left the tiebreaker on the vote for that to Titwrench host, Sarah Slater.
For much of the rest of the show, the performances switched back and forth from the usual stage upstairs in the Mercury Café to one makeshift stage in the back, which was where Porlolo set up. Erin Roberts laughed at herself and mentioned how they might be a little rusty, but when she and Roger Green got going, it was kind of like discovering a new band that you like.
Roberts's clear, evocative voice mostly stayed in a couple of tonal ranges but her range of expression was not limited. And for a later song, she displayed a much broader spectrum of her voice. She and Green complimented each other well on guitar, but with Green flowing from simple, reliable, minimal lines to his masterful bending of tones like a fiery wind flowing slowly through the progression. Roberts's lyrics, which are both narrative and confessional, had a wry, humorous tinge to them, even as they expressed snippets of unflinching self-examination.
For the Hideous Men set, Ryan McRyhew could not be there in person, but he Skyped in the video projection and made a brief cameo on the screen after the set. However, the charming Kristi Schaefer, like an eccentric mad scientist muttering lightly self-deprecating commentary as she found her way amongst her equipment, got the music going without a hitch. As half the band, and the primary vocalist, you had to wonder if Schaefer was having a kind joke with herself when she said things about how Ryan would say something funny here between songs.
Either way, even without McRyhew, it was a beautiful Hideous Men show and Schaefer ran through some of the band's most well-known songs, in addition to some new material, including an incredible, emotionally electrifying rendition of "Pissing in a River" by Patti Smith at the end.
Rachael Pollard hasn't performed regularly for a few years, so getting to see her at Titwrench was a rare treat. As a performer Pollard has a gift for seeming so nervous and fragile but also inviting and friendly while singing songs with vivid imagery. Her ability to transfer her emotions in the moment probably comes from the fact that she is so open and sensitive as a musician. She was only going to do four songs, but the crowd pretty much demanded one more, and she indulged with "Oops, I Did It Again" (not the Britney Spears version).
Piper Rose called a Titwrench family meeting after Pollard's set and told everyone to get together in a circle, which we did, and some women walked around with bells and what smelled like containers of burning sage. At the center Rose and Esme Patterson did a kind of tarot reading. It was hard to make out what the card was but at the end Rose asked us all to stand and face the stage. The lights were mostly out but that just prepared us for what came next.
Milch de la Máquina came walking up the stairs carrying a picture frame of some kind with no picture. The lights along the frame made each frame being held look like it contained a living portrait. Each of the members of the troupe looked to be wearing some kind of Day of the Dead make-up in black and white. Some of them had small speakers on that emanated low, droning noises. Others, perhaps all, made ghostly, ritualistic sounds with their voices. When they all got to the front of the stage proper what followed was like a ritual of liberation -- certainly from the everyday world, if not necessarily anything else.
At one point two, maybe three, members were at the back of the room with frames and those at the front sang a bit of song, maybe chanted is a better way of putting it, and there was a call and response with those at the back moving forward a bit at a time until they reached the front. When everyone was in front, there was some more conventional singing, and then the frames were set up, and each of the performers walked through the frames to the side of the stage where a light came.
By the end, the one holding the frames walked through, and the frames fell over. It was then that all of Milch de la Máquina made their way to the front and gathered together with their heart lights shining and made sounds, a haunting, wordless chorus, like something you'd expect to hear on a John Boorman soundtrack. The effect was not something you see at every show, much less every day.
Laura Goldhamer didn't necessarily bring things back to earth, but whereas the Milch de la Máquina was dark, the lighting for her performance was warm, like by a campfire, which suited the beautiful animated stop-motion films she uses as a backdrop to her lively folk-inflected songs. Her dramatic vocal delivery and constant motion, coupled with her friendly demeanor, made for a show that seemed like you were getting to see a friend perform at her house -- no mean feat when playing a relatively big room like the Mercury.
Apparently Zoe Boekbinder has wanted to play Titwrench for some years, but it was this year that the scheduling worked out; she was on her way to a Fairfield, Iowa residency. Part of her set involved looped beats and looping her vocals to create two and then three part harmonies with herself. That sort of thing is challenging enough to do with other people; it's even more so with just yourself.
Boekbinder's mastery of her own voice was impressive overall, but it was interesting to hear her go for a subtly broad range of intonations, including one song called "Saltwater," where her voice was reminiscent of the late Alan Wilson of Canned Heat. Boekbinder had been working with prisoners at the New Folsom Prison in writing songs and the like, and she performed a song penned by Greg Gatlin called "Monster," a stark and honest presentation of self. Boekbinder's self-effacing humor and broad palette of sounds used in building her songs really drew you in even for a relatively short set.
Albuquerque's Mariner Variations was a one-woman show unlike most things you'll ever see. She started off with a loop of her voice making wind sounds while she made the cries of sea birds over top, resulting in songs that could be best described as sea shanties. At one point, as she was playing accordion, you could see the moon through the window, and that just added to a haunting yet tranquil calm that came through her soundscaping, especially at the end where the quiet, breathy piece sounded like a funeral song for the sea.
Sara Century started off with little preamble, and for her first two songs, she had Katie Taylor on stage playing the MicroKorg, making textural and tonal background sounds to augment the tone of each tune. As arch and as disturbing as Century's songs often can be, there is almost always an underlying sense of humor about it all. So when she sings of blaming everything on the cats or circular poems about who knows what, it comes across as funny, demented or both.
She did a cover of Tracy Bonham's "Kisses" and joked about how it was a cover or maybe it wasn't. For the last song, Valerie Franz joined Century for an "a capella" song that had Century with echoing vocals while Franz made truly otherworldly sounds with her voice that were nearly unrecognizable as human.
The evening ended with Night of Joy. For roughly ten minutes, the band careened through five songs with its usual zeal and ferocity. Occasional Backbeat contributor Bree Davies even had a few moments for her usual, eccentric joking including something about, "If this was a pimps and hos show, would you be the bitch or the boss? That's the question."
Whereas most bands that have a foot in post-punk have an angular sonic approach, the rhythm section with this band is more decidedly fluid, and Franz's relatively simple guitar work seems like a train wreck that's promising to happen but never quite does. Night of Joy finished with a cover of "In and Out of Grace" right before the second night of Titwrench 2012 had to turn into a pumpkin, and Piper Rose had to, as she joked, tell us to get out.
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