Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Art Rock

Fol Chen released their CD, "Part 1: John Shade, Your Fortune's Made" at a most memorable evening of music Saturday night, February 7, 2009 at Pehrspace. Melissa Thorne (Fol Chen's keyboardist) had spent the day redressing the venue and turning it from Friday night's Hoedown barn into a cozy, intimate womb-like space. Bolts of fabric lined the two white walls and warm house lamps hung in two bunches from the ceiling, while the band performed on a few oriental throw rugs.

In this setting, Avi Buffalo Music, Karin Tatoyan and Fol Chen delivered sets that sent me reeling to the back of the closet to haul out the much maligned term "Art Rock" and attempt some rehabilitation on the concept. So it's Art Rock. So what! These groups of musicians seem determined to raise the bar on what constitutes popular music.

It was a perfect opportunity to get to know Avi Buffalo Music because they performed a flawless set of their most extraordinary music. I arrived just as they were getting ready to begin and I was happy to see that a lot of people had made the extra effort to be there as early as 9 o'clock on a Saturday night just to see them.

In this relaxed and casual atmosphere, we in front just sat down on the floor as Avi Buffalo began their set and within moments everyone was mesmerized. We witnessed a live performance of such high quality and musical integrity it would make you weep if you weren't laughing from the sheer joy of it. The songs are so musically inventive and fresh they create their own genre. Intensely personal yet universally understood, whether singing about the trauma of high school life or the movement of the planets, the lyrics are always sharp and incisive.

One by one your could see the audience become entranced, mouths agape in amazement. How can this band be so young and so accomplished at the same time, everyone seemed to ask. Every one of the band members bring invaluable contributions to the mix. It's just stunningly beautiful music and it expands the art form.

When Avi Buffalo Music finished their set, the room had filled out considerably and everyone had the same dazed look on their face. I'd seen it before a couple of weeks ago when they played at The Echo. And a special thanks to Aaron Embry for joining them for this set as well.

By the time Karin Tatoyan took the stage, Pehrspace was packed, but unlike any other time I've been sardined into this place, it was nice and cocoon-like. I can't explain why, just maybe something about the positive energy put out by the three bands.

I've seen Karin Tatoyan before, but nothing prepared me for the impact of her performance Saturday night. Perhaps it was my vantage point. The place was so packed, I found a space in that funny corner near the entrance, under a speaker, with a clear, front-row view of Karin and her band and it felt like spying on someone going through a personal catharsis.

The rich, dense sound garden Karin creates, offset by her emotional, fiery, electrifying voice, and lulled by Andrew Carter's gorgeous classical cello, keeps the listener on edge, like some great suspense movie. The lyrics are obviously deeply personal and intense, but I'll have to wait until I have some recorded work to really understand what she's singing about. But the emotion comes across, loud and clear.

Karin Tatoyan stretches the boundaries of what's acceptable public behavior and recalls everyone from Janis Joplin to Bjork (though she seems to me a bit less self-conscious than Bjork). She seems simultaneously theatrical and genuine, like Amanda Palmer, were she a little madder. Like I said, "Art Rock".

By now the audience was reeling from the one, two punch of Avi Buffalo and then Karin Tatoyan and was ready to be putty in the hands of Fol Chen. That's a good way to approach Fol Chen because one never knows what style they'll begin with or where they'll end up.

I assumed the same position I'd had for Karin, under the speaker, with a direct view of the band and Samuel Bing and company launched into "The Believers" and proceeded to thrill the audience with their unique approach. Fol Chen pile genre on top of genre until they build this great wall of music highlighted by their idiosyncratic singing style and blaring horns. It's a heady mixture and I am never less than fully engrossed. A special nod to Ethan for the great sound on all three bands.

The new CD is so sonically superior to their old EP that the songs sound brand new again. And the more quiet, thoughtful pieces reveal a side of Fol Chen I haven't seen live and didn't even know existed. "You and Your Sister in Jericho" is a particularly lovely song. I'm glad to finally have a full length CD from this band.

Looking back over their set and the two earlier ones by Karin Tatoyan and Avi Buffalo Music, it was a remarkable night of genre-bending, boundary expanding, mind-blowing art. It felt like the world grew a little larger that night.


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