Friday July 25th, 2003 at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA
The Ivory Coast, Helms, Victory at Sea, & The Deafening

The Ivory Coast Helms Victory at Sea The Deafening [more]

Such an excellent show deserves to be documented, but my memory of the ordeal is thin. It’s always that way with the best shows. I leave the show in a daze and the show becomes obsolete outside of its perfect instance. Talking about it afterwards can’t really do it justice, and recollecting the facts only serves to cheapen the experience. Its context is lost and the intangible elements which color and warm an evening are too much for my senses – certainly too much for my meager skills as a narrator. I’m terribly frustrated that particulars and simile are all I’m going to be able to tell you about this show.

Being left off the list required me to hike back down to Citizen’s Bank and get the required $9 to enter – personnel at Polyvinyl (The Ivory Coast’s label) is changing and I was evidently lost in the mix. In the midst of this all, Jay Cox (vocals/guitar for the band) poked his head through the door, hurriedly moving from one impromptu meet-and-greet to another. The broad grin on his face (his mouth is always pulled tight precluding a toothy smile) let me know he was frazzled and loving it. This would be the band’s biggest show – something incredulous to both the band and its longtime fans. Outwardly, the band was breaking up because Cox was moving to Seattle, so most of the evening’s focus was on Cox; as such, he was playing host for the evening. I didn’t dare bother him about $9, not on his night.

Opening an evening composed entirely of locals was The Deafening. While the band may have performed the historic role of an opener, it did little else. The band’s take on the indie genre sounded more like a rewarming of the late 80s alternative offerings, but without the glamour or sheen. Songs typically flowed with a lazy and expected gait that did little to capture its audience. While the band seemed earnest, their compositions lead them astray. Ultimately, it was simply outclassed by the remainder of evening’s playbill. Dwelling on the band any further can’t do anyone any good.

Thankfully, what The Deafening lacked, Victory at Sea had in spades. Fronted by Boston music scene mainstay Mona Elliot, Victory at Sea was refreshingly engaging, constantly shifting, and entirely captivating. Credit much of this to Elliot’s commanding, bone-shaking voice. Although obviously shy (she performed with a cap pulled well over her eyes), Elliot’s voice is impossible to overlook and serves as an alluring beacon to the band’s intriguing compositions and stirring atmospheres.

While the band’s material is typically slow with a direct vocal intensity that blushes my face, there is a tumultuous undercurrent of subtle nuances that are nearly hidden by the band’s bold atmospheres. The audience slowly comes to realize that it’s not Elliot’s voice but the intricate construction of Victory at Sea’s songs that is the true strength of the band. Ultimately, this is an accomplished collective of artists able to deliver curious hooks at every turn, which, combined with the seemingly opposite soothing atmospheres, makes listening to the band a bit of a pleasantly exhausting experience.

The root of the band’s music is Elliot’s clean guitar work picking through ugly chords or strumming the pretty ones. Although a solo guitar and voice can often complete a song, without her other players, Elliot’s music would be too sparse and unexplored. Thankfully she’s recently joined up with Taro Hatanaka, whose textured violin work is smart whether he’s working from long bowed phrases or plucked rabbit punches. His work on violin or guitar never dominates the band’s music, but both are vital to creating its interesting diversions. Similarly, the accomplished keyboard (and occasional bass work) of co-founder Mel Lederman creates the foundation and textures for the songs. Only new drummer Dave Norton seemed unable to live up to the level of live sophistication presented by the rest of the band, or at least that which has been featured so prominently on the band’s previous releases. The long, rolling phrases of previous drummers were sorely missed.

As one might expect from such an artistic concoction of sounds, the band’s set occasionally flirted with the hyperbole of musical pretension. Fortunately, by luck or by skill, the quartet generally stayed true, resulting in a spellbinding set. That sense of restraint would soon be lost entirely as Helms began its stay, but, surprisingly, with glorious results.

In every case, the excesses of musical pretension are mockworthy – maybe not to all, but certainly to some. Whether it’s the over-the-top corpse paint of black metal, the synchronized jumps of punk’s latest revival, the tortured howls of a screamo vocalist as he writhes on the floor, or the noted complexity-for-the-sake-of-complexity of math-rock, someone doesn’t like it, and it’s often easy to know why. But just as there is good reason for “rockers” to scoff at the intricacies and outright wankery of Helms, there are those who chill when they hear the hypnotic polyphonic regeneration and slow decay created by a finger-tapped guitar played through a delay pedal by a virtuoso.

For many, Helms is the textbook definition of pretension. Not only is its music complicated and often ostensibly obfuscated, but also it seems coded with lofty messages and secrets. Even playful song titles like “The Kindness of Automatic Doors” seem to hint at deeper intellectual concerns. For most, a band that requires special stage lighting – namely a completely dark stage save for a single house lamp – is thought to be demanding, if not worse. While I think it would be impossible for Helms to defend themselves from these charges, the sum total of all the talent, the posturing, and the affectation is a band of quite revolutionary impact.

The thin, meandering music twists and turns through jagged compositions dominated by the wheedling guitar of Sean McCarrthy and his whispered, Slint-like vocals. Both drums and bass maintain the pace for the repeating and effected, overlapping guitar lines. Occasionally, drums push forward and the band builds to big crescendos that seem more like bursts of energy than the gradual ebb and flow of slowcore bands.

The band disregards both rules and reason as they move freely from new music compositional restraint to over-the-top gaudy exhibition. I’m still not sure if this is the result of simple abandon or painstaking arrangement. The result is not only emotionally stirring, but also generates considerable impact. Of course, someone is convinced this is pretentious crap, and there is a case to be made.

On any other night, it would appear as though The Ivory Coast had bitten off more than it could chew. By assembling such bold openers, the band was in real danger of being upstaged. On this night, however, that didn’t seem to be a concern. The opening bands were just friends and that seemed most important. This was, first, a going-away party for Jay Cox, second, an Ivory Coast farewell show, and, only distantly, a rock show. Normal rules didn’t apply.

When The Ivory Coast walked onto the stage for the final time, a friendly, near-capacity crowd greeted them. The band seemed amazed by the turn out, and friends from the audience kept reminding vocalist/guitarist Jay Cox to look around at the admirers. Cox was genuine and thanked the audience several times early into the band’s set. By the time the band finished, he would have thanked all of Boston several times more, the staff at The Middle East for “letting [him] in free since 1994,” and virtually everyone but the pope. For the first time since I moved to Boston I began to discover the unity, encouragement, and, dare I say love, within the scene.

Although my previous experience with The Ivory Coast was no more than an enjoyable use of an evening, on this night the band was unstoppable. In a short, sweet set, the band ripped through a number of favourites, covers, and even new songs. Each was chosen to highlight the band’s drive and energy, and downplay its more subtle qualities. This explosive face of the band suited them well and the no-frills set of indie rock made an immediate connection with the crowd.

From that point forward, everything is hazy in my mind. There was no time for an analytical recording of events or even a cataloging of points of interest. How the keyboards interacted with the drums was all terribly irrelevant. The Ivory Coast’s set was urgent and required living in the present, not documenting for the future. As such, any particulars of the band’s set are lost or simply too scattered to report with any effort.

Despite the calls for an encore, the band left the stage without a grand send-off; they simply set down their instruments, hopped off the stage, and blended into the audience.

I left the show feeling great, but a sinking feeling slowly began to catch up with me as I walked towards the bus stop. The simple nature of The Ivory Coast seemed much more visceral than the lofty experimentalists that came before them. Both Helms and Victory at Sea are pushing the craft forward and manifesting new musical ideas, whereas The Ivory Coast was just revving up your father’s indie rock and pushing it out to the audience white hot. Why then did my goofy smirk of satisfaction only appear during The Ivory Coast’s set? Sometimes I think about things too much. Maybe it won’t matter in the morning. I probably won’t even remember this in the morning.