Unlike most folks, I work in long, grueling stretches separated by variable length periods of unemployment. When I work, I'm seldom in town, and when I am in town I'm preparing to leave, or hurriedly documenting the trip I just returned from. Getting to a show during work periods is rare, and it generally takes a reunion tour, a rare US appearance, or something similarly immense to make it happen. When I'm not working, I sprinkle my schedule with shows every other night, allowing my calendar to fill up with bands I've merely heard of, or sometimes bands whose names I just like. While Mary Timony is a bit more than a name I've heard of, my experience with her both as the driving force behind Helium and as a solo artist is limited. Isn't she another one of those waifish, sensitive indie types that Boston produced in abundance in the early 90s? With an evening free and $10 in hand, I headed to TT the Bear’s to find out.
At 8:45 the club was empty. I paid, was stamped, and walked toward an empty barstool picking up a copy of the venerable The Noise on the way. I was quickly flipping through the pages as an cursory view, when I glimpsed a photograph that forced me to backpedal. No, it wasn't the photograph of a colon on page five, but rather a picture of Ajda the Turkish Queen on page seven. The photo caught my eye because I remember shooting it. Without a heads up – much less permission – The Noise had lifted the photograph from my website, and published it in their magazine (albeit with credit). I tried to be flattered, but all I could muster was pissed off which, in turn, led to confusion and guilt. I'm still grappling with the issue; should I complain or just shrug off the injustice?
Unable to return to The Noise at that point, I poured myself a plastic cup of water and walked over to the stage to take inventory. TT's website had no information on opener Noll, but the stage was awash with cords, electronics, keyboards, and a Moog Prodigy. Behind the stage (or more accurately in the back corner of the stage straddling two walls) was a white bed sheet readied to serve as a screen for an LCD projector located on the far side of the stage. Noll, it seemed, was going to be some sort of arty, one-man electronica event. While this isn't exactly the rarest of things to find on stage, it did make me glad I wouldn't be seeing just another indie rock band.
As predicted, Noll is the effort of one man, namely Noel Weber. His music is a smorgasbord of current bedroom electronica ranging from traditional pop structures to ambient material to IDM. While several songs – or song segments – brought to mind the funk-infused Daft Punk or the cold, aggressive The Faint, most of his material is mid-tempo indie rock with moderate attention to melody. Occasionally Noll's songs began with stored sequences, but, more often, those sequences were built on the fly. This allowed Weber to concentrate on hooky snippets of melody and his vocals.
Ah, his vocals. Unfortunately, Weber feels the need to bury his vocals under layers of processing and cheap effects. Although he's likely self-conscious about his voice, the gimmicks only make matters worse, trivializing the rest of the composition. Because of this, the instrumentals typically played better live than those with vocals. On the rare songs where Weber actually sings, such as the sexually charged "Baby Doll," Noll succeeds. Bedroom pop doesn't require an American Idol's voice, and Weber's suits the genre just fine without the gimmicks.
Like most one-man operations, Noll is a bit boring to watch. Weber stands behind a rack of equipment, pressing keys and buttons and doing little else. Occasionally he's able to devote full attention his vocals, forcing him to look up at the audience, but these are rare occasions. In an occasionally successful attempt to add interest, the LCD projector played unrelated video clips or even less related abstract images throughout most of the set. I'd prefer the additional interest provided by a dedicated vocalist – also allowing Weber to concentrate on his music – but even as a one-man-band, Noll is capable of excitement.
Following Noll was Boston local Charlene. This quartet lead by vocalist/guitarist John Rex and guitarist Matt Mirande has been around since the mid 90s, but remains somewhat isolated in its own subset of the Boston music scene. This is unfortunate, as Charlene brings a refreshingly different aesthetic to the clubs. Rather than reaching back into post-punk's history for wiry guitar lines or jumping bass lines, Charlene finds its inspiration in the dense, noisy pop of The Jesus and Mary Chain and other Brit shoegazers. On this night, the band's live set meandered and flowed evenly, avoiding the genre's bookend extremes of an unbearable wall of noise and sleepy space rock expansiveness. This set also avoided most of the electronic elements and effects found on the band's 2002 self-titled debut album, and instead highlighted Charlene's enveloping indie compositions. Whether this is indicative of Charlene's new focus or merely because keyboards could only be manned when Mirande or current bassist J [no last name provided] had a free hand is unclear. Still, the band did manage to play two songs from this CD, as well as "Summertimer" from the 2001 7". The rest of the set consisted of new material slated for the band's sophomore release on its own label, Shark Attack Music.
You'll note this show was on April 19th, which is the official release date of Mary Timony's third solo album, Ex Hex. If I had thought to pick up the album that morning, I could have prepared myself for the show. After two flowing indie pop albums steeped in fantasy and rich with complex instrumentation, Timony has decided to return to the world of aggressive angular rock. For this album and tour, Timony has teamed up with drummer Devin Ocampo formerly of Smart Went Crazy, Faraquet, and currently of Medications. Performing as a duo leaves no room for the atmospheric organs, lazy violins, or chiming electric pianos that accented the previous albums. The new album is raucous and raw. The live show is not only raucous and raw, but also amplified.
Timony began her set with "On the Floor," the lead track from the new album. This song's huge repetitive riff established the tone for the rest of the set. Timony would play the majority of the cuts from the new album, one from her first album and several new tracks. Guitar lines recalling progressive rock pioneers like Rush and King Crimson supported each song, while the constantly shifting drums strode into the forefront before deftly ducking out to make way for Timony's vocals. There were few songs with the long vocal melody lines of her first album, and many of the songs only featured spat vocal fragments. This set was obviously a world away from the orchestrated pop many had expected to see that evening. While initially stunned, I was soon completely enveloped.
The night closed with a song identified on the setlist as "Prog," and there never was a more fitting title. The song began with a winding, repeating guitar line reminiscent of Don Caballero, featured a likely-improvised half-time section of guitar noodling, and ended with a climbing riff recalling "Tom Sawyer – (although played with all the heavy fuzz of Tony Iommi). Timony stood back from the microphone for most of the song, with her left leg bouncing the rhythm, and her hair shaking back and forth in time with her undulating guitar line. Midway through the song, she began to pace about, swing the guitar away from her body and pounce on accented notes. Timony wasn't delicate as I had been lead to believe by her first two solo albums – Mary Timony is muscular. She's not an indie waif at all, and she's bluntly making that point on stage and with her new album.