Great Scott is for hipsters. It's not for folks like you and me. It's for kids who are able to pull off mullets. It's for girls in cowboy boots. It's for boys in blazers with fashionable pins on their lapels. It's for the crowd with confidence the crowd who dances in public and laughs aloud in a group of friends. It's not for guys in their thirties who go to shows alone and play Scrabble on their Palm Pilots in the corner until the bands start. But sometimes our kind has to go to Great Scott, and so we awkwardly sit and wait, passing the time with our aforementioned gadgets. On this night I waited from the 9:00 advertised start time until 10:45 when Boston's The Cinematic Underground took the stage.
From the set up alone it was obvious something big was going to happen. The stage was littered with instruments, odd props, custom lighting and nearly a dozen microphones. An Apple Powerbook projected images onto a screen tacked to the back of the stage. When both the band and its audience were sufficiently lubricated, the eight members of The Cinematic Underground made their entrance. Without a word to the audience from frontman Nathan Johnson, the band began its opus an indie rock opera of sorts entitled Annasthesia.
The Cinematic Underground is meant to be a vast multimedia experience. Musically, songs are organic, kitchen sink-styled indie pop. There are loads of instruments and sounds present, leaving the audience to switch focus from player to player. The sound is akin to Sufjan Stevens, although looser and broader. Visually, the band is dramatic. There are costumes and props that suggest scenery without overshadowing the music. Drummer Zachary Johnson's watercolor paintings are projected onto the stage (and players) to create the necessary background and mood. The stage was always awash with fog and often illuminated by the searching spotlights held by players. Finally there is the narrative of Annasthesia "a story of love & escape" by the band's own description. While following the story live in a rock club setting was somewhat hit or miss, critics who have spent time with the disc have found it engrossing.
Writing much beyond the above is premature at this point. There is so much to see and to comprehend that viewing one performance is simply not enough especially when most of that performance was spent trying to capture images of the band through fog and dramatic lighting. While The Cinematic Underground smacks of melodramatic hipsters, the collective is simultaneously inspiring. Annasthesia is truly an awesome work if in scale alone. The band recognizes this, noting twelve official members of the band eight on stage, four in supporting roles with titles such as projectionist or documentarist. Critics and audiences can say whatever they like about the band's music, but no one can accuse it of not having vision.
When the final notes of the performance ended, and each of the players had dramatically made their exit from the stage, Nathan Johnson gathered the players about him, offering the disappointingly simple "Good job guys. That was fun." With that end cap, the band members either returned to the stage to gather their instruments, or blended anonymously back into the audience to visit with congratulatory friends and family. I returned to the darkened corners with Scrabble and awaited the headliner.
Over the last few months I've become an evangelist for Brooklyn's Say Hi To Your Mom. This bedroom project of Eric Elbogen is simultaneously smart, cuddly, sincere, and playful, a rare combination in the polarized lap pop genre that typically wallows in it's own isolation or banally bounces forward with electronic beats. While SHTYM has played Boston three or four times in the last year, each time I was elsewhere or committed to other tasks. And, initially, I thought I was going to miss this show as well due to a double booking. Fortunately things came together and I was able to see the band that I've so thoroughly enjoyed for the last year. At least it should have been fortunately.
SHTYM came to Boston on the last date of a five-week tour a tour that had obviously taken its toll on Elbogen. He was visibly tired. Actually, he was visibly beat. His langour was exasperated by the spectacle of The Cinematic Underground's live performance. Elbogen recognized the disparity and wryly commented that he was jealous of The Cinematic Underground's lights and fog machines. While panning searchlights may have added excitement to the earlier set, they probably would have only overshadowed the deflated Elbogen.
The touring version of SHTYM consisted of Elbogen on vocals and guitar, augmented by Darren Will on bass and synthesizer, and an unknown drummer. The band began the set with "Pop Music of the Future" from last year's Numbers & Mumbles. The song's brilliant lyrics tell the story of a gal ditching her rock band and guitar and finding her way to a drum machine and a whole new way of making music. The obvious autobiographical elements make "Pop Music of the Future" SHTYM's unofficial theme song. Unfortunately the album's delicate way of telling of the story was lost in the live setting. Drums pounded out a steady beat when only a shaker should have been present. The synthesizer lines were lost under a booming guitar that should have been softly picked arpeggios. SHTYM is a band for headphone fanatics, and those fans have memorized each dynamic of Elbogen's carefully constructed compositions. Hearing each song rearranged for a live setting, for live musicians, for a rock stage was disconcerting at best, and more aptly disappointing.
The rest of the set continued much the same, with five songs from the new album, four from the last, and one ("Laundry") from the first. Each song was rearranged and mutated for the live setting, each done with varying results. The band closed with "Recurring Motifs in Historical Flirtings," and again I was a bit miffed by the arrangement. The cold electronic elements of the album version were warmed substantially, while the removed, hushed vocal delivery of the album version was rounded and substantially more rock. Although the set list indicated a possible encore of "Blizzard" from the first album, the audience never called for an encore, and the band happily obliged them by not playing it.
If I was disappointed in the live version of Say Hi To Your Mom, I was happily surprised with the live version of Eric Elbogen. Throughout the set his banter was entertaining, demonstrating a very quick, laconic, dry wit. Furthermore I was sure Elbogen would be an unapproachable hipster, but instead he was grounded, likable, and thoroughly human. After the show I had a chance to talk to Elbogen, and as expected, he confessed he was only thinking of returning to Brooklyn and sleeping in his own bed for the first time in months. As I was thinking the same thing, I thanked him, retrieved my hat and gloves, and headed out the door towards my own bed.