If Autolux fans have learned anything about the L.A. trio since their 2004 debut album Future Perfect, it’s that they take their sweet time. In their case, the preferred incremental gap seems to be six years, which embodies the period it takes them to write and record new music, then tour in support of it. The space occurred between Future Perfect and 2010’s Transit Transit, then once more leading up to the just-released Pussy’s Dead, their third full-length in a dozen years. Frustrating as the wait can be sometimes, the time they take to refine and gestate their sound tends to shine through on their recordings. Six years is more than enough of a gap to allow for different genres to grow and decline, so each time Autolux re-emerges from their self-imposed stasis the music landscape is completely different. Yet while their sound continues to evolve from album to album, it is clearly not dictated by trends. Similar to their peers and friends in Radiohead, Portishead and My Bloody Valentine, they follow their own path and wait for the rest of the world to catch up to them.
There was a slight chill in the air on Friday night after what was a very hot day. Perhaps the temperature decline had something to do with Autolux being in town, their music not exactly ideal for situations of sunshine and warmth. Of course the lack of air conditioning and large collection of human bodies made it hot inside anyways, but the overhead fans were working overtime and the darkness still was a great mood-setter. Opening this triple bill was Chicago’s own psychedelic rockers Alla, who put on an energetic and strong set that they’ve become known for. Their songs might get a little long at times, but thanks to some eye-catching drum work and a solid guitar base, nothing ever got too played out or boring. The crowd seemed to like them as well.
One band the crowd had trouble with was This Will Destroy You, a post-rock instrumental band from Texas. Their heavily building yet graceful songs have shades of fellow Texans Explosions in the Sky as well as Mogwai in them, and that’s not a bad thing. And despite the heavier, shoegazey leanings of Autolux, for some reason people weren’t very taken with them. Of course post-rock isn’t exactly the easiest genre of music to love, let alone when it’s instrumental. When people in the crowd were talking amongst themselves and saying things like, “This is boring” and “Thank God this is their last song, though it’ll probably be 10 minutes until they finish it”, you get the feeling that they didn’t fully understand or allow themselves to grasp what was being presented to them on stage. That’s too bad, because This Will Destroy You put on a very captivating set if you enjoy their type of music, and it was a good sonic pairing with Autolux whether the crowd agreed or not.
Speaking specifically about the packed house for Autlux’s set, while your average show features its share of characters in the audience, they tend to be smart enough to be respectful during a headlining set. Sometimes though, whether it’s either alcohol or personality-related, certain people feel the need to insert themselves into the show by being loud and boorish. That includes yelling things at the band between songs, and singing (often off-key) at the top of your lungs to every single song. If you do things like that during a show, it’s fun for only one person unless it’s highly comedic. We all appreciate how much you love the band, but the show isn’t private and there’s a couple hundred others keeping quiet that only want to hear what’s coming out of the speakers. Loudmouth idiots can ruin a show if you let them, and thankfully the ones sabotaging the Autolux show were only bad enough to draw minor attention away from the actual show while still earning this paragraph detesting their actions. The hope is to prevent other, similar things from happening at future shows. If just one person reads this and changes their behavior for the positive while attending a concert, then this paragraph has served its purpose.
But let’s talk about what actually went down on stage during Autolux’s performance. Marching out to a pitch black room, the band started things off the same way so many bands promoting new albums do – by playing the first track from that record. The difference with Autolux is that the opening title track “Transit Transit” isn’t the most energetic or compelling piece of music in their catalogue. It’s not even close, being one of the most subdued songs they’ve ever made. It was nevertheless an artistic way to kick things off, and rolling from that into “Census” got the place electrified with rip-roaring energy that was so lacking in those first two minutes. “Census” is one of the few songs on the new record that holds up well in relation to their incredible debut album “Future Perfect”, and that proved even more true on stage. Eugene and Greg both punished their guitars and fought against amps in an effort to extract as much distortion and general noise out of what was already mayhem. Carla pounded her drums with a fury that rivaled some of the best drummers working today. They took the track for an extended couple minutes and it became one of the most revelatory moments of the entire show.
Following “Census” was the 1-2 combo of “Audience No. 2” and “Subzero Fun”, both of which were serviced properly and continued to add depth to an already strong start. Where things tripped up momentarily was on “Bouncing Wall”, a song that only partly works on “Transit Transit” and does so even less when performed live. Yes, things needed to slow down for a moment, but there were other, better song options to put there. They also could have skipped right into “Turnstyle Blues”, which more than earned its keep, as did “Supertoys” immediately afterwards. On record, “The Science of Imaginary Solutions” is one of the biggest highlights of the new Autolux album. Without the proper moody pieces that come before it along with the subtle nature of the recorded version, some of its charm is lost. Amping everything back up again was a very punk rock version of “Kissproof” that was down and dirty and over almost as fast as you could blink. Unfortunately that’s about how memorable it was too. “Robots in the Garden” was a nice and brief album-solid rendition that deserves credit for the muscle put into it. And though the quieter arrangements tended to suffer during the set, the piano ballad “Spots” somehow managed to slide by without generating any negative attention. And as another one of the great moments on “Transit Transit”, “Highchair” struck with a hurricane-force power that was extremely compelling and ear-damaging (in a good way). Closing the set with “Blanket” was perhaps the smartest choice of the night, as it’s among the best Autolux have to offer. Similar to what they did with “Census”, the band took the song to the next level and started amping up the noise and distortion to the sort of levels where it felt like the melody could break apart at any moment. Eugene slammed his fist on his bass, demanding more from it than it was prepared to give. Greg scraped his strings against the top of his amp just to add more friction. And Carla just kept going and going on the drums like the Energizer Bunny at full power. One by one they stepped away from their instruments, gave a wave, and exited the stage.
Given that they are on tour to promote their new album, it should come as little surprise Autolux’s set was completely dominated by “Transit Transit” material. They played the entire album, except for “Headless Sky”, which was quickly dispatched in the final song of the encore. Prior to that was “an oldie but a goodie” known as “Plantlife”, off the “Future Perfect” record. Both were done in about the fashion you’d expect, similar to the album versions with little to no changes. That was sort of the standard for Autolux the entire show though, which doesn’t mean it was bad, just about what was expected. The goal for any live act is to exceed expectation, which Autolux was able to accomplish a couple of times during their set. There was also plenty to watch, whether it was the impressive lighting work or Carla’s intense drumming, you were never at a loss no matter where you looked. The small things the band could really improve on for the future would have to be their on-stage energy and the way they attack the recorded versions of their songs. When, on songs like “Blanket” they chose to expand on what was already there and “rock out” just a little bit more than usual, it seemed so cathartic and impressive. If only they could capture those moments and multiply them across most of their set, it’d elevate them from a very good live band to an exceptionally great live band. As it stands, Autolux extend themselves just a little beyond most live acts, making them worthwhile to go see but not essential. Let’s hope that as time passes and they have more material to work with, their shows will only continue to improve with time.
Audience No. 2
The Science of Imaginary Solutions
Robots in the Garden
Before we get started, I’d like to take a brief moment to talk about the role Autolux has played in my life up to this point. In the fall of 2004, I was the Music Director at a radio station that played alternative/indie rock. At one of our weekly meetings, a new guy at the station asked me if I’d ever heard of the band Autolux. He was from California, and they were really starting to make waves out there. Their debut album “Future Perfect” was set to come out a few weeks later, and he played the song “Here Comes Everybody” for me. I was instantly charmed by the band, to the point where “Future Perfect” became something of an obsession. Not only did it become my favorite album of 2004, but also it ranks among my 10 absolute favorite records of the 00s. It was one week ago that I received word the guy who introduced me to Autolux had died, and investigators are saying it was most likely suicide. Sad as that is, especially since he was a good guy, I can’t help but wonder if he had the chance to hear the new Autolux record before his death. This review is dedicated to him, in memoriam.
Being told that your band sounds like a mixture of My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and Can can’t be easy. In one sense that has to bring a sense of pride, but on another you’ve got to be wondering about the intense pressure that comes with the territory of such comparisons. Such is the burden that the trio known as Autolux have been forced to bear these past several years, all riding on the wave of their 2004 debut album “Future Perfect”. Also stemming from that debut were words of praise and support from such notable artists like Trent Reznor, Thom Yorke and Geoff Barrow, who invited Autolux to play the Portishead-curated UK All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in 2007. Though the band spent the majority of 2005-07 playing shows around the world, problems started when their Sony-owned record label DMZ went under and they were moved to Epic. It wasn’t long before budget concerns caused Epic to drop a number of artists, Autolux included. They had reportedly finished their second album in early 2008 but had no label to properly distribute it. The album’s first single “Audience No. 2” was released in May of 2008 to both help the band earn a little money and generate interest from other labels. The tough economy didn’t help either, and after whispers of deals being negotiated and album release date after album release date being set, Autolux’s sophmore record “Transit Transit” FINALLY lands in stores this week thanks to TBD/ATP Records. It’s only been 6 years since they first impacted around the globe, surely everyone still remembers them, right?
You’re forgiven if you have forgotten about Autolux, because it has been awhile and they weren’t the highest profile band to begin with. Given their penchant for densely ominous atmospherics blended with blasts of fuzzy electric guitars, Autolux can be forgiven for not attracting the masses. Part shoegaze, part dream pop and part eerie electronica, in 2004 their sound was a novelty and for the most part very backwards-leaning a la the influences mentioned at the beginning of this piece. That’s partly what made “Future Perfect” so exciting when it was released. Since then, the dream pop/shoegaze scene has really taken off into a full-blown revival, and suddenly Autolux is no longer standing relatively alone. Still, this band has massive talents and if anybody can pull off a brilliant resurrection it should be them. This is why the old adage “if you liked it the first time, you’ll like it again the second” pretty genuinely applies to “Transit Transit”. Even if it was recorded in 2007-08 as the band suggests it was, many of the songs that made the final cut have been around since at least ’04, as they were played live back then. Chances are they’ve evolved since their initial inception, but given their relative similarity to the band’s earlier work, one has to wonder exactly how much.
While sonically similar, one of the biggest issues with “Transit Transit” is the number of easily likeable, hook-filled songs. Where “Future Perfect” had moments like “Turnstile Blues”, “Subzero Fun”, “Sugarless” and “Here Comes Everybody” to stick in your head for extended periods of time, there’s little to none of that on “Transit Transit”. “Census” makes a little bit of an impact after a few repeated listens along with “Kissproof” and “Audience No. 2”, but none of them really grab you the same way the earlier stuff does. Part of that has to do with the band’s purposeful avoidance of traditional verse-chorus-verse son structures. In some senses though, this is for the better. The lack of marketable singles is instead replaced by pure atmosphere, which may be dark and moody but is also endlessly compelling. Listening to the album from start to finish is highly recommended, and each individual track sounds better when paired with what comes before and after it. In crafting a tone of such dread, Autolux rely less on the healthy mixture of quiet and noise as they did on “Future Perfect” and choose instead to restrain their louder impulses. Eugene Goreshter’s disaffected vocals play a smart role, as does Carla Azar’s always brilliant drumming and occasional sweet-as-sugar singing. Anytime Azar has the spotlight on her, as with the 6-minute album closer “The Science of Imaginary Solutions”, the album is better for it. But everyone’s contributions are exceptionally strong here, and that’s what keeps this record from being a sharp step down from Autolux’s debut.
After all the delays and trouble Autolux has gone through to bring us “Transit Transit”, you may be left wondering, “Is this it?”. Well, it is, and it will have to do. You’d fare best just pretending that this was any other sophmore effort and forgetting about the timetable. With Autolux’s old school shoegaze/dream pop sound mixed with the wild array of instrumental oddities and electronic skitters, many of the songs have a timeless sort of quality to them anyways. Sadly, without a fair number of captivating hooks or the quiet-loud dynamic of their first album, “Transit Transit” doesn’t quite succeed as well as most might expect. Yes, the mood is perfect all the way through, but in terms of repeat value this can be a little challenging. If “Future Perfect” was one of the better records of the last decade, “Transit Transit” will be lucky if it’s remembered once December’s year-end listmaking season arrives. It’s most definitely worth any time and money you spend on it, but this is ultimately a record from a band looking towards the next evolution of their sound. In other words, as the title itself hints, transition is the name of the game. Whether it’s the seamless movement from one track to the next or from record label to record label, Autolux is moving on. Let’s hope the next album doesn’t take 6 years to be released, and that it marks the start of a bold new era for a band that makes the comparisons to other legendary acts almost entirely justified.