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Show Preview: Alex Cameron at Lincoln Hall [3/7]

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to make of Alex Cameron. The Australian musician is a bit of an oddball, but he’s so carefully skating the line between sincerity and parody (or truth and fiction) that it’s difficult to get an accurate beat on who he is or what he’s trying to accomplish with his music. Which isn’t a bad thing, mind you – that sort of vague template he’s presented over two full length records is dynamic and entertaining.

Alex Cameron’s debut album Jumping the Shark, for example, introduced him as a sort of worn-down sleazeball drunk. It’s a role he played into for live performances as well, applying makeup and fake wrinkles on his face to look older and creepier. Not entirely sure why anyone would voluntarily step into such a lecherous persona, but he managed to make it work by fully committing to the role and crafting smart yet gritty synth-pop songs to go along with it.

For a follow-up, 2017’s Forced Witness pivoted into a style and sound that might best be described as acerbic sheen. The songs sound much cleaner in execution, and he’s gotten rid of the wrinkles, yet the lyrics remain dark and disturbing. Each song paints a portrait of a deeply ugly, chest-thumping man’s man, as well as the sort of guys that might ascribe to a similar mentality. You probably know the type, straight from the coked-up, Wolf of Wall Street and American Psycho universes.

The characters in Cameron’s songs may be total assholes devoid of respect for women, but what makes them so compelling and the reason we listen to them ramble about perverse and disgusting things is that each one reveals deeper layers of insecurity and monstrosity. Underneath the surface of braggadocio are scared boys leaning into their worst impulses mostly because they don’t really ever face any consequences for their twisted actions.

When you combine those themes with slick, ’80s-style cheese pop (the kind that frequently includes jazzy saxophone solos), the whole exercise becomes astounding in its audacity. It’s impressive how many ludicrous things Cameron manages to get away with, all while somehow pulling memorable hook after memorable hook into the fray. Listening to it on record is one unique experience, but watching him sing these songs on stage is a whole other one. So if you’re up for catching a performance that’s weird, wild, and entirely unpredictable, don’t miss Cameron when he drops by Lincoln Hall on Wednesday, March 7th. The fantastic Molly Burch is opening the show too, so that’s an added bonus!

Alex Cameron / Molly Burch / Holiday Sidewinder
Buy Tickets
Wednesday, March 7th
8PM / $15 (advance) / 18+

Show Review: Torres, Palehound + Julien Baker [Lincoln Hall; Chicago; 1/15/16]

It’s been just over eight months since Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres) released her sophomore album Sprinter, and I’m fairly certain she hasn’t left the road since then. At the very least, as of this past weekend she’s played three shows in Chicago over that time period – easily more than most non-local artists. I’d argue it’s the town that keeps drawing her back, but exceptional circumstances such as a tour opening for Garbage likely brought her back sooner than anticipated. This particular time she was asked to return for the Tomorrow Never Knows festival, a multi-day, multi-venue event focused on raising the profiles of up-and-coming bands/musicians. This is also known as “something for Chicagoans to do in the dead of winter when concert season is slow.” For the record, it’s a great way to pass the time with plenty of great live music. The triple bill of Torres, Palehound and Julien Baker is just a small testament to that, as all three left a sharp impression on 2015 with highly personal, emotionally devastating albums. It made me concerned I’d be walking out of Lincoln Hall on Friday night a shell of a human being, my insides shredded from so much anguish. Thankfully that wasn’t entirely the case.
The night began with an opening solo set from Julien Baker. Her debut album Sprained Ankle earned her a place on many “Best of” lists last year, with special attention paid to her powerful and raw lyrics delivered with the nuance of a strong gut punch. In a stunning six song set, Baker wrenched every bit of emotion from each moment. The packed room stood in hushed silence as the weight and beauty slowly became too much to bear. It was an incredibly compelling example of how a performer can fully connect with an audience and even drive a few to tears. My own eyes began to well up towards the end, and that’s a rarity. The 19-year-old Baker is undoubtedly a talent worth following with a long career ahead of her. This was her first-ever show in Chicago, and judging by how many people bought her record at the end of the night, it certainly won’t be her last.
After the delicate sadness that was Julien Baker’s set, it seemed like Palehound wanted to deal with serious emotional fallout in a completely different way. Very few of their songs could be considered delicate, instead opting for a much darker, angrier tone spiked with heavier ’90s style grunge guitars in the vein of Hole or (most accurately) Speedy Ortiz. Ellen Kempner doesn’t take relationships lightly, so getting emotionally wounded after a break-up fosters aggression and resentment rather than clear-cut sadness and depression. That’s what the record Dry Food is all about, and it hits hard. So too does the band’s live show. While Kempner played a few songs solo with just her and an electric guitar, a majority of the time she was joined by a bassist and drummer who helped flesh out many of the songs and give those wounds an extra little twist of the knife. The trio dynamic also allowed Kempner to take some sonic detours on songs like “Easy” and “Molly” with some solos that really gave the crowd a taste of her profoundly excellent guitar skills. While it certainly left me impressed in the first half of the set, things calmed down a bit towards the end, which would’ve been disappointing if this alternate side wasn’t equally as compelling. At one point we were treated to a new song she hadn’t played live before, taking care to note that it was written more recently when someone new had come into her life and changed her outlook in a more positive direction. It was just about the only love song that would be played all evening, and offered a glimpse into where Palehound might be headed next. No matter how things progress in terms of content or subject matter, the band made it pretty clear on Friday night that they are highly talented and a force to be reckoned with now and in the future. Don’t be surprised if you hear plenty about them in 2016 and beyond.
The biggest benefit of touring incessantly is that you develop a much stronger stage presence. That is to say you learn what works and what doesn’t to help create the best, most entertaining and engaging version of your live show as possible. Given that Mackenzie Scott spent a majority of her time on the road in 2015, it makes perfect sense that she’s all the better performer because of it. When I caught her last May, it was mere weeks after the release of Sprinter and there were clear indications she was still feeling things out a bit with the new songs. These are growing pains every artist goes through, and some handle it much better than others. In the case of Torres, eight months ago she sounded great and put on a confident, strong show, but a few small things like the set list could have used some adjustment. Specifically, the overall pacing was a little off, and there were a few moments when it felt like Scott was holding back just a bit. For all I know it could have been the circumstances of that particular day, mixing things up on tour for the sake of variety. No matter the factors, by all accounts the set on Friday at Lincoln Hall represented an increase in consistency and showmanship.
The somewhat ironic thing is that the set list was nearly the same as the previous Torres show last May, just the order of the songs had changed slightly. That served well to even everything out and create a clearer path from start to finish. From the slow burn opening salvos of “Mother Earth, father God” through the clawing descent of “The Harshest Light,” the nine song set felt very much like a journey into and out of darkness. The 1-2-3 punch of “New Skin,” Cowboy Guilt” and “Sprinter” slammed with the force and subtlety of a wrecking ball, leaving destruction and devastation in its wake. The weight of these songs also physically manifested itself through Scott’s body as she visibly trembled during the more intense moments of the set. This was particularly prominent during the back-to-back combination of “Son, You Are No Island” and “Strange Hellos,” the former of which was all underlying dread and the latter of which was all powerful, fiery release. For those few loudly punctuated minutes, everyone in the room was rapt with attention as the walls were painted with sheer ferocity and self-confidence. This was Torres at her most vital, suddenly coming into focus and finding her footing after wandering around lost in the darkness. Such a captivating catharsis contributed to what was the best Torres show I’ve seen to date. Can’t wait for the next one.

Buy Sprinter on iTunes

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Show Review: Cursive [Lincoln Hall; Chicago; 3/18/15]

Multiple studies done over the last decade have pretty much all determined that our own personal tastes in music become established between the ages of 14 and 24. As these are the most formative years of our lives, from puberty to the completion of our education in high school and college to the friends and social groups we settle into, it makes sense that this would be a testing ground for the kinds of music we like. The reason I bring this up is because at the tender age of 19 I discovered the band Cursive. To be fair, I discovered a LOT of bands at that age and have continued to for a good decade since, but for one reason or another Cursive holds a special place in my heart. Their 2003 concept(ish) album The Ugly Organ very blessedly blurred the lines between alt-rock, indie, punk and emo so it provided a rather easy entry point for music fans of all stripes and colors. Working at a college radio station in the Midwest also brought the band to my attention, and few were the days when you couldn’t find me in the DJ booth jumping around to “Art Is Hard” as it blasted over the airwaves. ‘Twas a simpler time. But I digress. The point being, The Ugly Organ was a record I really got into and apparently a whole lot of others did as well. So much so the band decided to reissue it last fall with a bunch of bonus material, and follow it up this winter/spring with a two month U.S. tour in celebration. The band finally reached Chicago at the tail end of that for a sold out show at Lincoln Hall on Wednesday night. Here’s what happened. (cue Law & Order ::dun dun::)

One of the more noteworthy things about The Ugly Organ is that it’s Cursive’s only release that prominently features the cello. The band recruited cellist Gretta Cohn in 2001 to play on the record and tour in support of it, but in 2005 she left to pursue other interests and was never replaced. While Cohn did play a show or two with Cursive recently when they stopped in New York (where she now lives), she hasn’t rejoined the band or anything like that. The good news is that all of the other stops on this tour did have a cellist to help ensure that the album was properly brought to life, not to mention the bonus of adding cello parts to a bunch of other songs across the Cursive catalog.

Unlike a majority of bands who have adopted the trend of performing a classic album from front to back, Cursive decided to shake things up a bit because they didn’t want to be like everyone else. That was clear right from the beginning of their set, which kicked off with “Sink to the Beat” from 2001’s Burst and Bloom EP followed by “Big Bang” from 2006’s Happy Hollow. Those were but a couple of many interesting choices the band made across close to 90 minutes and 21 songs. Yes The Ugly Organ was technically played in full, but there were detours taken along the way to throw the crowd off and celebrate other records in bits and pieces. Of the non-Organ records, 2009’s Mama, I’m Swollen got the most love, but not by much. The biggest surprise of the night was probably “Excerpts From Various Notes Strewn Around the Bedroom of April Connolly, Feb. 24, 1997,” a song that appeared on a 2002 split EP called 8 Teeth to Eat You. That, or the song “Nonsense,” which was found on the Saddle Creek 50 compilation. Both of those tracks actually are included in the deluxe reissue of The Ugly Organ so it makes sense that they’d be played, but context aside they’re absolutely rarities and not the sort of songs you expect to be performed live pretty much ever.

As for The Ugly Organ itself, let’s just say it’s the sort of record that holds up really well. The 1-2-3 punch that is “Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand” into “Art Is Hard” into “The Recluse” still hits with the same force, only this time you’ve got a room full of people shouting along to every single word. “Art Is Hard” in particular is just a powder keg that set a lot of people off. Similar things could be said about the late set heroics from songs like “Bloody Murderer” and “Sierra,” the latter of which kicked off the encore. As great of a time as the crowd seemed to be having, the band looked like they were having a blast too. Frontman Tim Kasher seemed to suggest that the tour had been going on forever and they were all a little worse for wear, but there were no telltale signs outside of a couple small coughing fits that Kasher had between songs. Illnesses can be tough to recover from when you’re on the road and are unable to rest or take really good care of yourself. So long as it doesn’t degrade the performance though, such things are manageable. Turns out a night honoring The Ugly Organ was anything but ugly. It’s my sincere hope that Kasher and the rest of Cursive take inspiration from that record and this tour as they write and arrange material for their next effort. The world could use more albums like it.

Stream “Art Is Hard”

Stream “Am I Not Yours?”

Buy The Ugly Organ deluxe edition from Saddle Creek

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