Friday, April 28, 2006

Viva La Reputation!

It takes a bit to get me to post about live shows these days. It's not just cuz I now live in North Carolina and don't see shit. Hey, I made it to the opening night kick-off of Wilco's recent tour*, checked out Dinosaur Jr. reunion gig last month where they actually played new material**, and two weeks ago was dazzled by the high-octane antics of Th' Legendary Shack Shakers.***

But somehow none of them were as impressive as The Reputation's gig last Friday at the historic (read: dilapidated) Milestone in Charlotte. They took to the stage after a succession of mildly engaging freak-folk acts and plugged in their guitars and stared down the scant crowd of 20 people. "We're about to be a lot fucking louder than everyone else here tonight," Elizabeth Elmore said. "And we're not trying to be. That's just who we are." And with that they kicked into their first song, a blistering and propulsive rock tune who's corruscating riff was matched only by the scalpel-sharp lyrics. A bunch of alterna hippy-types clutched their ears and headed for the exit before they even hit the chorus.

Now most bands would hardly give their all for such a miniscule crowd, especially one that they managed to thin out just by virtue of plugging in their instruments. But the foursome didn't hold anything back and actually leaned into the songs, pushing them further than the album versions. They tore through a set entirely composed of their best galvanizing rock tunes like "Bottle Rock Blues," "Either Coast," and "Alaskan" along with a handful of new songs that sounded immediately terrific. The band was clearly having a good time, the sound was excellent, and even though Elmore claimed her voice was shot it had a nice grain that sounded appropriate. They interacted with the crowd, joked with each other, and then ruthlessly ripped the head off each song in succession. It was the sort of display of good faith and sheer artistry that's all too rare these days.

It's shocking to me that The Reputation aren't better known. Despite raves from the likes of Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau, being named "Hot Band" in Rolling Stone, and plenty of good reviews, they seem to fall below the radar of most indie rock fans. That's a shame because Elmore writes some of the smartest and emotionally devastating lyrics going. And the band is tight and ferocious, uncorking stinging riffs alongside subtly inventive arrangements. Beginning with Sarge, Elmore has cut her music from the fairly traditional pop-punk cloth. I suspect some folks give her stuff a cursory listen and decide there's nothing overly special about it. But if you listen closer, the band doles out some crazy rhythms and complex textures while still offering the pleasures of verse-chorus-verse.

And then there's the words. Perhaps they're too easy to miss amid the tumult of the music but it's to Elmore's credit that she didn't become some acoustic troubadour when Sarge split. Because she's got the chops to wipe 99.5% of the confessional singer-songwriters off the map. Her work has a clear-eyed emotional honesty that's both bracing and touched with more than a bit of melancholy. She can unleash torrents of images or practically go haiku and switches effortlessly between intimate confession and character acting. I hate to quote lyrics, but the sparse opening of "New Town" captures the stifling and wary feeling of moving to a new place better than most entire songs: "New town/ fit in/ dumb it down/ hold it in/ stare straight ahead and watch your back/ see it through to the end."

Sadly, the band is now without a label since it appears Lookout! is in dire financial straits. Here's hoping some savvy indie like Merge will give the band the good home it deserves. Elmore's got a law degree from Northwestern so she's not going to go hungry but it would be nice if she could stay on the road and in the studio and out of the courts. So check out the band's myspace or pick up one of their albums - both the self-titled joint and To Force A Fate are highly recommended.

*Alternating between trad alt-country dirges and freeform noise jams makes for a schizophrenic show but the brand new tunes were exquisite - like Abbey Road floating in space.
**Who told them trading vocals like Sleater-Kinney was a good idea?!? But you still can't beat the guitar tone and Lou's amazingly heavy but fluid and hard bass lines.
***Swinging from the rafters an actual description, not a figure of speech.


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