Driving to the New Year show at L.A.'s Troubadour I begin to suspect that I am having a massive stroke. In a matter of seconds, the right side of my head goes flaming hot and my right ear turns beet red. Just the right side, which terrifies me. A general feeling of sickness means nothing to me. Localize it and someone's got a tumor. I park and take some deep breaths but I still have half a head full of fire. I steel myself and make my way to the club to try to drink it down.
I hook up with my friend Chris and we head inside to find a man alone onstage in amber wraparound shades poking at a sequencer. My head gets hotter. This is Seaworthy, for tonight at least. "I'm going by the name Seaworthy tonight," he says. I wonder if he changes his name every night in an effort to elude annoying shit like developing a fan base or getting an audience. "I'm taking a break from my band Macha."
Chris whispers in my ear, "Or maybe they're taking a break from him."
Seaworthy is actually Josh McKay. Tonight he welcomes us to "the karaoke-Asian Seaworthy experience." Unfortunately, his performance never rises far above karaoke, even though he wrote everything. I ignore the remainder of his set to focus on the heat in my head. The bottles of Harp are helping at least to warm the rest of my body, offsetting the disparity.
In between sets, Chris tells me that he and his girlfriend Danielle had broken up some time ago. But they're keeping it a secret because the last time they broke up Danielle received a comical number of phone calls from mutual friends competing to be her rebound boy. I commiserate with details of my impending divorce, secretly toying with the bad idea of giving Danielle one of those phone calls myself. We curse women and halfheartedly praise being utterly alone before Pedro the Lion takes the stage to depress the living shit out of us.
Pedro the Lion is basically David Bazan backed by a rotation of folks, but tonight he's going it alone. On a stool, with his guitar, under a blue light, the motherfucker hands me lyrics like, "So I told her I loved her/And she told me she loved me/And I mostly believed her/And she mostly believed me." That cheery little detail opens up his latest album Control (Jade Tree). The album version at least has a rhythm section to carry you through it.
Stripped of the thick buzz of the studio tracks, Bazan's performance is all about his words and the weight of his mumbled moaning. He sings simple lines like, "She asked me where my brother was/And I said I don't know," as if he's reluctantly opening a door to a backstory that's best left concealed.
Bazan's Pedro the Lion bears a passing resemblance to Jeff Mangum's Neutral Milk Hotel. Pedro songs rarely employ the use of the didgeridoo or 'shroom poetry, but they both build songs to a fuzzy moan with dense imagery and truly inventive pop. The new ones he's playing make the album sound like it will be catastrophically bleak. The song "Priests and Paramedics," Bazan's tale of a priest who loses his ground during a funeral sermon, comes to a close: "Lately I have been wondering why/We go to so much trouble/To postpone the unavoidable/And prolong the pain of being alive."
After the next song, someone's crutch falls on my foot and I feel smoke puff from my right ear. Bazan takes two minutes to stammer through far too many words essentially to say, "Buy my new album. I'm really proud of it." He's right to be proud. Control is a perfect album. With tonight's solo performance, everything sounds like a eulogy. But the album lays it all over some beautiful guitar pop, allowing you to bop your head happily to the hopelessness.
After Pedro, Matt and Bubba Kadane take the stage with the New Year. Back in the early 90s the Kadane brothers formed the Texas slo-core band Bedhead. Their debut LP, whatfunlifewas (Trance Syndicate), made it clear that they'd already mastered what they'd set out to do. Gentle guitar lopes would simmer to an explosion of sound behind whispered confessions. A couple of albums and EPs followed before they disbanded, but the song "Powder" off that debut remains their masterpiece.
In 2000, the Kadanes got the New Year together and recorded Newness Ends (Touch and Go). All the "New" frightened me. I wanted "Old." I wanted Bedhead back. I was not disappointed. Newness Ends sounds like it would have been the next Bedhead album, and a very good one at that.
They're a few songs in when they break out "Great Expectations" off the LP. I feel that big climb of guitar to a blast of sound that blew me away when I first saw Bedhead crammed onto the Brownie's stage many years ago. On "Gasoline," the Joy Division influence is made plaintive. Critics always compared Bedhead to VU without ever mentioning Joy Division, even though their first EP included a cover of "Disorder." But I guess critics have more fun comparing bands to VU than to Joy Division. Just like it's more fun to say the Strokes sound like Television than to say the Strokes blow.
It should be odd for the New Year to follow two quiet, solo acts. But the sound ties it all up. The Kadane brothers' best magic trick is to build thick, ornate arrangements, often requiring a third guitar to fill in the cracks, that nevertheless evoke the quietest of solitude. This is expressed in their performance as well. Amid the blasts of guitar everyone is standing stock still, waiting to play their parts, threatening at any moment to take out a book to read. They look like trees passively being pushed and pulled by the storm they created themselves. When Bubba joins Matt for the vocals, he reminds me of one of the gorillas in the Nairobi Trio on Ernie Kovacs' show, just playing his part and hoping no one slams a cymbal near his head.
The set ends and I leave with the hope that the New Year doesn't break up and make me wait another few years for the Kadane brothers to dream up a new band name. It's been a night of stand-still, stationary rock. And my head does feel a little better.