Review: Polaris at The Chapel

Spoiler alert: Polaris sounds exactly the same live as they do on their recordings. And I mean this in the best way possible.

Friday night, when the band took its Waiting for October tour to The Chapel in San Francisco, was a giant 90s throwback, from their performance of the former Nickelodeon show’s theme song “Hey Sandy” to their cover of REM’s 1992 hit “Man on the Moon,” which included audience Elvis imitations.

The show wasn’t sold out, but everyone who made it through the doors of The Chapel, a former cathedral that is now a concert venue in San Francisco’s Mission WP_20150424_016District, needed to pinch themselves to believe it.

This is largely because Polaris, despite being around since the 90s, never toured until last year. We thought our exposure to Polaris would forever be limited to old CDs — they’re not even on Last.fm (high fives, hipsters) — and Pete and Pete DVDs (though now the show is on Amazon).

The audience favorites were “Hey Sandy” — the crowd lost it when lead singer Mark Mulcahy said “this one will require counting down,” because we all know the song’s epic intro begins with “4-3-2-1” — Little Pete’s favorite song “Summerbaby,” and “Recently,” which someone politely requesting by passing a piece of paper with the title written down along the crowd to Mulcahy.

A few other, lesser-known songs were also worth mentioning. “Waiting for October” has the power to elicit nostalgia for something that never even happened, and “Saturnine” transports you to a summer drive with the windows rolled down.

Mulcahy, Dave McCaffrey (guitar), and Scott Boutier (drums) — known on Pete and Pete as”Muggy,” “Harris Polaris,” and “Jersey,” respectively — seemed genuinely excited to be playing their songs, perhaps because they recently picked them back up after a long latency period.

And man has this period been long for the band’s cult following. “You saved my life on more than one occasion!” one audience member shouted. (I know what you’re thinking and no, said “member” was not me.) “We’re not really in the life-saving business, but whatever we can do,” Mulcahy responded.

Now that I have jumped up and down singing “I wasn’t aroooound, nobody knows, nobody knows” not just in the privacy in my bedroom but also in front of the actual people who created that song, how am I going to make the rest of my life matter? Have I peaked at 24? This concert has brought up some pretty big questions for me.

I’ll try to figure out some way to make the rest of my life measure up, but in the meantime, thanks, Polaris, for giving me and the rest of your fans the opportunity of a lifetime, and one we never thought we’d see in our lifetimes.

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10 Queer Women (And Gender Nonconforming People) Who Are Better LGBT Music Icons Than Lady Gaga

Being a music junky who is also a member or ally of the LGBT community can feel like being a vegan in a southern barbecue restaurant. But beggars can be choosers if what you’re begging for is a more nuanced musical critique of heteronormative culture than Lady Gaga’s.

While members of the queer community have embraced Gaga as an icon, others have criticized her for trivializing lesbian relationships, perpetuating the notion that gay rights are predicated on being “born this way,” and rejecting feminism. Gaga identifies as bisexual but considers herself more a supporter than an icon.

Check out my latest Thought Catalog article for some other queer women and gender nonconforming people whose progress in advocating for LGBT rights often goes unsung (no pun intended).

Review: The Blow and Anna Oxygen at The Chapel

The Blow‘s “Unplugged” tour, featuring Melissa Dyne (synthesizer) and Khaela Maricich (vocals, keyboard) on stage with live instruments for the first time,* made a stop at the San Francisco mortuary-turned-concert-venue The Chapel last night.

Anna Oxygen“This is a song from the moon’s perspective,” psychedelic folk artist Anna Oxygen announced as she opened the show with an animated rendering of songs that combined electronic instrumentals, operatic vocals, and mystical lyrics. Her voice’s tenor sounds like Natasha Khan of Bat for Lashes, while her naturalistic, fantastical imagery brings to mind Joanna Newsom’s lyrics.

A full moon shed light over the Mission outside The Chapel as the singer, songwriter and actress gestured and danced the motions of the moon’s monthly routine.

In keeping with the pagan theme set by the opening song, which employs a clever pun by describing the moon as “revolutionary,” she also sang about a witch who gazes upon the earth from behind a wall of fog, appropriate in the San Francisco climate.

Throughout her set, Anna Oxygen kept the audience intrigued by singing over amplified echoes of her previous lines, shaking a beaded instrument above her head, and prefacing her songs with lines like “Imagine one quick thing, which is that I’m wearing psychic armor … and maybe I’m holding a pendulum.” She introduced The Blow as “mystical wizardresses.”

Maricich and Dyne entered the stage quietly and positioned themselves across from each other. Maricich sung with a subdued demeanor, her gaze directed toward her keyboard or Dyne for the majority of the set.

The audience chuckled during “Gravity (Pauline’s Response to Amy),” a song speculating about a former lover’s whereabouts, as Maricich sang “From behind, can you feel those hands? They’re not mine.” The energy picked up as the duo played “True Affection,” a fun, minimalistic, synthesizer-dominated reflection on a failed relationship, keeping listeners on their toes by deviating from the tune of the recorded version every so often and drawing out the bridge in slow motion.

The BlowThe piece I found most intriguing, which is nowhere to be found online, contained mostly spoken word by Maricich with the refrain “She’ll be the woman you want her to be” followed by a high, chant-like “Ooooh-oowoooo.” The woman characterized in the song embodies the feminine ideal of catering to another’s desires without demanding consideration for her own: She knows exactly what her partner wants, doesn’t ask for anything, and is “everything” and “nothing” all at once.

Many of The Blow’s songs deal with issues of gender and sexuality, perhaps related to the members’ lesbian identity. What makes this band most notable in my eyes is the critique of patriarchy and heteronormativity weaved into its music. For example, “Pile of Gold” from the 2006 album Paper Television draws attention to the economic model of sex as a service traded for preferential treatment:

All the girls are sitting on a pile of gold
All the girls—
And the boys you know they want—they want it
It’s economic

Hey Boy” from 2004’s Poor Aim: Love Songs paints a regretful picture of a girl consumed by a love interest who won’t call her back; “Like Girls” from the 2013 self-titled album contains the powerful feminine image of flashing a “powderpink handgun;” and “What Tom said about girls” from 2003’s The Concussive Caress depicts a character too many women are familiar with:

I’ve seen a hole and I aim to fill it
If that hole’s got a heart I’ve got the means to thrill it…
Cause you looked like a beacon of light
Just beaming in the night, I feel safe
So I’m like “Hey Baby!”

Maricich also explores feminist and queer politics on her blog and started the website Woman Producer to document women in music production.

Being a feminist seeking music that suits her political sensibilities can feel like being a vegan at a southern barbecue restaurant. That’s why I’m grateful for artists like The Blow and Anna Oxygen that satiate my craving for tunes I want to dance to combined with lyrics I can get behind.

*In the indie pop duo’s past performances, Maricich performed on-stage while Dyne produced the music from across the room.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby: 253 Pages in the Mind of a Moper

Novels in the first-person perspective allow non-psychics to surmount their mindreading limitations and enter another’s head. But some minds aren’t worth reading, and books about such characters end up the same.

The novel that set the stage for Nick Hornby’s popularity (About a Boy, Fever Pitch, and High Fidelity adapted to the big screen; screenplay for An Education; songwriting for Ben Folds) is written through the lens of an uninteresting brain. The narrow worldview of record seller, failed DJ and self-described loser (it’s hard to dissent) Rob Fleming leaves little room for High Fidelity’s depressing cascade of events to amount to anything important.

In the midst of a failed relationship and midlife crisis, Rob reflects on his social life and career. He makes same feeble attempts to fix them, meeting a few entertaining characters along the way, but mostly mopes and obsesses over music.

Lyrics, melodies, musicians and genres are his codes for discussing people he doesn’t like and problems he’d rather not face. He lives in his head, writing relationships like songs instead of experiencing them. His accounts of events are imbued with the exhibitionist melodrama of much popular music; he revels in the culture of glamorized depression surrounding love songs.

Except, rather than containing them in an album, he turns his narrations “into life, which is much messier, and more time-consuming, and leaves nothing for anybody to whistle.”

Rob feels like the entire world is trying to shut him up, and he’s largely right. He spends the course of the novel shuffling in and out of his outdated record shop, making small talk with friends who aren’t actually friends, and sulking over his ex-girlfriend Laura — who ultimately gets back together with him because she doesn’t have the energy to deal with singlehood after her father’s death. One gets the feeling Hornby set out to make the point that life can’t unfold as romantically as fairy tales and daydreams. But instead of being realistic, the plot succumbs to a sad view of reality based on desperation and settling.

Some of High Fidelity is astute and humorous, and the narrator’s droning is satirical – he talks about the importance of “self-conscious ironic detachment” in social interactions — though excessive.

The novel is a quick, sometimes entertaining read. The pages don’t beg for turning, but they ask politely enough to persuade a reader with nothing else to do. Its popularity is partially due to music fanatics who relate to Rob’s obsessive-compulsive documenting of favorite artists, albums, etc.

Still, most of the scenarios are hard to care about. The characters are underdeveloped, except the overdeveloped, insecure protagonist. The climax of his life occurs when a journalist from an unknown magazine asks about his top five albums. He revises his response nonstop during the interview and calls three times afterward to redo the list entirely.

High Fidelity also has been praised for its exploration of gender dynamics. But Rob’s musings on such issues are incredibly shallow (which doesn’t come as a surprise: Hornby once wrote for Cosmopolitan). His discussions of gender roles stop just short of critiquing them. Laura’s best friend Liz, who becomes the antagonist —because Rob antagonizes her — is “one of those paranoid feminists,” he complains. But after 300 pages of Rob objectifying the women in his life and whimpering about how they disrespect him, Liz’s paranoid delusional voices start to sound more like the voice of reason.

Rob ultimately realizes he will never find a woman who describes him with the words he hears in ballads. This is a valid point. But he and Laura go to the opposite extreme, sticking with each other because they can’t get anyone better and want distraction from their worries. High Fidelity ends on a note of hope: perhaps Rob will finally get his shit together. But it’s doubtful. The way his mother suggests that her 36-year-old son is finally growing up is cringe-inducing, not heart-warming. At the end, it’s easy to picture Rob’s entire history repeating itself, given the unproductive nature of his thoughts. His surroundings have changed, but he has not, and the reader has not.