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Live Review: Jeff Mangum at Wortham Center

22 Jan

When you hear Jeff Mangum’s name, it’s hard to think of him as anything other than the “reclusive” persona writers have pegged him as. The truth is, I’ve seen Mangum first hand, and he’s nothing of the sort.

Last night, Mangum brought his highly exclusive, extremely anticipated tour to Houston’s Wortham Center in Downtown, and the place was sold out. It might go down as one of the most surreal, genuinely touching concerts I’ve experienced as of yet.

The crowd, which ranged from pre-teen to retired, dressed in their best “going out” clothes. There were no torn jeans, the tights weren’t ripped, and majority of the 21+ crowd was drinking wine or a cocktail versus beer. While it sounds like a strange way to gauge things, the same people sitting around me are the same ones that show up for $2 Lone Star nights and end up swinging their gorilla-sized hands in the air during a free show put on by the same production company, Pegstar. It was pretty nice to see everyone well-behaved at a venue that usually hosts events from orchestras and opera singers. Hell, one of the chandeliers probably costs more than my car.

The show started promptly at 8 p.m. when Tall Firs politely took the stage. The duo sat near one another in the middle of the stage, sharing a Fender Super Reverb and knocking out eight songs from their self-titled debut, 2008’s Too Old To Die Young and 2012’s Out of It and Into It.

In between tracks such as “Hairdo” and “So Messed Up,” band-mates David Mies and Aaron Mullan trade out guitars to get the right sound on each song while partaking in humorous banter. But among stories of stoned kids in OKC and prostitutes in St. Louis, Mies got the last laugh when he and Mullan snubbed Pitchfork’s Aaron Leitko for ripping apart Mies’ version of “I Couldn’t Say it to Your Face” by Arthur Russell.

Tall Firs have the airy, atmospheric chops of Explosions In The Sky, with more of a knack to sound like Sonic Youth or Pavement. Vocally, the two sound like they mastered the whiskey and cigarette routine while extensively studying every album in their personal collection. When stripped down, their songs left the crowd silent and transfixed in the dark of the room.

Following a brief intermission, Mangum took the stage wearing a flannel shirt, jeans and a hat while the house lights stayed on halfway – most likely at his request. But though he looked a bit more gray and grizzly when compared to the photos taken of him playing to Occupy Wall Street protestors a year ago, Mangum still looks relatively youthful.

As he sat in his chair aside four acoustic guitars, he dived straight into “Oh Comely,” sounding just as crisp and sincere as the recorded version we’ve all heard hundreds of times. After a long applause, Mangum prodded the audience to sing along with him to “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” and “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3,” which were played continuously.

Jeff Mangum at Wortham Center last night. Photo by Ed Abello (@sensitive_b)

Though backing instruments such as horns and accordions weren’t part of the set, Mangum’s voice left nothing to be desired. Instead, the crowd acted as an a cappella version of the track, singing back trumpet sections as the hall echoed with the intensity of the experience. And while Houston crowds are notorious for misbehaving, there were only a few that were unable to keep their composure or follow the rules. Some were seen running around the room back and fourth with friends they’d spotted, others forgot to take the flash off of their camera and could be seen by everyone going against his “no photography” rule.

Even so, Mangum took song requests with stride – either accepting them or politely explaining that he was without the proper pedal – and he even laughed at a man who shouted out “Keep Austin Weird!” after divulging that his family was from Texas. He could even be seen talking to people at the front of the house, and often asked the crowd the keep singing along with him or move forward if they felt the desire.

Throughout the hour-long set, Mangum pulled songs off both albums – On Avery Island and In An Aeroplane Over The Sea – and also found time to cover Roky Erikson’s “I Love The Living You.” Often times he stopped to use throat spray and guzzle down a bottle of water that required two hands. But aside from what looked like a minor cold, Mangum was in high spirits, often responding to a rogue “thank you!” or “I love you!”

“No, thank you,” Mangum mused as he placed his hand over his chest before diving into “Song About Sex.” “Thank you from the depths of my soul. I never expected this, I didn’t even think anyone would ever pay attention to me.”

At the end of his set, Mangum smiled and waved with sincerity as the crowd erupted in applause and gave him a standing ovation. And whether planned or not, Mangum came out one last time to finish the night with “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2.” That, of course, got another standing ovation.

And just like that, Jeff Mangum disappeared behind the curtains and the dream came to and end.

Set List
Oh Comely
King Of Carrot Flowers, Parts 1-3
Holland, 1945
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Engine
Two Headed Boy, Part 1
I Love The Living You (Roky Erickson cover)
Song Against Sex
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Naomi
Ghost
Two Headed Boy, Part 2

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Review: Best Coast – The Only Place

9 Jul

When Best Coast released their debut album, Crazy For You, Bethany Coesentino was hailed as a woman to keep your eye on. Now, she seems to be molded after a sort of one hit wonder more than this generation’s leading lady.

With the May release of their sophomore album, The Only Place, Coesentino & Co. seemed dead set on reminding us all that they’re from California. As if that were ever in jeopardy of being forgotten.

In a nutshell, The Only Place is merely a grown-up, less colorful, polished version of Crazy For You.

Starting with the album art, The Only Place (seen above) definitely carries on the tradition of animals, maps and California being used to really give the listener a vibe of the band before they even hear the album. The same tactics were used with Crazy For You, and it’s starting to seem like Coesentino has a one-track mind when it comes to her, er, art.

When Best Coast announced that The Only Place was in the process of being recorded, everyone wondered what the group was going to sound like. After all, drummer Ali Koehler announced she was no longer with the band right before Coesentino revealed that she would like to embrace her country side on the new tracks, with inspiration coming from the likes of Loretta Lynn. Then it was announced that famed composer and producer, Jon Brion, would be behind the wheel of the project.

But even with Brion’s help, Best Coast proved nothing on The Only Place, other than the fact that they might want to consider renaming themselves “One Trick Pony.”

You see, the problem with this album is not that the songs aren’t good – most of them are pretty catchy. The problem is that they sound so much like the tracks off of Crazy For You, they’re actually hard to listen to.

The album opens with the title track, which sounds like something the Governor of California commissioned Best Coast to write for a commercial campaign to attract tourists. While the sentiments are understood (California is a wonderful, magical place), it’s hard to want to dive head-first into the album. First impressions really are hard to shake.

The following track, “Why I Cry,” sounds like melodies and chord progressions were copy and pasted from Crazy’s “Happy” and “Goodbye.” This same pattern follows with tracks like “Do You Love Me Like You Used To” and “Let’s Go Home.” Really, you can’t listen to any track on the album without being immediately reminded of one from Crazy.

Coesentino told to Pitchfork that The Only Place is “more about self-discovery and figuring out who she is.”

Crazy for You was written in a very insecure, weird, 22-year old phase in my life,” she said. “I’m 25 now, and things in my life are much, much different than they were then. This record is really personal.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to hear this album and not wonder what Brion, Coesentino and guitarist Bobb Bruno were listening to when they put the finishing touches on the album. Even the lyrical content of the songs haven’t evolved past that first album any more than the songwriting has. And while there’s nothing wrong with a brutally honest or even vulnerable track, building a career off of songs that read like a boy crazy teen’s diary isn’t something to aspire for.

But all hope isn’t lost. When push comes to shove, Best Coast still has talent behind the name. Albeit misplaced, they truly are talented. Hopefully we can chalk this off another sophomore slump, and the duo really does some growing for their next release to make up for lost time. If not, well, there’s always their first album.

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