Dead Meadow "Old Growth" Review

In 2005 I was introduced to Dead Meadow as the group opened for Sleater-Kinney, the band epitomized neo-psych with its no-nonsense hazy drab. At the time the band's music came across as something terribly powerful while the makeup of its sound was tastefully cautious, the group never fully realizing the massiveness it sought. Cut to roughly three years later, on the same stage at Minneapolis' First Avenue, with the heavily touted To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie playing a showcase. Again I was witness to a band that seemed to be far more talented than it sounded, its music coming off as a blurred wave lacking any sense of harmony. Given a few years of expansion however, To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie may prove me wrong much like Dead Meadow's increasingly colossal latest, Old Growth has.

That being said - Old Growth has been criticized for failing to move forward, Pitchfork's Tom Breihan elaborating on the album, "Since the release of 2005's Feathers, the band has relocated from D.C. to L.A. and returned to being a trio after additional guitarist Cory Shane came and went. Listening to Old Growth, though, there's barely any indication that anything has ever changed for this band." This is an interesting accusation considering the elaborate layering of such songs as "Till Kingdom Come" and the album's opener "Ain't Got Nothing (To Go Wrong)."

Breihan caustically demeans the group's sound, claiming, "Dead Meadow can write songs like these in their sleep, and they probably do," but therein lies the continual shallow observation of anything remotely using its weight in reverb or shallowly defined as shoegaze. Given that bands ranging from the Brian Jonestown Massacre's to The Upsidedown and Dead Meadow are all easily classified by the simpleness of their sound it's easy to cast aside the creativity that necessitates the music; if it sounds simple it can't possibly be art, right? But situations such as the carefully placed guitar solo late into "What Needs Must Be" demonstrates the band's willingness to step outside the reverb-bubble it's created and play-out an honest piece of music.

Old Growth is an album that is for the majority what one would expect of it, but it is also an album that is creative and enjoyable by its own right. Creating a record's worth of mood music is easy, but the band's inclusion of acoustic palatability without stunning the listener with a harsh abrasiveness proves that Dead Meadow has in fact grown.

[This article first appeared on I Rock Cleveland.]

Daniel Johnston at First Avenue (Minneapolis, MN)

Opening with “Mean Girls Give Pleasure,” Daniel Johnston quickly abolished any sense of discomfort that lingered in the crowd, chugging along on his unique electric, versing about the toils of following one’s passion at the cost of the heart. Johnston continued with a brief solo set before being accompanied on stage by long-time collaborator Brett Hartenbach. It was within the duo’s performance that Johnston’s words became free, the artist allowing himself to focus solely on the delivery of the stories he has been crafting his entire life.

Now the subject of legend, Johnston’s life was introduced to many through the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston — a film that captured the (almost) absurd demons that the man has struggled with since he was young. But as the set wore on it was Johnston’s humanity, not his checkered past, that became the sole focus of the night. “Hold me like a mother would, like I always knew somebody should, yeah/Though tomorrow don’t look that good.” Lyrics such as these, from “Living Life,” helped speak to the historical narration of the infamous documentary, proving to the night’s audience of how he once filled 3000 seat theaters and inspired legends.

Johnston’s benevolence carried on throughout the evening as he kept the audience in high spirits, “I heard they just sentenced a man to the death penalty... for trying to commit suicide,” went one such joke. Perhaps even in spite of his overwhelming shaking that hindered the singer throughout the night, Johnston maintained his composure and continued entertaining the packed venue. “What town is this?” (crowd: Minneapolis!) “Indianapolis?” (crowd: Minneapolis!) “Memphis?!…” While Johnston had won the audience over long before he even took the stage he ensured that he would not soon be forgotten with his colorful interjections throughout his set.

Before heading off the stage again, Johnston and Hartenbach delivered a brilliant rendition of the Beatles’ “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” one that had fans shouting in unison each time Johnston approached the classic chorus.

Returning again, this time with local act Bison Forest backing him, Johnston dawned a new role, one of an honest frontman. Though not necessarily as fitting of a role as that of the solo player, Johnston still delivered in a manner that was upbeat and warm; the band helping by kicking off with the classic “Speeding Motorcycle.”

Continuing with “Rock & Roll,” Johnston told a story that more than likely held words with which everyone in attendance could relate: “Oh, that rock and roll, it saved my soul” he sang. Eventually shedding the band, Johnston and Hartenbach completed the night’s performance beautifully with the traditional one song finale, “True Love Will Find You in the End.”

Some people talk of Daniel Johnston as a beautiful soul trapped in a dangerous mind, while others remark of him as a brilliant songwriter trapped in the body of an average performance artist. No labels matter when thinking of the Johnston as a person however, because there is something wonderful, sincere and valuable about anyone expanding on that which makes them who they are. Doing so is essential to the humanity of each and every one of us—this night proved to me that Danny Johnston is an essential.

MGMT & Yeasayer at 7th St. Entry (Minneapolis, MN)

The Battle Royale’s frontman, Mark Ritsema, disclosed to me before the show that the group had almost gone into a panic mode when the recent blizzard-like conditions here in the Midwest left the state of half the band in limbo. “We were going to leave at 5:30 this morning and get them,” he said, speaking of Sam Robertson (keyboards) and John Pelant (guitar) who attend college in Milwaukee. Thankfully for both the audience and the band the charter delivered the pair to Minneapolis in time for the show.

The group performed in support of its most recent album Wake Up, Thunderbabe released locally on Afternoon Records, though occasionally reverting to songs from its 2006 debut Sparkledust Fantasy. Sticking largely to the electronic-based sounds that make up the first half of Wake Up the set list neglected the acoustic-driven songs that carry the album allowing a shift towards song-writing and structure. In the evening’s context however electronic music ruled the event and the Battle Royale easily paved the way as appropriate openers. “We begged to get on this bill” Ritsema told me, and his band made the most of the evening using their limited stage space to joke around, have some fun and even dance (though Ritsema teased falling over a few times as he struggled to move about in his roughly four square feet of stage space).

In approach of the show the only real mystery of the night focused on Yeasayer, the band still supporting last year’s highly recommended All Hours Cymbals. It was odd that a band as highly touted as Yeasayer would be playing second fiddle to any act on such a stage but given MGMT’s latest push which included a recent spot on the Late Show with David Letterman, it made sense. Within minutes of the group’s opening chords however it was clear that no matter the band’s slot, this was a Yeasayer show.

Coursing through the bulk of the band’s debut release, lead singer Chris Keating began to make use of the stage space that the nights openers failed to have the luxury of — he sashayed about in his stocking feet, smashing a tattered cymbal, pounding his shaker, and jarring his keyboard. The performance wasn’t focused solely around any given member though, as Ira Wolf Tuton worked his fretless bass as hard as he sung, while guitarist Anand Wilder and drummer Luke Fasano kept the flow of the set in check, creating a base for which the music could take shape from.

Again – despite the band’s slot for the night this was a Yeasayer show, and without compare on this evening the group delivered a phenomenal set that beautifully translated the depth and layered structure of its studio tracks.

The main attraction may best be summed up by How Was the Show’s Carl Atiya Swanson who bore great detest for MGMT’s set, condemning it as “a wall of noise that lost any of the clarity and verve of the recording.” Each of the group’s five members packed enough auxiliary tools into the already overcrowded environment to choke even the heartiest of avant instrumentalists and in the wake of such sound was a band that overshadowed the music it made.

Given the cramped atmosphere the justification for maxing out registers was both unnecessary and unfortunate as each member’s overwhelming levels tended to blend sounds rather than accompany one another, especially unfortunate was the tendency to blend during the band’s consistently enjoyable single, “Time To Pretend.”

Eventually, however, the set flat-out spiraled out of control. As various instruments changed hands everything concluded in a ridiculous rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean,” which came to a close with overzealous fans being invited on stage to dance and join in on the then-musicless festivities. The ending could have possibly been expected of the night’s openers, all college freshman and sophomores, rather than a major-label act signed to a rumored six figure contract. Everyone has their fun in different ways though, right?