Sunday, November 13, 2011

Show review: Supreme Cuts, Memoryhouse, Balam Acab, 10/11

By Reagan Healey

Supreme Cuts
Chicago duo Supreme Cuts refuse to be labeled “post-dubstep,” preferring instead the more whimsical “future R&B,” even musing on their Twitter that post-dubstep should sound “like Godspeed but with wobble bass” (ha ha ha). But despite their professed distaste for the Skrillex cult, there is a pretty striking similarity between most sample-based music and pretty much all dubstep: as a general rule, the most inebriated guy in the room is usually the only one who knows how to dance to it. That said, Supreme Cuts are an absolute trip, a local treasure. They’re like a fucked-up Yin-and-Yang that smells of menthol cigarettes and blunt smoke--that last part isn’t a metaphor, by the way, Slack Kevorkian damn near knocked me over on his way for a cigarette after Friday night's show at the Empty Bottle, and he really did smell like weed and more weed.

Slack Kevorkian (also known as Magical Options) and his bandmate Mike Perry seem onstage like the kind of opposites you find in an '80s cop-comedy. Mike Perry looks like a slightly younger, more wholesome version of Alan Palomo of Neon Indian. Slack Kevorkian looks like someone who would overcharge you for hydrocodone. Clad in a Gucci Mane hoodie, his long, stringy black hair pulled out of his eyes with a dirty Bulls cap, he seemed part early Jack Donoghue, part Jay from a Kevin Smith film. If he didn’t have the habit of constantly gushing over his favorite artists (which range from Waka Flocka Flame to James Ferraro), he really would have run the risk of coming off too sketchy for his own good.

Supreme Cuts are in between records at the moment: their debut EP Trouble is currently available through Small Plates Records, and their first LP Whispers in the Dark is slated to come out sometime in the spring. Given the duo’s unapologetic admiration of smooth R&B acts like R. Kelly and Keith Sweat, it doesn’t take long to guess where they might have found the latter title. If leaked single “Belly” is any indication, though, it’s an apt name. The duo’s absolute wealth of samples, although distorted and layered out of recognition, seems culled from obscure early-'90s soul compilations designed specifically for sex. Every good sample-based act needs an angle--that is, an essential feeling to the bits of sound they dig up and manipulate. Supreme Cuts' sound is uniquely their own: sleaze layered on with a heavy, sweaty hand.

Comparisons to Burial are an easy stretch when discussing Supreme Cuts, but to do so would be to miss some of the more subtle points about the duo's sound. Though both acts tout soundscapes crafted from the doldrums of urban life, Supreme Cuts is a uniquely Chicago outfit. Burial is contemplative to the point of being somber, but Supreme Cuts’s picture of the city is wry, even blithe. Also, Supreme Cuts’ samples tend to be shorter. This may seem a small detail, but it allows them to repeat samples in rhythmical variations impossible for other acts. Kevorkian and Perry build their songs through looping and punctuating intertwining rhythms over a song’s ethereal skeleton; the effect is not unlike that of Steve Reich’s Drumming or Clapping Music, as the syncopated samples coalesce, diverge and ultimately form something completely different through minor variations in cadence.

At the end of the last song Friday night, the duo suddenly abandoned their MIDI controllers and rushed off the stage in a cheesy move reminiscent of Prince or even the Beatles. I suppose it was supposed to remind the audience of an emcee dropping the proverbial mic, and I will admit for the minute or so it took the fading echoes and feedback to finally dissipate, it did seem genuinely badass (if a little gimmicky). It was as if they were saying, “just in case you guys were wondering how much craft goes into our live shows, this is what it sounds like when we stop pressing buttons.” Of course, tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, they then duly returned at the end of the song not to perform any sort of encore, but because they had to pack up their equipment and make room for Memoryhouse. Oh, Supreme Cuts, don’t ever change.

Toronto’s Memoryhouse recently re-envisioned and re-released their The Years EP to somewhat less critical acclaim than the original received over a year prior. And though I hate to simply add voice to an already established opinion, the introduction of more full, “organic” arrangements to their sound (most notably a drummer in place of a drum machine) just hasn’t done much for the group at all. I’ll be blunt: it’s mostly the drums that bother me. I don’t mean to rag on Daniel Gray. He’s been catching a lot of criticism in general for some of the changes he’s brought to the band’s sound, and that’s probably due largely to the fact that with fuller, more sweeping compositions, Memoryhouse just sounds less lo-fi (read: hip).

But I really did like that drum machine, and when Daniel Gray, talented multi-instrumentalist that he is, finally stepped away from the kit to man keyboards and sing backing vocals, I was stunned by how much more exciting the band sounded. In a single moment, they had gone from an obviously talented but boring shoegaze band with a reverby Telecaster and an Urban Outfitters model lead singer to an updated, more electronic version of nostalgia rock with a wonderful sense of harmony and balance. Seriously, I was ready to spend one paragraph panning their new lineup completely before moving on, but although the current arrangement doesn’t seem to be working for Memoryhouse right now, the band has shown the clear potential to be more vital than ever with some minor tweaking (might I suggest leaving the drums in Canada?). Interesting fact: The middle C key has been broken off of Daniel Gray’s synthesizer. Maybe it was damaged during touring, or maybe it was done intentionally to keep the band from feeling too comfortable with their instruments. I hope it was the latter, and not just because it makes for a really cool story.

Balam Acab
I wasn’t originally planning on covering the headliner, Balam Acab, in very much depth. If you’re the kind of person who reads music blogs, chances are you already know him and know exactly how you feel about him; Pennsylvania-native Alec Koone has been generating more buzz in 2011 than just about any other artist I can think of. However, Balam Acab has altered his material for his live show; introducing new songs, more traditional (vocal-heavy) arrangements of old ones, and most noticeably a talented young singer. Toward the end of the show, amidst their charmingly awkward “thank you”-s, she remarked that this was only Balam Acab’s third live show ever.

And it showed. Though the obvious star of the night, 20-year-old Alec Koone (who had an X drawn on his right hand to keep him from being served alcohol), seemed to be the least-confident guy room, acting genuinely touched to receive applause after each of his songs. In truth, it added to his idiosyncratic appeal. When Alec (who couldn’t be taller than 5’8”) would pick up the microphone to sing, he would turn out his palms and straighten his back, giving the impression of a flower in bloom. It was cherubic and strange, but hey, the guy can sing. The whole set sounded really new and exciting, maybe even more entrancing than the original recorded version of Wander/Wonder. At the very least, it felt like falling in love with the record all over again. And when the duo really hit their stride on the sprawling, gorgeous “Motion,” it was immediately obvious why Balam Acab has been singled out the way he has. There’s just no comparing him to most other live acts out there; I’ve written that lineup changes can be disastrous for an act’s sound, but in this case it was subliminal. Chipmunk voice-effects removed, I was struck by just how beautiful some of Balam Acab’s vocal melodies actually are. In every respect, it was a brilliant performance. Alec Koone has good reason to be proud. At the very least, he has good reason to stop meekly thanking the audience for listening to him after every song.


Check out more show reviews:
tUnE-yArDs at Lincoln Hall
Wooden Shjips at the Empty Bottle
Electric 6 at Double Door
Omar Souleyman at the Empty Bottle
Star Anna at Hideout

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