Monday, October 8, 2012

Show review: Freelance Whales at Lincoln Hall, 10/4

By Gene Wagendorf III 

Judah Dadone, Chuck Criss and Doris Cellar
Over the last couple years I, and my fellow Windy City Rockers Andrew and Frank, have grown quite smitten with Freelance Whales. From their charming Lollapalooza debut in 2010 to their most recent visit to Chicago almost exactly a year ago, we've been following and digging the Queens-based chamber pop gang. Their inaugural release, Weathervanes, is the kind of first at-bat home run that might have stifled the development of a lesser band. When word got out that the group was working on a new album, the consensus reaction amongst fans seemed to be both excitement and trepidation. Would Freelance Whales again reach the bar they set so high? Would the new record be a facsimile of the fragile, organic compositions on Weathervanes, or a departure so harsh that the band's identity was lost? These questions, and then some, were answered Thursday night at Lincoln Hall.

Wobbling, echoed honks and a gleaming banjo line sailed across a landscape of deliberate thumps.  Choral ooh-ing backlit Judah Dadone's cheery lull; his inflection rendering the poetic lyrics more of an invitation than a statement. Jacob Hyman's cymbal tittering served as a countdown, one that propelled the vocal harmonies and toy piano tinkling into deep, quiet space. This was "Aeolus," the opening track on Freelance Whales' sophomore album, Diluvia. With that one song, Dadone and company quieted any concerns about their future being a retread of the past, or worse yet, an indication that the past was a fluke. Future is the operative word in that sentence, as the new songs played were a synthesis of the band's trademark earthy, acoustic ambling and a new interest in scale and electricity. The dynamic promise of "Follow Through" built from ambient noise into a shimmering, stomping wave that transformed weightlessness into sound and stretched to a size their previous songs had never dared. Clever as ever, the turning point came during what should have been a predictable, albeit satisfying, explosion of sound. Instead the percussion, the keys and the buzz dissolved, leaving only the singer's crystalline swoon and a subdued, shimmering collection of guitar chords. If you've ever seen one human being console another with a simple gesture- a touch to the arm or a quiet embrace in lieu of a lengthy speech- then you know exactly the sound of the climax of "Follow Through."

The band's older material was presented nearly unchanged. "Ghosting" swayed on the romanticized naivete of childhood; lullaby xylophone strikes moving through lush acoustic guitar and reassuring tambourine hits. A more tranquil take on "Location" softened the emphasis on the tune's harmonium buzz and pounding bass drum, instead focusing on its ethereal, galloping strings and Dadone's whispered confessions. Of the tracks from Weathervanes, "Generator ^ First Floor" offered the clearest discourse between the band's past and present. Its steady build and ambitious use of atmosphere draw clear lines to the approach on Diluvia, while its decidedly more elemental timbre made for inspiring contrast. The most refreshing of the new material was "Spitting Image," a more straightforward, sunny pop tune that featured Doris Cellar on vocals. Her voice matched the exuberance of the song, and utilized a pace and range that Dadone might have faltered attempting. Much has been written about Freelance Whales' instrument swapping and musicianship, but their performance Thursday night suggested that they've adopted an even more collaborative approach these days.

For an encore, the band wandered through "Winter Seeds," a halcyon tune whose rustling, twangy momentum got lost somewhere around the four minute mark. While its length and cool approach don't feel bloated on record, something definitely got lost in translation. A farewell came in the form of "Starring," where Hyman's fleet percussion corralled the song's plump synthesizers. One last folky banjo solo sprinkled over the crowd, and the show was over. Even for a cynic like myself, something about seeing Freelance Whales live feels spiritual. The band's set at Lincoln Hall was as much a celebration of joy and an experiment in the merging of worlds as it was a rock show. And, as luck would have it, it seems they're just getting started.

1 comment:

  1. where Hyman's fleet percussion corralled the song's plump Freelance synthesizers. One last folky banjo solo sprinkled over the crowd,