Northside, Day Two: Grooms, The Tallest Man on Earth, John Vanderslice

06/13/2009 12:27 PM |

After a day of doing nothing but watching Degrassi: The Next Generation episodes in marathon format on MTV, which I still suspect was some kind of backwards marketing campaign for Drake, the Canadian rapper who’s trying to shed his past as a Degrassi child actor and pretend he’s, you know, a real hard dude, it was time to re-enter the real world of tiny venues hosting bands whose members probably never starred in any teen dramas in their past lives. So I went to Public Assembly to catch Grooms, who in some shape or form used to be called the Muggabears, and have always consistently garnered many Sonic Youth comparisons for their noisy yet suprisingly melodic guitar rock. This time around, they came off tighter than they have in any past incarnation, and considering Sonic Youth put out the most predictable record of their career last week, maybe it’s time to come up with a new starting point. If you have any suggestions, let us know, as their new record is going to be crazy, and we’ll probably have to review it in a couple months.

A few minutes later, right around the time the Pittsburgh Penguins were easily securing a Stanley Cup victory, the Tallest Man on Earth, a blog-beloved Swedish singer-songwriter who stands in sharp contrast to everything implied by the terms “blog-beloved,” “Swedish,” and “singer-songwriter,” played a set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. A couple years ago, back when the success of the bands Loney, Dear and Peter Bjorn and John looked to be sparking a trend that Swedish pop would soon completely supplant American indie rock in the taste bracket of everyone we know, I wrote a piece for this magazine about it. And while my main point — that Swedish folks tend to have a perfectionist approach to pop music, just like they do with stuff like modular furniture and fonts — still stands, the idea that pretty wimpy bands like PB&J and Loney, Dear (and, while we’re at it, guys like Jose Gonzales and Jens Lekman) should be the stereotype for Swedish pop among the American hipster set is shamefully shortsighted. The Tallest Man on Earth, who is not actually very tall, does not have a soft, pleasing baritone; his voice has more of a Tom Waits rasp ratcheted up about an octave and a half. His songs are short and sparse, never introducing a single element beyond his voice and his forcefully plucked acoustic guitar. And his stage presence is a thing to behold — aside from applause, the audience was pin-drop silent for his entire set. I’ve long held the notion that the ability to engage a crowd using only vocals and a single instrument is one of the most impossible and unlikely feats for a musician of any kind, but to see someone truly pull it off (to a packed Music Hall of Williamsburg, no less) is a pretty incredible to see.

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John Vanderslice played next, and though no matter what I say now, he will sound like a hobo compared to all this fluff about the Tallest Man on Earth, he really truly did play a great show. Vanderslice is among the more reliable songwriters operating out of the well-established Pacific Northwest league of indie rockers, and has been for about two decades now. He puts out a pretty great new record every couple years, including his most recent Romanian Names. If there’s one gripe with him, it’s that he might be a bit of an over-producer: he seems to take as much pride in self-producing his records in proprietary studios as he does in writing them, which, while totally respectable, removes the filter of an outside producer who might tell the person recording when to maybe, say, rein in the synth parts a little bit. All this is to say that he always comes across way better live than he does on record, turning every song, even the slowest, synthiest ones, into solid, straightforward rockers. Tonight was no exception. I hardly ever think this about anyone, but here’s hoping he puts out a live album sometime soon.