Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Futureheads, Live at the 9:30 Club

comanche/soul takes another brief respite from the dog-eat-dog world of the World Cup knockout stages to catch some harmony-laden, angular post-punk from Sunderland's own the Futureheads.

The Futureheads - Live at the 9:30 Club - 6/28/06
The Futureheads' self-titled debut album was, on first listen, one of the most stunning albums I had heard in a long time. Never really going for anything representing a genre (or pseudo-genre, as it were) with the prefix "post-", the drive of the angular, quirky guitars and Beach Boys (if they were singing about Blackpool) vocals was a shock to my jangle-pop system. Seeing them live for the first time at Minneapolis' Triple Rock Social Club confirmed my first impressions. They were sharp, professional, very British, warm, and engaging. And in my concert going career there have been few moments as impressive as hearing their exquisite (maybe top ten all time) cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love", with it's intricate backup vocal interplay providing the hook to frontman Barry Hyde's rousing plea's ("Do you know what I mean?") sinker.

But where does a band go from there? It's been noted that their debut was so urgent and focused that it basically pounded you into submission with its style. In short, it sounded like a band with a very clear sense of what it wanted to do. And, to be honest, the show didn't really provide much of an answer to that question. The budget is clearly beefed up -- it's always funny to see bands that are big in the UK (the Magic Numbers, Travis, etc.) but not so much here tour the US rock club circuit with major label dollars -- evidenced by a plethora of guitars and a fancier stage setup. But the songs, while not the same, are at least similar.

There's less reliance on the "Oh Oh-Oh Oh"s and more straightforward guitar pop. The rhythms are a little more varied, and I'm pretty sure they're even experimenting with some effects pedals these days. Opening with News and Tributes opener "Yes/No" was predictable but enjoyable, the simple chorus letting the audience warmup their vocal chords early on. Then came previous single, "Area" (listen here), which isn't on the new album proper but is a great tune that could've fit onto their debut. Best of all, it showcases a subtle but nice improvement in Hyde's delivery. His phrasing has markedly improved (that that it was ever a problem), adding unexpected rhythmic hooks.

Other highlights were new songs "Fallout" and "Thursday" as well as "Trying Not to Think About Time" from their debut, but while these succeeded others fell flat. I'm not sure if it was the mix on the night or the performance, but even "Hounds of Love" and encore "Decent Days and Nights" (on one of those OC mix tapes) weren't particularly rousing or inspired. It made it all too clear that the Futureheads aren't an ordinary rock club band and need something considerably better than an ordinary rock club mixing job. I say push the vocals farther out front, mic that snare a little better, and let the 'Heads themselves handle the guitar crunch.

And there's one more complaint. If you're one of my friends, you've probably heard it after practically every show, but what's the deal with the crowd at these things? The band gave us a two song warning that their show was nearing its close, they went out with a bang to close their 55 minute set, yet I've never heard an audience cheer so little for an encore. If I were the band, I wouldn't have come back out to such lackluster, half-hearted applause. I'm beginning to think it's the town, as this isn't the first show where I've had this experience.

So there was a little sour taste in my mouth at the end of the show, but I took heart in the $10 purchase of the new album, complete with a number of bonus tracks. I'm three cuts in right now and it sounds terrific: beefed up, loud, and more textured than the debut. If the show sometimes failed to touch the heights, then I'm comforted in knowing that "the only a cappella group that matters" (as Pitchfork writer Sam Ubl put it) is still one of the most rewarding listens out there today.

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