It's rare to close your eyes at a show these days and not be able to distinguish one instrument from another, the sound so carefully constructed and interwoven that images get conjured under closed eyes -- backdrops of foreign places, evocations of heartache and old dreams, where the instruments themselves become almost incidental to the story being told. I'm not talking Enya or New Age meditation music. I'm talking skill, technique, concept and theme, all used to tightly harness in and breathe out sound.
The Clogs (image left), opening for indie chamber-darlings the Rachels, did just that at Merkin Hall last Thursday, proving that ideas can be nudged into big open spaces, by songs that flutter and fold on the dash of a note. Unlike the Rachels, who tended to hover on the same sonic ground, the Clogs stretched out sounds into images with startling versatility, a tall feat for a four-member ensemble.
The Clogs seemed intent throughout their entire set on being precise: drums, bassoon, marimba, piano, air organ, guitar, steel drum and violin working in tandem, constantly inching toward full, unified sound. "2-3-5," the opening song, served as an apt warm-up, setting up rhythmic patterns and pairings of instruments that the four would continue to return to as the set progressed -- syncopated rhythms that pitter-pattered on the bright-belled steel drum against rhythm guitar, and deep low violin playing off an alternate, not parallel, melody. All of this was done with measured restraint, leaving room for expansions into fuller crescendos that would close in again with a certain suddenness, like underwater plants pulling quick retreat upon a slight touch.
When I speak of the band's ability to create imagery, though, I really mean songs like "Canon" or "Death of the Maiden." And by ability, I mean skill and control, the band ever conscious, occasionally to a fault, of placing architecture over emotion. In "Canon" guitarist Bryce Dessner (also of The National) strummed a rhythm line that framed the rest of the instruments' sounds. Building within and on the guitar, percussionist Thomas Kozumplik, using four mallets, two in each hand, hit intervals on the marimba to carry "Canon"'s melody, adding a subtle, vulnerable tremor. The bassoon let out a deep wail that undergirded the song, its sound billowing open and closed, like wind blowing through loosely hung drapes on an open window. Then the violin made its tip-toeing entrance, violinist Padma Newsome moving the bow in light swishing strokes that barely made contact with the strings. Pausing, the song shifted. Guitarist Dessner added sudden brightness, nimbly playing notes in downward steps while Kozumplik moved from marimba to drums, tapping almost imperceptibly on the cymbals and then gradually louder, adding the bass drum to a steadily shaping crescendo. The momentum felt like something ballooning from inside, the melody pushing and growing outward against a malleable border, until it propulsively -- stopped. Meanwhile, the listener was able to sink into the sound, and as with a good novel, let the story unfold on its own.
In "Death of a Maiden," loosely structured around the Schubert composition of the same name, the band once again showed how its versatile use of instruments could translate into one seamless arch from the beginning of the song to its end. With the guitar line again acting as frame, the cymbals layered texture, while an atonal tension sifted between the bassoon and violin, then between the guitar and violin, in alternate melodies that moved -- aware of each other -- and yet in separate directions, only to converge. With a tempo change and quickening mood, the drums thumped out big sounds while the violin and bassoon rat-a-tat spoke and interrupted each other. Some of the song's overtly architectural quality ended up sounding stiff at times, but the craftsmanship, the incisive listening to each other while playing -- so rare in the indie-rock context -- was easy to appreciate.
If the Clogs got burdened by the architecture of their music, the Rachels, another indie chamber-collective, had the opposite problem -- too much emotion and not enough structure.
With two computers, a keyboard, piano, cello, acoustic guitar, electric bass, and drums, the Rachels also belong to the school of big sounds and orchestration. The sound, though, couldn't be more different in character. While the Clogs' music emphasized ideas, the Rachels' music felt more cinematic than image-crafting, more appropriate for a soundtrack than story-telling, moving like feeling rather than ideas. Which is why it made perfect sense that the band projected visuals as part of the performance, band member Greg King's Super-8 films onto a large white screen behind the band. The music supported, but did not define, the image.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is limiting. And because the songs drove more on momentum and emotion, a lot of them sounded the same, the cello and two violas lingering too long in low registers while the drums thumped out big, echoing bangs on the bass drum in nearly every song. The images also felt a bit hackneyed and amateurish -- cityscapes and rooftops -- not venturing into territory more experimental or story-based than that. If the images had been more provocative or character-based, or structured around phases of a story, maybe the music would have adapted itself to more of a narrative mode. But surges in loudness and softness, fast and slow, can only go so far without a theme to hold it all together. Feeling needs idea, or simply evaporates for lack of substance.
In the end, maybe it's just a matter of preference. The Rachels and the Clogs are musical kin, and putting them together on the same bill was a savvy move. But, like siblings often do, despite family resemblance, they assume different postures, styles, and aesthetics. If you like ideas, you'd have clapped harder for the Clogs. If you prefer emotion, you'd have cheered more for the Rachels. I clapped for them both, of course, but it was the Clogs I was hoping would do the encore. - Christine Back
Ms. Back lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn with three guitars, a 1950s Mason & Hamlin piano, and a beagle. When not studying legal doctrine and social justice law, she fronts the indie-rock band Que Verde and dabbles in art, film, and writing projects.