Sunday, April 26, 2009

Shrinking Drum Kits, The New Pornographers, and BMSR

So, Pittsburgh's own Black Moth Super Rainbow came to campus last night. I could hear bits and pieces from the show from the basement in which I was playing Scrabble with some acquaintances or friends (you pick which, as that deviates long past the scope of this blog). That kind of pissed me off, since I've only heard their record once and really wanted to hear their music.

Essentially, after the opening acts - one craptastic high school Battle-of-the-bands one and one kinda like a blues-punk Deerhunter - and as the band's instruments were being soundchecked (I could see a guitar, bass, and acoustic drums, despite the record as I remember it being entirely electronic) I get a call from a friend saying that we should play Scrabble that night. I was up for it. We decided to play the game outside, citing a "half decent concert and decent weather" yet; however, the two other people we play Scrabble with, being computer science majors, demanded to play Scrabble indoors where there were electrical outlets. So, that's that.

The New Pornographers came, along with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, last week. Our university has something that we call "Spring Carnival". Along with an actual carnival - you know, with ferris wheels and carousels and the like - the main focus of the carnival is for groups on campus (mainly fraternities and sororities, though other groups are known to participate) to build these house-like "booths" and compete against each other to see whose is best. I've only seen photos of the completed booths, having only been on the "midway" while the frats and sororities were building, but they are insanely elaborate things, complete with electrical wiring and multiple floors. At Carnival's end, we had a concert with indie rock classicists Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and the ever-steady New Pornographers.

Both of these acts come from the classic '90s tradition of indie rock, though neither of them (at least to my knowledge) put out a record in the Nineties. Ted Leo's stuff evoked if Joe Strummer fronted Superchunk and forced them to be politically conscious. Nonetheless, they were the better of the two live: they felt more like a band, more like they were in time with each other rhythmically. On the other hand, the New Pornographers often felt a bit off the beat and the presence of two keyboardists and the use of a laptop as a musical instrument added to the chaos.

However, the New Pornographers' drummer has to be mentioned explicitly, primarily because he used such a minimal drum kit to incredible results. For reference, when you typically go to a music store and look at drumkits, you'll find on the average a snare drum, a bass drum, a hi-hat, a couple crash cymbals, a ride cymbal, two or three tom-toms, and a floor tom. Sometimes you might add an effects cymbal like a splash or china (I'll be talking a bit more about splash cymbals in a future post if I remember to) or some extra percussion like a tambourine or a cowbell. This guy's drumkit had the bass, snare and hi-hat, one floor tom, one tom-tom, and only one other cymbal, a ride cymbal that wasn't even mic'd.

And then there were those excessive Eighties drummers. No idea how many drums Phil Collins has in this video, but it's more than anyone would ever bother to use. I keep thinking of this idea that drum kits have been shrinking, as argued in this discussion. It just seems more authentic to me when a band uses a smaller kit. Of course, what the hell we mean by "authenticity" is another question in itself.

I've been listening to the drum sound on Pavement's classic Slanted and Enchanted record a lot recently. Probably the drum sound that most defined Nineties indie rock, it feels compressed and claustrophobic like most post-punk drum sounds yet is more earthy than mechanical. Probably the only puzzling part of it is the fact that the cymbals come in unrealistically fast and decay extremely quickly. The interesting part about the early Pavement drum sound is that I always felt it had some strong arena-rock undertones, and likewise I always thought that Pavement's then drummer Gary Young was playing on one of those excessive Eighties kits. Learning that he too was playing this era-devining drum sound a very minimal kit does not cease to surprise me.

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