The Surreal Symphony of Other Lives

February 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

(photo credit: Josh Sarner)

Midway through its set at Bowery Ballroom Friday night the band Other Lives struck the opening bars of “For 12,” a standout from its second album, Tamer Animals (TBD Records.) They began in a soft charge: chords stretched for all their elastic worth, underneath a gentle, galloping pulse. “I was in the dark age, searching for the ones in my mind,” sang bandleader Jesse Tabish, his voice cutting a straight line through it all. “I’m so far away.”

Like most of the other songs from the record, which the Stillwater Okl., band self-produced and released last year, it sounded fit for a spaghetti western—musically and thematically reaching to a bygone era. Yet with Tamer Animals the ultimate goal is always a movement beyond its individual pieces or signifiers. More ambitious than Other Lives’ self-titled debut, it aims for cinematic grandiosity and frequently achieves it, by measures both subtle and overblown.

The latter was more the case during this performance, for which the band, expanded to a six-piece, brought orchestra-like artillery to the performance. No member was limited to a single instrument; a bevy of violins and percussion abounded; there was a timpani drum, castanets, tambourines, a harmonica, trumpet, clarinet, xylophone—even the type of service bell you’d expect at a drycleaner, maybe a hotel.

By and large this was a re-creation of the richly arranged Tamer Animals. And while on record it allows an almost symphonic sensibility for contrast, at Bowery it often eschewed subtlety in favor of sheer force. Noise became purpose whenever the band built to a climax: in the welling volume of “Tamer Animals,” keyboard-percussion-guitarist Jonathon Mooney rifled erratic runs through a trumpet while Tabish slapped the bottom-range of his keyboard at whim; Tabish rang the service bell perched on the end of his keyboard while “Weather” crested with surging violins, though whatever chime it made was lost within the din.

But there was striking nuance, too. Closing with “Dust Bowl III,” a majestic track at the heart of Tamer Animals, bass and organ player Josh Onstott bowed the underside of his xylophone at the front of the stage. He extracted a faint metallic shimmer that sighed gently over Tabish’s first verse, ostensibly about the shifting desert sky and breeze. Other sounds gradually floated to the surface, though soon enough the gathering percussion became a locomotive-like engine, firing belligerently below the fervor and bolstered further by a guest trombone player and extra percussionist, who emerged for the close.

Wherever dynamics buried him, Tabish’s singing was apparent for what it was: a textural layer, as much as any of the other instruments. Throughout Other Lives’ appearance at the Bowery Ballroom this seemed entirely the point, since, as a lyricist Tabish opts for the runic, often relaying them in a mumble and middling melodies that hover safely within the mix. “We are on our way home,” he murmured during “Dust Bowl,” the swirling symphony coalescing to his vocals, or perhaps the other way around.

—M. Sean Ryan (February 19th, 2012)

**This review appeared here first, and was revised for the Winter/Spring issue. **


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