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Architecture in Helsinki + The Blow
27 Sep 2006: Pearl Street Northampton, MA
True story: about a year and a half ago, I went to Boston to interview Cameron Bird of Architecture in Helsinki—and came as close as I’ve ever been to mooning a band. Here’s what I wrote to my friend Justina:
The minute I got to the venue, in the bathroom, I blew through the zipper on my pants. So I’m like, shit, I have an interview in 15 minutes and my pants are falling down. Fortunately, there was a TJ Maxx a block away; I had parked right next to it. So I went and frantically flailed through all the pants, looking for something that was not too Scarsdale housewife, if you know what I mean—like no flowers or pastels or ducks or anything. I found this pair of white pants for 20 bucks and *of course* I was too rushed to try them on, so I bought them and went back to the venue, locked myself in the ladies (very clean for a rock club, by the way), and changed.
The pants, which are labeled size 6, are like clown pants, elephant pants, clearly at least a 16. By that point, it was too late to do anything about it except hope they wouldn’t fall down, which they didn’t…. but barely. So anyway, if you hear about some trend toward really baggy white pants that started in Boston, lay it all down to me.
This time, I left a change of clothes in the car.
A lot can change in 18 months. . .not just in terms of wardrobe, but in a band’s identity. So, it was somewhat surprising, but also par for the course, that when I got to see AIH for the second time, they were showcasing new music, a slightly reconfigured band, and an entirely different sound. Since their giddily overstuffed, mortality-obsessed In Case We Die, the band has shifted to a much harder-edged, guitar-based sound influenced, perhaps, by the Sly and the Family Stone they put on the stereo during the set breaks. Relying more on electronics and less on band instruments (more on the perils of this later), the band now boasts an aggressive party vibe, part Caribbean lilt and part taut funk. And, it works.
Speaking of something that really, really works, Khaela Marcich’s the Blow opens for AIH, wickedly subverting strident girl pop beats with intelligent, empowered lyrics about gender relations. Not conventionally pretty, but anyways irresistible, Marcich is in constant motion, punching the air and shimmying her torso, dancing the way a 15-year-old dances in her bedroom when no one’s around. Of course, she’s brave enough to do it in front of a room full of kids. Her first two songs are performed a capella: nothing but mic’d finger snaps to ornament sparse verses. Soon she brings in the enormous hip-hop beats from her upcoming album, Paper Television, in support of wryly observed short-shorts on love and lust.
It’s disorienting but somehow exhilarating to hear the kind of echoing drums and pop textures often in service of pop-tart mega-hits wrapped around lyrics about thwarted woman-to-woman love, or to break for the vulnerable admission that “I’d consider myself lucky to be let in your threesome.” And there’s an erotic pulse to Marcich’s heavy-breathing “Pile of Gold”, the lead-off cut from her new album, as she traces the correlations between desire and self-actualization across every sort of sexual pairing. She’s articulating a viewpoint, not pushing an ideology, and when she dedicates the song to “all the Smith College girls,” she immediately amends it by saying, “and the boys, too.” Boy or girl, straight or queer, by the end, everybody’s dancing.
Playing to an audience that is expecting the highlights from In Case We Die, AIH follows the Blow, winning the crowd over immediately with a new, cowbell-slamming, James-Brown-twitching good time called “Red Turned White.” The band’s sound is so radically different that at first I don’t even recognize “It’5”, but the room does, and a young crowd starts bobbing and grooving. It’s one of five songs from In Case We Die that they play, and when Kellie Sutherland (now the only female member of the band) gets up to announce that they will be mostly rolling out new material, a drunk in the crowd tells her to shut up and play. Not exactly a proud moment for Western Mass.
The new songs are, in general, far more percussive and jammy, with fewer of the loud-soft swings that made In Case We Die so surprising. Bird spends much of the evening whacking at a drumpad tuned to a cowbell pitch, and other members of the band trade off among woodblocks, drum-kit bongos, and tambourine. There are no more live trombone solos in the AIH repertoire, and where brass is required, the band now looks to MIDI keyboards and synthesizers.
This becomes a problem later, as technical problems shut down one keyboard. Bird makes small talk as his band frantically tries to revive the instrument, and then finally asks if anyone in the audiences knows any jokes. A theater major from Smith gets up and performs three “chemistry” jokes. (One nucleus says to another, “I’m losing my electronics.” “Are you sure?” “I’m positive.”) There is also a joke about a bear in a bar, and another concerning Darth Vader. The whole vibe becomes tremendously goofy and collaborative—by asking the audience to solve his problem, Bird has won them over. When the band begins playing again, there is a palpable increase in energy, partly due to the song—another new one—and partly related to the whole joke-telling interval.
AIH soldiers on through continued technical difficulties, eventually losing all sound in all monitors. The set, though, continues. “Debbie”, another new song played near the end, looks to be a particularly good one, with a Curtis Mayfield falsetto and abrupt guitar slashes. The band closes with “Nevereverever Did,” the baroque opening cut from In Case We Die, and it sounds tighter, simpler, and more rock than ever.