There's a certain awkwardness that comes with finding yourself in a foreign country. But, then, they say music's the universal language... right?
Final Fantasy + Bobby SandalCity: Brussels
Venue: Ancienne Belgique
There's a certain awkwardness that comes with finding yourself in a foreign country. Not knowing the language, not having a big group of friends, and not being familiar with your surroundings lets you know that, no matter how friendly the people around you are, you cannot escape your Otherness. At the Final Fantasy show in Brussels, that much was clear. Enthusiasts and multicultural idealists like to claim that "Music is an international language". I'm not sure how much force that convenient aphorism really carries, but I can tell you that I only understood about half of opener Bobby Sandal's set. The music itself -- which was an ironic, explicitly homoerotic kind of folk-rock that sporadically leant itself to comparisons with vastly different artists like Death Cab, Dylan, and Tenacious D -- was sung in English, but there were long-running jokes between (and in the middle of) songs that were entirely in Dutch. As a current student of Dutch, I caught some words, but all I came away with was a more acute understanding that I was missing out. The music itself was worthwhile, though. Knowing that Sandal was from Mechelen (a Belgian city between Brussels and Antwerp), I was expecting his English lyrics to be "ABBA babble" -- meaningless clichés hastily strewn together and sung by people who don't seem to understand what they're singing -- but I was happily surprised. However juvenile his choices of subjects were, his lyrics were impressively complex: he beat Tenacious D at Tenacious D's own game. To my astonishment, I started to wonder why he chose to sing in English at all. When he came back on stage for an encore (unusual for an opening act, I know), someone asked him (in Dutch) to sing a song in Dutch. Reluctantly, Sandal attempted it, but in the middle of the song he stopped and reverted to English. My guess is that he considers his music to be a critique that must be communicated in English. His type of music -- bluesy folk-rock -- is dominated by Anglophones, and his combined objectives of both fitting in and effectively satirizing the genre make his English lyrics (sung with a hilariously accurate Southern-ish accent) necessary. He may never be taken seriously (he has no record label, from what I can tell, and his songs are only available on his web site), but he won me over, and he got me to thinking... about "teenage brain surgery" and "gay sex in the park and girls with vaginal disease". As a universal language, music doesn't seem adequate to express any one particular message, but I suppose that's its beauty. Different listeners come away with different ideas, but if the music is good they'll all come away with something. From that strange starting point, Owen Pallett (known as Final Fantasy) began his set. It had only been a few days since I had first heard Final Fantasy's intriguing music: part folk (in the vein of Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart) and part something else. Pallett plays his violin and sings alone, with only a looping pedal to help him complete his sound. It works. The venue -- a small club-room upstairs inside the grand Ancienne Belgique -- was packed with people who probably remembered Owen from the recent Arcade Fire swing through Europe: he handled the string arrangements for the Fire's latest album, and, for some dates, was their opening act. I was surprised by the number of people who turned out for this relatively obscure Canadian, but when the music started, I understood. Although Final Fantasy's record, Has a Good Home, is slow and relatively benign, Pallett is really fun to watch and to listen to in concert. In his modesty, he explained that much of his recorded music employs studio tricks that don't translate well to the stage. But really it seemed more like Pallett considers his concerts a way of breaking out of the easy-listening box. Although he used his share of mulligans (he seemed to be having trouble with his tempo when he'd start off songs), I couldn't blame him; he made use of equipment that I don't understand look effortless, and his mess-ups really just helped me connect. I didn't expect such an outgoing stage presence after listening to his album. Once I thought I had gotten used to it, he brought up a drummer who had been sitting behind the merch table, and surprised me again. Apparently, he has become known for his cover of Bloc Party's "This Modern Love". Why the blogosphere hasn't jumped all over it (it reeks of a kind of novelty similar to Ted Leo's now-famous cover of "Since U Been Gone"), I don't know, but I've almost driven myself crazy searching the Internet for a bootleg. After his proper set was finished he played two encores, a reward for the crowd's stunning enthusiasm (before the second, he remarked that "Belgian bands must have to work hard!"). His second featured another cover. This time, it was Joanna Newsom's "Peach, Plum, Pear". Effectively tying the evening together, this is where he demonstrated himself: sure, the comparisons to folky acts like Newsom's are justified, but they don't grasp the Final Fantasy aesthetic completely. Pallett exhibits the individualism of a one-person act like Newsom, but without the minimalist approach. At the beginning of Final Fantasy's set, when Pallett first walked out, he admitted that he was always nervous or embarrassed to perform alone in front of big crowds, and he seemed particularly nervous because of what he must've perceived as his Otherness. Of course, when he started to play, it was easy for all of us to forget about perceived cultural differences and just enjoy the music. However uncomfortable an outsider might feel, it's lucky (for all of us) that indie rock shows function roughly the same way on both sides of the Atlantic -- and everyone can appreciate a good one.