Prejudice and bigotry are grievous personality flaws, but I must admit that I applied both to Ages and Ages prior to seeing them live on September 18th. Over the years I’ve made something of a cottage industry of sneering at hipsters, musically anyway. I think it might run back to scary stories my mother told me of proto-hipsters in the early1960’s demanding source purity in folk music, as opposed to that hated sellout Judy Collins. Or maybe I’m terrified that someone knows more about Waylon Jennings than I do. Probably I’m just frightened of the double decker bike people. In any event, an evening in the Short North makes me go fight or flight, and I find Pitchfork magazine marginally useful for wiping off oil leaks on old Piaggio engines.
So when I was first asked to check out Ages and Ages, all of those old alarm bells started going off. Their Wikipedia page describes them as “raw choral pop” and “brisk indie-folk,” whatever the hell those are – other than motivation to join a temperance crusade against excessive adjectives anyway. The band appears on their website wearing matching blue pants, are from Portland and the songwriting on their new album is, per their record label, inspired by a trip to indigenous ruins in Central America (god save us). Although I gave them some points for having an unspecified elephant fetish, my irrational intolerance meter was still going through the roof.
“ But I gave their new album, “Something to Ruin,” a listen, and on the third time through I realized that this was some seriously good pop music. Strong tunes and smart lyrics containing just enough existential angst for a twentysomething nostalgia trip. But what really stood out were the arrangements. Five-part vocal harmonies, polyrhythms – this is craftsmanship, these tunes are fucking put together. I know that arrangement is considered an anathema in modern music circles, but a listen to this might change your mind.
So I was actually excited to walk down to Rumba and see how this all worked out live. I got there a bit before things got started, and was able have a scotch and soda on the patio and listen to some sort of disturbance in the alley behind the 14-0 carryout. I then headed inside to listen to opener Chris Pureka, also a Portland-based singer-songwriter. She played that overly gorgeous neo-folk which is bouncing around these days; droney, hypnotic and fast-track destined for NPR’s All Songs Considered. She was joined by guitarist Andy Alseri, who did wonderful things with a Les Paul Jr., and drummer Piper Denny, who was absolutely world class. A shame Denny didn’t get to stretch out more with this material, she was one of the better drummers I’ve seen in a while.
More patio and more whiskey. I came back inside just as the six members of Ages and Ages were coming on. They were sans blue pants, avec wine glasses, and making some weird mumblings about having been taking a nap. They then proceeded to kick a tremendous amount of ass, opening up with “Kick Me Out,” the second song on their new album.
Five of the six band members sing, with lead vocals mostly handled by guitarist Tim Perry. Several members of the group are playing miscellaneous percussion at any given time, protected from chaos by loud snare drums hits on the back beat by drummer Evan Railton. In fact that’s a pretty good way to describe their sound – engineered to come perilously close to chaos but never cross the line.
The set was heavy with songs from “Something to Ruin.” Besides “Kick Me Out” they played the single “As it Is,” the delightful eponymous track, and album opener “They Want More.” They also hit some tunes from earlier albums, including “Souvenir” from 2011’s “Alright You Restless” and “Our Demons” and “Light Goes Out” from 2014’s “Divisionary.” It was just great stuff – in addition to the usual louder/faster benefits of a live show, the arrangements I was just gushing about were even better in person because you could see how things were fitting together, i.e. if the vocalists were singing a round you could see who was starting where.
Honestly, I haven’t seen live arrangements done so well since I saw an eight-piece band from California do a legit cover of “Heroes and Villains” at some bar on Bethel Road circa 2004. I bring this up because in addition to the two decade bands-you-have-never-heard-of progeny of Belle and Sebastian, I could hear something of the Beach Boys in Ages and Ages. A throwback to a time when pop music aspired to transcend itself a little bit. Even if hearing the word “Portland” makes you a little nauseous, these guys might be on to something special.
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