Destroyer at Turner Hall
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These days, or perhaps since the days when The Velvet Underground became ubiquitous, the default formula for what we now term “indie-rock” is a steady drumbeat and a bunch of instruments that make things progressively louder until the layers of sound overpower any sense of melody. So it’s nice to know that one of indie’s most beloved craftsmen of subtle, nuanced pop is still all about the craft. Dan Bejar of Destroyer put together a gorgeously bitter album in last year’s Kaputt—but then he apparently instructed his touring band to make those songs sound like a faceless garage band was playing them.
Bejar’s genius lies in being able to confuse listeners about whether he’s writing from his own perspective or from that of his persecutors, and in making you think about whether it matters in terms of how you appreciate the song. Often, he comes off like a total asshole however you look at it, but you have to tell yourself he can’t possibly be sincere. His wan, jaded vocals are perfect for the slick pop he commits to record, but despite all the technology at hand, he couldn’t successfully pull it off Wednesday night at Turner Hall Ballroom. As band mastermind, Bejar should understand his strengths (lyrics and arrangements) and find a way to highlight them live. Instead, Destroyer minimized these aspects in favor of formulaic soft-loud-soft rock.
The trouble began with drummer Fisher Rose. If the time signature was 4/4, Rose’s only setting was “One Headlight.” Admittedly, Bejar’s songs don’t generally lend themselves to interesting drumming, but there are pre-programmed digital drumbeats built into Casio keyboards that exude more character than Rose. Bejar’s disciples don’t care; the fans’ rapturous response to each song suggested devotion in the key of Morrissey, and it was tough to argue since the songs were easily recognizable. It’s just that these brutish arrangements didn’t work with the new songs, and the band ended most of them with virtually the same generic noise jam/fade out.
In a pinch, it was best to concentrate on flute and sax player Joseph Shabason, who added melody and a flair for spontaneity to many of the improvisational portions of the show. He also played with opening act Sandro Perri, who put on a far more intriguing set than Destroyer, actually. Perri goes for a mixture of pastoral and creepy much like the Timber Timbre concept, and the sounds didn’t always blend—but frequently the dark, jazzy stretches were powerful enough (in a quirky sort of way) to turn heads, and they ultimately served to highlight the deficiencies of Destroyer’s performance.
Bejar’s cohorts played with no degree of subtlety, bludgeoning the crap out of these delicately effective songs until little of their essence remained. It was as if Bejar had decided to shirk his sometimes labored self-awareness by reverse-engineering his songs to be organic rock—but the effect was that the inherent yearning in them became totally unfathomable, as if he’d finally added so many layers of irony that he couldn’t possibly evoke any genuine emotion. To put it another way: The band had no style, so you started to overanalyze Bejar’s intentions.
A couple of times, it worked. The epic performance of “Looters’ Follies” took the relatively mellow blues shuffle to new heights of intensity, as if the song was conceived that way. Several sax-and-distortion peaks stripped away the song’s Vaudevillian trappings to unleash a terrific, blistering rock song with Bejar inhabiting his somehow humorless Dudley Moore persona. And for the final tune of the night, Destroyer let loose with the Modest Mouse-esque “Destroyer’s The Temple,” which concluded with a big post-rock noise climax that wasn’t exactly mind-blowing, but it did play to the strengths of the band. Otherwise, the set was a muddy, plodding string of sameness. It’s an admirable endeavor to shape processed pop songs into something more exciting in a live setting, but not if you sacrifice most of what makes the songs great in the process.