Disclaimer: Fantastic Planet, released in 1996, is one of my top five records of all time. If you haven’t heard it, it comes with the dirtbag’s highest possible seal of approval (which, now that I think of it, should probably be a torn Miller High Life label).
The Never Say Never tour (Andrews, Martin, and SD locals firstwavehello) is a family affair: Andrews (Failure, ON, Year of the Rabbit, and with enough production/mixing credits to pay for the giant bus parked outside) and Martin are married; firstwavehello are Andrews’ prodigies, having been inspired by his work and later invited to perform as his backing band.
The connection between Ken Andrews and firstwavehello started when Andrews was asked to mix firstwavehello’s stellar 2006 album, The Lord and Its Penguin. They do so masterfully, but the real story is the effect that touring and some lineup changes have had on the band. More on that in a few.
I arrived at the Belly Up Tavern with good friend TO in tow. Tim Pyles was kind enough to be my “host,” as it were. It’s always good to talk with Tim; he’s extremely knowledgeable and passionate about music–two facts that make me wonder how he was able to last in radio–and has been a better proponent of San Diego bands than many of the bands themselves. Arriving a few minutes late, I came through the door just as firstwavehello was finishing up “Lay Down,” which is perhaps my favorite of their older batch of songs. Accessible yet complex, the song makes great use of their ability to weave electronic instrumentation into 90s-esque guitar rockers, all of which serves as a great backdrop for Jacob Turnbloom’s expressive tenor.
The band has been through some lineup changes in the past few months, with the now defunct Hot (like) A Robot’s rhythm section, Chris Kolek (bass) and Adam Barker (drums), having stepped in. Though there was nothing wrong with their old lineup, the new additions seem to have brought a new forcefulness to firstwavehello’s sound. It didn’t hurt that they were playing the Belly Up, which has some of the best sound I’ve ever heard–concert hall, club, stadium–period. Barker’s drums sounded amazing, especially the toms, which rolled and growled with focus and presence. The whole band sounded great, tour-tight, while playing some new, seemingly instrumental tracks.
Charlotte Martin was next. My girlfriend Sarah is a big fan on Martin, and as such I was broadly familiar with her work before. This being my first time seeing her live, I was struck by two things. First, she can flat out sing. Her vocal style is reminiscent of Tori Amos, and Fiona Apple, but with more dynamic range than the former and more full highs than the latter. Second, she has a captivating stage presence. Her beauty is considerable and striking, but her manner is much less affected than either Amos or Apple. It puzzles me why she’s never broken as big in the mainstream. Timing, I suppose?
Martin’s just released an album of covers, Reproductions, and she marked the occasion by performing Sinead O’Connor’s “I Am Stretched Out On Your Grave” and Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren.” Though her set’s reliance on piano, programming and tribal rhythms got a little repetitive toward the end, there’s no doubting that Martin captivated a broad swath of the audience.
After a short changeover, Andrews took the stage with firstwavehello in tow. He began his set with four songs from Secrets of the Lost Satellite, his 2007 solo record. Secrets basically continues along the same tracks laid by Year of the Rabbit, his last full band project, which is to say that it’s essentially radio-friendly alternative rock with a few nods to the darker, more spacey sounds of Failure. I’m not familiar with this record, but the songs seemed to make die hard fans happy.
They just made me want to hear some Failure songs, which, fortunately, were quickly forthcoming. After playing two songs from his electro project ON, Andrews guided the band through songs from Comfort, the band’s 1993 Steve Albini-produced released, and Magnified (though I didn’t hear Let It Drip, which I was looking forward to). Then, Andrews asked the crowd if they were ready to go to a place called Fantastic Planet.
We were. Or rather, I was. Actually, I was surrounded by a lot of fellow compatriots. Though it made a relatively small splash in commercial terms, Fantastic Planet is a monumental record in many circles, the kind of record that can still be heard resonating in many bands working today. Heck, when even schlocky emo bands like Paramore cover your songs (“Stuck on You”), you must be striking a real chord.
Andrews and firstwavehello played “Sergeant Politeness,” “Dirty Blue Balloons,” “Stuck on You,” and finally “The Nurse Who Loved Me.” For the final song, Andrews was joined by Martin, on piano, and her percussionist. Looking lovingly over at his wife, and playing in front of a rapt audience (and his mother, who was seated to the right of the stage), Andrews appeared awfully happy. I was, too.