El Ten Eleven
October 12, 2010
@ Bottom of the Hill
Better than: M.I.A.
You'd never think it from listening to their albums -- three of them, and a fourth coming next month -- but watching El Ten Eleven play is something like watching two superheroes do their thing. On record, it's not so strange that the duo doesn't sound much like a duo: theirs are impressively layered instrumental pattern-pop pieces, obliging and gently rock-pedigreed, the kind that fit so well on the soundtrack to Gary Hustwit's Helvetica documentary. Appreciating a robust sans serif and appreciating an El Ten Eleven song involve at least a few of the same mental muscles.
But live it's a different ballgame entirely, not least because all that sound boils down to two dudes with their hands and feet full of instrument.
Melodicist Kristian Dunn taps away at a double-necked guitar-bass while his feet work three boards' worth of effects pedals; drummer Tim Fogarty vamps tirelessly on more skins than a conventionally two-armed man should know what to do with. (He also gets up and drums on the strings of Dunn's guitar, at least at the end of "3 Plus 4.") They play in front of a projection of Dunn's pedal board, which, though it gives disappointingly short shrift to what Fogarty is doing, is the right kind of gesture: laying bare all the loops and delays it takes to make an El Ten Eleven song tick. It's not always much to watch, but seeing the full extent of the setup -- no sleight of hand, no sleight of foot -- is just as satisfying as it is when, say, Andrew Bird does it.
The crowd last night at the Bottom of the Hill, who whooped and grooved like they were there mostly to see Baths, found a way to dance along. Not like it was hard: Dunn and Fogarty kept things moving, injecting even their more contemplative numbers -- like "My Only Swerving," from Helvetica and from their 2004 self-titled debut -- with visible energy. They previewed a couple of songs from their forthcoming record, It's Still Like A Secret, and took full ownership of Joy Division's "Disorder." At the end of their set, a flushed Dunn explained that here they would usually saunter off stage and wait to be applauded back on. "But how about we just play a couple more songs and then leave for real?"
"Five more!" someone yelled.
"Someone always says that," Dunn replied. "It's so nice. But no."
Decked out in blue jogging shorts, a lighter blue V-neck T-shirt, '70s porn-star sideburns but such a winning smile, L.A. beat-tweaker Baths (government name Will Wiesenfeld) turned in a set similarly removed from the experience of his Anticon debut, Cerulean. Parts of the record were recognizable here and there, such as the chiming guitar breaks and choral refrain from "Plea," but by and large his M.O. was less art, more dance. (That said, he did make a consistent point of fucking with the beat like it was a mosquito bite he wasn't supposed to scratch.) Wiesenfeld sang only occasionally, but kept up a constant stream of glitchy maneuvers and subterranean rhythms that became apparent only when one song morphed into the next; the Passion-Pit-on-raver-drugs theatrics of Cerulean were buried under a sampler, wide if not deep, of intelligent dance mischief. Wiesenfeld seemed as absorbed as Dunn and Fogarty, checking in with the audience about as often, though his closing line beat theirs: "This last song is about Hugh Jackman."
Sacramento quartet Sister Crayon split the difference between the two headliners about as well as anyone could, hunching over their electronic setups but filling the room with slick, moody tales of blood and despair. Their sound was roughly proportionate to the number of players, but the combination of Terra Lopez's powerful wail and drummer Nicholas Suhr's propulsive low-end rumble made for a promising mix of noirish post-punk and blip-bloop soul, even when the individual instruments didn't quite coalesce.
Critic's notebook: What a shame this show wasn't a day earlier, on 10/11.
Overheard: "Is this the kind of music you like?" --"I've never heard of this person."