Or, The Whale
Wednesday, November 17
@ The Independent
Better than: Watching more dead whales wash up on Bay Area shores
If you think about it, San Francisco's Or, The Whale is one of the most audaciously named bands this side of !!! and Various. There's the literary reference, for starters, which is probably why I started to like them in the first place -- it's the foretitle to Melville's Moby-Dick, and it's not every band that would think to christen itself with an also-ran like "or what you will" or "the smell of fear" -- but there's also the fact that any band billed immediately above OTW inevitably winds up being compared, alternatively, to a whale. The whale. As was the case at the Independent last night (see above).
But it turns out there is nothing cetacean about New Englander Chris Pureka, who is perfectly normal-sized and has a much more articulate voice than your average whale. Pureka is also not a man -- according to Wikipedia, ze identifies as genderqueer -- nor, as far as I know, related to any of the various brands of cat food the name "Pureka" kind of sounds like. Last night's opening set, generous both in length and in feeling, showcased a weathered songwriting sensibility that makes early Iron & Wine sound lush and carefree; as on this April's How I Learned to See in the Dark, Pureka's songs tend to finish unresolved, melodically and lyrically, something heavy always lingering just behind the eyes.
Pureka's voice is coarse but sweet, packed down like hard earth despite the sadness tiptoeing through the songs; the backing band, four more women in gentlemanly dress, lined those songs with violin here, banjo there, the occasional subtle lick of slide guitar. The overall effect was at once hearty and lonesome, offset by Pureka's inter-song banter about the burgeoning sword/machine guns/cat trade in Cottage Grove, Oregon. Maybe you had to be there.
Or, The Whale was a septet last night, but from now on it'll be a sextet: keyboardist and singer Julie Ann Thomason, electric guitarist Matt Sartain, and oddly clean-cut bassist Justin Fantl are departing in search of greener pastures, to be replaced by two new members. Although it's hard to imagine pastures much greener than this band's, with or without singer Alex Robins's exhortation to "get that weed out" just before an energetic rendition of "Datura," from last year's self-titled album. (Selected audience members complied.)
OTW isn't very druggy, especially not in San Francisco's storied heritage of drugginess; there's something upstanding and uplifting in its songs, even when they're about rambling off the righteous path. But there is a certain hypnosis to the steady, thumping beat and the wonderfully lush pedal steel that line them, from the slow-burning Mojave 3 ballads to the spirited midtempo grooves to the occasional straight-up rocker. Home from the road and glad to be back (despite some complaints about the mid-November chill), the band was relaxed and obliging, comfortable and casual without sacrificing the smooth, practiced grace of their pre-redemption epics.
Robins, when not showcasing his love for casual profanity, steered clear of the cloying Colinmeloyisms that sometimes dog his voice on record; drummer Jesse Hunt worked his kit delicately, as though apprehensive about each beat, but still came through with a lithe and powerful backbone. OTW's songs are by turns placid and driving; the best of their songs, including the new road anthem "Come Back Home," combine the two into a sort of bluesy Motor City Americana, and the strongest moments last night drove this effect home. [Pun recognized but not endorsed.]
And sure, the band made everyone wait until the end of the encore to play their best song, "Call and Response," from 2007's Light Poles and Pines -- but the crush of family and friends on stage was a spectacle worth the wait. Besides, there was some actual call and response throughout the set: to the lyric "My dog died and it broke my heart," at the head of "Rusty Gold," someone in the audience yelled back, in perfect rhythm, "get over it!" Good to be back in San Francisco.
Overheard: (on Chris Pureka) "No, seriously, can we keep her?"
Misheard: "Oh my, yes indeed / Spent my money on the chimps and weed" (for "jimson weed," in "Datura")