With all the recent buzz enveloping Portland prog-rock act AU, it's easy to forget that Luke Wyland and Dana Valatka have been doing this for years. But it's a worthy brand of hype, one rising from a three-year period wherein AU has seemingly mastered its obscure craft. Musically, AU's ideas have always been lofty. Current acclaim is due, at least in part, to the duo's newfound ability to translate these high-reaching concepts into something that's both accessible and challenging.
Their method has been the lure for plenty of outside talent. Alt-saxophonist Colin Stetson features on AU's third record and newest release, Both Lights. Members of the Helio Sequence, Lost Lander, Menomena, the Thermals and Wax Fingers were all in attendance on Saturday. Granted, there's been collaboration between many of these artists lately, but it's just as much a tip of the hat to AU's infectious present form.
Openers Parenthetical Girls and Tu Fawning gave the bill a strength normally reserved for a festival. Any of the three bands could have headlined and are used to doing so. But, whether it out of utter curiosity, genuine admiration, or a combination of the two, fans and fellow artists bowed to AU. With so many inventors in a single room, there was much to take in. A few notes from the evening at large:
Zac Pennington is a showman.
Parenthetical Girls' vivacious frontman never needs a stage map. His comfort level before a crowd is second to none, the preface to long strolls through the pit while singing, microphone acrobatics and disco ball demands (which the Doug Fir sound team obliged). Pennington manages a demeanor that is both manic and introspective, two adjectives that can fairly sum up the group's sound as well. A tough, tough act to follow.
A Monument is going to be good.
Tu Fawning's forthcoming release was not the toast of the town tonight, but something to covet nonetheless. For an evening set mostly in the digital mode, Tu Fawning provided a bit of an analog escape. Corrina Repp's buttery vocals tenderize every track the band turns out, imparting warmth and richness. In addition to tracks from debut record Hearts on Hold, Tu Fawning tried out some new material to be released as A Monument this May. "Bones," a jumpy, dreamy ballad that's part waltz exceeds seven minutes in length, and that's the studio version. Tu Fawning proved it can play the experimental card with the best of 'em.
AU might be the reincarnation of the Who.
Evidenced by the freakish and aptly-named opening track "Epic," AU is, at times, like the Who in a blender. This song, in particular, conjures up "Teenage Wasteland" with its flurry of electric piano and dizzying pace. Electric, scrambled, frenetic but still composed, Wyland and Valatkla engage in an ongoing match of thoughtful scribbling. If Jackson Pollock's though process had a soundtrack, this would be it.
Dana Valatka is an invaluable percussionist.
AU's heaving ways require a drummer with cardiovascular fitness. Valatka doesn't just keep up, he leads the charge, inspiring a percussive element in Wyland's piano style as well as the stop-on-a-dime vocal harmonies the permeate much of their work. In some ways, AU draws from the ragtime era, a genre built from broken down old pianos made interesting thanks to a percussive new playing style. Of course, it's a modernization of that, set in today's world of accelerated speed and shortened attention spans. AU achieves this through Valatka's conductor-esque ability.
Both Lights must have been exhausting.
Three years seems like a flash when you consider the complexity and overall texture of Both Lights. Building a multi-dimensional musical creature is less of a feat within the forgiving walls of a studio, this much is true. Saturday proved that AU is just as innovative before a live audience, and perhaps more synchronized than we previously imagined. From crashing highs like "OJ" to somber and delicate lows like "Crazy Idol," Both Lights is a dazzling sonic portrait, twice as vivid live.
What's fun is that AU is flirting with a new language and one can't help but look back at relatable movements like the Bitte-Orca period of Dirty Projectors or the Brian Eno sponsored "No Wave" phase of the mid-1970's. What the band does next is unknown and will certainly take some time. But they do have a growing line of followers that hungrily awaits every step and sidestep they take.