The Lyric Oxford

Manchester Orchestra

Manchester Orchestra

(Sandy) Alex G, Kevin Devine

Thu, August 9, 2018

Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pm

$22.00 - $26.00

No refunds. 

All minors (17 AND under) must be accompanied by a parent or guardian over 21. 

A $3 underage fee will be collected at the door from all persons under 21. Cash only.

Manchester Orchestra
Manchester Orchestra
Manchester Orchestra had always prided themselves on their approach. The Atlanta-based band, led by singer/lyricist Andy Hull with Robert McDowell (who is also Hull’s brother-in-law and lifelong friend), had spent their career challenging each other to build a poignant, exhilarating narrative with each new album and
EP. The band had worked relentlessly to cultivate a passionate fan base the old-fashioned way: releasing music, making music videos, and touring (most recently with drummer Tim Very and bassist Andy Prince). Their previous long-player, 2014’s Cope, had even spawned a cover album of itself by its creators, an acoustic reworking and reimagining of its songs with a heavily emotional bent that they called Hope. But now — thirty
years old, stable, and a frst-time father — Hull found himself facing a crisis of inspiration. Since the beginning, each subsequent Manchester Orchestra album had been a grand statement for that specifc moment in their career, originated in a desire to push themselves forward creatively. The desire to achieve greatness is often followed by a need for that same desire to evolve. So, for a musician used to writing out of self-refection, what do you sing about when life is good? For a band on record number five and seeking innovation, how do you
untangle yourself from the past? How do you write songs about being happy?

It was becoming clear that they required a completely new approach from an entirely different sphere and set of faculties — and, lo and behold, just such a moment arrived when Hull and McDowell were offered the chance to score a movie.

In the midst of the Cope/Hope LP release cycle, the directing duo The Daniels — who had created a dense, theatrical music video for Manchester Orchestra’s “Simple Math” in 2011, winning Vimeo’s “Music Video of the Year” in the process — countered Hull and McDowell’s request for them to work on another video with the idea of scoring the directors’ in-the-works feature film debut, Swiss Army Man. They had never written a film score before, but the pair of musicians happily rose to the challenge.

The Daniels’ immediate guideline was: “Cool, don’t use any instruments.” In the project, Hull and McDowell recognized an opportunity to leave their comfort zone and to push emotion to new heights.

“Cope was very much a record where we knew what we wanted and it was a goal in our heads we could chase; that was followed by the polar opposite in Hope. But once we started work on the soundtrack, we threw the textbook out and started approaching music against our instincts,” says McDowell. “I think the
score kind of was like going back and getting a doctorate. Once we finished it, there was this whole new realm of situations and sounds that we could go down.”

Swiss Army Man was a weird — albeit cult — Sundance hit, and the film’s New York Times-lauded “marvelously melancholic music” earned rave reviews around the world. Riding that excitement, Hull and McDowell decamped to a cabin near Asheville, North Carolina, with bandmates Very and Prince to write a new record. Inspired by their experience creating the score, they seized the chance to rethink Manchester
Orchestra’s typical methods of working.

“We’re a band that loves to use heavy, crunchy guitars,” says Hull. “We wondered how we could limit the use of that, so that when the guitars come in they can be creative and impactful. For Swiss Army Man we had to make seventy minutes of music with our hands tied behind our backs. When you’re creating all the
sounds you need just from the human voice, it allows you to rethink what is possible, and determine what is really needed. We wanted to make an album in a ‘non-Manchester’ way if there is such a thing. So we started looking for people to help us do that.”

This process gave them new ideas of how to think about writing, how songs could fow, and how to layer melodies on top of one another to propel the tune into a new emotional arena. To manifest this vision, the band turned to producer Catherine Marks (Foals, PJ Harvey, The Killers, Interpol) and began working with her at Echo Mountain studio in Asheville. “She just got it immediately. Catherine looked at us and said, ‘I hear Twin
Peaks: The Album here,’” says Hull. The band instantly connected to her unique sonic outlook for the record: Marks wanted each song to sound like a different room. "Like you could understand where you were in the room and identify where each particular sound was coming from, pick it out with your hands and pull it out,” Marks explains, adding, “Being able to utilize the sound of the rooms we recorded it in, whether it was at Echo
Mountain, or literally standing in a bath and engaging with the reverberation and refections that those rooms provided -- as opposed to manufactured reverbs -- was super exciting to me.” In addition to mixing with Marks at her Assault & Battery studio in London, Manchester Orchestra also worked with John Congleton (St. Vincent, Explosions In The Sky, Angel Olsen, Cloud Nothings) in Los Angeles — gathering new sounds, adding
to and widening the songs’ dimensions — as well as their longtime producer Dan Hannon, who offered an invaluable perspective that only an old friend could give. Encouraged to go against first instinct, each collaborator added their own touch to the music, pushing it to places no Manchester Orchestra record had ever gone before. As Marks says, “Throughout the entire process, the band fought for the unknown and the unquantifiable.” In thoughtfully deconstructing and rebuilding their songwriting process, the band pushed themselves to create their best album yet.

“It was a test—personally, emotionally, creatively—to see how far we could push ourselves without breaking,” says McDowell. “This record was intentionally un-compromised on every level. We made sure to explore all the options and that we were moving forward with the strongest approach for each song— strongest part, strongest melody, strongest lyric.”

Describing a rock record as “cinematic” usually implies a double-length, sprawling album with a full orchestra on every song; A Black Mile to the Surface is cinematic in that it conjures worlds. There’s magical surrealism at work, with songs about a boy with no ears (“The Alien”) and the father/sleeping child callback of “The Sunshine.” There’s a story to parse here — three brothers, an abandoned wife and child, a mysterious journey through the depths of a miles-deep mine, a narrative of twists and turns, recurring characters, alternating timelines — but the songs and melodies stand on their own.

The initial creative spark for Hull’s lyrics came from a photograph. “While we were writing the album in Asheville it was snowing heavily at the cabin. I was reminded of what it feels like to live in a place that is cyclically cold. No matter what happens you can’t escape it," says Hull. “I had written a song with a character in South Dakota, so I started looking up pictures of ‘winter in South Dakota,’ and there it was.” What he found was a picture of a road with snow piled high forming walls on either side, maze-like; cars were frozen in time, the sky a white-nothing blur. Hull began to write songs from the perspectives of different characters who might live in the scene, and found that as he was creating these fictional stories, it became much easier for him to talk about the things that were happening in his own life. In “The Gold,” a song about a woman missing her husband as he descends into the blackness of the mines, Hull saw his own wife left alone with their young child after yet another months-long tour. As he sang these characters’ concerns, he realized he was really singing his own.

A Black Mile to the Surface is a bold record of vision and purpose, inspired by and dwelling in a sensory and imaginative experience. It’s a reinvention of sorts, both musically and personally—a sort of cosmic worldview shift. But in the end, the record’s themes are universal. On the stunning final track, Hull sings, “Let me watch you as close as a memory/ Let me hold you above all the misery/ Let me open my eyes and be glad that I got here.” Certainly, that’s a father speaking hope to his daughter, but it’s also a message to listeners.

How do you write songs about being happy? With your eyes wide open, your loved ones in front of you, and the misery of the world waiting just outside the door.
(Sandy) Alex G
(Sandy) Alex G
At the end of “Poison Root,” the opening track on Alex Giannascoli’s new album, Rocket, the 23-year-old artist repeats the phrase “Now, I know everything” again and again, his voice seething over a clatter of banjo, violin, and acoustic guitar sounds. It’s difficult to ascertain the exact tone: does he really think he knows everything? Or are these incantations a form of self-assurance, covering up insecurity? The tension between ambition and self-doubt in this closing refrain is typical of Rocket’s fourteen tracks. Over musical backdrops that effortlessly jump from sound collage to country pop to dreamy folk music, the cast of characters that Alex G inhabits have fun, fall in love, develop obsessions, get into trouble, and burn out. Rocket illustrates a cohesive vision of contemporary experience that’s dark and foreboding, perhaps especially because of how familiar, or to use Alex’s word, “unassuming,” the settings are.

With a goat-adorned cover painted by Alex’s sister, Rachel, Rocket is the Philadelphia-based artist’s eighth full-length release—an assured statement that follows a slate of humble masterpieces, many of them self-recorded and self-released, stretching from 2010’s RACE to his 2015 Domino debut, Beach Music. Rocket’s sessions began shortly after Beach Music’s ended, with Alex tracking songs at home, by himself and with friends, in the gaps between a hectic 2015 and 2016 touring schedule. Both albums were mixed by Jacob Portrait (Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Bass Drum of Death), who lent them a fine-tuning that retains the homespun personality of earlier efforts.

Amid the process, in the fall of 2016, Alex made headlines for reasons outside his own releases. He had caught the attention of Frank Ocean, who asked him to play guitar on his two 2016 albums, Endless and Blonde. More than any stylistic cues, what Alex took from the experience was a newfound confidence in collaboration. “I always have a hard time letting people play on my stuff,” he says, “but I saw how comfortable [Ocean] was using other people’s playing.” Alex’s previous albums are largely solo affairs, but Rocket wears this collaborative spirit proudly. Touring band members Samuel Acchione and John Heywood contribute guitar and bass, both soloing on “County”; Samuel’s brother Colin plays bass on two songs as well. Emily Yacina, a more frequent collaborator, sings on “Bobby” and “Alina,” and Molly Germer shows up throughout the album on violin and vocals. Germer’s violin was a game-changer, as the instrument “added a texture that I can’t get on my own,” Alex notes.

The looser, collaborative approach helped cultivate the variety of musical styles that Rocket presents. The dense, folky cluster of “Poison Root” leads to the bouncing country-rock of “Proud,” which is followed by the sophisticated harmonies of jazz-pop tune “County.” Later, the freaky, frantic “Witch” unsettles the album’s pop sensibility, while instrumentals “Horse” and “Rocket” set a more placid mood—that is, until the distorted, beat-driven “Brick” destroys any feelings of serenity exuded by the surrounding songs. Rocket ends with a rollicking free-for-all, “Guilty,” that in its numerous contributors and blaring saxophone synthesizes the album’s communal feel and restless sense of musical experimentation.

In addition to its fluid network of musical styles, Rocket showcases Alex’s ability to project the perspectives of several characters while maintaining a strong personal voice. Whereas Beach Music’s lyrics outlined vague situations, with Rocket Alex was “trying to create narratives that anybody could still inhabit,” he says, “but that had a more concrete quality.” He takes on the voice of memorable personalities such as what seems like an over-confident boy (“Powerful Man”), an alienated schoolgirl (“Alina”), and a couple with a creepily ambivalent relationship (“Bobby”). Their stories are at turns heartbreaking, puzzling, and hilarious; yet no matter the setting or the way he manipulates his voice, you always get an ineffable sense of “(Sandy) Alex G” as well as what he refers to as “an American perspective.”

“Proud,” the album’s longest (and perhaps catchiest) track, depicts a guarded, potentially disingenuous conversation. “I’m so proud of you,” the narrator says. But later, their sincerity falls away: “I wanna be a fake like you…,” they add. “I just wanna play the game.” The chorus strikes an earnest note—that the person singing works not to play “the game” but to provide for their “baby.” Yet Alex makes sure that it’s never perfectly clear who’s talking, or who believes what, casting doubt over an otherwise personable, inviting song. Track eight, “Sportstar,” traces another uncertain—though, in this case, one-sided—dialogue. Here, the narrator is an obsessive fan of the titular “sportstar” who, with pitched-up vocals and atop a melancholic piano lead, recites stalker-like requests that range from benign (“Let me tie your Nikes”) to violently sexual (“Could you hit me too hard”). That the “sportstar” remains anonymous speaks to Rocket’s open-endedness. Even if the stories are grounded in specific ideas and real experiences, Alex paints pictures that leave room for listeners to share in the events—to interpret them however they’d like, without regard for a “right” answer.

“I want [Rocket] to be completely unassuming,” Alex says. “I wanted it to be full of these characters that don’t know how crazy they are.” Rocket doesn’t have a pointed theme so much as these general feelings of unsteadiness and incomprehension—feelings we remember from growing up and that creep into the everyday life of adulthood as well. In some ways, the album’s title encapsulates this sense: “I like the word ‘rocket’ because it sounds immature, attention-seeking,” Alex explains. But while rockets certainly make a big impression, they also burn out. On Rocket, the myopic characters teeter between the initial explosion and the ultimate burning out. Alex himself, though, in a collection of songs that’s both his tightest and most adventurous, is poised only for the ascent.
Kevin Devine
Kevin Devine
Kevin Devine is an independent singer/songwriter from Brooklyn, NY. He plays alone, with his Goddamn Band, and as a member of Bad Books.
Venue Information:
The Lyric Oxford
1006 Van Buren Ave.
Oxford, MS, 38655