Review Summary: Tired of another round another wasn't really what I wanted so we slowed it down.
One particularly stringent way of testing an individual’s ability is to take away his or her greatest strength and observe how he or she performs in a given situation. For Manchester Orchestra that would be their livewire energy; the freedom to let loose and just rock the fu
ck out. Indeed, over the past seven years, the five-piece has been gallivanting around the hard-nosed side of the alternative/indie rock scene with an ease and swagger that even T.I and co. would admire. On Mean Everything to Nothing
– the band’s final studio release before the release of Live At Park Ave.
– the band saw it fit to up the already dangerously-volatile ante exhibited on I’m Like A Virgin
, fearlessly delving even deeper into frontman Andy Hull’s teenage angst and running a great risk of self-ruin in the process. As Hull himself famously described it, writing the album was like putting “Pinkerton
on steroids”, and was on all counts a purposeful and deliberate attempt on the part of the band to see how far they could go in terms of emotional nakedness before their audience raised its collective hands and announce that it had had enough.
Having already discovered their safety boundaries, it is thus no surprise that Manchester Orchestra usually decides to play to what they have decided are their main strengths whenever they appear as a live entity. Oftentimes relying on explosive, impacting one-two opening combos to grip their audiences at the beginning of a set, the band tends to only step away from the amp when the night is considerably older and the crowd is well within their control. Taken in that context, Live At Park Ave
, the band’s contribution to 2010’s Record Store Day, comes across as a bit of an oddity, and not least because it opens with a series of gentle and carefully resonating acoustic strings and Andy Hull announcing in an unusually soft tone: “I am the only one that thinks I’m going crazy, and I don’t know what to do”. Mean Everything to Nothing
and Live At Park Ave.
may both begin with “The Only One”, but the similarity stops there. Gone are the beefy riffs and trademark machine-gun percussion that ran through all of the former, and in their place one finds instead a pair of acoustic guitars and a yearning desire to be loved in solace. Then, instead of launching into “Shake It Out” (which is also present here) as one would expect them to, Hull and co. choose to retreat into the soul-gripping melancholy of “Everything to Nothing”, which feels pensive and unusually spacious in its lo-fi form, quietly disappearing into oblivion before one even fully realizes that it’s there.
“The River” then has Hull going: “I think I talk to you best when I sing; I sing about almost everything”, effortlessly managing to get away with tossing out a phrase that, in the hands of a less evocative vocalist, might seem painfully cliché and devoid of innovation. “Sleeper 1972”, the only track not
from Mean Everything to Nothing
, is perhaps the most intriguing cut here. The only number to maintain some semblance of its form on the original studio recording, the song feels more like a particularly well-mastered mix than anything else, which makes its all-round effectiveness unexpected and thoroughly surprising but in the best of ways. It’s the kind of anachronistic set-up that seems designed to derail the entire project on purpose, yet somewhat ironically, this return to “normalcy” and non-deviation may serve as a safety net – an earth wire of sorts – and without it, it would be much, much harder to ascertain whether Live At Park Ave.
would have left the pleasant aftertaste that it ultimately did.
But at the end of the day, it is worth asking if the songs, despite their drastic reinterpretation, keep their authenticity and grungy merits, and the answer is yes. In fact, this reviewer would argue that the ambient sounds, like the creaking of guitar strings on “Shake It Out” and the calm, yet warmly receptive crowd of the Park Ave. CD store, provide a degree of intimacy absent – but not missed – on the original studio recordings. The emotions on Live At Park Ave
still run incredibly high, in spite of the toned-down vocal timbre, and the seven tracks present, skillfully selected, provide the listener with an auditory “wish you were here” postcard. Still, that rating up there is best thought of as a holistic reflection of the entire package, and an acknowledgment that a muted and toned-down Manchester Orchestra may, to some listeners, be worse than no Manchester Orchestra at all. What I call chaste you may call neutered, see?