All words: Jeb Gavin
All photos: Stephanie Breijo
Theory: Father John Misty is doing for Laurel Canyon folk rock what the Darkness (more or less) did for arena cock rock. In watching his show this past Thursday at the 9:30 Club, it occurred to me you could take all of this at face value. You can listen to J. Tillman’s latest record, Fear Fun, as though it were a stripped down, less interesting version of Fleet Foxes. You can see Tillman’s performance as accidental buffoonery not unlike a country-fied Jim Morrison. Of course, that’s an absurdly narrow view, like watching Duck Soup as a documentary about the plight of the poor people of Freedonia. Even if the wink and nod to the audience isn’t wholly intentional, to be bored by such a show is to be boring.
Truth be told, all the weirdness on the set itself seemed calculated. The multiple disco balls, the eye-searing, colorful collage backdrop, the pet stuffed white tiger (named D’Artagnan, naturally,) it all felt as though someone said, “what can we do to distract from the music?” Though again, I stress, the distraction isn’t because the music is bad, or uneven. It’s just, well, stripped down, nearly the point of jarring the listener when you finally marry the lyrics and tone in your head. Each track is a pastiche of 1970s AOR rock, though mostly focused on country and folk tinged work. Lines Harry Nilsson never had a chance to write, throwaway Dylan references (“I’m Writing a Novel” in particular sounds like something left out of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”,) are bound up in Tumbleweed Connection-style piano work, and the sort of chugging 12 string steel guitar sound that’s either Gordon Lightfoot or Tom Petty, depending on the track.
Each song seems to inhabit a different aspect of post-adolescent life, but one unwilling to come to terms with adulthood. Going into the show that night, I probably have about four “favorite” songs from Fear Fun, but live the list is first expanded, and then culled one by one. “Nancy From Now On” was always fun, but seeing it live, with this scarecrow of a man vamping like an emaciated Liberace in a work shirt takes it to another level of insidious fun. I particularly liked looking around at an audience expecting folk rock, inadvertently swaying to what is in essence, disco. “I’m Writing a Novel” is fun because of the overt references, and because there might be nothing better to say to people to mess with their perception than, “my reality is realer than yours.”
For an encore, Tillman played probably the best song alone on guitar, this perfect, erudite, Jarvis Cocker-like kiss-off to an ex. He manages to both correctly diagnose malapropism in quoting the girl, and name check Sarah Vaughan, and neither of which seems like a stretch in context. Explaining after, he said the song would sound even better if we the audience were sitting with him in his van, getting high, and listening to him narrate where the instrumentation would go as the track plays. This was followed by a perfectly passable Beatles cover, though I would’ve appreciated a deeper cut, perhaps George Harrison’s 1975 companion piece to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying)” from Extra Texture. They closed with what will likely be the title track off the new album, “I Love You, Honeybear.” It’s a fun little torch song, but doesn’t have the same pointed vitriol as the other new song.
All in, I’m excited with the music, and the suitably off-kilter stage show. I want some mutant danceable folk rock, and I like being in on the joke, especially one tailored to and aping the music I grew up listening to. I don’t want stagnation, and this is most certainly a step forward, a confident one in fact. Here’s hoping it’s not a step into a bear trap.
Funtimes in Babylon
Only Son of the Ladies’ Man
Nancy From Now On
I’m Writing a Novel
Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2
This Is Sally Hatchet
Well, You Can Do It Without Me
Now I’m Learning to Love the War
Tee Pees 1-12
Everyman Needs a Companion
Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings
[New, untitled song]
Happiness Is a Warm Gun [Beatles cover]
I Love You, Honeybear