Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s | 06.01.12

margot edwardsYes, this is a different Nukes, and it’s nothing but an improvement, in my humble opinion. Their work is leaner and fitter yet still has layers upon layers of influence.

margot 2012

The Firebird, St. Louis

In 2007, I first fell in love with Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s through a Paste magazine sampler. “Skeleton Key” was the hook that snagged me. After playing the whole of The Dust of Retreat an average of eleventy-billion times and falling deeper and deeper into fandom, I was elated when I found out they’d be playing at Blueberry Hill. Their two opening acts, Canada and Page France, also won my heart just as quickly and became the saving grace of the night. Because the headliners were off…way off. Their playing was disjointed and just messy. Half the band seemed drunk off the charts and the other half seemed grumpy. It wasn’t awful, but it certainly was a letdown. After that, there was the debacle with their label over creative disagreements and it really came as no surprise to me when the band ruptured and several members wandered off to places unknown. It was also no surprise to me that the remaining members, still powered by the engine that is Richard Edwards’ songwriting, revved it up and headed The Nukes in a new direction.

I know for some music lovers, it’s difficult when the band you love change their lineup and/or their sound. Many people, by nature, crave familiarity and I suppose would like artists to keep putting out the same album over and over again. Much has been written by reviewers and fans who seem to fall into two camps concerning Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s: the Please-just-play-your-orchestral-pop camp and the Give-it-to-me-rougher camp.

Personally, I have room in my heart for both. While the aching sweetness of the old ballads like “Talking in Code” and “On a Freezing Chicago Street” will always be favorites, I am just as attracted to the gritty, grimy harshness of the new “Arvydas Sabonis” and “Disease Tobacco Free.” I see a natural trajectory through their albums that brought them to this latest sound. I think “Your Lower Back” off of 2010’s Buzzard was a hint of what was to come, or at the very least had one foot in the past and the other pointed to the future. The 2012 LP Rot Gut Domestic is a grungy goodness rock album, but that orchestral pop feel still simmers underneath, despite the absence of horns and cello. Yes, this is a different Nukes, and it’s nothing but an improvement, in my humble opinion. Their work is leaner and fitter yet still has layers upon layers of influence.

Friday night’s show at The Firebird was also night and day from the show I saw years ago. While beers were enjoyed, no one was visibly wasted and it was a solid performance indeed. This was a band knitted together by common threads. Their concert had purpose and power. Where were you, St. Louis? Because you missed out in a big way. The crowd was moderate but enthusiastic. Unfortunately, one of the audience members was the only blight on the night. The epitome of poor concert etiquette was the “gentleman” who was so drunk and just possibly downright psychotic that he kept getting grabby and trying to grind up on me and several other girls, and karate chopping at some guy’s neck. Fortunately, the crew at Firebird was having none of it, and said cretin was soon out the door. All of this nonsense aside, the night could not have been better.

Openers Whispertown (formerly Whispertown 2000) are Morgan Nagler and Jake Bellows. They played a few of their alt-country tinged songs as a duo and were then joined onstage by members of Dinosaur Feathers and The Nukes for the remainder of their set. I enjoyed what happened to their sound with a more complete backing band, and they certainly seemed to be having a blast playing together, but I found myself wanting a bit more of just the two of them. There was some much-needed fiddling by the sound engineer to bring Nagler’s vocals up but it didn’t detract too much from a solid opening performance. They mentioned hoping for a chance to grab some Pappy’s BBQ before leaving the next day. I hope they got their fix and that it helps to lure them back into town. I really liked the gritty softness of her voice, which reminded me of Lucinda Williams.

Up next was a true surprise treat of the evening, NYC’s Dinosaur Feathers. I get the feeling that many performers are uncomfortable doing sound checks in front of the audience based on how often it’s apologized for, but I find it interesting to watch. In this case, was like an amuse bouche of the fun that was to come. It was especially entertaining that they used a Toni Braxton tune to check their vocals. Lead singer Greg Sullo is a fireball of energy and, as a whole, I found the trio’s playing tight and mesmerizing; I was also really impressed by the mad skills of drummer Nick Brooks. Rounding out the band’s fresh blend of ’60s and surf music-influenced indie pop is bassist Ryan Michael Kiley. All three had remarkable stage presence and really elevated the mood in the room.

The Nukes’ set, starting off with the aforementioned “Arvydas Sabonis,” was a perfect juxtaposition of new songs to old, ballads to harder-hitting tunes, clear vocals to fuzzy distortion on the guitar. The new songs are pretty straightforward without a lot of metaphor, whereas older songs like “Tiny Vampire Robot” are more subjective and shrouded in mystery. I’m still not sure that I know what that song is about, but I don’t think I care; it’s quirky and strangely sweet and I was happy to hear it played. This was the second-to-last show on the tour, a time when a lot of bands are wiped out and understandably just ready to go home. I didn’t get that feeling at all from Margot; in fact, it seemed like they were really into the performance and enjoying themselves.

I am certainly glad that violinist Erik Kang is still in the group. Yes, because he’s just remarkably talented, but his light and sunny smile is another nice juxtaposition to the dark and brooding stage persona of Edwards. Much has been written about Edwards’ anxiety and dislike for performing live, but I sympathize with that, and I don’t mind that he mostly keeps his eyes closed and head down, and just sings his beautiful face off.

The Nukes played older standouts such as “A Children’s Crusade on Acid” and “Skeleton Key” alongside newer songs like “Ludlow Junk Hustle” and ended with what I think is the fan favorite from the new LP, “Shannon.” Anyone who has ever been told “I just wanna be friends” can relate to its seething intensity. Enticed into an encore by shouts of “Margot! Margot! Margot!” and a few “Ca-caws,” the band made me über happy by choosing to play “Talking in Code.” Smart move, too, because it’s a well-known fact that a crowd just likes to be able to dreamily sway back and forth for a bit. It even inspired the two buddies in front of me into an impromptu waltz. After that, the full band launched into “The Devil,” and upon completion left Edwards with keyboardist Cameron McGill for the achingly beautiful “Christ.”

All in all, I think what makes Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s so,so good are the small details: the little riffs against a wall of sound: the perfect keening pitch to convey a moment of agony within a lyric, the clever metaphor and the direct statement. Edwards’ voice crackles and sparks like a campfire one moment, and then booms and growls into an all-consuming forest fire the next. Every single person in this band knows the ins and outs of his instrument and is a complete professional. On this night, there was not a bit of the disappointment I felt in 2007, only much anticipation for what’s to come. | Janet Rhoades

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