review by Jim Beckmann
photos by Hilary Harris
Celebrating the long-awaited release of their debut full-length, Seattle’s Grand Archives packed two shows, early and late, with fans and friends at The Triple Door on Wednesday evening. For those waiting since the original “Archives” demos first came out, it was a beautiful culmination of nearly a year of the band’s development. For those fans of the acclaimed, and now missed, Carissa’s Wierd, it was like attending a reunion. Though just about five years after Carissa’s Wierd played their farewell shows at the also dearly missed Crocodile Café, this night’s lineup seemed like a homecoming — with former CW vocalist Jenn Ghetto opening with her solo project S, followed by former CW drummer Sera Cahoone with her own backing band. And of course Grand Archives is led by CW co-founder Mat Brooke. Notably missing was wayward son Ben Bridwell, who’s now got his own thing going in North Carolina (you might have heard of them!).
As with most reunions, observers will notice that some former members stray further from the nest while others tend to stick closer to home. Jenn Ghetto, who has released two albums as S since CW’s demise, is definitely the child who never left town. Sadstyle and Puking and Crying, though both a bit more experimental and less atmospheric than CW’s full-lengths, share the same downward sensibility. On stage, Ghetto was obviously nervous, as if it were her first time ever, and tended to apologize for minor screw ups that would have otherwise gone unnoticed by the appreciative audience. But as with the most aching Carissa’s Wierd songs, Ghetto envelops the audience with her own songs, so much so that you feel like you’re reading her journal over her shoulder as she scratches out her private experiences while they’re still raw. Though you might at first glance imagine her at home alone trading lines of dialogue with a rerun of Heathers, or, were she younger, flipping through pages of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, these are not merely adolescent thoughts. Rather, there is a nerve that the rest of us try to dull or ignore, but S merely makes it plain. Overall, hers is an aesthetic not far removed from Carissa’s Wierd, and it shows little sign of deviating, not when one of the new songs that she performed tonight begin with lines like “When you left me…” Despite her nervous stage presence, which would have seemed false any other way, the crowd applauded loudly between songs and hooted appreciatively when she broke into the “cover song” of Carissa’s Wierd’s “All Apologies And Smiles, Yours Truly, Ugly Valentine” — which in character she qualified with the introduction, “I hope I pull it off.” Admittedly, hers were not the vocals on the original track, so her anxiety was understandable, but also characteristically it didn’t matter if she was reading the phone book as the sorrowful sweetness of her voice transcended such concerns and carried all listeners away.
After one more song, accompanied by Mat Brooke, Jenn Ghetto waved shyly and walked offstage, making way for former Carissa’s Wierd drummer Sera Cahoone. Whereas Ghetto sat alone with only her guitar and pedals between her and the audience, Cahoone was bolstered by five other musicians, including banjo picker and guitarist extraordinare Jeff Fielder. As the musicians determined they were in tune, apparently through some unrecognized signal, their random plucking turned deliberate and a song materialized before the audience had time to prepare — but, just as quickly, the crowd was pulled into a collective clap-along. At the risk of sounding cliché, it was almost like the celebratory moments of a wake, when after the initial shock of a loved one’s loss wears off and you remember fondly the details of their life. Sera, who herself has stood shell-shocked before an audience in the past, back when she first came from behind her drum kit, now seemed comfortable in her voice and confident in her presence.
Accompanied by slide guitar, bass, banjo, violin, drums, this was the fullest and most lush I’d heard her sound. The new songs, from her forthcoming full-length Only As The Day Is Long (read about it here), seemed more like the baroque twang of Jesse Sykes than the quaint hill country folk that tinged her self-released debut. But even the assured delivery of her new and crowd-approved older material couldn’t mask her own nervousness, betrayed by the minimal and awkward stage banter. “I don’t know what to say” was about all she could. But she didn’t need to — fortunately, the songs spoke for her.
Whereas S seemed to have stayed close to home and Sera Cahoone moved into the country, Grand Archives has struck further out and would have certainly lived up to “Most Likely to Succeed” as they forged their own path over the last couple of years. Tonight, performing the entire album in sequence, Mat Brooke and the rest of the band seemed most at ease and their delivery, effortless. The Triple Door is perhaps the perfect venue for Grand Archives’ bright, lifting songs recalling the California-yearning psych pop of 60s-era bands like The Byrds and The Mamas and The Papas. Their sound, incredibly polished and rehearsed, was full of such references. During the instrumental song “Breezy No Breezy,” as fog hovered over them like a cloud of hashish smoke, I thought for a moment they were covering Three Dog Night’s “One (Is the Loneliest Number).” However, Grand Archives are no anachronism and share an indie rock sensibility that allows them to sit as well beside Sufjan Stevens as The Strawberry Alarm Clock.
Throughout the set, friends joined in to sing back up or provide horns or slide guitar, while Brooke and the band traded banter cheerily. In the live setting, the songs from album seemed even more luminous, especially thanks to the four part harmonies in songs like “George Kaminski” [the song about an inmate who holds record for having the largest number of four-leaf clovers (72,927), which he found in the prison yard] — the repetition of the line “I’ll leave all these clovers buried in the ground for you to find next time around” still rings in my ears. For an encore, after they burned through the album Grand Archives treated the audience to an older favorite, “Southern Glass Home,” the only song from the original Archives’ four-song demo that didn’t make it to the full-length, and then, not to deny their influences, a medley including The Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown.” At no point did all three members of Carissa’s Wierd appear on stage together, but by the end of the night, it was clear that all the kids were grown up and, which ever path they chose, are doing just fine on their own.