Tame Impala at First Avenue, 3/4/13

Tame Impala at First Avenue, 3/4/13
Photo by Erik Hess

Tame Impala
With the Growl
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Monday, March 3, 2013

There was one song last night when it truly felt like Tame Impala's set in the Mainroom went places. It was during "Glass Half Full of Wine," the big finale of the main set, and a song built around a gnarly, scuzzy-sounding riff. Halfway through, Kevin Parker and his band dropped into an interlude that was nothing short of mesmerizing, the pickups of his Rickenbacker beeped and plunked like a bomb that was about to go off. The music hurtled through space, slowly ratcheting up the tension, until suddenly the main riff came crashing back in. It was a moment that felt like an invigorating punch to the face.

But for most of the rest of the night, the Perth buzz band's set felt weighed down by its own expertise -- music, perfectly executed, that strove to sound over-sized, but without many actual songs to back it all up.

See Also:
Slideshow: Tame Impala at First Avenue, 3/4/13
Slideshow: Tame Impala at the 7th St. Entry

The praise for Tame Impala's latest album, Lonerism, has been nearly unanimous since its release last fall. Boosted by a 9.0 review from Pitchfork -- the sort of thing that's basically a coronation for greatness, or at least relevance, these days -- plus the fact that the album topped both NME and Rolling Stone's year-end lists, it felt like Parker's group was on the crest of a wave as it returned to Minneapolis for the first time in over two years. Certainly, judging by social media, the night seemed to be a preordained epic.

Tame Impala at First Avenue, 3/4/13
Tame Impala at First Avenue, 3/4/13
Photos by Erik Hess

For anyone eager to hear the band play its songs exactly the way they sound on record, there was little to be disappointed about -- a fact that's no mean feat given how painstakingly produced they are in the studio. Parker, who had a tangle of pedals and cables strewn out before him onstage, hopped around barefoot as he unleashed an almost-constant onslaught of phasers and delays on the crowd.

In fact, for the first half of the show, Parker seemed so wrapped up in his own process that he hardly seemed to take notice of anyone else. That the opening mantra was "Solitude Is Bliss" almost seemed a little too appropriate, and it set the tone; it was almost as though Parker was playing for himself. Most of the time, the singer simply looked down at his guitar while he played, usually only breaking out of his repose to turn around and face the rest of the band, back turned to the rest of the room.

The bigger problem, though, was that the songs weren't really that interesting -- technically impressive, yes, but not necessarily interesting. Of course, it would be an oversimplification to say merely that the songs sounded too much alike. More specifically, Parker's songwriting, often anchored in sludgy riffs, tends to march along in monolithic lockstep, as though building toward some grand payoff. (Forget the Beatles comparisons; this stuff aims to be stadium rock.) But more often than not -- take, to name a song from early in the night, "Music to Walk Home By," interjected with a keyboard solo that was futuristic in the most unimaginative sense -- what passes for dynamics is little more than a pair of alternating, two-chord riffs, dressed up with special effects.
Not that there weren't efforts to build drama into the proceedings. One of Parker's favorite tricks throughout the night was his use of exaggerated pauses in the music, as though to keep the audience at bay over whether or not the song was actually over. After a while, between that and extended periods spent simply fiddling with knobs, it began to feel choreographed, if not also a little disruptive to the flow of the music. With that said, the cliffhanger at the end of "Elephant" (after which the band only played another half-bar or so) was plenty amusing.

Tame Impala at First Avenue, 3/4/13
Tame Impala at First Avenue, 3/4/13
Photos by Erik Hess

"Elephant," in fact, was one of the highlights of the night, a riff that finally felt as imposing as it was intended to do. It was even something of a turning point; from then on, there seemed to be just a little more variety in proceedings, with melodies emerging more clearly from the sludge and more distinct parts from the rest of the band, most notably with a wild call-and-response between the drums and keys. There was even something approaching an anthem in the form of "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards," however slow and hazy it may be as far as anthems go.

Yet, in the end, it's hard to justify the hype surrounding Tame Impala these days. Beyond the immaculate playing and self-indulgent tendencies, there's little in the way of true excitement -- anything approaching unpredictability -- and last night's show taught us little about the band that we didn't know from their recordings. Parker has built himself a world that's lush and extravagant, but also overly-familiar and uninspired. There was a glimpse, during "Glass Half Full," of a band that could be something more -- that could sound explosive and wild and even a little bit messy -- but it was only a fleeting glimpse.

Critic's Bias: If technical expertise was all that was needed, we'd all worship at the altar of Yngwie Malmsteen.

The Crowd: A mix of Pitchfork readers, Current listeners, and stoner-rock fans.

Overheard in the Crowd: "Radical!"

Random Notebook Dump: The openers, the Growl, put on a show that would have been brilliant had it been a piece of performance art. Parker later described them as "trashcan industrial blues," which not only was made up, but also did little to capture just how amusing the singer's color-by-numbers front man routine was, complete with off-the-beat finger snaps and handclaps, plus -- for no particular reason -- two sets of drums that played exactly the same parts.

Desire Be Desire Go
Solitude Is Bliss
Apocalypse Dreams
It Is Not Meant to Be
Endors Toi
Music to Walk Home By
Why Won't You Make Up Your Mind?
Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
Be Above It
Alter Ego
Mind Mischief
Glass Half Full of Wine

Nothing That Has Happened So Far

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