Posted by: Jeff | May 18, 2011

Live Review: The Antlers (Black Cat, 5/17/11)

Waiting for The Antlers to come back to the Black Cat stage to perform a four-song encore, one can’t escape the impression that there is a connection between this and those fans lucky enough to catch Radiohead at an early show in a seedy English club.  This isn’t to say that The Antlers are bound for international fame and fortune – in actual fact, their music is far too intimate for that – but it is to say that there are striking similarities between the two bands that resonate more deeply with the listener than most.

I first came upon The Antlers by way of a recommendation to check out a newly released track called “Kettering” that would be featured on their first major album as a newly-minted trio (Frontman Peter Silberman previously released two albums under the moniker as a solo act).  “Kettering” is a tense, building track that packs a large emotional punch.  Beginning so soft as to be almost inaudible, a surge of piano and the quiet wail of Silberman’s falsetto creep into the mix slowly, immediately setting the listener on edge.  Only fragments of the haunting vocal are intelligible at first listen, with snippets such as “But something kept me standing by that hospital bed” and “those singing morphine alarms out of tune” – this is no ordinary song about break ups or teenage angst.

In actual fact, Hospice, the 2009 album that features “Kettering”, is the product of more than a year of Silberman’s isolation in his Brooklyn apartment, during which he rarely left home and burned bridges with many of his friends.  Though he doesn’t speak about the experience directly in public interviews, he has alluded to this as a dark period, possibly post-break up, during which he did little other than write music and volunteer at a pediatric cancer ward.  Perhaps the link between a tragic breakup and the experience of caring for dying patients resonated with Silberman emotionally, because he decided to cut an album plumbing these emotional depths.

In the hands of a less capable artist, such an overload of emotional catharsis would be overwrought and melodramatic.  It is a testament to how nakedly Silberman channeled his emotion that Hospice is instead exactly the opposite: delicate composure teeters on the brink of uncontrolled release, but the pain and feeling of Silberman drips from every couplet.  It’s the type of magical concept album that artists often conceive but can rarely execute.

The emotional weight of Silberman’s straining falsetto has drawn comparisons to Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, but Vernon merely retreated to the woods to get over a bad break-up forever ago – he didn’t fall in love with a dying cancer patient, after all.  Hospice was about so much more than a lost love – it’s the work of a 23-year old who sees loss all around him and uses it to deliver a message about heartbreak and recovery in a difficult world.  Silberman is socially conscious in the way of Thom Yorke, and the similarities in vocal chameleonism to convey feeling are remarkable.

With so many words spent applauding a devastating concept album about love and loss in a cancer ward, it’s easy to see why The Antlers had their work cut out for them in delivering a follow up.

2011’s Burst Apart forgoes the concept album niche, though is in itself a surprisingly well-rounded offering.  In the two years since Hospice’s optimistic conclusion that recovery is possible in the land of the living, Burst Apart finds Silberman hesitant to let himself go completely.  Fixating on the self-analysis of Hospice‘s “Wake”, in which Silberman confides, “It was easier to lock the doors and kill the phones / Than to show my skin / Because the hardest thing / Is never to repent for someone else / It’s letting people in.”  On “I Don’t Want Love” Silberman shows that his experience with loss leaves him hesitant to open himself to getting hurt again:  “You want to climb up the stairs / I want to push you back down / But I let you inside / so you can push me around.”

On “French Exit” Silberman shows his mounting frustration: “I’m not a puppy you’ll take home / Don’t bother trying to fix my heart.”  Yet over the course of Burst Apart, the emotional walls he’s built literally do, and he once again finds himself reliant upon somebody else on “Corsicana”: “We lost our chance to run / Now the door’s too hot to touch / We should hold our breath with mouths together now.”  But rekindled love isn’t without anxiety – Silberman can’t help but conclude the album with an apocalyptic what if on “Putting the Dog to Sleep”, a thinly-veiled euphemism for the end of a relationship:

“Don’t lie to me
If you’re putting the dog to sleep
That pet you just couldn’t keep
Couldn’t afford

Well prove to me
I’m not gonna die alone
Unstitch that shed off soul
To close up the hole that tore through my skin”

Yes, recovery is a process, and though Silberman is no longer the recluse he was before he poured his diary into a microphone on Hospice, he isn’t entirely without reservations about letting someone back into his life and becoming emotionally dependent.  In the end, however, risk is worth the reward, and Silberman concludes with a plea:

Put your trust in me
I’m not gonna die alone
Put your trust in me
I’m not gonna die alone
I don’t think so

Having seen The Antlers once before as they toured in support of Hospice, I came to the Black Cat mostly curious about how the songs would work with one another.  On this point, I was mostly disappointed, as the band chose to (understandably) lean heavily on the new material, throwing in only the most popular tracks from Hospice in to flesh out the set list.  “Kettering” remains an absolute juggernaut live, and along with “Wake”, the other bookend in the night’s encore, was the highlight of the evening musically.  The band seems to still be feeling their way through some of the new material in a live setting – “I Don’t Want Love” struck what sounded like a few false chords, though Silberman’s falsetto wail at the end of the song sounded incredible and served to hook in an audience seemingly filled with mostly curious unfamiliarity.  “Parentheses” sounded dark and sinister, a welcome surprise for a track that feels a bit out of place on record.  “Putting the Dog to Sleep” sounded great in a live setting as well, and was a fine cap on a quick set.  But for the finale, Silberman reached back to Hospice and lifted a piece of hopeful advice from “Wake”, imploring the audience to not fault themselves: “Some patients can’t be saved / But that burden’s not on you / Don’t ever let anyone tell you you deserve that.”

What’s remarkable about The Antlers is that they create restrained and lush sonic landscapes that bear the weight of this emotional unloading without treading into the territory of adolescent emo.  Silberman is still very young – his emotional development into adulthood is literally exposed in the verses of these two albums – yet the maturity and complexity of the material is what hearkens back to Radiohead.  The social longing of Thom Yorke’s plaintive falsetto on “Creep” is a clear forebear to Silberman’s similarly high-register regrets.  And the focus on atmospheric innovations to create a sonic texture complementary of his voice does at times remind one of Jonny Greenwood’s tense compositions for tracks like “Climbing Up The Walls” or “Exit Music (For A Film)”.

Lyrically, Silberman masterfully employs vivid metaphor and visual descriptors – from the chorus of “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” (a reference to nightmares related to sexual frustration) to “there’s a bear inside your stomach, the cub’s been kicking you for weeks” (a reference to a fetus? tumor? Silberman isn’t saying), and that “pet” he can’t afford or keep.  Mostly discernible in song, his lyrics also represent some of the most hauntingly evocative poetry in music today.  Seriously, take a moment to read them.

What The Antlers do lack in the comparison to Radiohead is pep.  Silberman may have appeared energized enough in his stange banter, and the band is certainly capable of some nifty sonic swells, but they lack the crunch and grit that Yorke and company dole out on a fairly regular basis to counter the emotional fragility of their quieter moments.  For every “Fake Plastic Trees” there is an “Airbag” or “Electioneering” that shows Radiohead has verve.

That may yet be forthcoming for The Antlers – after all, “Parentheses” and “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” wouldn’t feel out of place as mid-tempo numbers on King of Limbs.  The band is developing, and that is in large part a reflection of the personal growth of Silberman himself.  If he continues to grow, the band should have plenty of material going forward in what promises to be a very interesting career.

The Antlers – Kettering

The Antlers – I Don’t Want Love

The Antlers – Parentheses

The Antlers – Putting The Dog To Sleep



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