Pittsburgh Union of Record Geeks electronic

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Or, the Whale beaches in Pgh

Halfway through its first national tour, San Francisco's Or, the Whale pulled into a Pittsburgh darkened by power outages after last week's major storms. As the 9 p.m. scheduled showtime passed, band members squatted under the streetlights along Butler St. until--when everyone seemed just about ready to pack it in--the lights of Thunderbird Cafe began to twinkle.

Luckily, our town escaped being the first major mishap of this novel trek for the six-piece, who had been looking forward to visiting since sharing a bill in California with Local Honey. The band is touring in support of its debut release, Light Poles and Pines, a wholly self-produced effort released in May. Being solely responsible for the record sales hasn't bothered the band. "It's early enough where having our record in Best Buy doesn't do anything for us," says principal vocalist Alex Robins. Nor is he bothered by serving as in-house booking agent. "It's all on us--but we get to keep all the door money," he smiles.

But it's on stage where the band gets down to business. Right away they burst into remarkable four-part harmony on "Call and Response," which opens the album as well. But the Jordanaires this ain't. The band ably matches the soaring vocalizations with energetic and incendiary instrumentation. Julie Ann Thomasson's accordion on "Threads" makes it hard to stay in your seat, then on "Gonna Have to Go" she bashes out a honky tonk piano solo to match Matt Sartain's country gold guitar licks. Sartain provides a gritty, down-home lead vocal and blows some serious harp on "Bound to Go Home." On an anthemic, spiritual-like number intended for a forthcoming ep, some punk rock roots sneak through into Robins' banjo playing.

A broad range of Americana influences is evident in the songs, but Robins says the band is beginning to break into new territory. "A lot of our newer stuff isn't country at all," he says, "a lot of it is kind of funky." He said the last song he wrote was a Stones-inspired number, and cites a disparate array of influences. "I love Will Oldham, but I also like Kraftwerk and Can." Whatever the influence, he says, "it fleshes itself out by all the players."

Along with reentering the studio upon returning to the West Coast, the band will also continue to build a local following in the Bay Area that is large enough to warrant a headlining gig at Great American Music Hall. Despite that popularity, Robins said no label interest in the band has surfaced, but Robins said "We have no problem with that." With a record on the streets earning rave reviews and in the midst of a tour on which "there haven't really been any lowlights," living the DIY ethos has been "not at all a bad experience," Robins says.

From Light Poles and Pines to their fantastic Pittsburgh stop, it's been smooth sailing for Or, the Whale.

Photos by Karen Hoffmann

Matt Sartain strikes a chic pose in his Puerto Rican frog shirt.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Cool interview with record geek icon Scott McCaughey

From Namedropper.


BB: You travel a lot. Which locale scratches your itch?

SM: I'm always thrilled to be in Spain. I love Chicago. TOKYO! Cologne. Memphis. Ireland. Bologna. Pittsburgh. Athens GA. New Orleans. Oslo. Austin. Oz. You know the drill.

(emphasis added)