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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Column 267: A tale of two Digital Leathers; Goo goes to TWR tonight...
by Tim McMahan,

One last thought on Harrah's Stir lounge: I was told that it was designed to be a live performance space, but there's something about that room that makes it, well, unappealing. Maybe it's the low ceiling over the stage which gives you the impression that the band is being crowded. Or maybe it's the blank-white-blue stage lighting that's about as appealing as being lit by a row of drugstore fluorescent bulbs. Or maybe it's the flat, brittle sound of the PA -- sonically bright with no bottom and plenty of bounce. Needless to say, I didn't stick around for Little Brazil, who I'm told played a hugely long set...

Column 267: Identity Crisis
Live Review: Digital Leather

I look back at my list of favorite albums from last year and it stands out as a glaring omission: Digital Leather's Warm Brother.

It's not entirely my fault. I don't think I actually bought a copy until late in the year, and then never gave it the time it deserved. I now listen to the CD more than any other on that best-of list. Its strength comes from its songs -- an obvious statement I know, but there are no less than six that are absolute killer singles (but which, of course, will never actually be singles): "Your Hand, My Glove," "Kisses," "Photo Lie," "Hurts So Bad," "Gold Hearts" and centerpiece "Modern Castles," a breathy, disturbing synth-pop gem, dense and throbbing and gorgeous.

If you grew up in the '80s, you'll feel a tinge of recognition when you hear some of these. It's mostly in the keyboard lines that glow like neon through a dark, tonal undercurrent, and from the brooding, ominous vocals. I'm reminded of Psychedelic Furs, Gary Numan, Peter Murphy, Joy Division and Lou Reed. Warm Brother is retro-modern; a combination of synth-punk, pop, garage and Digital Leather mastermind Shawn Foree's own unique songwriting voice. If I managed the album's publishing rights, I'd be hustling these tunes to every savvy movie and television producer in Hollywood who is looking for that perfect song for that perfect moment best experienced in the dark.

So yes, I love this album. It's not only my favorite from last year, it's one of my favorites from the past few years, which just happens to be created by someone who lives and breathes right here in Omaha. Foree, who I've only met for a brief mumbling conversation outside of The Waiting Room (though we did an email interview for SXSW), is an Omaha transplant from Arizona. What he's doing here, I do not know, nor does it matter. Find this record, released on Fat Possum, available at the Antiquarium or Homer's or Drastic Plastic. Call around, it's worth the effort.

So why am I gushing about an album that came out last fall?

Last Friday night I ventured over the great Missouri River to the house of decadence known as Harrah's Casino to see Digital Leather perform in the Stir Lounge. Set up more like a strip club than a music venue (then again, doesn't every venue in Council Bluffs resemble a strip club?), the stage was built behind the bar, effectively turning the bands into a piece of live artwork -- like a giant television set or an aquarium or glass-bottomed swimming pool where naked women swim while you order your whiskey sour. Stir was the last place you'd expect to find this band or the night's headliner, Little Brazil. But to its credit, instead of its usual staple of cover bands, the lounge is hosting Omaha acts over the coming weeks, one assumes to lure the lucrative indie crowd to their smoky boats where the slots and tables live and wheeze.

Digital Leather took the stage at around 9. The five-piece consists of Foree handling vocals and synths, drummer Jeff Lambelet, guitarist Austin Ulmer, bassist John Vredenburg and recently added second synth/keyboard player Annie Dilocker -- enough fire-power to fuel any band. Their sound was raw, numbing and very punk, and only vaguely resembled the music heard on Warm Brother. If you listened closely, you'd recognize tiny elements within songs buried beneath the 20-ton wave of guitar/bass/drums. But you'd have to have listened very, very closely.

This is the third time I've seen Digital Leather play with this line-up over the past month or so. The other times were at O'Leaver's and The Mohawk in Austin as part of the South by Southwest Festival. I am now convinced that I'll never hear Warm Brother performed as it's heard on the album -- a record whose beauty lies more in its subtlety than its power.

Foree instead has decided to recreate those songs as straight-up garage/punk anthems, and it's a shame. Acoustic guitar is used on about half of the record instead of electric, but it wouldn't matter if someone was playing acoustic on stage because you'd never hear it behind the wall of sound. Poor Dilocker. I've seen her play three times and still don't know if she's any good because I can barely hear a note from her keyboard in the mix. She's like that second guitarist that we all know who, while watching him play, you wonder if his guitar is even plugged in.

I have yet to hear Foree perform the two best songs from the record: "Modern Castles" and "Gold Hearts. Maybe he doesn't know how to do them live or doesn't want to marginalize them into just another bam-bam-bam garage rock song. If the latter, I'd prefer that he keep them off the stage (along with the unrecognizable "Hurts So Bad").

Foree said on his blog that "touring is part of my essence. To not tour is to not be me." Yet what we hear on stage isn't what we hear on his recordings. As the creator, he knows the difference. I guess Digital Leather will always be two bands -- a studio project and a garage rock project -- and never the two shall meet.

* * *

Briefly, starting Thursday Omaha invades Lincoln for the first-ever Omaha Invasion Festival. The three-day event features some of Omaha's best acts -- including Dim Light, It's True, Conchance, Little Brazil, Capgun Coup, Brad Hoshaw, Matt Whipkey and Noah's Ark Was a Spaceship -- playing at four of Lincoln's best clubs. Get into all four clubs all night for just $6 per night. For more information and a schedule, search "Omaha Invasion 2010" in Facebook.

* * *

One of Slowdown's early "hits" from an event standpoint was Goo, which had more buzz surrounding it than most of the live performance on Slowdown's stage. Despite its massive popularity, it didn't take long for Slowdown to tire of the hassle that came with the theme-related dance event. Goo quickly became a 21+ night, and eventually Slowdown quit hosting Goo altogether. Now Goo returns, this time to The Waiting Room, which in the past hosted Goo-inspired Gunk nights. Tonight they get the real thing. 9 p.m., $5 if you're under 21 (free if you're over 21).

--Got comments? Post 'em here.--

Read Tim McMahan's blog daily at -- an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area.

posted by Tim McMahan - at 10:57 AM

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