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Alexi Murdoch
Mercury Lounge
February 7, 2007

Written by John Proctor
Photographed by Katherin Wermke

 


 


Alexi Murdoch

This show’s been a long time coming. The evolution of Alexi Murdoch’s career has so far been glacial, but nonetheless the stuff of which indie legends are made. The story goes something like this:

In 2003 Glasgow-by-way-of-London songwriter Alexi Murdoch settled into Los Angeles and recorded "Orange Sky," a singularly and quietly beautiful song that would both define and haunt his music career. Picked up by Nic Harcourt’s popular (and aptly titled) Morning Becomes Eclectic radio show on KCRW, the song was immediately thrust into the national consciousness, including heavy college radio play; spots including Garden State, the O.C., and Honda SUV commercials; and his "Four Songs EP" becoming the all-time bestselling release on indie DIY darling CDBaby.

That’s when the major labels came calling. And that’s also when Murdoch revealed just where he stood in the creative control department. After having his songs dissected, played back, and timed to see how many seconds it took each of them to get to the refrain, he decided to reject each of their offers, produce his first full-length himself, and release it independently.

That was 2003; the much-anticipated record, Time Without Consequence, didn’t come out until 2006. Nobody much knows exactly what went on in those three years, and Alexi seems to tell a different story each time he’s asked. But one thing he didn’t do was tour. In fact, until now he’s never toured the U.S., only playing the stray club or festival. That changed this month, as he started his first U.S. tour in support of Time Without Consequence at Mercury Lounge on February 6th.


Midnight Movies

Midnight Movies, while not the obvious opener for an introspective singer-songwriter, were surprisingly great. With a couple of scuzz-rock everymen on guitar and bass, what looked like one of the Shonen Knife girls on drums and vocals, and a chick with Runaways hair in keyboards and vocals, they immediately went to work on some decidedly unquiet riffs and poundings.


Midnight Movies

They did three or four songs, and I thought to myself, This crowd was way too into them. I mean they are the opening band, for chrissakes. Then they did something - a novelty, really – that solidified their intentions of stealing the show from the headliner. Between songs, very casually, the keyboardist and the drummer switched places, and the drummer seamlessly pulled out a flute and took the lead while the keyboardist pounded away at the drumset. They did a couple of songs, switched back, and everyone, myself included, ate it up until they finished their set.


Midnight Movies

Oh, I forgot – then Alexi played.

One thing’s been said too many times by now, but is the easiest touchstone for describing Murdoch’s style – he sounds a lot like Nick Drake. His first few songs did nothing to shake that comparison, as he sidled onto the stage with just his guitar and gently picked and sang some gentle folk while the audience gently rocked back and forth. The only accompaniment he had was a guy making somewhat superfluous feedback on electric guitar (an unfortunate trait of Time Without Consequence as well). I was in danger of being rocked to sleep by the time he did “Song for You,” but fortunately he then switched gears with a pleasant stylistic risk that paid off in spades. But I’ll get to that.

Like Drake was, Alexi is a man of few words while performing. That said, the words he used were well chosen – to wit:

• “Hi.” That’s how he kicked off the first leg of his first ever US tour. Even his intros are lo-fi.

• “We don’t believe in setlists.” This was both a pleasant affirmation of his nonconformist aesthetic and a slight annoyance, as it gave much of a the show an off-the cuff charm that bordered on a rehearsal with an audience.

• “It’s so fucking cold in New York.” I guess this is how he excused his outfit, which was definitely built only for comfort. His Ugg’s, five layers, and oversize stocking cap made him look like a 12-year-old and would have been ridiculed 30 blocks up at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. Or maybe they would have called it a Statement and asked him do underwear ads for the spring season, to which he’d pleasantly reply that he’s not interested as he’s ideologically opposed to wearing underwear. (No, I cannot confirm this.)

• “Yeah, we’re gonna bring them on in a minute.” He said this between songs when the crowd noticed one of the girls from Midnight Movies grabbing her drumsticks off the stage. This was when the show really came together – after the next song, sure enough the band came onstage, switched on the electric, and were Alexi’s backup band for the rest of the show, giving Alexi a complete makeover from somber folkie to charismatic frontman. I really like the idea of pairing somewhat claustrophobic indie songsters with wide-open sounding bands, with Iron & Wine/Calexico’s 7-song "In the Reins" and Will Oldham/Tortoise’s "The Brave and the Bold" as prime examples from the last two years. Chalk this show up as another fine case in point, as Midnight Movies big sound complimented,
never threatened Alexi’s delicate songcraft, with some delicious vocal harmonies on "Orange Sky" (still by far his best song to date) highlighting the set.

• “OK, time for the unrehearsed stuff.” One thing – this show was the first time Alexi and Midnight Movies had played together. So, while their interplay was amazing, the performances were, well, loose. He just grinned sheepishly when the whole crowd caught him telling the band, “Just do whatever.”

As I filtered back out into the cold winter’s night, I had a bittersweet sensation that wasn’t solely the effect of the songs themselves. Like Time Without Consequence, I’d maybe gone into the show with some unfair expectations brought on by too many years of buildup, and the show inevitably felt like a letdown. Maybe it was the slapdash nature of the show (which will probably tighten as the tour progresses and they get some shows between them) but I left thinking the show, while great, could have been so much better.

Don’t make us wait so long next time, Alexi.

 

 








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