The work of Mike Varley

Travelogue: Buffalo, September 2010

November 20th, 2010 by admin


The city of Buffalo sells beautiful urban decay to the viewer at bargain basement prices.  Opulent homes from times gone by serve now as apartments and winter furnace nightmares.  It attracts one set of unique people and retains another unique set of people.  It transfers its grief to its sports franchises and is more fiercely proud of its deficiencies than even New York City.  All the charm is there for those that wish to view it: grandeur and failure in splendid juxtaposition, like a pressed flower, like a typewriter, like Buffalo.

Niagara Falls

I saw Niagara Falls for the first time on Saturday.  We visited the U.S. side only, as I still have yet to renew my passport.  It was an impressive sight, blessedly unique to the natural marvels of our nation.  Its discovery by fledgling Americans came at a time in history when nature seemed limitless and designed to drive commerce.  The casinos, outlet malls and 30 dollar, natural wonder fun packs are the centuries-old ripple effects.  It was an enjoyable time for sure – a pleasant diversion and the hydroelectric backbone of the Northeast – but as a shrine to the beauty of nature, it’s most effective as a cautionary tale.

Of Montreal

On Sunday, Erin, Angie Blair and I went to see Janelle Monae and Of Montreal at the Town Ballroom.  Janelle Monae absolutely stole the show with a combination of funk, soul and style.  Barring something unforeseen, she could easily unseat Lady Gaga//M.I.A. as the top act in left-of-center pop within two years time.  The only question is if she desires that mantle.

This is the 4th time I’ve seen Of Montreal and the second best of all occasions.  I am fully versed in all but two of their albums and understand they have a predisposition toward playing newer material.  I also know that in recent albums the show theatrics have become a much larger component of their performance.  In this respect they did not disappoint, with costumes ranging from terminator-like battle robots with Japanese Goldfish heads to a five-man, psychedelic caterpillar creature saddled for Kevin Barnes to ride.  At the end, feather cannons volleyed white delicates into the crowd to the tune of “Reject the Frequency,” notably surreal as the song has always reminded me of snow.

My gripe with the performance stems from the larger question of the role of a music entertainer.  What is the proper balance between giving the audience anticipated experience and giving them new experience?  Add to that a release date five days prior to the concert and you’re giving your faithful precious few days to “study” the material, so to speak (without resorting to illegal download, that is).

Speaking from the “studied” experience of the previous album, “Skeletal Lamping”, and the novel, in-venue experience of the new album, “False Priest”, I can say that both works are not the type of music that grabs you at first listen and forces you to dance.  This is somewhat problematic, as these albums constituted 75% of the show.  In regarding these two albums similarly, yet knowing only one, the difference was striking.  Having that anticipatory feeling for songs off “Skeletal Lamping” that aren’t immediately effecting granted them a power they otherwise lacked on first listen.  They became imbued with the power to make me dance.

And I think dancing is ultimately what an act the caliber of Of Montreal wants to achieve.  Unfortunately, the middle third of the show was uninterrupted new material, each song too complicated on first listen, too focused on stagecraft and not crowd engagement.  By the time older material was revisited, the effects were noticeable, like starting an old mower.  Songs that would have boiled over 20 minutes earlier simmered as the crowd found its way back to mass consciousness.  The show picked up from there in a big way and I eagerly awaited the encore, hoping they would delve into material from 4-5 albums ago – music  noteworthy as compelling both immediately and upon further experience.  Instead, they took a surprise turn into the Michael Jackson catalogue, immediately danceable but a dash to my expectations.

The role of the artist is to give the public something they didn’t know they wanted.  The role of the entertainer is to satisfy craving.  Music, beyond any other form, is a craving-based art.  It’s why sex and drugs are so intimately tied to it.  Of Montreal has expanded the discussion with a superb stage show, but the foundation still rests on twelve notes and a drum beat.  In the future, I hope they’re more tactical in set list distribution, giving us time-released hits of familiarity.


On Saturday night, I watched Gandhi for the first time and enjoyed it immensely.  If I can get a hold of a Gandhi biography anytime soon I expect he will become a new obsession of mine.  It is not his works that fascinate as much as the complexity of his character.  Are practices as puritanical as his necessary to move hearts so profoundly or were they the quirks of a man driven with no hope for satisfaction?  The movie alone cannot answer this for me.


I went down to Geneseo for the fourth time since I’ve graduated to visit Dan Dezarn, Kim Keil and their son, Nolan.  Each time I visit there’s a feeling of discomfort that evolves but never disappears.  It’s a home I can never return to even as I stand on its soil.  The fond memories are too sweet to endure.

Erin and I went out with Kim and Dan to their Yurt twenty minutes from campus, which is ready for full-time living after nearly three years of construction.  The amount and specificity of work that’s gone into pulling the project together is beyond the capabilities of 99% of Americans and well beyond my capacity for expression.

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