The Art of Growing Up | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

The Art of Growing Up

Creative Phoenix group Emby Alexander has serious-ish charm


If the meticulously crafted sound of art rock maven St. Vincent is the equivalent of a measured stroll through the Louvre in Paris, then the wildly aggressive baroque music of Phoenix band Emby Alexander sounds more like an ill-supervised field trip of feral urchins scattered through the museum's halls with abandoned wonder.

And, in much the same way that free-spirited laughter and wide-eyed exploration are infectious, so is the quintet's exuberant sound, where a myriad of artful layers highlight those very feelings.

That's not to say the music that lead singer Michael Alexander and crew make is simple or childlike; at least it's not just that.

Alexander is very serious about art. He'll be the first to admit that art in all its mediums appeals to him and inspiration from things like paintings, film and literature find its way into his work. This includes directors like David Lynch and authors like J.D. Salinger, and also creative friends from his inner circle.

"My biggest influences outside of music are books and film and painting," said Alexander in an interview with the Source. "I draw inspiration from the arts of Trevvor Riley and Eric Kasper. The face called Spanish, on the cover of our album, is a character from one of Eric's paintings. Trevvor and I have written a handful of music videos together and he's directed many of them. We all share this passion for trying to express something through our art that can't be translated into words or other mediums."

That's the very cerebral part of his art. And often times it gets mixed with the innocence of director Wes Anderson.

In fact, rather copious amounts of director Wes Anderson's filmmaking textures turn up in Alexander's work, like awkward characters and whimsical title boards splashed across the beginnings to Emby Alexander music videos. But it's in the music, too.

Anderson—who is known for films like The Life Aquatic and The Royal Tenenbaums—often conceives characters who may be adults but nevertheless cling tightly to innocent dreams and often shirk responsibilities in favor of indulgences. That's the same emotional space Alexander's music occupies. Alexander executes a more-is-more approach where grand notions of what a song can be are never restrained, musical simplicity be damned.

Orchestral choruses are sculpted out of classical violin, cello, piano and marching band percussion for songs like "Come Breathe the Downstairs Air" from the album Frontispiece, out just last week. The record's sweet Avant-garde construction more so mirrors the modern art pop of groups like Portland's Typhoon—a 10-piece pop group—or Los Angeles' NewVillager rather than pioneers like David Byrne.

And since probing new creative avenues is the name of the game, Alexander doesn't shy away from '60s beach pop and rippled vocal choirs either. It's that kind of risk taking that allows the band's music to hit both the mature and boyish notes that require a lot of unpacking by the listener.

"I attempt to create this depth in our music in which you can immediately get a grasp of what's going on sonically," said Alexander. "But if you dig deeper, there are complex themes and hidden meanings in the music and lyrics. To reference Eric Kasper, he paints these characters that just capture your attention; you know them and they are memorable and beautiful. But if you focus in on their teeth and hands and skin, they have these horrifying purples and greens and yellows and rough textures."

There's no doubt an emotional sophistication backs songs like the lonesome "Make Me Feel Unsafe Again" which is painted on a canvas of howling trepidation thanks to Alexander's shaky vocals and slow building piano and percussion. Still, Emby Alexander also turns in a marching pop song titled, "Sexting My Friends." The music is full of imagination while also relying on age old artistic axioms. Just like a child, all grown up.

Emby Alexander

9 pm, Saturday, June 14

Volcanic Theatre Pub

70 SW Century Dr.

$5 at the door

Ethan Maffey

Both a writer and a fan of vinyl records since age 5, it wasn't until nearly three decades later that Oregon Native Ethan Maffey derived a plan to marry the two passions by writing about music. From blogging on MySpace in 2007 and then Blogspot, to launching his own website, 83Music, and eventually freelancing...
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