Brian Jacobson

Aqualung, May 3 @ The Pabst

By - May 4th, 2007 02:52 pm

Photo by CJ Foeckler/Pabst Theater

It’s difficult to write a music review these days without drawing an inevitable comparison to a predecessor or contemporary. The case in evidence: Matt Hales’ Aqualung, which took the stage Thursday night as part of the Milwaukee Pabst Theater’s fairly priced series of talented but mostly underground and underrated national acts. What’s important about mentioning this last part has to due with some intimacy issues in the venue, which will come up again later.

Matt Hales appears to be in his early 20s, which is probably important in light of the recent new flood of Britpop artists who have given us boatloads of sensitive rock in the past few years. If we follow a family tree, then Blur begat Verve and Suede, who begat Oasis and Radiohead, who begat Coldplay and Travis, which gave us (and drawing the wannabe label) Aqualung…and Keane, James Blunt, Snow Patrol, the Feeling, and…well, just insert your own VH1 You Oughta Know find – where Hales got his first American-side break. But the 35-year-old piano rock singer/songwriter is a bit older than most on the tree, and did not find success until landing a successful tune for the new Volkswagen Beetle in 2002.

It’s hard to quantify a sound when in the middle of it. When synthpop was at its height, did music fans say, “Oh, that Erasure. They’re just a Depeche Mode wannabe.” At the time, there was room for everybody. Shouldn’t it be fair to just claim Aqualung as an overall part of a new movement deeply entrenched in mood and angst?

Hales does not make it easy. To sit back in the demure and refined darkness of the Pabst and enjoy his obvious and highly-trained musical talent, there has to be a suspension of disbelief. This would mean in musical terms that the audience member would forgive the lapse in organic flow and just be entertained. But just close your eyes as the four-piece band plays, and suddenly you’re listening to the sound of Ben Folds. Then in another song, Chris Martin. Then another, Damon Albarn. Another, Thom Yorke. The music eloquently meanders like this as you try and guess the influence, like a gourmand attempting to guess the subtle flavors as they emerge in a complex dish.

When Aqualung launches into “Pressure Suit,” off his newest studio album Memory Man, suddenly you are hearing Jeff Tweedy and Wilco circa A Ghost is Born. Hales goes so far as to admit a personal infatuation with the band during one of his cheeky bantering with the audience. From there, Hales (now seated at a baby grand instead of standing up front at a Yamaha keyboard) and company attempt to cover Wilco’s “Muzzle of Bees.” “Attempt” is used as the operative word here since it seems like something the guys rehearsed on the tour bus ride into town. Also, the lowdown desperation of Tweedy’s version is missing and replaced with something more harmonious.

To his credit, Hales voice often has the ragged quality of a schoolboy pleading under the moonlit window of his unrequited love. He also seems to relish the intimate space that he has been given. While Aqualung could easily have been dumped on a large stage at Summerfest with good effect, in the Pabst he has arranged to have the orchestra pit area emptied and invited the audience to stand at the edge of the stage. On this night, about 1/3 of the audience abided. Their tilted faces were awash in the colored stage lights, finally lost in the long set of musical mastery and atmosphere. VS

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