Contrary to popular belief, Margot And The Nuclear So And So's are not named after Gwenyth Paltrow's character in The Royal Tenenbaums, Margot Tenenbaum. Front man Richard Edwards insists he named the band after Margot Kidder, the actress who played Lois Lane in the Superman movies of the '70s and '80s. After sitting down with Richard, Emily Watkins, and Jesse Lee (who are just three of the eight members of the band), it seems close to impossible that Richard would have named his band after something associated with current pop culture. Edwards is engrossed in things from the past and admitted that he loves watching Woody Allen movies like Sleeper and Bananas while composing. "I write most of my songs while movies are on," he explained. Richard isn't fascinated with new music, new movies, or the Internet. He spent his time in and around Indianapolis listening to Paul Simon and Joan Baez while writing what would become the band's debut album, The Dust of Retreat.
One of the best features of Dust of Retreat is that it's a very polished record and is well produced. Every harmony, every cello part, ever descending Rhodes lines can be heard with precision, and without it, the album wouldn't make as much sense as it does. Its "cleanliness" is the first thing I notice whenever I listen, and last night's Mercury Lounge show was as about as different as I ever thought the album would sound like live. And I mean that in the most wonderful way possible.
The audience wasn't the only part of the Mercury Lounge that was packed last night. Two guitarists, a bassist, a drummer, a percussionist, a keyboard player, a cellist, and a trumpet player packed the tiny stage around 10 o'clock. Richard Edwards, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt with the hood over his face, played first with just Emily on piano and Jesse on cello. While Edwards' voice is flawless on record, he strains and makes faces that you wouldn't expect him to make live. His coarseness live is appealing and makes Margot sound like more of the troubled Midwestern rock band that they truly are. When all is said and done, it's the artists' grit that we desire, not their perfection. On record, the band sounds like a perfectly rounded rock band. Live, they sound like a group of friends who practice their ass off to sound so good. There's no innate singing, writing, or instrumental efficiency in this band, but because they do all of those things so well, we applaud them for working so hard to make it sound so easy.
"Skeleton Key" and "On A Freezing Chicago Street," the two highlights of the album, were no doubt the highlights of the band's live set as well. "Skeleton Key," one of the many songs that features Jesse Lee's beautiful cello playing, took on a new life on stage last night. The percussion that doesn't receive enough attention on the album was at the forefront of the instrumental breaks. Casey Tennis, the band's percussion player, is above and beyond the most energetic member, and found time to hit a few articles of percussion that could have been suited for a stage performance of "Stomp." The song sounded wonderful as a percussive piece instead of the folk-rock song that it was recorded as.
"On A Freezing Chicago" started off by stealing the intro to The Beatles "Two of Us." The song stayed pretty true to its album version, although Watkins' voice was much more prevalent in the harmonies. Her voice is the perfect backup voice to any indie rock band. It's sweet, innocent, quiet, and melancholy and it matches her simple Rhodes lines perfectly.
The most interesting part of Margot on record and live is the addition of Jesse Lee. Jesse and Richard met while both living in Muncie, Indiana. "We both hung out with the same people, but never talked to each other," explained Jesse. The cello acts as a main instrument, stealing the intros and lead instrumental lines in almost each song. Jesse and I talked about the appeal to a cello and how it "sounds and looks more like a human body than any other instrument." The cello ties the band together and gives the album and the live performance a light melodramatic feel that is just subtle enough that it doesn't make the music sound like "sad bastard music."
The band ended with "Barfight Revolution, Power Violence," perhaps my least favorite track on the record. Although, with the grit that the band decided to use for their live act, the song sounded like the perfect coda to a new approach of playing their music. The song is the muddiest track on the album and sounded in place amongst the rest of the set. Buy the record, and then see the show - or see the show and then buy the record. Either way, you're paying for two totally different things that are both amazingly simple and wonderful.