Words by Ace Ubas, Photos by Marcello Ambriz
Saturday night at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles was a special night for Oklahoma-based quintet Other Lives as it marked their 10-year anniversary as a band. But if youâ€™ve been following them for the past couple of years, thatâ€™s not the only thing that makes them special. In the past, theyâ€™ve opened for seminal acts such as Radiohead and Bon Iver, and rode the festival circuit that included Coachella. Plus, it doesnâ€™t hurt that theyâ€™ve been featured prominently by radio stations such as KEXP and KCRW. That proved to be more than enough to propel them out of the support role and into the headlining role. And if you ask me and the sold-out LA crowd, itâ€™s been long overdue.
A lot of bands have been coming out of the woodwork as of late, bearing with them a folk/Americana-inspired sound. But what makes Other Lives stand out is their ability fuse orchestral pop with folk rock while adding a dash of world music. On their stellar album Tamer Animals, their cocktail of a sound may sound subtle (perhaps due to the mix). I donâ€™t want to state the obvious, but itâ€™s more vivid and lucid in a live setting yet itâ€™s also complex. And you canâ€™t help but immediately imagine the band play in a natural and organic setting such as a cave (ala Silver Jews) or smack dab in the middle of the woods.
But for the 60 minutes that Other Lives conquered the stage, they let their music create the environment instead, with the slew of instruments they had on hand and dimming globe lights that adorned the stage. They set the mood for the night by beginning their set with wavering ambient soundscapes that filled the room quickly before the curtains even parted, acting as a segue into opener â€œDark Horse.â€
Itâ€™s easy to liken their music to, say, the forestation of Californiaâ€™s Central Coast: lush, dense, expansive, and beautiful. Whatâ€™s even more impressive is the complexity of the arrangement in some of their songs such as â€œAs I Lay My Head Down.â€ The whole song is filled with shifting time signatures that is rich with melodies. Jesse Tabishâ€™s vocals resemble a lower Thom Yorke, while cellist/back-up vocalist Jenny Hsuâ€™s haunting vocal melodies lurk throughout. Even more is their creativity, using antler bells at the beginning of the song and castanets that added a Spanish rhythm during the second half.
Their experience as a band together showed greatly on â€œLandformsâ€ and â€œDesert,â€ two songs that are quite distinct from one another yet the transition between the two was made seamless. The pastoral folk sound of the former highlighted the orchestral string arrangement which contrasted nicely with the horn-led Persian melodies that filled the latter. But it was the bandâ€™s tribal prowess that provided the cinematic shift in between the songs, thanks to Jon Mooneyâ€™s thundering rhythm on the timpani.
While some of the influences of Other Lives are global, they showed that the root of their sound still lays in the foundation of their native state. Fan-favorite â€œFor 12â€ saw Tabish on an acoustic guitar playing riffs reminiscent of a 60s western while displaying his vocal versatility, singing with a soaring falsetto during the chorus. He then described â€œDust Bowl IIIâ€ a â€œreal Oklahoma songâ€ with its gentle guitar plucking that built-up a mesmerizing crescendo until everything came crashing down with Colby Owensâ€™ wrenching percussion.
A few new songs made their way into the set including a couple from the recently-released Mind the Gap EP. The most notable and distinct difference with these songs was that they were more straightforward and minimal in structure. Rather than going with a more complex approach, they decided simplicity was best with â€œTake Us Alive,â€ a more direct folk number. But on â€œDead Can,â€ they steered their sound in a complete 180 and showed that Radioheadâ€™s presence rubbed-off on them during their tour. Rather than have organic instrumentation as the basis of the song, itâ€™s the subtle and downtempo electronic beats that drove it (think Kid A and OK Computer). Youâ€™d expect it to sound off-putting and out-of-place, but they pulled it off well with the smooth bass line holding it all together.
The encore began with Tabish coming back on stage solo to do a beautiful rendition of the piano ballad â€œBlack Table,â€ and then ending with two new unknown songs with the last being described as â€œhorse ridinâ€™ shitâ€ by Tabish. Perhaps a possible hint on a more Western-style sound?
Other Livesâ€™ performance was as close to perfect as it could get. When you see a band, you always come into the venue with a certain expectation; most of the time itâ€™s rather high. But itâ€™s not often you see a band shatter that expectation while setting the standard even higher. Thatâ€™s what Other Lives did. They approach the folk genre with a Classical Minimalist mindset and experiment with it in different kinds of ways. Theyâ€™ve made it known that masters such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass are huge influences. And at the same time, they incorporate intricate harmonies, such as on â€œTamer Animals,â€ that are reminiscent of Fleet Foxes. It results in vast polyrhythmic layers, orchestral melodies and tightly-woven structure of the songs that make those influences more explicit. Thatâ€™s when you know thereâ€™s something special brewing in the small town of Stillwater, Oklahoma.