Weekly (p)reviews: Nina Ljeti Kills Birds at Wonder Ballroom; Cadence Weapon takes a victory lap; hanging on to the bitter end with Yo La Tengo

Robert Ham gets out & about to where the music was, and where it's going to be.

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Our world is not one where people are encouraged to choose their words carefully or consider their audience before speaking. But every once in a while, it’s good to get a reminder of how impactful an ill-thought out comment—even one supposedly meant to be helpful—can be. 

Take, for example, what happened to Nina Ljeti, the powerhouse vocalist for L.A. punk group Kills Birds, when she was in high school in Windsor, Ontario. Her interests at the time ran far and wide from music to film to literature to theater. But according to one teacher, Ljeti was wasting her time on everything but drama. 

“If I expressed interest in anything else, I was a failure,” Ljeti remembers. “And I believed it. I was very insecure as a kid, so all it took was one person to say, ‘I don’t like your voice,’ or whatever and it was over for me.”  

The naysayers have been following Ljeti throughout her life, from the people who convinced her to stop her piano training at a young age to romantic partners undercutting her self-worth. And those same cynics frequently pop up in Kills Birds songs, with their words and deeds serving as fodder for the impassioned rage that spills out through every moment of the group’s two albums. “This is how they talk about me,” Ljeti spits out over Jacob Loeb’s corrosive guitar work on “Rabbits,” the opening track on Kills Birds’ new album Married (out on November 12). “I’m selfish and spoiled / I could have had everything I wanted / Exactly like the other girls.”

Cutting through Kills Birds’ bracing mix of darkwave, shoegaze pop, and hardcore on Married, Ljeti rarely lets up on either the unnamed subjects of her fury or herself. On the dynamic “Glisten,” she chastises herself for jumping “into the river without considering currents,” before pleading, “Why don’t you love me when you’re not with me?” Later on the album, Ljeti grinds her teeth over the evils of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” kicking the words of well-known hymns back in the face of false prophets. 

The cumulative effect of the album is cathartic for both listener and creator. But “every song that’s directed outward to a person or a thing is also actually directed inward,” according to Ljeti. “For all the frustration that I feel towards people or things or systems, it also all comes back to my own insecurity and annoyance and frustration with myself and my place in the world.” 

What doesn’t come across in either her music or in her discussion of it with me is even the slightest sense of entitlement. Ljeti would be forgiven a little pride considering how much attention she and Kills Birds have received in their brief time together. Paramore’s Hayley Williams counts herself as a fan, and Kim Gordon sang the group’s praises in Vogue. When the band set out to record Rabbits, they were invited to use Dave Grohl’s Studio 606. Grohl also asked the band to open for Foo Fighters on a run of dates later this year.

Kills Birds. Photo courtesy of the band.
Kills Birds. Photo courtesy of the band.

Tempering her excitement and any flare ups of ego about these developments is an understanding of how close it came to never happening. Ljeti’s parents are both from Bosnia and barely escaped the country with their 14-month-old daughter before war broke out in 1992. After a few months living in Serbia begging for visas at various embassies, they were finally allowed to emigrate to Canada. Though she remembers almost none of this time in her life, Ljeti says it still had a grave impact on her. “My parents literally lost their entire lives in Bosnia to give me a chance at a better life,” she says. “I’ve always had this pressure on myself that never came from them, but that I put on myself to make it worth their while. That’s something I carried for a very long time.” 

Even as Ljeti’s ambitions were being crumbled by criticism growing up, she managed to push through. After graduation, she attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, at first with a focus on drama before switching to filmmaking. That eventually took Ljeti to L.A. where she was soon working both in front of and behind the camera, including directing a pair of indie films. Through that work, she connected with Loeb and, within a few years, started Kills Birds. 

There’s a clear focus and drive to Ljeti coupled with the confidence to follow her creative curiosity wherever it takes her. Alongside her work in Kills Birds, she’s been busy directing music videos, including well-regarded clips for indie sensation Phoebe Bridgers and New Zealand pop legends Crowded House. But even when things start getting challenging, especially as Kills Birds saw several tours and other opportunities vanish due to the pandemic, what keeps Ljeti aloft is the support she gets from her bandmates.

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“It’s definitely hard to navigate this world now and how you’re supposed to present yourself and what’s even relevant in the current climate,” Ljeti says. “We find ourselves periodically getting tired or feeling dejected. But I think that’s also why we feel so lucky because we are able to experience those lows with the highs and still power through. That’s an accomplishment.” 

Kills Birds opens for Sleigh Bells on Tuesday October 26 at Wonder Ballroom (128 NE Russell Street, Portland). 9 pm. $30. Proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test taken within 72 hours of the show is required for entry. 

Cadence Weapon @ Polaris Hall, Friday, October 22

Toronto-based rapper Cadence Weapon (known to friends and family as Rollie Pemberton) arrived in Portland near the end of a tour that had become a victory lap. A few days before he hit the road for a three-week co-headlining run of shows with his friend and collaborator Fat Tony, Pemberton got word that his fifth full-length Parallel World was chosen as the winner of the Polaris Music Prize, an annual jury-selected award that goes to what is deemed the best Canadian album of the year.

As COVID restrictions forced the Polaris Prize reveal online, rather than at a gala event, Pemberton’s U.S. tour became a celebration–albeit a humble one. He took the stage all alone at, appropriately enough, Portland’s Polaris Hall, armed only with his laptop and a small array of gear, facing down an appreciative but small audience of only about 30 people.

Cadence Weapon @ Polaris Hall, Friday, October 22. Photo by Robert Ham.
Cadence Weapon @ Polaris Hall, Friday, October 22. Photo by Robert Ham.

None of that dulled Pemberton’s enthusiastic performance nor the strength of the message within his music. Throughout Parallel World, the rapper lays open the ugly undercurrent that runs beneath Canada’s cliched penchant for politeness. He laid it all bare during his set last week, calling out both the current mayor of Toronto and the premier of Ontario. Of Justin Trudeau’s well-documented penchant for wearing blackface as a young man, Pemberton said “He’s done it so many times, he can’t even remember how many times he’s done it” during his introduction to the grime-inspired “Play No Games.”

While he reserves specific lyrical barbs to those particular politicians, there’s an unfortunate universality to the rest of Pemberton’s songs. The racial profiling he unpacks on the slippery “Eye To Eye” (“I play ball like a prospect / They still look at me like a suspect”) translates too easily to the experiences of millions of Black Americans.

As does the bleak portrait he paints of life in his home province over the sci-fi blurts of Little Snake’s production on “Skyline.” A small shudder of recognition flowed through the room at Polaris Hall when Pemberton hit the lines, “Raise the rent then they blame the victims / The city tears down encampments.” Swap out the reference in that same song to Toronto’s mayor (“Tory doesn’t ride the bus / Or ride a bike or ride for us / So how can he understand what we want?”) for our own, and you’d have a new anthem for the recent efforts to recall Ted Wheeler.  

Did Pemberton’s multilayered messaging track for the mostly white crowd at Polaris Hall last week? That’s the conflict inherent in most sociopolitically minded hip-hop and punk. The artists want to get their deeper meaning across, while also giving their audience an opportunity to cut loose. It’s a kind of righteous catharsis that Cadence Weapon exemplified through his every bouncing movement on stage and his between-song admission that he treated himself to a chain from Frank Ocean’s jewelry store in Manhattan. The problems of the world will still be there once the show is over. Have a little fun before getting back to the frontlines. 

Yo La Tengo @ Wonder Ballroom, Tuesday October 19

As Yo La Tengo stares down its 40th birthday as a going concern, the band has settled into the kind of comfortable existence that few artists can hope to reach. The trio’s records tend to move decent numbers, and tickets to their live performances do even better. At the time of this writing, Yo La Tengo’s annual Hanukkah celebration—eight nights of shows that feature high profile guests and a changing setlist—is well on its way to selling out. 

It helps that their audience tends to be made up of people much like the members of Yo La Tengo: unapologetic music geeks who happily debate the vagaries of their favorite albums, dig for rare gems in record shops, and pore over the setlists from a beloved band’s tour. The New Jersey-based band isn’t so much catering to these folks as they are happily benefiting from game recognizing game. YLT would be indulging in covers of lesser-known garage rock tunes or, as they’ve been doing on this recent tour, playing a set of quieter, ruminative material followed by a louder and more raucous set whether it was a tiny club or a big space like Portland’s Wonder Ballroom.

Yo La Tengo @ Wonder Ballroom, Tuesday October 19. Photo by Robert Ham.
Yo La Tengo @ Wonder Ballroom, Tuesday October 19. Photo by Robert Ham.

The second of their two-night stand in Portland was, as expected, entirely different from the first. YLT cycled through their catalog, peppering deep cuts in with the fan favorites and a surprise dash or two. During the lower volume portion of the night, they turned the gorgeous psych-folk of “She May She Might” into an unexpected medley that included, of all songs, “Ack Ack Ack Ack,” a 1978 cut from L.A. punk assaulters The Urinals. Later, they settled into a gorgeous rendition of “Over You,” a rare Velvet Underground tune that they dedicated to Todd Haynes. 

The loud set felt like pure fan service. For nearly an hour, the trio set explosive charges beneath some of their most well-known material: “Cherry Chapstick,” bassist James McNew’s “Stockholm Syndrome,” and “From a Motel 6.” Best was their cover of the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda,” which included a noisy middle section akin to the cacophonous breakdown that My Bloody Valentine inserts into their regular show closer “You Made Me Realise.” At a certain point, singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan was swinging his guitar in wide circles in front of his amplifiers and delighting in the squalls of feedback it created.

Hanging on to the bitter end at a Yo La Tengo concert is just smart business, as that tends to be when the band goes even farther afield with their selection of covers and the inclusion of guest musicians. At last Monday’s gig, that meant bringing Minus 5 leader Scott McCaughey onstage to run through Modern Lovers’ “She Cracked” and Rolling Stones’ “Rocks Off.” The next night, it was a chance to pay homage to Peter Walsh, one of the founders of NY indie rock group Hypnolovewheel. Joining YLT for the encore was Walsh’s bandmate Stephen Hunking, who recently relocated to Portland. With Hunking’s help the group soared through two Hypnolovewheel tunes that felt like exorcisms. And hopefully sent the uninitiated scurrying to Discogs to snap up the group’s albums before the night was out.

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