No one ever has to apologize for a three-star review.
That’s an old saw in the music/film/art criticism game, and one that tries to respect the balance between the demanding, imperfect task of making a creative work and the reality that said work just might not land right.
Chances are Arctic Monkeys weren’t making a dare of sorts on Saturday to anyone penning a review of their Austin City Limits television taping at ACL Live, but opening the show with the recent single “Four Out Of Five” was, if nothing else, a commentary on our post-Yelp world, where every creation and human interaction is up for review.
If it really was a gambit on the quality of the show that clocked in just a few ticks past an hour, then it was something of a misfire given what followed.
The slinky, slithering tune saw the band armed with eight musicians to open the show, but the octet was soon saddled with a muddied sound mix that made singer Alex Turner’s vocals close to impossible to decipher unless he was near a cappella. It’s fair to assume the 12-string and lap steel guitar player nearly hidden on the side of the stage (or the accessory percussion player) had a reason to be there, but there was no audible evidence of his presence in the mix that went out to the mostly full theater.
Poor sound quality is one of those roll-of-the-dice breaks you get in the music business sometimes, and in those instances it’s up to the performers to provide the energy and showmanship needed to deliver a quality live show. Television tapings are something of a different animal, though, since an audio mix can be fixed somewhat in post-production.
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It was hard to shake off the feeling on Saturday that the performance was TV first, with the English rockers oozing cool and confidence that comes from more than a decade of working as one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Now firmly in a Bowie phase — the recent “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” pretty much has Bowie’s Berlin trilogy as its inspirational linchpin — the dialed-back slink and atmosphere of the band’s new material isn’t that which allows for much in the way of on-stage histrionics and action.
That meant meditative portions that saw the title track, “One Point Perspective” and “American Sports” all delivered in a row made for some rough going. Competently performed, it was hard to escape the feeling of a band being on autopilot, or playing more to the banks of cameras — including a battery of the band’s own red jumpsuit-clad videographers — positioned around and occasionally on the stage.
There were some high points. A rare live performance of “No.1 Party Anthem” managed to connect despite its acoustic foundations having difficulty breaking through, and show closer “R U Mine?” is the kind of up-tempo anthem the band has built much of its career and reputation on and showed they’ve got the chops to turn things up when properly motivated.
But for a festival-headliner-grade band to turn in a muddy-sounding, brief showing — and one that lacked career-founding hit “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” — in such an intimate setting … they get a charitable three stars and hope for better luck next time.