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Live review: Health at the Troubadour; Hudson Mohawke at the Airliner

September 10, 2009 |  3:54 pm

Health is the best band in Los Angeles. Now, let me explain.

Health, a ravenously ambitious quartet that walks a knife's edge between lacerating noise and uncannily pretty textures, is certainly not the most enjoyable band in L.A. Most pop fans would probably find about half of their new album, "Get Color," bordering on unlistenable. There are bands that write better songs, bands that will sell more records, and bands that better fulfill the prevailing winds of influence in L.A.

But if you look at a band's worth -- different from that of a singer, songwriter or producer -- as its ability to create something new that's greater than the sum of its irreplaceable parts, then nobody else in Los Angeles even touches Health. At the Troubadour last night, they completely upended almost every established idea about how a band should behave onstage, the means of making songs and the communication between members that makes a group of musicians into a coherent act.     

I'll have a lot more to say about how they do it in a forthcoming feature. But last night, from the first capillary-busting squall of distortion to the closing drums-and-chants seance, they were just utterly breathtaking. Onstage, they look like a traditional bass-drums-guitar act, but they play with this feral choreography that's almost uncomfortable to take in. You're just not used to seeing anyone move like that in public, as when bassist John Famiglietti collapses to the floor to bang an electronic drum controller and smack at his yards-long pedal-board while guitarist Jupiter Keyes writhes over the monitor like he's a desert nomad six inches from water and five inches from death. They do it with a kind of martial precision that was as gripping as their energy; the fact that they're able to turn all that stuff off in time to end the song was a small miracle.

The set wasn't a collection of songs, per se; sounds bled in from different movements, parts overlapped, pauses were used more as dramatic gaps than as real breaks. But the set did showcase some of the high points from "Get Color" in a way that both pulled back the curtain on their writing process and added a whole new level of intrigue. The above video for "Die Slow" suggests the band has grown adept at programming and producing, in the spirit of their great remix album. That's true, but it turns out that the synth riff is actually something -- a processed guitar lick? -- played live and looped, no backing track warranted. When Famiglietti manipulated and then sustained it for moment at the end of one song before the band locked in to "Die Slow," it was like watching an expert beat-matcher work in real time.

"Get Color" is full of excellent self-contained singles, like the ephemeral and unexpectedly lovelorn "We Are Water," in which singer Jake Duzsik's vocals have a distant, wraithlike quality to them. But the physicality of what Health does live turns them into a much bigger, and humbling, thing to see -- a band so utterly in tune with the joy of being a band that you can finally lose the trees of its members and see the forest of what they're making newly possible. It's a frightening place, but no one in L.A. is going there except Health. 

Later that night, the Scottish producer Hudson Mohawke was up to something as sonically interesting but much less visually arresting as Health over at the Airliner for Low End Theory. His sound is rooted in the au courant worlds of British production right now -- dubstep backbone, Dilla-style quick edits, icy yet inviting synthesizers -- and did it all single-handedly with a mess of electronics. It wasn't as anthemic as many of the other Low End staples or as cryptic as British peers like Joker, but it split the difference nicely. Tracks would scuttle about on jungle-inspired drum samples while bits of Moroder, Goblin, sexy French touch and heavily treated soul flitted in the margins. The room was packed to the gills, so Mohawke's interests are obviously starting to be widely shared. It was a fine nightcap to a long evening of looking in the fringes to find the future.

-August Brown