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volcano! - Piñata

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Artist: volcano!

Album: Piñata

Label: Leaf

Review date: Jul. 13, 2012

One of the interesting things about volcano!’s 2008 album, Paperwork, was the trio’s “theatricality.” When I first wrote about the album, I was overly concerned with the term’s attachment to every wannabee Decemberists orchestral collective; when thrown around willy-nilly, the word became an all-purpose term for anything more than a singer’s whisper, and at the time, its true meaning was in need of some resuscitation. “Theatrical” isn’t just when a band sings dramatic songs, but when there’s some connection to actual theater, to the music of the past, some webbing or mesh that links the two. volcano! is actually “theatrical,” thanks to the strength, range and confidence of lead singer Aaron With.

While listening to Piñata, which is just as satisfying as Paperwork, I realized that there’s more to the group’s theatricality that goes beyond With’s voice or the connective tissue with theatrical melodies. Music and acting are very closely connected. In theater, to act means to become something greater than oneself. Part of this is the practicality of being on stage — you have to project for everyone to hear. But also part of it is in the act of creating something in front of people. There’s a special energy in that act and a lot of actors and musicians and entertainers transform that energy in a lot of different ways: from chewing scenery to creating small, private truths, to expanding oneself. What I mean by “expanding oneself” is that the actor uses that performance energy to magnify their charisma, creating a stage persona that is greater than the actor, like the performative equivalent of Thunder from Big Trouble in Little China. I think in this last meaning is where this idea of describing something as theatrical comes from. In singing the way With does, he creates a stage persona that is more expansive, more powerful and more magnetic that who With probably is in real life, and it is the creation of this persona that makes volcano! truly theatrical.

Think about Philip Seymour Hoffman. As a human being – due to either genetics or upbringing, or both – he is a compelling person (my writing partner sat next to him at BAM during a showing of Nosferatu recently and remarked, “Even watching him peanut M&Ms was compelling.”). Now, after decades of practice, Hoffman’s able to manipulate that personal energy, augment it with that performance energy, and compel people to him. That is the nature of theatrical signing — it transforms that performance energy into a kind of social magnetism. It’s almost redundant to say “what’s compelling about volcano! is With’s singing” when in truth, the compelling nature of his singing is what makes volcano! interesting. On Piñata, the pairing of this with poppy melodies and standard – if atypically composed – song structures creates an exciting combination that allows all these elements to play off each other, engaging the listener emotionally, intellectually and theatrically.

By Andrew Beckerman

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