You almost had to feel sorry for David Grubbs Wednesday night. Plunked on a stool in the middle of a bare Lee's Palace stage, the bookish singer/songwriter was having a very hard time making himself heard over the chatter.
Maybe if his finger-picked easy-listening music had been more interesting, people wouldn't have had to talk among themselves to stay awake.
With his fancy guitar-plucking bolstered by a pocket rhythm machine, Grubbs's heartbroken murmuring and tortured claptrap about the seasons reversing was presumably supposed to sound profound. Instead, it was just difficult and boring.
Unfortunately, The For Carnation started off without a great deal more promise. Frontman Brian McMahan is virtually indie rock royalty. His old band, Slint, are one of those groups that defined early-90s underground rock, pairing long stretches of silence with tense, instrumental eruptions and creating a swath of imitators in their wake.
The tension remains in The For Carnation, but the canvas is much larger. Patience has long been a part of McMahan's game plan, so maybe it wasn't surprising that Wednesday's gig began quietly, with the six-piece band frequently pausing for five minutes before slipping into 10 minutes of self-indulgent whispering.
Slowly, though, they began to pick up steam. With two guitarists and two keyboardists filling out the sound, The For Carnation gradually began to sketch out a groove built around rolling rhythms, tight instrumentation and occasional random noises.
When it clicked, as on the throbbing A Tribute To and Tales (Live From The Crypt), it was as close to the delirious atmospherics of Laughing Stock-era Talk Talk as you could get. Those who did stick around left smiling.
THE FOR CARNATION, with DAVID GRUBBS, at Lee's Palace, August 2. Tickets: $12. Attendance: 200. Rating: NNN