Marcus Rubio and the Gospel Choir of Pillows

Marcus Rubio makes it clear he divides his set list into two discrete categories. “We’re going to play a few songs about whales, and a few songs not about whales tonight,” he tells the crowd gathered on the roof of the Artpace building.

And this isn’t some stage-banter bullshit, either. Song titles such as “Prom Night in the Ocean,“ “Decompression Sickness,” and “Oceanic Tremors” parts one and two deliver the promised marine-biology themes, and not in some sort of artsy abstraction, either. “You can be my one and only whale,” Rubio promises in “Oceanic Tremors Pt.1,” a resolution near the conclusion of a song that otherwise seems like a (human’s) personal diary entry set to music. It sounds positively triumphant, but probably looks absolutely ridiculous in print. Live, Rubio’s considerable songwriting talent and the layered complexity and intensity of the instrumentals keep the Gospel Choir of Pillows from drowning in quirk.

“Darling Dear,” a song Rubio classifies as “non-whale-oriented,” succeeds through a savage Beatles deconstruction, riding Rick Rowley’s bouncing bass clarinet line into the ground, burying it, like so many of Rubio’s poppiest hooks, in a dissonant breakdown that finds noisy catharsis in the cacophony, re-envisioning Stravinsky as punk rock.

But even the whale songs, unbelievably, aren’t funny. All those lyrics about ocean creatures watching sitcoms and looking for dates to an underwater formal poorly conceal the underlying aura of legitimate angst and pain, immediately made evident in the music. Over a swell of meticulously arranged noise and layers of looped violins, Rubio screams, “I’m warning you that I am a whale.”

Maybe it reads like the ill-advised plot twist in the most drugged-out rock opera the Who never recorded, but onstage, Rubio’s jumping, positively raging like it’s the most bad-ass statement of defiance ever uttered, and the power of the music damn near makes it so. In the audience, a man dressed in a homemade cardboard robot outfit dances unselfconsciously. Why the hell not?

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