Thursday, September 24, 2009

I Burned Out My Whole Supply of Scottish Jokes

Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad, We Were Promised Jetpacks
Mohawk, 9/24

I keep hearing from Austin musicians about how terrible this town really is, but I'm not so sure. I've lived in several large American cities now and I've been both in front of the stage and up on it. In Chicago, San Francisco, and Denver, no one can be bothered to show up for the time that's listed on the ticket. If you're the first band and you're playing at 9, perhaps there will be 20 people there by your last song. But the crowds here seem sharper. We Were Promised Jetpacks were certainly the band on this triple bill of Scotsmen that I was most excited to see, but their tourmates in Frightened Rabbit and the Twilight Sad have more releases under their belts and lengthier press packets. This being my first "roadshow" (a term I'd never seen used before relocating to Central Texas), I wasn't sure what the crowd would be like or whether they'd be hip enough to realize that WWPJ absolutely destroy their colleagues as songwriters and as a live band.

No worries! The Mohawk outdoor area was very near full by the time the Jetpacks lifted off, and although the place got more crowded by the end of the festivities, there was never more screaming, hooting, stomping, and dancing at any point later on than during their highly satisfying set. We Were Promised Jetpacks are a young band -- only one of their four members looked as if he had even a suggestion of a tour beard. For the first half of their set, they seemed to be concentrating so hard that they appeared a little stiff. Sean Smith and Michael Palmer appeared oblivious to the crowd, tapping out quarter notes on the pickguards of their instruments while laying out. They were counting, of course, something an astonishing number of self-proclaimed musicians don't know how to do.

The band's music, which often inverts traditional rock quartet dynamics by leaving both guitar players to chug sixteenths while the drummer and bassist play syncopated figures, hinges on everyone staying together. Drummer Darren Lackie lays off his snare to an unusual extent, concentrating on cymbal polyrhythms while holding shape with the kick. A song like "Roll Up Your Sleeves," where the guitarists play stop-start figures and the bass and drums play a familiar Gang of Four pulse, is the exception rather than the rule for WWPJ. Careful group musicianship is the secret to the band's impressive power. Even though they're not terribly loud for a post-hardcore band (Adam Thompson's vocals can be heard quite clearly even when he backs off the mic), they have a vicious kick to them because guitarists are so perfectly in sync. Whenever someone drops out of the underlying chug, nearly always Lackie or Smith, there's a reason for it in the story of the song. "Keeping Warm" live totally obliterates the album version. Sure, it's kind of their answer to "Mogwai Fear Satan" but with a totally different plan of attack; the guitars stay at home while the rhythm section keeps changing the feel.

By the end of their set, We Were Promised Jetpacks seemed to find their meter a little more easily and began loosening up, moving around a little, and practicing their heroic axe raises. Thompson, half-humorously, suggested that the increased energy level might have been due to their Mexican-style dinners finally having settled. More difficult still to digest were the Twilight Sad, a train wreck on stage with a drummer who couldn't keep time and a bass player who was totally clueless and wasn't playing along to anybody in particular even when he could remember the changes right. I thought their singer was pretty good, but as the bandleader I hold him responsible for the overall dreadful racket the group was making. They were way louder than the Jetpacks, but muddy and lacking definition, and the amateurish noise the guitar players made with no consistent rhythm to follow drowned the singer out.

Frightened Rabbit were a relief in comparison to the sloppy Twilight Sad; their drummer knew his business and the three guitar players knew how to listen. Oddly they don't play live with a bass player; one of the guitar players uses foot pedals, something I thought went out of fashion with prog rock. I've got nothing against bass pedals -- Rush, Genesis, and the Doors all used 'em -- but in this case I felt like I was missing something. The guitar player with the pedals and the lead singer both just strummed chords; when their other bandmate wasn't fingering yet still more chords on a keyboard, he strummed too. No wonder they use so much outside help on their records; it would get really dreary listening to just three guys strumming chords for two LP sides.

But seriously, why couldn't one of those three guys pick up a bass? Are there simply no competent bass players available anywhere in Glasgow? Must be so. As I learned tonight, We Were Promised Jetpacks and their talented young bassist are in fact from Edinburgh.

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