Monday, January 11, 2010

The Surface of Things

Bright Light Social Hour, Frontier Brothers
Parish Room, 1/9

For the most part I'm a person who is attracted to the new and the different, someone who seeks out the company and the tutelage of those who are unlike myself. But I have limits. The Parish Room is simply not my scene. It's the kind of place where people make sure their pants are clean before heading out to see bands. It's the kind of club frequented by folks who get their hair cut more often than once every six months. Where patrons assure that their drink selections match their outfits. It's the kind of place that touring bands whose publicity people promise me review tickets then recant after I've already written and published a preview appear. In short, don't be at all surprised if you hear nothing about the place from these parts from now until Free Week 2011.

At least the bands selected for Saturday night's Free Week event aesthetically matched the venue's emphasis on style over all else. The Frontier Brothers dress like Adam and the Ants and sound like the album tracks from Bowie's Let's Dance. Bright Light Social Hour have lovingly formed a marketable image around first impressions while investing little to no effort in minor details. Both bands were more crafted towards being briefly glanced at while walking to and from the bar than being carefully listened to from first song to last.

The Frontier Brothers are closer to evolving into a real band. Their combination of polished synth-rock and drawling Texas vocals is distinctive if not totally original and their songs tend towards having too many weird rhythmic twists and changes -- which is far, far better than none at all. They remind me of the Killers in the sense that they're slightly too far removed from the key-driven 80's music they love to realize which elements of it are worthwhile (1984 Van Halen, superstar Springsteen, Duran Duran) and which aren't (Van Hagar, Foreigner, all UK synth/haircut bands besides Duran Duran but especially Echo and the Bunnymen). I admire their keyboard player's musicality, incorporating chords and inversions that are more sophisticated than you normally hear from the vast majority of current bands that use keys. But his parts frequently don't mesh with the far more direct approaches of the bassist, drummer, and guitarist/singer, and there's a vast disconnect between their not-at-all stupid music and their hugely stupid lyrics ("I'm in love with a robot/I don't care if you're not"). If they stay together and find a way to elevate the intelligence level of their lyrics while blending the keyboards in more naturally (tip: try not to sound like "Love Walks In" at all costs) they'll be worth a second look. They have a lot of confidence and move well on stage.

Bright Light Social Hour have a similarly extroverted approach, but their stuff is 70's to the bone -- basically southern rock crossbred with disco. If their songwriting was of higher quality they'd pull it off, but what you have here is essentially warmed-over Zeppelin riffing mixed with lyrics of the "oh baby I need your love/need your love oh baby" variety. They're musically skilled, but everything about their performance seems calculated to distract from the root qualities of the songs that aren't there. They have three singers -- well, great, but not one of them has anything to say. They have very long intros and outros -- nifty, and I like the varied guitar styles, but what's the point of stretching everything out when the tunes are hollow at the center? They'd completely lost me after three songs, after which I tuned them out and started reflecting on the age-old question as to whether Led Zeppelin's unabashed thievery of Willie Dixon songs during their developmental years somehow justifies the enthusiasm with which musicians since have ripped off Jimmy Page. (How you doing, Jack White? Got any new ideas for your next side project? No? Didn't think so.)

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