The Cocker Spaniels hit Red 7 on Wednesday, and Sean did his best to make it a spectacle. I love the guy like a brother, but I was still afraid to approach him before his set began... that's how intensely focused he looked. The man is driven to rock. I've been putting off going to see one of his live shows for a while, not because I didn't think it would be good, but because I knew exactly what to expect... crazy dancing, a few guitar cameos, in-your-face audience engagement. Sean composes and performs the parts for nearly every instrument on his recordings, and at a live show he plays his backing tracks on an iPod while selling his lyrics as hard as he can with a full-body, full-venue performance. He gets in people's faces and forces them to deal with him, and it's pretty metal! He has such infectious, positive energy that almost everybody he dances up on ends up smiling and grooving with him, although there was one priceless moment when a girl all but fled in the other direction after he put his moves on her.
C. Spaniels put on a heck of a show as a one-man act, don't get me wrong. I know Sean doesn't want to hear it, but both Anna and I feel like he'd have more impact with a band behind him. With all of its crazy far-flung influences his music is still rock at its core, and it seems weird for the ultimate frontman to be flinging himself into the crowd and leaving a big stage empty behind him. Playing to a tape downplays the Spaniels' top-drawer musicianship and emphasizes the novelty aspect. There's also a disconnect between the party-time dancing of the fast numbers and the motionless formality of the solo guitar songs. I want the rock and the funk and the dancing and the flashy lead guitars all at once! At least when Cocker Spaniels are playing a big rock stage with loud rock bands. That's my opinion. I know it irritates Sean when I say this (and I know he's about to launch a huge solo tour), but he's one of my best friends who plays music in Austin, and if I can't be honest to my friends, what am I really doing here?
Part of the argument Sean makes on his Tumblr against expanding the C. Spaniels lineup is that not just any musicians can play compositions of this complexity. I agree with him there, but he may be underestimating the talent pool available in our fair city. He also says that it wouldn't affect the difficulty he has getting fans of other bands at shows to pay attention to his sets. There I disagree: Everybody looks for different things in bands, and having a team broadens your appeal both passively ("That singer kind of weirds me out, but look at the cool instrument their bass player has, I wonder what they will sound like") and actively (more teammates to go around being friendly and selling the performance inside the venue and out before it begins). The most touchy argument Sean has about keeping his music's live presentation the way it is is that the songs are really personal to him. There I see his point. He puts more truth and honesty into his writing than most. It really is direct personal expression in a way that nearly all songwriters are too self-conscious to ever approach. Bandmates with the wrong attitude could drown out or obscure his message, and that's the last thing that I want to see happen. My take is that there are a lot of really talented technical players in town who have nothing in particular to say, and that keeps them from finding the audience they need if they're going to make a living at their art. They might be grateful for the opportunity to work under somebody with real vision. I'm just saying!
OK, having navigated those choppy waters, let's move on. Vanished Clan are an instrumental rock trio with good pedigree (drummer Marc Henry is a beast) and thoughtful, well-composed songs that don't hammer the same riffs into oblivion but move through many distinct and interesting parts. I have been listening to their recordings for a week or so and wondering why I wasn't more excited about them. I love guitar-led "post" bands like 5ive Style and Don Caballero and I could tell right away that Vanished Clan had three really good players working together. Why then did I feel curiously unmoved by them? Went to see them Thursday at the Dirty Dog and I think I have a better idea now. Although the playing is great and the writing is not boring, what they're lacking for is more than one mood. Their tunes have dynamics, but not enough variance in color... they are either rocking out, or waiting to rock out.
My knee-jerk prescription would be to add another instrumental voice, but that could mean any number of things. They don't even necessarily need a fourth member or an additional instrument. They just need to work some poignant melodies in with all the agreeable rhythms. The bassist mostly shadows the guitar, so maybe he could step out during the slow parts. Or maybe the guitar player could take chances with some more lead lines. They could have guitar and bass do stings and let the drums tell a story. Maybe they should do all those things. Whatever they do, they need some way of making their music communicate feelings. Now it's all about just the sound of them playing, and that's not enough even for a total music nerd like me.
World Racketeering Squad weren't the most technically proficient band I saw this week, but they put on the best show. That's what counts! Guitarist Isaac Priestley is really talented, and his playing provides the necessary ballast for their goofy but clever vocal melodies. The drums are simple but effective, and bassist/singer Reed Oliver does his best on his instrument even though he started learning to play after founding the band. You'd have to be listening very hard to notice their mistakes, however, because their songs are very strong. They really emphasize what's best about the band: their sense of humor, their camaraderie, and their attention to detail. Can you become a good songwriter merely by listening extremely closely to tons and tons of good songs? I believe that you can, and WRS are a perfect test case. They're confident enough of their own originality to introduce songs on stage by flagging their origins: 80's rock and jangle, with The Cure and The Smiths paramount but enough of a completist's bent to touch on the weirder and more ephemeral artifacts of the era as well. They have listened closely enough to know how to make songs that capture the sound but are original. And they know how to put on a show! They have snappy matching outfits! Everybody in the band takes a lead vocal. Isaac climbs on the monitors for his solos and Reed has the timing of his high leg kicks worked out just so. I have been listening to their album What Is Nerdwave? for a while now and have already grown to love the song "Electromagnetic Pulse," their opener Friday. The live show brought new weight to two other songs, "Summer" with its transition from laid-back bossa nova into arena rock fury and "I'm Not Dead" with its dopey but winning repeating chorus hook. To become advanced songwriters they need still to learn how to expose their best hooks more economically. But they are inspired amateurs, and the fact that they act like they own a stage counts for so much more. This band is living the dream! They write good songs and rock the heck out on stage while playing them for their friends. As far as I'm concerned that makes them stars.
You Might Think We're Sharks are less developed and more self-conscious. But I want to encourage them to keep writing songs and playing shows, because the lack of completed arrangements didn't disguise a real talent for vocal melodies operating somewhere underneath the often too-busy guitars. Their first song had me gritting my teeth, as it featured two guitarists chopping up-and-down chords in unison in that very special way you all know I hate. But I hung in there, partly because their boy-girl harmonies are beautiful and partly because Isaac Racketeer is their bassist. As the set went on I felt like I was hearing the first songs frontman Daniel had ever written... but I could hear him learning something with every tune. They sort of lost me with two long rote ones at the very end, but in between they showed a real grasp of trying different rhythm patterns. Basic ones, to be sure, but there's a huge difference between a simple rhythm and no rhythm at all. Even the less sharply developed sections were made much stronger by a good band -- drums and lead guitar, in particular, elevated the material and the harmonies were consistently lovely. They have work left to do. Other than the quietest parts, it was easy to forget they had a keyboard player at all, and they need to bring the changes on more quickly in general. Their best song led with just bass, drums, and singing, so that when the guitars did come in it seemed like they were following the vocals rather than the other way around. Best three words of advice I can give: less is more!