Sunday, August 15, 2010

Those Daily Tranquilizers

FreshMillions, Love at 20, SuperLiteBike
The Parish, 8/14

We don't get to see laser light spectaculars very often, going as we do only to local shows. It was a nice change of pace to see a gig Saturday with some production values. The intense competition between all the bands here might be rough on musicians, but it's wonderful for music fans. Back in Boulder we would have had to pay thirty or forty bucks to see lasers and smoke machines!

I didn't know a thing about SuperLiteBike going in but they really impressed me. Their disco-demolition modern rock style, pitched somewhere in between the extreme dourness of Interpol and the utter ridiculousness of the Killers, isn't exactly my cup of tea. But as I hope some of you may have picked up on by now, I don't judge Austin bands based on whether they listen to the exact same records as I do at home. SuperLiteBike put on a dynamic, quick-moving show, hardly pausing between songs and showing the full range of possibilities available within their style. They continued to surprise me with new ideas I never would have expected from them after their first two songs, all the way to the end of the set. Trumpet melodies? Fingerstyle guitar? Latin-flavored percussion rumblings? They had a lot going on, and tied it all together with persistent strong harmonies and vigorous movement from their floppy-haired frontman.

SuperLiteBike songs are very much bass-driven, with the guitarist filling in the gaps. His use of effects was really creative, more geared towards making strange percussive noises than trying to make boring melodies sound interesting. Their drummer had really good volume control, saving his full blast power only for when it was needed. They were able to hold audience attention even when very quiet, and they took advantage of this with songs that often stripped down to one or two naked parts. I was surprised to find out after their set that they were a five-piece until quite recently, with a keyboard player added. Maybe that was why I liked them so much! A lot of bands over-layer their music to the point where the main ideas are lost. By keeping it spartan the SuperLiteBikers kept things progressing and left the really fine singing combination of their bassist and frontman prominent in the mix. I dig them -- and I don't think they should hire another keyboard player. Upon reading that their debut Away We Go is a full-fledged concept album, my enthusiasm for SuperLiteBike grew even more. I'm excited to hear more from this band!

Love at 20 were a different case altogether. Intelligently packaged and marketed (their decision to give away their LP Time to Begin for free online was brilliant and has already paid dividends), they're certainly among that breed of local bands who believe that if you want to be treated like professionals you should act that way from the outset. Their confidence was the chief strength of that album, which took in the wide variety of influences that any career band must. From club bangers to winsome Weezer-ish guitar pop to power ballads to wedding songs, they were certainly not going to be accused of having too narrow a range. In my review my main quibble was with the lyrics, which weren't anywhere near as worldly as the music attempted to be. Shouldn't be as much of a problem live, right? Well, no, but bad lyrics were the least of Love at 20's problems on stage.

The album had songs in a number of different styles, some of which succeeded more than others. Live, they only seemed to have one real song ("So Bad," a come-hither winner) and then a bunch of dirges that didn't vary from each other and didn't reflect upon the band at all well. Their keyboard player, utterly motionless, disappeared literally and figuratively behind the frontman. The drummer was stubbornly, mechanically loud -- maybe instead of wearing ornate ear protection he should just play softer. And the two guitar players sawed away in unison and drowned out the keys, vocals, bass, and all else. Love at 20 entreated people to dance, but since none of their songs (except "So Bad") feature any syncopation, there's not a whole lot there for crowds to move to. Time to go back to the drawing board and write some new songs that won't isolate "So Bad" so plainly. And move the keyboard player out front (anybody who sings often should be fully visible) and get some Red Bull into her. Is this a rock show or a wake?

FreshMillions are one of those cool new bands where there's no real way to tell from listening to the record exactly how it is they do what they do. I love when musicians challenge my ear in that way. They're also singularly devoted to the funk, for an experimental instrumental rock-tronic group. They succeeded where Love at 20 failed in getting butts to move, mostly because their music demands it, and additionally since they grooved pretty hard themselves. In a sense they're like reverse karaoke, a guitar-bass-drums rhythm section that plays in "support" of a simple melodic loop or sample on each song. It's hard to find an easy comparison. Maybe the Beastie Boys in their lounge-instrumental guise, only with really solid chops. Or the hardest-to-find, most tape-manipulated, disturbing Prince B-sides ever.

The no-frontman ideal serves their writing well, although I wonder if they wouldn't be even more undeniable with a singing and dancing focal point. As a trio they do their best to raise the roof, although everyone's got their hands pretty full working guitars, keyboards, and pedals all together. Their vocoders can wear on you by the third or fourth use. The one song with proper vocals they performed, "Control Freak," showed why they don't sing that often... it sounded goonish and frat-y, like 3 Oh! 3 or somebody. Their drummer Dan also plays with Monument to No One and I was impressed by his ability to play in a totally different style, with entirely different responsibilities. He's a hell of a musician, and brought space-rock gravitas to some of FreshMillions' less frenzied moments. They sure didn't sound like Pink Floyd on their record! They repeatedly would introduce a funky, funky bassline, then have it drop out, then bring it back -- making the listener realize how much they missed it. Love this technique. They got more compulsive and sweaty the later the hour got. Even though I was tired and a little disoriented I went from head-nodding to foot-shuffling to full-on body-flailing by their last song. Party jams!

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