Friday, April 30, 2010

Movie Music

My Education

Developed over two years of live performances, the album version of My Education's score for F.W. Murnau's silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans plays like the band on the best night of its life. Supremely well recorded (at Austin's Headbump Studios), the group always sounds united in its purpose on Sunrise even as the instruments change roles and the moods shift. Music this subtle seldom sounds gripping and nuanced in digital formats, so special credit should be given to recorders The Bump Boyz and mixers Jason Bunch and Chris Smith. I would still be overjoyed if somebody sent me the vinyl, but as a digital release this is the best-sounding local disc I've heard this year.

My Education's post-rock influences are obvious (and enough with the vibraphones, already!) but they're able to change focus more easily than some of their inspirations. The apocalyptic drone-and-release of Godspeed You Black Emperor! figures heavily on "Sunset" and "A Man Alone," but the band is versatile enough to construct songs around folk melodies and seductive rhythms as well. They give simplicity a fair airing in addition to pure mass, reminiscent of the great Dirty Three. My Education seems to have an innate understanding of how the listener will sometimes attach emotionally to a certain figure, and the whole band works in concert to pay those lines off, no matter from which instrument they originate. "Lust" works for all of its nine minutes because of the band's tricky musical calculus; rather than following a straight line of constant slope from soft to loud they cycle forward and back off, pull together and fall apart. It's not easy for instrumental bands to operate this sensitively, particularly with the expanded lineup My Education here employs.

I believe many bands sometimes rush to record before giving their material enough time to mature on stage, and the consistent quality of Sunrise bears out this thinking. The musicians have played these themes often enough that their own parts are internalized to the degree that what they really listen for is the rest of the instruments. They've become a band, as well they should have after a decade together.

That brings me to my one reservation about these live-score projects in general. I like the way that composing film music forces a band out of its usual process. But I don't like the idea that music is something that you sit and absorb passively. Listening to Sunrise at home, particularly the dizzy upbeats of "Heave Oars," I want to get up and move around. I don't really want to go see this band and have to sit in a seat and get shushed if I clap or hum along.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Our Art Rocks

US Art Authority, 4/23

Because it was part of the Fusebox Festival and therefore obligated to add in a measure of awkward discomfort with the rockin' good times, it was set up so that Chat Roulette was running up on a screen behind Zorch as they played. Nothing says "art event" like unattractive men exposing their genitals. It's not as if there wasn't enough to see from the two guys making the music happen. Zorch create sounds that are intensely visual -- the descriptor "psychedelic" has really lost all meaning in Austin, but close your eyes and you'll see colors. They're also cutting-edge enough that as a musically curious person, I was fascinated just watching them play and trying to figure out which sounds were coming from where.

I appreciate the way the pair plays like a jam band, stretching out and following each other through sections and feeling their way to the changes. Watching their keyboard player was a learning experience, as his hands would often be way more or way less busy than you would expect given the music at any given time. Zorch employ very old equipment and very new computer tricks; the goal either way is to create unexpected rhythms. Whether using feel to make a very simple part funky by exploiting the way the pattern of an analog synth doesn't quite match up with the tempo of a song, or using a laptop to turn a drone into a rich burbling noise quilt, the band's combination of musicianship and technology always puts the former first.

They're not difficult to dance to, particularly if you've always had a soft spot in your heart for the impenetrably odd early-synth soundtracks to late 70's-early 80's vintage science filmstrips. Part Herbie Hancock, part "Look Around You," Zorch present a not-totally-faithful recreation of a prior generation's visions for the music of the future. I'm glad they've selected Austin and not, say, Chicago, as a homebase, because here they are very welcome to be as hirsute and as sweaty as they like. Is it so wrong to like a little Allman Brothers in your art-rock?

It's their most original element that I felt needed more emphasis in their live show. In addition to all the dub, fusion, and funk Zorch have a real talent for simple, persistent vocal melodies. Awash in echo and too far back in the mix, the vocals didn't push their live show over the top in the way they do on their demo. It's hard to sing and play drums at the same time, especially when you're handling beats this wild. But sing out and turn the reverb down -- people are going to want to hear those melodies. And the lyrics I've been able to make out from the CD are great. Get people singing along, and who needs Chat Roulette?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Progress Notes

The Eastern Sea, Parachute Musical
Hole in the Wall, 4/22

It seems I'm writing about The Eastern Sea every week lately (I still have a review to complete of their second self-titled EP, lovely), but there's a reason I keep going to see them and listening to their records. There's a lot there to think about. They take a style of music I almost always hate (the neo/Eno-folk of Neutral Milk Hotel, a billion bands from Brookyln, etc.) and make it sound detailed, surprising, and rhythmically interesting. Also, they will play anywhere, at any time, and literal accessibility never hurt any band's cause.

At this latest show there was a good amount of new material, as yet unrecorded, to digest. I've yet to see The Eastern Sea really leave a stage in ruins, as I believe they have the potential to do, but to their credit that is mostly because they've been bringing in first many new players and now a bunch of new songs. Good. I've always believed you want to turn over your whole setlist with new songs before trying to record an album. I'm quite impressed by the way that the new tunes sidestep the natural progression with an expanded, louder lineup: instead of getting broader and more in line with each other, the songs have intricate and quite separate rhythms for the drums, guitars, bass, strings, and horns to play. They're less melodic with the additional instruments, and that's nervy and appropriate. They don't arrange like a rock band at all, with basslines that drop in and drop out and songs that shift moods instead of cycling through verses and choruses. They need some more reps to get everything working together properly, but I have a lot of faith in the band.

As for Parachute Musical, of Nashville, for them I felt only pity. Their drummer and guitarist made great efforts to enliven things, but I felt I'd heard and seen all of their moves after two songs and that was indeed the case. The sound is piano-driven indie, but all I listen for is writing and these fellows just didn't have any. Standard changes, standard beats, forgettable words. It's hard to be on tour in a band that has nothing new to offer. Particularly in a city where there's 25 bands doing exactly the same thing.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Little Bit Louder Now

Songs for Staying In [EP]
Quiet Company

When first I crossed paths with Austin's lovelorn power-pop Quiet Company, I wasn't overwhelmed -- too much of an OK thing, really, with the band's gift for melody and well-balanced live sound overshadowed by their tendency to say the same thing in the same way with song after song. Even after a boring show, though, I wasn't ready to strike them from memory. Quiet Company is a band to whom musicians in Austin should pay attention. They have visual and musical signatures, and they have a nuanced way of promoting their work relentlessly without seeming obnoxious. Like it or not success finding an audience in music nowadays is to a large extent dependent on branding, and Quiet Company have followed their creative inclinations intelligently and made their shows something of a couples activity. They're so into love they'll even find you a partner though their (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) dating service, if you don't already have one with whom to sing along at their shows. Their last album funded itself in part with custom songs commissioned by newlyweds.

If you're cynical, you could observe that by associating their music so closely with romance the band has cut off the critic at the path -- if you don't like Quiet Company, you must hate love! Well played. I had to work hard to approach their music with objective ears. Very, very sincere rock and roll music is so rare that it's hard to distinguish between basic ideas expressed elegantly and the merely simplistic. Given their record of success and universally positive notices from everyone who's ever felt moved to write about them, Quiet Company had earned better than a one-show snap judgement from the likes of me. And even if I was absolutely right about them then, what if they got better?

Quiet Company's overloaded last full-length, Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon, made a mixed case. Leader Taylor Muse has a name out of Dickens, a voice borrowed from Barsuk Records, and an undeniable gift for matching turn of phrase to melody. Everyone You Love bore some fine songs, but blunted their impact by overcrowding the running order with similar, less effective applications of the same formula. The standouts were the outliers, like the ballad "Red and Gold," where songwriter and band were challenged to find ways to play confidently out of their comfort zone.

Songs for Staying In is a quantum leap forward. It begins with a song in "How Do You Do It?" that effectively summarizes all that was already good about the band, energetic gang vocals leading into a massive sticky chorus that piles on additional lovely melodies from keyboards, guitars, and horns in a long, inclusive outro. With its bashfully straightforward lyrics, Quiet Company are starting out in familiar territory. But both "How Do You Do It?" and its EP companion "Things You Already Know" show maturation, with the band more fully involved in the development of the songs instead of merely following the singer and extended arrangements that don't grow boring because new additions are aways entering in over the repeated chords and melodies.

Then they start tearing up the map and things get really interesting. "Hold My Head Above the Water" has an unfinished, minimal quality to it that suits the plaintive melody (and the out-of-key but undeniably romantic duet vocals). It's not a major piece of work but it indicates that the band is beginning to explore different approaches -- love can sound like a lot of things. After that the record grows in maturity level quickly. The stark, powerful "Jezebel" is the best thing they've ever recorded, with a suddenly tough band giving way to a poignant Muse begging "come back to me" over a stately piano melody. This is heavy stuff, with the band evoking big emotions; they show rather than tell. "If You Want" is a jaunty waltz that finds a place for accordion in the Quiet Company sound and a novel melody that seems invigorated by the oom-pah-pah rhythms. "The Biblical Sense of the Word" brings in barrelhouse piano and, unexpectedly, exciting and aggressive guitar work. These last three songs are almost overstuffed with ideas, to the extent that the vocals can get a little lost.

Songs for Staying In, particularly the electric second half, cinches Quiet Company's reputation as one of Austin's leading lights. They have room to grow still. They have a tendency to end every song with many repetitions of the chorus, a device that loses its effectiveness when it's overindulged. I also think they could challenge themselves further when it comes to lyrics. Muse's writing isn't poor, exactly, just extremely universal, sometimes to the point of being generic ("I'm in love with you, body and soul") and I would respond to more personal details in the words. They also could try writing a few songs about subjects besides love, just to see what it feels like. The EP does a good job of linking the songs together by theme, which gives Quiet Company the license to try some wilder musical ideas. Having expanded the possibilities for their music, I'd like to hear their next brace of songs open up the lyrics to some new ideas.

Quiet Company's website offers a bunch of treats having to do with the release of the new EP, including videos with the band discussing the making of each track. (The "Jezebel" video will make you want to listen to the song again so you can keep your ears peeled for unusual drum fills.) They do right by their fans! You can pre-order Songs for Staying In there and get a digital download before the "official" release date of May 11. On May 7th they're playing with STEREO IS A LIE and The Eastern Sea at Encore.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

They Suit the Mood Today

The Organics
Gray Horse (San Marcos), 4/17

Most legit bands sound overwhelmingly better in person than compressed and streaming online, but the divide for the Organics is especially dramatic. They sound mushy and indifferent in their recordings but on stage they take off like a jet plane, not especially nor unnecessarily loud but hugely together and able by their combined force to make folks move and dance to music that logically should be more difficult to follow. Good songwriting and good playing combine to make them an absolute rarity, a crowd-pleasing progressive rock band.

Their songs have crunchy guitars and driving drums, but rhythms and vocals often take right after swing, which explains the danceability. Their songs are very well-written, although they do tend to blend together as the band prevails upon their two best grooves, the swing and a 6/8 feel. I'd like them more if their guitar solos were underlaid with new rhythm parts (and time signatures!) and if there were fewer chords and more counterpoint from the second guitar. The drums and bass are strong -- the band sounds good, and doesn't give you a migraine while you try to appreciate them. Their ability to make novel grooves sound natural makes me glad they're together as a band.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Demo Sweat #13

This is the first edition of Demo Sweat that I've been able to put together without taking the lazy man's path and just slapping an ad up on Craigslist. A few items I was sent in the mail, one disc was handed to me at a show, and a couple bands sent me download links through my site e-mail address. This is a big step, I feel. When I first got to Austin I tracked down a long-lost friend from high school, Marshall, to pick his brain about what it's like to be a musician in these parts. "For the love of God, stay away from Craigslist," was his immediate response, or words to that effect. "Play with your friends."

He had a point. It's helpful when you don't know anybody in town to get your butt into gear, get going to some auditions, and maybe start to play a few shows so you can figure out where you want to be (and where you absolutely don't). But if you've been living in Austin for a few years now getting nowhere in bands and you still need online classifieds to find people with whom to start further unsuccessful projects, best to reassess your priorities. Maybe spend less time on your own music and more time going out to see other local bands, because generally the musicians who are hardworking, goal-driven, and self-motivated are already playing out. Go buy them beers. Then, when their lead singers flake out, OD, or convert to Christianity (whichever), you can poach them.

Zorch, as mentioned in this space previously, have extended the unique blend of process and chaos that defines their music to one of the most meaningful (and beautiful) demo delivery systems I have yet to encounter. It's ridiculously simple -- just two pieces of cardstock and some invisible tape -- but it has an idea behind it that I could write about (in my capacity as an art history-minor dropout) for days. Every copy is completely unique, and the band brings all their art supplies to shows so that fans can construct their own custom masterpieces. I want to take a moment to recognize how great of an idea this is. Digital music downloads are a real conundrum for DIY artists, since a major part of forging a connection between artist and listener is that tangible piece of evidence of the bond.

Why do people still buy CD's? Why are vinyl records making such a surging comeback? Psychologically, having a little tiny piece of the band to call your own matters. I vividly remember riding my bike five miles to the nearest cool record store straight from school the day Wowee Zowee came out. It seemed like the most important thing in the world to me -- no wonder I promptly rechristened myself after one of the album's songs. Zorch are extending this vital physical link one step further. Their CD's aren't ready to be taken home until the listener puts their own personal stamp on their packaging. Rather than passively receiving the music, the listener takes part in its completion. The purpose of art, broadly speaking, is to act creatively and in doing so inspire others to adjust their way of seeing the world. Yoko Ono would approve.

I suppose it's ridiculous to say so much about the sleeve the CD comes in before addressing the music... but these things matter. What's more, the way Zorch writes songs and the overall effect of the four tracks on this demo quite elegantly complement the high-concept wrapping. Everybody who makes themselves a Zorch sleeve is given the same basic art tools... but everyone uses them differently. The band's restless energy allows them to sound like many different bands all in the course of a single song. The tools stay the same -- keyboard and drums -- but there's no rules for how they use them. Sometimes they jam, sometimes they sample themselves, here they sound like a straightahead rock band, here they sound like Suicide-goes-to-Africa.

Whatever guise they're wearing at any given time, it's all tied together with madly swinging drums and wicked humor. The songs are multi-layered and polyrhythmic like progressive rock, but structured with the quick movement and burnished hooks of radio singles. "Zut Alore!" even has an irresistible gang vocal melody comfortably sharing space with irradiated synth noises and ball-crushing Trans Am-style drums. Having knocked that one out of the park, they don't repeat themselves even once for the rest of the course of the EP. They stretch the definition about as far as it can go, but they're a rock and roll band at heart and head-banging, fist-pumping grooves are always around the corner. You can download this record for free, but as I've argued at some length, Zorch have gone out of their way to make a physical copy a desirable and unique thing and if you like what you hear at all you're going to want one. Suitable for framing!

Let's see, what else do we have? Snowclones, a five-song EP from Austin's Flush, is a bit of a puzzle. The piano and guitar playing is technically wonderful, and the three-part harmonies are exquisitely constructed. But how can musicians this skilled not listen to their own work and blanch at the deathly boring, see-saw vocal melodies and agonizingly repetitive two-chord sludges? "One Idea" is six minutes long and it has... guess how many ideas. The bass and drums are mushy and uninvolved and the band only has two dynamic settings -- when somebody's taking a solo and when somebody isn't. "Hold," a definite bright spot, manages stronger rhythmic changes and restrains itself from repeating the chorus 12 times at the end, mercifully. Keep writing songs... and then EDIT them. A lot. Also explore the concept of the "bridge" if you're going to insist on pushing everything to the five-minute mark and beyond.

Descendants of Erdrick are a video game-music band spearheaded by talented guitarist and arranger Amanda Lepre. The classic game soundtracks of the 80's are a huge, underreported influence on practically every musician who ever plugged in a NES (not least those guys in Zorch), and bands who pay tribute to the style proliferate on the West Coast, so much so that there can even be said to be competing styles, revisionist vs. purist. The Descendants edge towards the latter category, transposing instantly recognizable themes from The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Warrior into impressively interwoven, nimble lines on flute and guitar. Only for a few choice moments on their CD do the drums really rock out and the guitars crunch. More clever is the way they form suites out of different pieces from the same games, and perform some abrupt stylistic shifts in real time to bridge them together. The avant-garde intro to their Metroid number, "Secret of Planet Zebes," is a very creative interpretation of a scrap of game soundtrack that's more sound effect than music. I hope to hear more of that kind of weirdness from them in the future. Bottom line -- if you're already singing the overworld music from Zelda in your head as you read this, you will enjoy this band. They play tonight, Thursday the 15th, at Elysium as luck would have it.

CANNONS are a band from Philly who stab at their guitars and shout -- every time a high school kid gets turned on by his college cousin to how great Rites of Spring are, an angel gets its wings. Their record Friendly Muscles doesn't reinvent the wheel, nor vary all that much from track to track, but it has several points in its favor. First of all, they don't waste any time whatsoever. It's 11 songs in less than 25 minutes, and their grooves sound so much fresher for not being overindulged. They have three vocalists, too, which might be more effective if they didn't all sound more or less the same, but at least the competition keeps the lyrics interesting and the song titles ("Only You Can Prevent What I'm Talking About") clever. You know how Braid, Jawbox, and At the Drive-In all had two contrasting singers, one melodic, one abrasive? This band sounds like Chris Broach, Bill Barbot, and Jim Ward said to hell with the guys who can carry a tune, let's start a band where we all scream into oblivion together.

One more... the Loyal Divide's Labrador EP was passed wordlessly into my hands by an attractive young lady at one of my own band's shows. I suppose I look exactly like the sort of person who would actually listen to and write about some random CD given me in this way. I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often, really. I don't know anything about the band; their MySpace says they're from Chicago. Their music sounds like extended atmospheric introductions waiting for songs that never quite arrive, the programmed beats are loud but static and the vocals are perversely recorded in such a way that they never sound like they're supposed to be there. Rather than developing naturally, "Young Blades" and the other songs have one part... then another unrelated part... and then another part. Pointless tedium. But thanks for the CD anyway.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Where Is Thy Sting?

Bee Sting Sessions [EP]
Bee Sting Sessions

For someone who spits the letters of the very acronym "CD" out with some distaste, I keep being pleasantly surprised by the ways enterprising bands find of artistically transforming these cold plastic objects into unique personal statements, things worth owning and keeping. I still think that it should be every band's mission to release their music on vinyl as soon as it's logistically achievable. While I'm waiting for the records to start coming in, it's at least really cool to see handmade, scissors-glue-and-sparkles works of art employed as delivery systems for DIY releases. It sure beats jewelboxes. This Zorch EP that I've just received and will discuss soon is so lovely I think I want to frame it. Bee Sting Sessions, a duo project led by tough siren T Ellis, raises expectations for the listener with its budget-classy sleeve and carefully reproduced lyrics.

It seems I have been writing and thinking a lot about misdirection lately. Smart bands, ones that succeed, find a way of reconciling their artistic impulses to play more than one style with most listeners' dependence on thumbnail categorizations. What kind of clothes you wear and haircuts you sport really ought not to color audience reactions to the extent that they do, but they make a difference. One of the traits I look for in developing bands that often appears as a tip-off of future success is an awareness of how they can use outward appearances to manipulate crowd reaction. By presenting their music in outwardly metal/hardcore trappings -- anarchy symbols, fake blood photos, the "parental advisory" logo -- Bee Sting Sessions successfully get listeners to abandon particular emotions they don't want associated with their music.

With roots in big-band jazz and 40's swing, in a different context Ellis's scatting, hothouse vocals could see Bee Sting Sessions pigeonholed as gauzy, sentimental, retro -- She & Him without the extramusical hipster cult. The vocal-driven sound, carried minimally along by basic acoustic guitar chords and Phil Davis's walking electric bass, is recognizably art-folk, Tracy Chapman-esque minimalism and repetition with Natalie Merchant vocal quirks. The modern, most original element to the band is in the lyrics, which makes it a good thing that Bee Sting Sessions have taken care to include them all in the booklet. Aggressive, clear-eyed, and very modern, Ellis may vocalize like a flapper but she does so wearing steel-toed boots.

The combination of the sober, confrontational lyrics and the floaty music makes for a pleasant listen, but both the band and the songwriting seem incomplete. Ellis's compositions aren't entirely without rhythmic changes but they tend to stab at the same two chords for long stretches. The bass does a good job of stepping up for the lack of proper percussion without dominating or distracting from the vocals, but it isn't enough to sustain interest for six whole tracks. "Gabriel's Trumpet" has a disturbing word-salad, studio-edited sequence that makes me wish the band had more noisemakers on board to indulge their experimental leanings further. The lack of a lead instrument gives Ellis less to play off of as a singer, and the too-simple chord changes also hem her in more than Bee Sting Sessions probably realize.

They sound good playing together, and the vocals are graceful and exciting. Now I would like to hear them develop into a full band, with a drummer and a for-serious guitarist who can push T's vocals into darker and weirder territory. They could go several different ways -- a full-band expansion of their basic unsentimental folk-jazz might be very cool, or a band that brought down the thunder and rocked out from time to time. Mostly they just need to keep generating new material, because the only surefire way to write great songs is by getting several dozen boring songs out of your system first.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Dinosaurs of Rock

Stegosaur, Tentacles
Trailer Space Records, 4/3

If there's a better place than Trailer Space to drink malt liquor out of a paper bag while listening to music for free and wishing your turntable wasn't broken so you could buy more old jazz records, I don't know of it.

The most striking thing about Stegosaur is how great they sound; with a rudimentary PA in a rough concrete room they still absolutely pop. Drums, bass, lead guitar, and vocals are all just in the right place and from the slight fuzz on the bass to the guitarist's clever use of volume pedal the sound of the instruments is chosen just right. They take simple changes and two-note lead figures far further than most bands can because of the way their playing all works together. Their singer may play the guitar like an advanced tambourine but it doesn't really matter because they're self-aware enough to keep the volume level lower than the bass. What's more, they've all mastered the subtle art of laying out, rare enough in all genres but practically unheard of for hardcore.

Their confidence in stripping things down to just a drum lick or a bass rumble is indicative of their precocious sense that they can even improve upon the music that inspires them, and a style that views the fractured nature of postmodern postpunk as an opportunity rather than a crisis. They happily go to the extreme ends of the spectrum, with a vocal style indebted to At the Drive-In and an uncluttered, giddy bounce that recalls Superchunk or the Promise Ring. Their use of a Rhodes organ on one song ("Bloooooood") reminds me of my Denver homies Born in the Flood and is a good example of their ability to change rhythms, change the roles of the instruments in the mix (the bassist has some range), and remain identifiable as themselves from their singer's strong personality. They are heading out on tour soon, which is good because they aren't quite as tight as they should be given how simple the music is.

Their drummer Rudy gets his own paragraph -- he made me dance. Stegosaur's online recordings don't do his talent justice. He's got one of the best pockets of any drummer playing any style I've yet seen in Austin and his judiciously timed, jazzy fills are so right for the straight-ahead drive of the guitarists. I admire musicians who can make the drums sound like three people playing at once, but the players who really get me excited are the ones who can play the same basic patterns as everybody else but make them sound amazing and new with their superior feel. Lightly swinging and just a little tiny bit behind where ProTools would put the beats, the strength of the drums really pushes the band to another level. It's little wonder their arrangements are so original and wide-ranging -- why wouldn't you want to let the drummer play almost by himself often when he sounds this good?

On the same bill as Stegosaur, San Antonio's Tentacles illustrate how far the "post-hardcore" banner can stretch, bringing a metallic brutality that should and will cause heads to bang. Fronted as they are by a howler and eschewing melody for the most part, they're about as heavy and technical as the style gets. It's harder to tell than it used to be since Isis/Neurosis/Pelican/Mastodon made it cool for indie kids to listen to metal-influenced music again, but I would qualify Tentacles as more post-'core than metal since they don't use chromatic scales and the pounding, jabbing rhythms of their for-serious drummer and two downtuned guitar players are as a rule explorations of 4/4. Their quiet tension-building parts, which they should be encouraged to indulge in further, sound like Slint or Mogwai. Whatever they are, they're very good. The attack of the instruments is together like a firing squad and the singer has rad stage presence and employs his doom croak in a musical manner. Their guitar players should turn around and feel at ease facing the crowd, because they're doing cool stuff and they move around, too.

An observation not a criticism: At one point when Anna C. stepped outside for a moment there were 19 guys watching Tentacles... and no girls. I love listening to heavy rock, but there's good reason I've never much pursued playing it as a musician myself.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Very Smart

Mohawk, 4/1

April 1st was the precise right day to have a hometown record release show for Harlem. In the best sense of the term, these guys are con artists. Misdirection isn't just for magicians. One of the few worthwhile moments of the largely tedious guitar documentary It Might Get Loud (mostly of note for revealing that The Edge is an enormous tool who's so dependent on technology that he doesn't even understand basic music theory concepts like the difference between time signature and tempo) arrives when Jack White revealingly breaks down the White Stripes' formula. By putting himself and his drummer into brightly-colored outfits and dressing their equipment in peppermint swirls and candy-cane stripes, White successfully deflected listeners from recognizing that the band's music was just elementary blues. Everything old is new again.

Harlem's tendency to come across like loutish, inebriated naïfs isn't totally a put-on. They do like to drink, and the inimitable Coomers has a take-it-or-leave-it persona built around relentless, aggressive self-deprecation. But whether it's by design or accident, the band has been able to direct most of the responses to their music in such a way that critics generally undersell them. Terms like "ramshackle" or "accidental" abound. And that works for Harlem, because it makes them seem much cooler if they're touted as a trio of idiot savants.

They are however not amateurs. As songwriters they have way more in common with Elvis Costello or Adam Schlesinger than Daniel Johnston or Jad Fair. The first time I saw them, they fooled me, pretending to forget their own songs and basically not giving a toss about crowd reaction, into thinking they were a lot more basic musically than they indeed are. Many of Harlem's songs -- most of them, really -- have totally orchestrated tempo shifts (not time signature changes, Edge) and arrangements designed to illuminate their excellent vocal melodies in the most flattering light. In the way their songs use simple pounding backbeats and swinging basslines, they remind me most of 60's girl groups, with a bit of early-rock mysticism derived from Howlin' Wolf and Screamin' Jay Hawkins. "Be Your Baby" could be a Ronettes song, delivered as it is with a streamlined beat and hooks burnished with professional care. I swear at certain points during Thursday's show they deliberately lost sync. However when it counted -- when a song needed a payoff -- they were right on it. Curious.

They wouldn't have been the subject of an indie-powerhouse bidding war if most people focused on their craftsmanship, but that's what I like most about them. Nobody writes songs this good without first studying the classics in precise detail. Harlem try very, very hard to make it appear as if they don't care and their music is effortless to them. Sorry, I'm not buying it. Now that their ruse has paid off and they have a following and a heavyweight label, it's probably OK to present themselves in a more grown-up light.