Saturday, July 17, 2010

Music for Adults

The Sour Notes, Zorch, The Great Nostalgic
The Hole in the Wall, 7/16

As I wrote out of the smoking crater that was Austin in late March, the best thing about supporting developing bands is that every time you see them, it's likely to be the best show they've ever played. For bands with as many points in their favor as Zorch and The Sour Notes, it's worth seeing them several times just to absorb all of their good ideas. I can't even mention the coolest thing that Zorch did for their show Saturday night -- my own group has something similar planned and if I tell all of you, then everybody will want to do it. You will have to go out and see Zorch yourselves.

Luckily I have many other observations to share about this value-packed Friday night lineup. First of all, the juxtaposition in styles between these two very original bands illustrated a valuable larger lesson. I often observe bands stressing out about how they ought to label themselves and what that requires of the other acts with whom they share bills. This is self-defeating on a few levels. If you're creating something worthwhile, there shouldn't be an easy label for your music, and there shouldn't be many or indeed any Austin bands doing precisely the same thing. If you plan to build an audience in a town with tastes as diffuse as this one, you should mix up your pitches. The Sour Notes are nominally a pop group but they use enough loops and drones to appeal to dance and electronic listeners. Zorch dip their toes into everything from Muzak to jazz fusion, but with enough big hooks and broad melodies to make them a born party band. The two bands might not fit under the same banner heading in your iTunes but they're both good and that's what matters most.

Seeing the Sour Notes for the second time this month only increased my appreciation for how they take well-written source material and kick it up another notch for the stage. Their drummer's busy, complex but not overdone responses to the guitar rhythms give them an engaging drive. He also plays breakbeats on the cajon more naturally than I've ever seen anyone else do. I hope I didn't ruffle any feathers by calling the Notes' music "adult." I meant that it was sophisticated, not that they sound like the Eagles or anything. Although my parents would probably quite enjoy their music. I'm just digging myself a deeper and deeper hole here.

Clearer, comprehensible vocals were the biggest change for Zorch since I saw them last and I'm really pleased about the development. Being bizarre and unclassifiable puts extra pressure on them to find clever ways of engaging the audience and it's inspiring how prepared they are for the challenge. They're good performers -- no motionless, eyes-averted frowning here -- and they seed their songs with hugely catchy moments that keep the crowd dancing more or less in time even when the music goes into sections that hold three time signatures simultaneously. You know your star is in the ascendant when you announce a song called "Crying During Circumcision Is a Shame to the Whole Village" and people start cheering, because they have the CD and they know that a barrage of dubstep death-jazz is on the way.

The Great Nostalgic followed Zorch and I felt a little bad for them. They're not terrible, merely average, but after two of the most interesting acts in town their bland songwriting and monotonous lead vocals fell victim to unfairly heightened expectations. I am glad that I stuck around to hear the bulk of their set, trying to listen on their own merits. They're not without good ideas. Their drummer is imaginative and rubber-limbed, some of the chord voicings from the guitarist/singer were pretty novel, and I liked the way their bassist used a fuzz effect to play the equivalent of a lead guitar figure on one song. But their tunes are all variations on the same theme, the guitarist's blocky strumming gets old rapidly, and the addition of harmonies from the bass player and keyboardist only served to reinforce how limp all their vocal melodies were. They've been a band long enough to gussy up their iffy songs with a good amount of dramatic pauses and buildups, but the core rhythmic and melodic ideas are just not that interesting. And they sounded crummy -- the bass and keyboards were poorly equalized and the guitar setup didn't suit its player's sound. They're not the worst band I've ever seen but for the Austin scene they're just not good enough to compete for your attention.

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