Monday, April 11, 2011

Live: Jeff the Brotherhood, Heavy Cream, Hell Beach + more

When: April 2, 2011
Where: Death By Audio

When I went to Death By Audio last weekend, I will admit I was not really in the mood for the music of the night - namely slightly southern-fried, post-ironic-hipster-idol-y, 60's-inflected indie rock.  But that doesn't change the fact that nearly the entire show was a disappointment.

When I arrived, Colleen Green was on stage.  The band is made up of two affected, Ray-Ban sporting women playing guitar and bass over a cheesy drum machine.  That's a setup that could go either way, but in this case, it went in a bad way.  The music was terrible, but that wasn't really the problem - in fact, that provided the only point on which you could argue the band had some merit.  My friend Pepe (thanks, random name generator) thought that the band members were courageous to take the stage even though they were so astoundingly bad.  However, I had the distinct feeling that this wasn't a brave presentation of incompetence in the populist tradition that runs from punk and No Wave through Beat Happening up to contemporary vanguard of bands that at least (sometimes) fake inability to play their instruments (e.g. Stupid Party, Total Slacker).

But Colleen Green is of a different tribe.  To me, their performance reeked of cowardice.  Their incompetence seemed distinctly calculated to allow them to take the stage without threatening insecure men.  This is one of the most disturbing faces of the nostalgia that has overwhelmed indie music and alternative youth culture in recent years - the relegation of women to a sort of Trix Rabbit role (silly girls, guitars are for men).  It's been difficult for me to put my finger on what separates the anti-feminist backlash of bands like Best Coast and Colleen Green from distinctly empowering female figures like Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells (who, after all, does not write the band's music or play an instrument, but whose ditsy bimbo character who thought she forgot her sunglasses is delivered with ambiguous derision and balanced with massive, nasty sound and one uncurbed scream).  Not every female in music has to be a bra-burning Riot Grrrl, but if you are female and playing rock or pop music, you are making a statement on feminism, whether you like it or not.  This isn't about what's fair, it's about reality, and in reality, Colleen Green says loud and clear that "girl bands" are a novelty.  We ladies of the music scene are good for a laugh, but let's leave the real music to the men.

Colleen Green were followed by X-Ray Eyeballs, an ultimately forgettable act of two and three chord songs.  I'd give them another chance, but their performance at DBA was not exactly something to write home about.

I wish Hell Beach was as forgettable as X-Ray Eyeballs, but unfortunately, the opening of their set, a song charmingly entitled "Dead Friends" is still seared in my memory.  The lyrics, which you can read for yourself here, are a tasteless, artless attempt to be edgy.  Or maybe it's an attempt to parody edgy rock lyrics.  Whatever they were attempting, they failed.  Actually, I should say vocalist Susan Tinsley failed.  The other two members of the band were pretty alright, with drummer Jolene Boyce having exactly the edge that Colleen Green was lacking.  Brad Holland managed to wrangle some nasty snarls out of his guitar - cliched snarls, but in a way that's more art-smart referential than uncreative.

The band is clearly going for some sort of goth punk or goth grunge.  Don't get me wrong, goth is all about having a sense of humor (a dimension of the genre missed by an entire generation of Hot Topic customers and sickly-looking gloomsters).  Goth's seminal single, "Bela Lugosi's Dead," is one of the of the funniest songs in pop history.  But that song was both lyrically clever and sonically creative.  "Dead Friends," on the other hand, is so obvious that you can actually feel yourself getting stupider as you listen - and not in a fun way.  I mean, c'mon Tinsley, how old are you?

The only band of the night that really did meet my expectations was Heavy Cream.  Part of the reason the band met my expectations is that those expectations had been lowered when I saw Heavy Cream at Union Pool (if I remember correctly) and found them to be nothing more than good Nashville-inflected garage rock.  I had hyped them up in my own mind to be the greatest thing since half-and-half (sorry) but this time, I approached the group with more reasonable expectations.

Nashville-inflected garage rock definitely still summarizes the band's sound.  However, there was something far more punk rock about their performance at DBA.  Part of it wasn't musical at all.  When guitarist Mimi Galbierz broke a string soon after the band took the stage, the set was stalled while the band tried to find a guitar to borrow.  (Jake's guitar, "Jamin," was suggested until the band remembered that guitar would only have three strings to their current five.)  While the band awkwardly pleaded with the audience to supply them a guitar, singer Jessica McFarland began berating the audience for their lack of creative contributions in the downtime.  Whether tongue-in-cheek or serious, McFarland's obvious contempt for the audience brought the show to a new level.  The band's frustration at being plagued with technical difficulties (the guitar being just one of several mishaps) was channeled into their music, giving it a harder edge.  McFarland can be compared to that other blond singer of the young Nashville scene, Jemina Pearl, in as much as both possess the stage with delightful arrogance and a sort of icy sexuality.  But McFarland's presentation is far more mature than Pearl's petulant (if captivating) behavior.

After the venomous performance by Heavy Cream, headliners Jeff the Brotherhood failed to impress.  I mean, they failed to impress me.  The audience seemed to dig it, moshing violently from Jake's first note on.  But the crowd at Jeff shows seems increasingly dominated by the kind of people who use the mosh pit as an outlet for macho aggression.  The pit is all about violence, which is obviously kinda the point.  But every scene where slam dancing dominates eventually seems to draw out a more bullying element, the meatheads who have ruined countless hardcore shows from the early 80's onward.  To be clear, these sort of meatheads didn't dominate the Jeff show - but I can feel a slide in that direction in the increasing roughness and decreasing fun of the audience.  People are starting to come not for the music but because they like to shove other people around.

But that's not the Orrall brothers' fault and it wasn't what made the show such a disappointment.  What ultimately ruined the set was simply the band's straightforward delivery.  The reason Jeff the Brotherhood shows have always excited me is Jake's ridiculous rockstar posturing, his command of the stage and piercing comprehension of rock'n'roll showmanship.  But last weekend, the band just played their songs.  They played well and with enthusiasm, but a spark was missing.  Whether the band is burning out, growing lazy or was just having a weary night remains to be seen, but whatever the reason, the band was simply not compelling or commanding.  Of course, in saying this, I am only comparing the band to themselves, their past performances.  Compared with the vast majority of acts out there, they are still one of the meanest live shows of 2011.  But for longtime fans, their current presentation seems distinctly uninspired.

Let's hope it was just an off night and not the start of the decline of indie's rockingest band.

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