Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Live: Parts and Labor, Zulus, Hunters

When: April 8
Where: Cake Shop

Although many of my favorite NYC bands have gone belly up or at least M.I.A. in the last year, one of the groups still giving me hope is Hunters, an experimental quartet who look like a cool band if you run into them on the street (as I recently did).  They've got "the look" in that slightly scary post-punk mad-scientist-meets-futuristic-slick way, minus all the post-glam trappings of the 1980's British scene.  There's nothing put on about the way Hunters look - they don't seem like one of those bands that sits down to discuss their "image."  They just look cool because they are cool.

Of course, looking edgy, or even looking cohesive, does not make or break a band.  Or at least it shouldn't.  But it can help set the stage for an edgy sound, and that's what Hunters have.  Their music is contradictory: turbid and murky, but somehow not at all muddy; at once stagnant and anarchic.  There is a sort of gothic bleakness about the band, but the music itself is a breakneck jumble of noise.  Live, the band seems a bit standoffish but also driven with an intensity that inevitably sets co-fronters Isabel Ibsen and Derek Watson rolling on the floor in a pseudo-sexual, violent mass of body and guitar.

But at Cake Shop, what caught my attention most was not the band's frenzy (which I've come to expect) but their pop appeal.  The last song of the set was a hooky sing-along, albeit enmeshed in No Wave-inflected chaos and noise.  The genuineness with which the band merges these two conflicting impulses - the catchy, spirited pop and the arty noise freakout - shows a band on the edge of something original and important.  I don't think they're there yet; there's still something unfocused and unarticulated in Hunters' post-post-post-post-post-punk set.  But if they keep moving, they just might end up making music that really matters. [myspace]

Zulus played next.  The band's overall sound was very appealing - massively loud guitars, heavy but with tempos fast enough to keep them from feeling bogged down.  However, with no open space for their songs to breathe, the constant guitar and samey tempos made it hard to disinguish one song from the next after a little while.  Moreover, the band's vocals all sounded like an afterthought, tacked on at the last minute out of deference to convention.  If the band learns to shift their vocals more towards the core of their songwriting and branches out in terms of tempo, they could very easily become an exciting band.  But as of now, they are just "okay." [myspace]

I missed the next band, Puffy Areolas and I kind of regret that, because I am curious about them.  However, the so-so-picky Pepe, who stayed for their set, gave them a non-verbal review of "Eh" and a shrug.  Take that as you will.

While these opening bands don't seem the most obvious picks to open for headliners Parts and Labor, the unifying theme of the night seemed to be sheer volume, and that actually worked to give the line-up so coherence (especially in Cake Shop, which boasts a P.A. powerful enough to cram the basement bar with as much sound as it could possibly hold).

Unlike the previous bands, Parts and Labor are all about cheesy mid-tempo pop songs, with soaring, emotion-laden melodies.  But Parts and Labor doesn't just sound like cheesy love songs, they sound like cheesy love songs with a GIANT ROBOT destroying a major city in the background.  You can hear skyscrapers' steel girders twisting and buildings shattering over concrete.  This post-human aesthetic comes primarily from the electronic wizardry of Dan Friel, a tall bloke with sunny ginger curls and a perpetual smile, who is also responsible for half the band's lead vocals.  New guitarist Tom Martin, a pretty-boy if ever there was one, held his own in his first show with the group, lacing the band's sound with an appropriately processed sheen.

But against this electronic, mechanical atmosphere, drummer Joe Wong (who looks deceptively like a fifth grader with his comb-down haircut and thin-rimmed glasses) adds a far more organic quality to the music.  While the other instruments conjure the man-made structures of urban modernity, the drums evoke an expansive mountain range, with peaks of fills and erupting cymbals over an earthy mantle of deep bass drum and toms.  While unassuming, Wong is one of the best drummers in New York City right now, providing a muscular base for the band's massive sound.  But muscular doesn't mean overly weighty - despite the sheer power of his playing, Wong's fills are lightning quick and his rhythms are in dynamic conversation with the rest of the band, responding to every shift in sound.

The gap between the sci-fi electronics and earthy drums is bridged by B. J. Warshaw, whose bass lines dive as low as music can go - although I cannot figure out if this is accomplished with an octave pedal or if the richness of the tone alone makes the bass sound so deep.  Emerging behind a frizzy beard and thick glasses, Warshaw's vocals are of that strained timbre that's so in vogue in post-2000 indie music.  But in vogue doesn't mean bad, quite the contrary in this case - Warshaw pulls off the slightly high, slightly thin sounding style just as it should be pulled off, creating a sense of vulnerability without resorting to untunefulness.

Parts & Labor's weak spot is always their melodies, and last weekend's show proved no different.  While the band embraces the dramatic open melodies of midtempo pop, their attempts are hit and miss.  When they're on, as with their crowning pop achievement "Nowheres Nigh," which closed the Cake Shop set, they're very, very on.  The melody's simplicity is compelling, but many of the bands' other songs sound adrift and fail to hook the ear.  Of course, if the band always hit the mark, they might become too sappy to bear, but many of their weaker melodies sound more accidentally limp than purposefully slack.

Despite that gaping hole (or at least inconsistency) in their songwriting, Parts & Labor continues to impress.  Part of that undoubtedly comes from the band's own conviction - there is nothing aloof about their delivery.  Each line and each chord sounds deeply felt and that alone draws in the audience in the moment.  Meanwhile, the band's unique sonic landscape, a sort of warm-blooded machine that always seems to be the music's textural protagonist, sets them apart from other heartfelt indie rockers, pushing them from just being moving to being lasting[myspace]

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