Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Live: Total Slacker, Weekends, Selebrities, Beast Make Bomb

When: 5/13
Where: Monster Island Basement

The first band I caught at Monster Island Basement last weekend was Beast Make Bomb.  They are a pop-punk (heavy on the pop) sort of band with a moderate feminist bent.  The band is fronted by two women and backed by two men on bass and drums respectively.  The main singer and rhythm guitarist isn't afraid to dance, which was kind of awkward but definitely a good thing anyway.  The most impressive member of the band, though, is the androgynous lead guitarist.  She's not Hendrix or anything, but she knows what she's doing and got a tasty overdriven sound out of her hollow-body guitar.  Her backing vocals were low enough to be gender-bending.  Meanwhile, the bassist spent a lot of time way up on the neck, well into guitar range.  This gave the music a certain exuberant energy.

Ultimately, the band was kind of generic.  They're fun and they're good at what they do, but they are one of those bands that so adheres to tried and tested formulas that their songs sound familiar the first time you hear them.  I don't mean that they are ripping anyone off or that they are boring - just don't expect them to revolutionize your understanding of popular music.

The next band, Selebrities, made a deeper impression.  I couldn't look away, but I'm not sure if that was out of horror or love.  It depends on the band's intentions.

Selebrities play a synth-driven post-punk that recalls late Joy Division more than it does New Order.  What immediately caught my attention was that out of the dozens upon dozens of bands I've heard rip off Joy Division, this was the first to have a female vocalist.  I'm sure they aren't the only one, but they're the first I've encountered.  But as their set wore on, their focus on synths and heavily processed guitar pointed more towards the Human League, Soft Cell, Erasure and their ilk, the futurist bands of yesteryear that now sound so very dated.  And like those bands, Selebrities' songs were cheesy and overstated.  There was little in the way of subtlety and nuance.

But before writing off Selebrities as a cheesy throwback, several things gave me pause.  One is simply something I read about French-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard recently.  Godard was a critic before he was a filmmaker and I read a quote where he said he considered his films to BE criticism.  Could Selebrities be offering something similar, musically?

Other than my pure good-hearted desire to give the band the benefit of the doubt (HA HA yeah right), the main indicator that Selebrities might have something beneath the surface is the singing.  Singer Maria Usbeck was terrible.  I hope to god she knows that, and if not, I hope she doesn't read it here, because that's the kind of thing that can screw up a young musician.  But honestly, she didn't hit a right note once in the set.  She was close enough that you knew exactly what the melody was meant to be, but she never got on pitch.  And this was the band's main redeeming factor - in simple, cheesy 80's synthpop, the vocalist's correct delivery of the melody is simply a given.  But this is different, and that interests me.

As I see it, there are two possibilities here.  Either the band knows exactly what they are doing - artless, synthshit throwback - or they have no idea and just really like that genre and want to play it.  If the former is true, they are amazing, providing a keen critique of the state of popular music.  If the latter is true, they are awful.  And honestly, that's the more likely option.  Still, I'm going to give the band the benefit of the doubt for now.  If nothing else, they have some courage to get up and play when they are so very bad.  Which may sound like a backhanded insult, but I really mean it - I respect any band that puts themselves out there in way so vulnerable to derisive criticism (like this).

The highlight of the night, and the reason for my attendance, was of course Total Slacker.  Total Slacker are so fucking cool.  There's something about the tall, hunched guitar madness of Tucker (I dunno his last name) that recalls a young Thurston Moore, and indeed, with her frosty stoicism, bassist Emily (I don't know her last name) could be his own Kim Gordon.  The band don't sound like Sonic Youth at all, but they have a similar wild energy, endlessly creative but never taking things too seriously.

Total Slacker play songs that suit their name, sloppy, out of tune songs about "taco people" and being freaked out by cops.  I found it somewhat ironic that the band should spend ten minutes tuning (or playing "The Tuning Song," as they called it) when everything they play sounds blatantly out of tune.  But of course, the secret to Total Slacker is that their chaos is controlled.  It's genuine in their attitude, but as musicians, they know exactly what they're doing.

In fact, Tucker is a guitar hero on par with any of his contemporaries.  He can shred solos with his guitar behind his head and when the solos sound like all wrong notes, it's because he knows which notes will sound wrong in the right way.  Emily, for her part, is a mean bassist.  She doesn't overplay and is willing to repeat the same damn riff for fifteen minutes if that's what's called for.  But her succinct lines are near-perfect and nasty.  Emily and Tucker share vocals that are as skillfully detuned as their guitars.  Tucker is particularly sloppy, seeming to forget half the time that he needs to be near the mic.  Which is, of course, perfect.

The musical chemistry also extends to drummer Ross (I dunno his last name) and all three seem to read each other's minds, anchoring their fuck-all-cares chaos to their satisfying and actually carefully written songs - nearly every one a gem in its own right.

The set ended in chaos, but not with the destruction of a guitar, which makes this the first Total Slacker show in which an ax wasn't axed.  The band is heading out on tour so maybe they realized they can't keep up smashing their shit and lighting it on fire indefinitely.  I knew (or hoped) they weren't going to destroy their guitar when Tucker didn't change instruments for the final song, instead staying on his absolutely gorgeous 70's Fender Stratocaster.  I may not have the most acute ear for the nuances of guitar sound, but with that one, I could hear the difference.  And although the band's deconstruction of popular music didn't extend this time to the physical deconstruction of a guitar, Tucker was all over the place with wild energy, running to the back of the room with his guitar on the final song, while Ross stacked and then toppled his drum kit amid the feedback and disintegration of the closer.

Total Slacker may be my favorite Brooklyn band right now; they are certainly the most fun to watch.  Words can't do them justice - you'll have to check them out yourself.  Maybe on their tour.

Weekends closed out the night.  An energetic art-punk duo in the vein of No Age (and also comparable to their Baltimore kin Ponytail, duos Japanther and Lightning Bolt and kindred spirits Pterodactyl), Weekends play noise pop, feeding guitar through layers of distortion and delay and playing drums noisy and fast, which is the best way to play drums.  The two members switch places behind guitar and drums.  They jump around a lot and knock things over.  Brendan Sullivan, who played the guitar first, cut his thumb wide open on a falling cymbal, so the guitar neck was covered in blood for the rest of the set.

Although they were infectiously energetic, there was something missing.  The band has all the right ingredients but seems unsure how to make the soup.  They also drenched the vocals in completely superfluous amounts of reverb and delay.  Lightning Bolt does this, but their vocals are so minimal and ancillary, it makes sense.  When Weekends did it, they just sounded rudderless.  Maybe 25% of the time, the effects made sense, but the rest kind of seemed like the band was trying to disguise their lack of singing abilities (c'mon guys, who cares!  none of the other bands who played friday could sing!).  Maybe they just thought the vocals would work better with the effect-laden guitar that way, but if so, they were mistaken.  The songs would have been more enjoyable if there'd been a vocal line to grab onto.  Without that sort of melodic (or even anti-melodic) spine, the songs sounded amorphous and samey.

Weekends are great, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts.  Although they've been around a few years, they're a fairly young band so I'm hoping it's only a matter of time until they figure out what they're trying to do and fuckin do it.  When they do, they'll be one of the best bands around.

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