That brings us up to about now and The Awkward Stage's "The Sun Goes Down In Girlsville." They're also from Vancouver and on the same label, Mint Records. Yes. That's the segue. It's a reach and I understand that. Sonically, it will remind you of something Grand Archives would have written if Grand Archives allowed stadium guitar-riffs to sneak in the backdoor of a dinner party they were throwing for Sub Pop's outstanding publicity staff.
This song is unexpectedly weighty and unexpectedly good. And it all turns in the last half. The drums pound down the home stretch, behind some ludicrous fluttering strings and "woohoo" vocals. What begins as a guitar-picking meditation on regret, shifts out of reverse and into drive. And then it hits the gas, slightly at first, before stomping into the danger area for the final 30-seconds. If it held together any less tightly, it would be terrible. But this is meticulously crafted. Like a three-piece girl band from British Columbia. And the best thing about New York City is still you and me.
Listen :: The Awkward Stage - "The Sun Goes Down On Girlsville"
Where did this come from? More importantly. Where did these bands come from? Well, Chuck started Dead Bands, a blog completely concerned with bands that no longer exist, yet who nonetheless provided profound musical foundation for all the new shit we listen to now. It's like an indie rock way back machine. It's like Back To The Future 4: In which Temple Of The Dog go on a hunger strike. Anyways, head on over to Dead Bands and let him know what you think. He's got more music knowledge in his little finger than a Brooklyn Vegan commenter has in their entire 350 square-foot, studio apartment. Fact. Check it up or check it out.
Dog Problems was, on the surface, the perfect album. To my ear, it was a more pumped up Spinto Band (which was, at the time, a good thing). You spend a lot of time looking for something this good and when you find it, you search for "The Format" in your itunes and then click on the symbol that looks like a hurricane and make those tracks repeat into infinity.
Or at least until Sunday. After pummelling my ears with "She Doesn't Get It" and even name-checking The Format in a job interview that week with an interviewer who expressed love for the band, I was done. I literally never wanted to hear any of the songs again. And maybe The Format agreed. They broke up last year.
But the man with the mercurial and heart-broken voice who sang their songs, wasn't done. He started a new band called Fun (I have my thoughts on the name and mostly they are negative). Their first session together as a band yielded the following song, "Benson Hedges." The Format comparisons are, perhaps, too obvious. The sound is different, very slightly. It shows promise during some of its more driving moments. A proper record is due out in February but until then, you can spin this demo until it wears out. You have six days.
Listen :: Fun - Benson Hedges
"Always looking to obscure the most beautiful things/well, I guess that is your right/unexplainable emotions pushing you to the wall/coming up chasing unattainable light."
If it were more Noah And The Whale and less Architecture In Helsinki, it would be depressing. But it's the closest thing we've seen to "Heart It Races" since, well, "Heart It Races." Somehow, within all the down-tempo imagery, you can't help but feel like this is a meditation on something uplifting. Or maybe when you're talking about your nemesis, it's easier to slam them with a clap-track and horn punch than anything else. If it's a case of smiling down the people we hate, consider us schooled. If it's a case of foot-tapping through the darkness, consider this your soundtrack. And just try to obscure that.
Listen :: Lake - Blue Ocean Blue
It's about loops. The song opens with a looping piano riff before absorbing some classic Bloc Party back-beat. Packaged snares and high-hats squeeze in. Synth-jabs syncopate and intertwine, as an angular guitar starts to bring up the bottom of the mix. Everything stays in place and nothing leaves. Every loop, every layer, is built upon the last. Your ears start to strain to pick up all the pieces and just. like. that: you're exploding into the first chorus. It's an exuberant affair and lyrically easy. "I carry your heart with me/I carry it in my heart." Is it poetry? Not quite. Maybe.
Around about 3:30, Kele vocally cuts loose and says the f-word. He says "slow it down" but you know damn well he doesn't mean that. The mix starts to get dangerous and the song is getting louder and louder in your ears. Each loop has taken on a hypnotic quality and you're nodding your head without thinking. As Kele is reaching into his upper register for "let's stay in/let the tv be our stars," this song finds a down-beat that could be the last 10-meters of an Olympic sprint. It's pounding. It's relentless. It's frantic. I carry your heart here with me.
At 5:09 it changes into the most uplifting piece of rock this year. As the final chorus erupts, no, becomes something else - all rising into a series of loops and Kele's escalating "ahhhs." They seem like the final ebullient part of an amazing design. The guitar is finding the top of the fret-board. The whole hypnotic mess has come to this: A 26-second piece of mp3 and stereo. 5:09-5:35. You vibrate. You lift off the ground. You just have to.
And then it's over. The loops unravel - an intentionally exposed design. You've either experienced 6:33 or 26. And either way, you've gotten some of the best bits of music this year. Because if those last 26-seconds don't make you feel something - don't take you somewhere special - I don't know what to say. Because I carry it with me.
Listen :: Bloc Party - Ion Square
The show is sold-out. A few lucky super-fans talk their way past the Piano's door staff because velvet (and non-velvet) ropes are made to be broken. The set starts and the front couple rows are pistoning. Musically, this is like listening to Clap Your Hands' lead-singer try to sing Tigercity's version of the Reading Rainbow theme song. Just so we're clear: that's straining, maybe even annoying, falsetto vocals fired through a synth-hurricane - only what comes out the other side is so poppy, it keeps your attention. One more time, Alec Ounsworth singing an octave up on a synth-sexy Reading Rainbow theme. It's not as bad as I just made it sound. It actually might make you clap your hands.
And that happens. Most of the energy is coming from the right side of the stage where a man, obfuscated by a massive deck of keyboards, keeps encouraging the crowd to clap. Most people agree. This is the same kid who during sound-check asked that his mic be turned down because he, "wasn't that important." Seeing things play-out now, this kid needs to get turned up because he's the only one trying to turn anyone out.
The band is playing "a bunch of new stuff." We can guess that means, "their catalogue." We're about twenty-minutes from the bassist's 23rd birthday, they tell us. It's not like this band is on their 3rd record. Everything is the new stuff. Which isn't, in and of itself, a bad thing. To be young and embracing the 80s throwback explosion isn't a bad thing. This band sounds a little bit like the American version of Friendly Fires and with the right push, could have about 60% of the MGMT-impact (read: sales, collective embrace from indie kids). But most of that is riding on the one song everyone came to see.
"Sleepyhead" is second-to-last and that seems about right. As the opening sounds are checked through the synths, you can tell what's coming. Everyone recognizes what's going on. First reactions: this is way better live. It's louder (obviously) but it just seems to operate better in a crowd. Like an extremely extroverted friend, "Sleepyhead" is best when around, and shared with, others. It's almost like this song needed us to work. And that is vaguely flattering.
The band plays one more song, for a grand total of seven, and takes off. There isn't a lot of fan-fare and there isn't an encore. People got what they came to see and the band will be back next week for their last Piano's show of all-time (count on that). And when they come back, the crowd won't be there to see one song. They'll want the whole record (which is pretty good, we hear). But people will still want to hear "Sleepyhead" anyhow. If they're being honest.
Listen :: Passion Pit - Sleepyhead
Bloc Party - "Trojan Horse"
The big question about a third record is the degree to which it departs or elaborates on the first two albums. In this case, the question looms particularly large because Bloc Party split production duties on the record between Paul Epworth (Silent Alarm) and Jacknife Lee (A Weekend ...). Kele told RadioOne that he had his reservations about the two working together but as you can hear on "Trojan Horse," you have just enough of Epworth's angular guitars and tense arrangements and just enough of Jacknife's over-the-top, anthemic style. Some of you hated "Mercury" even though the point was to make you unsettled. Some of you just hate this band. The rest of you, this album is gift horse. And it's about to light your city on fire.
"Space Kidz," despite its bitter disregard for correct spelling, does have some of the best lyrics of the year to go with its unstoppable kick drum:
"This one goes out to the wasted space kidz/'cause everyone knows that you're coast-to-coast kid/'cause everyone hopes that she knows she knows shit."
Read that one. more. time. You could argue this is nonsense but you'd be wrong. There's a play on the old cliche of someone being a waste of space. Get it? But they added a "z" instead of an "s" to indicate irreverent plurality. Try them again because they're bouncing from coast-to-coast like an untethered tetherball. Honestly audibly, singing, "she knows she knows shit" is just meta enough to be cool and just rhythmic enough to make you elevate. And thematically, while we're talking about kids and their late-night disenfranchisement, it might not be a bad impulse to hope that she knows she knows shit. I hope everyone knows what they're doing, 'cause if you're not flying this plane, no one is. Coast-to-coast, kid.
Listen :: The Clips - Space Kidz
Bonus :: The Clips - Wire (for fans of Yorke's Eraser)
The track grinds to a halt. Literally stops. You might be in a car at 6,500 feet, three hours outside Denver and say, "what?" to the CD player playing the mixtape that traveled 2,000 miles to get to that moment. But that was last week on the side of a mountain and this is now. And for every dark center of the universe, there's a "float on" moment where everyone hits the top 40, gets paid, and well, life's okay. And that's where The Silent Years end up. With an urgent piano tapping at us from the top of the keyboard and a ebullient, I'm From Barcelona guitar riff, "Black Hole" ends far more brightly than it came in. But maybe the brightness is only temporary. Equally. Easily.
Listen :: The Silent Years - Black Hole
Back in 2005-06, I was riding to work on the G and then the A train. I was busing tables in midtown, making about zero dollars and I thought my life was turning into a black hole. The Mexican chef at work told me I was the only white busboy in New York. Which was funny until all the illegal labor in the city went on strike (people don't remember this now, but it happened) and being a white busboy was a valuable, if not an achingly important occupation. On my way to work, I found myself listening to The Little Ones', "Lovers Who Uncover." It was among the songs that would keep my head above water and make me feel a little more like waking up in the morning. That being said, I don't love their new single, "Morning Tide" but it sure as hell ain't bad. In fact, listening to it now, it's pretty good. And for keeping me awake and alive on the A-train platform in 2005, I don't mind telling you to check out this band. Bounce.
Listen :: The Little Ones - Morning Tide
The band isn't loud enough as they start to rip through "Hunting For Witches." The crowd won't stand for it and is pointing to the sky with the international symbol for "turn it up." It's hard to say if the band gets louder but the first 20 rows are at hurricane force from the jump. As the opening chords of "Positive Tension" sneak out of the speakers, Webster Hall claps along over our heads and into the night. It's a scene that will repeat itself at least 10 times before the night is through: a crowd of close to 1,500 clapping in unison and trying to bring the walls down.
("This Modern Love" @ Webster Hall 8.6.08)
The band closes their set with the three song tidal wave of "This Modern Love," "Song For Clay," and the still relevant "Banquet." It rockets you back to spring 2005 when you put "Banquet" on at your parties and you played "This Modern Love" for your girlfriend and it confirmed that the world was a beautiful, if broken, experiment. The band isn't done but the crowd works for an encore. We are clapping again and everyone is a little gassed.
(Kele sails to the stage)
The band returns with "Like Eating Glass" and we're in the second row trying to find our second wind. For 45 minutes, we've been breathing in other people's body heat and the crowd has metastasized into an almost mosh pit. It's 98.6 degrees or hotter. Kele rips off stage and into the (his) right side of the audience. He ends up about halfway back in the crowd against the wall, putting on some kind of magnanimous dance while the band rips through an instrumental "She's Hearing Voices." In the moment of the night, he sails out into the audience and rides a wave of hands towards the stage. It looks a little like a stop-motion video of a reverse stage dive. He rides the 40-plus feet to the stage and the band immediately kicks into "Helicopter." In China they're having earthquakes - New York is having Bloc Party.They bow. They just played a four song encore. What else is there? So, they head backstage. Bloc Party roadies are turning off amps. No one moves. The clapping starts again. My ears are ringing. The amps get turned back on and here comes the band. Kele says we blew the pants off Philly but we already knew that. "Pioneers" is their real last song and the crowd finds one last blast of oxygen. It was 75 minutes of pure fanaticism. It was 75 minutes of energy and stage dives and getting pushed around by complete strangers. It was a rock band and a crowd killing themselves for the mutual hope of something transcendent. Well, it happened and 13 hours later the shirt drying on my doorknob is still damp enough to prove it. If anyone asks about Bloc Party, echo that epic last line of "Flux." We need to talk.
From album opener "Wishing Well," to the massive closer "Innocence" the band's first self-titled LP is diverse, more than a little epic and as approachable a rock album as you've heard in a while. "Sometime Around Midnight" is the clear stand-out, with a second-half that causes some people to wonder if this band couldn't end up playing stadiums when all is said and done. And there are smaller songs like "Does This Mean You're Moving On?," a heart-breaking ode to jealousy in New York City. This is a band that traffics in post-punk, synth-rock, 1950s throw-back and it's all packaged with literate lyrics from a lead-singer who used to write novels.
I'll leave you with an acoustic version of the band's single, "Sometime Around Midnight" and while you're listening, go find the record and buy it. I promise it'll be in your end-of-the-year Top 10. It might be in my Top 2.
"Sometime Around Midnight" (Acoustic)
It's bouncy and vocally a little rough (although, he is rumored to have recorded it in one take). Most of all it spits an image of the world where hope is never a bad thing. "I will sing out. I will sing loud. I will have you again. I will give blood." Here, the image of giving blood is one of either real or metaphorical altruism. You can't help but wonder if lead singer Todd Marriot isn't referring to the "you plural." New band, new commitments. New desire to possess fans even at the cost of blood. This isn't a first single - it's a promise to work hard.
It takes a few listens to find you but Omes' "Give Blood" is as hooky as they come. Spin it through twice and then unload your thoughts. Unlike our Cub Scout disaster, we're on this right on time. It's just a stream but that's the price you pay for being early.
The band is enjoying their first New York sellout; crowd that is, not a seeming loss of credibility. Lead singer, Mikel Jollet pushes the bassist while their cute hipster multi-instrumentalist, Anna Bulbrook bounces around the stage like a sprite who had Leslie Feist as a high school guidance counselor. By the end of the night, she'll end up in the crowd with a tamborine twirling around and turning the end of "Missy" into a complete blow out. The crowd is on board even through a relatively tame first half of the set list.
Jollet makes joking comparison between Silverlake in LA and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Their parallels are obvious and Jollet wants us to know that any competition between the two is uncalled for. "I heard Silverlake and Brooklyn were in a fight ... but that ends right here." The band then tears through, "This Is Nowhere," their best live track and a song that completely sums up the experience of bands "mortgaging their futures." Jollet made the same comment at Pianos a month ago. I could hear him say it again and it's not repetitive if it's still true.
The band closes with "Innocence." It opens in near silence as Jollet approaches the microphone and is barely audible. Someone in the crowd is on a cell phone and you can tell. The crowd lets out a "shhhhhh" and you can be sure that's the first time a Mercury Lounge crowd has shushed someone. But that's the level of engagement here. We're waiting for the band to level us with their finishing kick and no one is going to ruin it with a "dude, alright, cool, we'll talk later." "Innocence" predictably and satisfyingly explodes and the crowd claps along. When Airborne Toxic Event tries to leave the stage, there is simply no way that is happening.
They come back with "Missy" and everyone goes nuts. It's not their best song but it is their last. And if there's beauty in struggling to make it as a band, and beauty in getting your heart broken, then there's beauty in departure. By tomorrow the band will be closing Conan O'Brien and from there they'll continue out on tour and by the time they're back in New York, it'll be the Roseland Ballroom. You're watching something blow up in real time. This band is going to be big. And you can't help but root for them.
"Come meet us. We promise we won't be assholes. The point here is for us to meet you," says Jollet. It's a populist notion and they mean it. They shake hands with strangers the whole way out. More than a month ago, I said this was the best American rock band on tour right now. I still mean it.