On The List :: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. @ Music Hall of Williamsburg [4.27.13]

This review runs first on Bowery's House List blog.

The world of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. now operates on one law of nature and physics: If some is good, more is better. This wasn’t always the case for Dan Zott and Josh Epstein. Early on, they made their name wearing NASCAR racing suits and trafficking in Pet Sounds–era two-part harmonies. The first song on their debut EP, “Nothing but Our Love,” was sort of a simple offer compared to the bombast that’s begun creeping into their more recent work. Thus begins something of a second life with a new EP, the two-weeks-old Patterns: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. in an active and obvious evolution. Bubbles, cloth lanterns, enormous inflatable balls and human beings—the band sent spheres of all kinds into revolution if not outright orbit on Friday night at a very sold-out and frenetic Music Hall of Williamsburg.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. opened with a brief teaser of the “na-na-na” chorus of first-LP jam “An Ugly Person on a Movie Screen” before making the transition to open with the recent “Hiding,” an enormous slice of buzzing synth pop. With Zott rocking a side ponytail in his curly brown hair, and both members wearing matching paisley suits, the sounds owed themselves to the crossover of “We Are Young,” by fun., but the visual aesthetics were all LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem.” This was as exciting to the Warner Music contingent in the balcony as it was to the combustible fans on the floor. Dale Earnhardt. Jr. Jr. turned to play “Simple Girl,” a sweet little song from their first LP, It’s a Corporate World, before running through “Vocal Chords” and some new material, noting, “You’ll know this one,” prior to playing “Morning Thought.”

But, unquestionably, the moment of the evening occurred when the enormous inflatable white sphere that stood like an unpigmented sun above the stage was lit with projected animation, making a gigantic Lego-man face that sang along with the music. The face became 8-bit animation to go with the lyrics for “Skeletons,” a loop of the life cycle of a tiny pixelated man and woman. The song, about the twin impulses of forgetting and remembering the past, rang perfectly for the band on the cusp of something of a big next movement, the next turn, the lives of imagined selves and illuminated orbs set against the “skeletons buried in the backyard.”

Sivu :: "Bodies"

The angular acoustic tweaks of Sivu return with latest effort "Bodies". A tiny guitar loop sets itself against synthesizer sonics and the obvious Alt-J comparisons until something of a cloud-clearing chorus that makes ample reference to the great Biblical flood of Noah. At once tense, restrained and pretty, "Bodies" floats away on a weightless melody - and this says nothing of the charming pronunciation of "bodies", the near addition of the letter "t". It ends up being a weird love song set against the backdrop of the apocalypse, Sivu singing, "I watch the animals walking two by two/well, who do you think is going to walk with you?". Dark, to be sure, and perfect for the widescreen pop of an increasingly brilliant crossover artist.


Bora York :: "Close Your Eyes"

All silky sonics and glossy melody, Bora York, a dream-pop outfit from Minneapolis maneuver their slow-drive anthem, "Close Your Eyes" toward some warmer destination. Lightweight keyboards, frictionless guitars and overlapping boy-girl vocals insulate the verses and chorus in sweeping layers of sound and melody, something vaguely tropical. While the lyrics court some darkness, their content is more insouciant than lethal. The image of a divine dawn - "we'll watch God paint the sky" - creeps into the last line of the bridge, an easily forgettable misstep as the refrain washes over the listener again and again like a relentless and entirely welcome rising tide.


Prides :: "Out Of The Blue"

Glasgow three-piece Prides announce their arrival with a nasal and modulating synthesizer loop. Sitting just short of the five-note hook for MGMT's "Kids" in terms of pure catchiness, "Out Of The Blue" leverages this synth line against slamming percussion loops and a glittering backdrop of digitized sounds, an instantly memorable debut single. Sounding a bit like We Were Promised Jetpacks playing an Erasure cover, the winsome moral victories of Scottish music blend easily with the adolescent fatalism of synthesizer pop. Much of the charm of "Out Of The Blue" lies in the repeated lyrical motif of the word, "no", a head-shaking, visceral and emotive response. An instant-repeat candidate, the kind of band that will seize the ears of talent buyers and A&Rs alike, "Out Of The Blue", despite all these assorted "no's", only waits for the larger affirmation that surely awaits in the coming months.


Wet :: "U Da Best"

Ignoring the grammar and style of the title, Brooklyn three-piece Wet build a small, stuttering slice of delicious pop on "U Da Best". The band channels some of the intensely modern James Blake-style sonics on the song's intro: heavily layer vocals, vocodered in places, a measured sparseness, the creeping sadness that hangs at the edges of happy moments in lyrics like, "All I know is/when you hold me/I still feel lonely". Not quite a break up song, it's about being happy and sad together. The chorus almost literally breathes its own tonal modulation, rising and falling on the back of Kelly Zutrau's charming vocal. Concerning only highs and lows, the desire to leave is set perilously against the need to stay, Zutrau crushing on lines like, "You hardly know me", then shifting gears into the title lyric, "Baby, you're the best", before closing with, "Maybe we should quit while we're ahead." The deeply modern counterfactual of the roads unchosen, the paralyzing world of choice, a multiplicity of unknown joys and miseries, the places we know the best becoming the places we most need to evacuate.


Challenger :: "Life In The Paint [Jesu remix]"

Challenger, creator of one of our favorite records of 2012, The World Is Too Much For Me, is hard at work on a yet untitled second LP. Having previewed the possible first single, sounding like a cross of Youth Lagoon's keyboard lushness and the throwback synths of the Reading Rainbow theme song, the second record stands to be as immense as the first. While awaiting new material, the band releases the Jesu remix of stand-out "Life In The Paint" with its glittering synths and spoken word sample, "Break up your fucking heart." Jesu removes the sample, turning up the bass and the moral victories on the buzzing re-imagining, isolating the guitar line in new, frigid relief. Like so much of the Challenger catalog, this aims somewhere back in our unremembered past, as singer John Ross invokes a seasonal reprise, "it's fall/it's fall again," before finally concluding, "this is fall/fall is here", the dying embers of a lost and complete world.


Young Hunting :: "Baby's First Steps"

LA's Young Hunting, with the forthcoming debut record, Hazel, recently offered a preview in the form of stand-out, "Baby's First Steps". A dark, folk-rock track, "Baby's First Steps" roots itself in a slow-drive chorus before growing increasingly metastatic and dangerous on a guitar-driven closing movement. The initial progression represents a sort of funeral-pop, a measured and troubled guitar line full of elegy and lyrics like, "you look up at the window as the water rushes down/you look through your reflection into the darkness that surrounds you." But, if Local Natives made this type of sorrow just light enough to lift, Young Hunting chooses the same methodology, oozing treble on the silky harmonies in the song's chorus. The final offer, the halting title lyric is as dark and pretty as any Thom Yorke melody, twin visions of a Los Angeles caught somewhere between hopelessness and hope.


Wolf Alice :: "Bros"

"Forget everyone," intones Wolf Alice singer, Ellie Rowsell, in the midst of the propulsive opening movement of recent single, "Bros". It's an easy request from this London quartet, as exploding post-punk guitars ricochet off one another in a super-heated arrangement that removes any idle thoughts of anything or anyone else. "Bros" manages to sound a lot like a dreamy version of Silversun Pickups, "Lazy Eye" - admittedly, this comparison could start and stop with the drum pattern - mixed with Rowsell's spot-on Chrissy Hynde impression. And it is this, the Pretenders comparison, that sticks the most in the song's bridge, where a fragile and fecund Rowsell asks, "Are you wild like me?/Raised by wolves and other beasts." Both singer and arrangement smolder with hints of violence and attraction. This lyric about a dangerous and unremembered world, Wolf Alice is a band with which to forget everything.


Hints :: "Cher Amie"

Plaintive, reverb-rich guitars and a leading bass line instantly inculcate comparisons between Brooklyn guitar rock band, Hints and their ideological forerunner, the Smiths. Of course, Morrissey was more sardonically depressed and drank less PBR - which may or may not count as an animal product in the world of Moz. Hints don't have quite the personal narrative of the Smiths, a band that did tragi-comedy better than anyone else, but the Brooklyn iteration does have its second batch of singles ready, an A-side, "Cher Amie" as good as any from the borough this year.


Mary Cassidy and Jon Lawless :: "Verbs"

The output from First Rate People wunderkind, Jon Lawless continues in a steady stream of poppy collaborations with other musicians. In the case of "Verbs", making its US debut here, Lawless is partnered with Mary Cassidy again, the same duo who took us to "Carolina" in February. "Verbs" slides along on the back of a flickering electric guitar and keyboard progression that makes ample use of the "organ" effect button. Cassidy charms with her vocal, rapid-fire on some lyrics (using "car crash" as a useful phonetic tool) and the picture of languid in the song's soaring hook. It is Lawless who manages his usual ringmaster trick, standing somewhere near the center of a chaotic and brilliant idea, seemingly bemused in all his lo-fi glory, admitting to being equal parts "judgmental" and "sentimental". It's a good combination, as it always seems to be.

The Colourist :: "Yes Yes"

Surging along like a Stars song with dilated pupils and deeply nefarious intentions, the Colourist, already with one smashing single, "Little Games" in the bag, return with the glittering "Yes Yes". The boy-girl vocals turn on a helix duet, melody and backing vocals racing at each other in an unnecessarily risky but nonetheless satisfying game of chicken. The winner, as always, is the audience, a high-wire act of hooks that belies an earnest message, "searching for another won't fix a thing." "Yes Yes" is about external jealousies, broken human relations and, a plea for internal renovations, all set against an ebullient backdrop of the restlessness of youth.


GRMLN :: "Teenage Rhythm" and "The Kids Don't Stand A Chance" [Vampire Weekend cover]

Youthful Santa Cruz post-adolescent, Yoodoo Park, just 20 years old and calling himself GRMLN, debuts recent single, "Teenage Rhythm" with a Vampire Weekend cover kicker. "Teenage Rhythm" rings as wide-open rock song with a central edict, "Get out of my head ... now" and a time signature change that, surprisingly, works. It's sun-washed beach rock, like WAVVES without the needless irony, a galloping hook and dreamy guitars filing in order toward a crashing conclusion. The Vampire Weekend cover is faithful, though less baroque than the original. Gone are the chamber strings, replaced with a holy alliance of guitar, drum-pad and bass. The main idea remains the same; the joke is on us; the kids are just fine.


Knesset :: "RVRSE"

Clear and shambling, Knesset's single, "RVRSE" builds a bifurcated design. Defiantly and well-produced indie pop, the arrangement raises toward moments of utter bombast before returning to its stately and spare verses. The lyrics marginalize the notion of clarity, lines like, "I can only see you in the dark," the kind of backwards logic that may begin to invoke the title. The chorus is a terrifying ride, like Local Natives getting drunk all over an Antlers record, ratatat drums and a soaring vocal set against buzz-saw strum patterns. This all manages to merely turn up the volume on the misery of the topic at hand. Rewinding, they suggest, is the answer, the second of two parts, the way back to the beginning.


bare pale :: "new start old end"

With a sound that mostly recalls the skuzziest end of dream pop, something a bit further left-wing than Yuck or a DIY, nihilist take on Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, bare pale, a London outfit, crafts a brilliant slow-drive on recent release, "new start old end". A cold medicine guitar interplays with a lazy drum riff, both of which grow in strength, if not in any particular insistence or urgency. Maybe a slow dance in an era that's forgotten the slow dance, or the soundtrack to the last prom that bare pale certainly never thought to attend, "new start old end" is shot through with nostalgia, a dreamy and half-remembered world.