"What does it sound like?" they asked.
I hemmed and hawed, then shrugged and mumbled, "Emo goth."
Each time, my friends recoiled in horror. And each time, I had to assure them that the group sounded way better than that description -- because there really couldn't be anything worse than the über-whiny gut-spilling of emo mating with the sun-challenged mopey swirl of goth. (Except maybe a mix of new country with, say, rap-metal.) Instead, Evening's new EP, Placing You Center, features catchy, artful, well-composed gloom.
Finally, I convinced a friend to join me, dangling the promise of free beer, asymmetrical haircuts, and fat neckties. When we walked into the Bottom of the Hill, Evening was just finishing setting up. The band seemed straight out of Indie Rock Central Casting, each member with his own distinct visual look: Singer/keyboardist Matt Rist had the long face, shaggy mane, and steely gaze of Iggy Pop; guitarists Patrick Sklenar and Lee Burick both emitted Euro porn-star vibes, particularly with Burick's twirled mustache; bassist/Moog player Zach Brewer had punked-out boy-band features; and drummer Brian Kim sported the well-cropped minimalist look of the '90s underground. To unify them, each wore at least one article of black clothing.
In case you hadn't noticed, black is back, with Bay Area outfits such as Madelia, the Vanishing, and the Chandeliers cloaking themselves in darkness and playing music of a similar stripe. Maybe it's the political climate or the post-Radiohead malaise, but to paraphrase the Smiths, heaven knows we're miserable now.
Evening fits into this milieu quite nicely. The self-released Placing You Center is a dark little jewel, a late-night no-joy ride of splintered guitar and minor-key organ. Burick and Sklenar, who formed the initial version of the band eight years ago at S.F. State, eschew simple melodies, choosing either to weave feedback washes together or to play serpentine opposing riffs. Rist and Brewer's somber keyboard accents add emotional depth to the sound, while Rist's floating vocals -- which manager Ryan Troy calls "Supertramp-y" -- invest the proceedings with an otherworldly quality. The recording's a huge leap forward from last year's self-titled EP, and a forthcoming full-length promises to be even better.
The band's only problem at the moment is a difficulty translating its spooky mood to a live setting. Perhaps smoke machines and strobes are in order, since at this particular show, the group seemed tentative and unmysterious. Evening's shortcomings were made even more obvious by the night's headliner, Scene Creamers, and its leader, Ian Svenonius. The former frontman for the Make-Up and Nation of Ulysses -- one of the best showmen in the indie world -- had the listeners in the palm of his hand from the second he appeared. Walking out onto the wobbly tables that lined the lip of the stage, Svenonius produced a People magazine and read a "review" of his band's fictional biography, allegedly penned by Andy Warhol suck-up Victor Bockris. (According to the excerpt, the group was formed in the Soviet Union, not Washington, D.C., as previously suspected, and migrated west to save rock 'n' roll from capitalism.) The musicians then burst into funky, Hendrix-inflected blues-rock, with Svenonius delivering comical lyrics about his band's surreal odyssey ("Session man, I think I love you/ But I want to know for sure").
The quartet is the opposite of Evening. Its music is meant to be experienced live, where Svenonius' wild yelps, live-wire moves, and oddball humor -- which seems to stem as much from his dead marmot hairdo as from his deadpan delivery -- is best experienced firsthand. In fact, I'm expecting Scene Creamers' debut LP, I Suck on That Emotion, due from Drag City in January, to be a bit of a letdown, since Svenonius' shtick can seem flat when recorded, as if he needs the rush of the crowd to shine. Maybe, as Curious George the Second attacks our civil liberties (and Iraq), we need both kinds of music: Evening's art-rock misery and Scene Creamers' ironic, funky hoedowns.