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Decisions, Decisions 

Things to do this week: See Rachel's, see the Darkness, form band, rule world

Wednesday, Nov 19 2003
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At first I was like, "Dude, Rachel's is coming to town. And the band's got this awesome new record, Systems/Layers, which is, like, moody and atmospheric, and I like to put it on when I want to do some Rodin- style thinking."

Then I was like, "But wait, there's also this awesome new band playing called the Darkness, and unlike a Louisville-based chamber music group with indie rock leanings, it's a four-piece from England that plays '70s-styled hard rock and boasts a frontman who wears Lycra cat suits and does airborne scissors kicks à la David Lee Roth.

"Rachel's ... the Darkness ... Rachel's ... the Darkness ... hmmm. Which one to write about?"

And then I was like, "Dude! I know. I'll recommend people go to both shows. No, strike that. I'll insist they go to both shows. Why? Because it's perfect. I've got it all worked out. It's a plan mainly designed for those under 18, but a plan no less, and a good one at that, for creating the ultimate, no-nonsense, touch-all-the-bases super-band. And it begins with enterprising young musicians going to -- well, sneaking into, in the case of Rachel's, 'cause it's a 21-and-over show -- both Cafe Du Nord tonight and Slim's on Friday to see both bands. This is gonna be good."

We'll start with Rachel's, a wholesome, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps indie group. The band started back in 1989, when multi-instrumentalist Jason Noble and violinist Christian Frederickson met each other on a bus in Baltimore, hit it off, and decided to do some recording. Noble (an art student at the time) was interested in Frederickson's classical-music training (from Juilliard), and the violinist was interested in taking that training beyond the realm of classical and perhaps into the world of indie rock. Noble was happy to oblige. The two recorded what would become their debut as Rachel's, an LP called Handwriting. Then Noble met pianist Rachel Grimes (counterintuitively, the band is named after Noble's nickname for his Toyota, not Grimes) and brought her into the mix. More than 10 years later, the trio -- augmented on record and in concert by a rotating cast of musicians -- has made a (small) name for itself merging the lush, orchestral sounds of pianos, violins, cellos, and woodwinds with the indie rock sounds of guitar, bass, and, more recently, electronics.

The band's latest, Systems/Layers, is by far its best. Where it had always been working toward a sound that flowed seamlessly between chamber music and indie rock, ambience and structure -- and underpinning that sound with something more conceptual, e.g. 1996's Music for Egon Schiele -- there were gaps (sometimes only minor) in previous releases, moments where the formula just didn't work. On Systems/Layers, the group nails it.

"The underlying challenge for this record," Frederickson tells me via phone from Louisville, Ky., "was to figure out how to make something that ended up being very organic, no big breaks between songs, so that it has this sort of omnipresent feel." Which is exactly what it has. In addition to the usual instrumentation, Rachel's has mixed in field recordings sent in by fans (at the band's request) from all over the world. What's more, the act composed all the songs over the course of three years, working in tandem with a New York-based performance troupe, which will produce a theater piece inspired and accompanied by the music. Phew!

The result, at least on the album, is something dizzying but delicious, an artful record on which myriad sounds shift between field and ground. The work is meant to evoke the nebulous, internal sensory experience of city-dwellers as they walk through various metropolises. It's quiet yet focused, subtle but effective.

Compare that to a band whose most awesome song is named after the chorus "Get your hands off of my woman muuutheeeerfuuuuuucker."

Yes, the Darkness is not subtle. It's loud in every way a band can be loud. When the Darkness started playing rock clubs in London in 2000, the UK press basically puked last night's bangers and mash all over it, and you can kind of see why: The act is four guys who play theatrical arena-rock and look like the illegitimate children of Poison, Mötley Crüe, the Bullet Boys, and the Killer Dwarfs.

As a zillion other bands around the world were (in the name of all things hip, chic, and Paris Hilton) cheekily reviving '80s electro or coyly updating '60s garage rock, the Darkness picked the one genre nobody even thought to reanimate: the '70s arena-rock of bands like Queen, AC/DC, and Thin Lizzy -- stuff that had been doused in a scarlet liter of devil's blood. But what skeptics have only recently figured out is that the Darkness isn't joking, it isn't trying to be cool; all the group is doing -- which anyone who's left their hipster-goggles at home can see -- is fucking rocking. In addition to churning out thick, swaggering rhythms sure to inspire bar brawls, the band rips epic guitar solos, makes music videos about fighting space aliens, and, best of all, has a frontman, Justin Hawkins, who sings like Freddie Mercury with his nuts in a vise. Take that, Pink.

"We're bringing back showmanship, craftsmanship, songwriting, and great guitar players," says bassist Frankie Poullain.

Puking right back in critics' faces, the Darkness is pulling it off. "People advised us to tone down and we just turned up," says the silver-tongued Poullain. "Justin [Hawkins] has this expression, 'If something's worth doing, it's worth overdoing.' So in a way that's the motto of the band."

In the UK, the band's first album, Permission to Land, has already gone double-platinum. This success is owing in large part to the group's live shows, which, like those of the band's arena-friendly forebears, rival the Second Coming of Christ in their intensity.

"At our gigs," says Poullain, "for the first time since the dance music explosion, where everyone was taking Ecstasy, there's a real sense of a communal vibe, with everyone together and big smiles on their faces .... It's a wholesome thing, too, 'cause you don't have to take pills and get off your tits or anything."

So why am I insisting that you go to both shows? Well, it's kind of selfish: I want to see a band that combines the art of Rachel's with the unselfconscious, in-your-fucking-face-and-you-can-kiss-my-ass-if-you-don't-like-it attitude of the Darkness. Think about it. How many indie rock shows have you been to where you sit there with your thumb up your ass while your favorite band ignores the crowd? As Poullain would say, Fooking wankers!

On the other hand, what the hell happened to the art in music worthy of a coliseum setting? Led Zeppelin, Queen, Black Sabbath, Emerson, Lake, Palmer -- those dudes were intrepid motherfuckers, pushing and exploring the limits of both sound and stage. Who's carrying that torch now? Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Nickleback: What the hell happened?

My plan is this: Sneak your kids into the Rachel's concert tonight, then lock them in a room for about 48 hours (maybe Clockwork Orange 'em into a chair and make them watch old car-chase movies like Hooper and Bullitt -- couldn't hurt), then drag 'em out to see the Darkness on Friday. Make sure they get nice and soaked in beer, maybe even have one of the Darkness guys toss 'em off the stage for crowd surfing. When you get home, tell 'em you're not feeding them again until they start a band. Then get in touch with me and I'll manage that band. Not only will we make bloated buttloads of Benjamins, but the world will be a better place. Dude, trust me, I've got a feeling about this.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps

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