At the Bottom of the Hill two Fridays ago, the sold-out throng oozed smoke and perspiration. You had to stand still or slowly shift just to keep your shirt from sticking to your back. The heat was one way to account for the crowd's lack of enthusiasm for Red Stars Theory. Onstage, the three-piece band played long anti-pop songs, eking out a sound made of delicate notes from a hollowbody guitar, strummed bass lines, and chugging, bottom-heavy drums. Their set was filled with harmonic interplay that was pretty and slow in a mood-setting kind of way, but the crowd really wanted Friday night music. Finally, during the last song, the band's energy galvanized; the guitarist actually faced the crowd and played (or rather flailed at) his guitar behind his neck.
Track Star were more in line with the audience's expectations. The 3-year-old trio have pretty much captured the hipster ennui that hovers along Valencia these days. With their sensitive-guy mien and heartbroken love songs, they're the Mission's successors to the late Jawbreaker. Guitarist/singer Wyatt's instrument, with duct tape on one end and a construction paper heart on the other, pretty much sums up the band. (Wyatt and his bandmates go without last names.) The first song, "Alien Idea," is also the first cut off the band's forthcoming Communication Breaks. On an album crammed with alienation and bitter breakups, it's a standout: "There are three ideas in my head/ One's to suck on fumes until I'm dead/ One's to cover the city in flame/ And one's to run to the roof and scream out your name." The live rendition was faithful to the recording -- the sound of two drop-tuned guitars bound by a pact of restraint and Todd's simple snare-snap drumming.
Later, on uptempo songs -- or parts, rather, since Track Star really only rock in middle sections of a song bookended by slower parts -- Wyatt's body contorted in weird obtuse angles while co-singer/guitarist Matthew hopped around like a twisted popsicle stick on a spring. "Lifestyles ..." unfortunately rips off the guitar riff from "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and the group does a lot of other tributes to Unrest, the Velvet Underground, Pavement, and the Archers of Loaf. Track Star are a frustrating band: They've got fine influences and they're not afraid to plumb the emotions of pop, but they should spend less time proving they have good record collections and more time getting beyond them.
Washington state's Modest Mouse -- a young band that wouldn't exist if not for the Pixies and Built to Spill -- would be a fine prototype. Modest Mouse don't imitate their influences, they channel them. Their first record, the epic-length This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, was one of the finest released last year. It's a smart, coherent album with several identifiable themes (the search for place; the perils of parking-lot culture; travel as flight) running alongside squirrelly guitar lines cut by abrupt tempo changes, Eric Judy's clever bass, and big, rather complicated, drumming.
Live, Modest Mouse play a more driving, stripped-down version of their records. Long Drive's "Breakthrough" was immediate the way it is on record, but live, singer/guitarist Isaac Brock, with a trident tattooed along his entire forearm and long Northwesterner speed-freak-style sideburns, contorted his vocals into grunts and whines. The band played the song so fast that it collapsed on itself before they resuscitated it, only to put it gently back to sleep again. "Custom Concern" was also more gripping, but Jeremiah Green quieted the beginning by slowly playing the drums with maracas. That song, like Modest Mouse's best, is presumably about the band's hometown, Issaquah, Wash., or rather what's become of it. The tune begins with three lines about building "monuments and steeples" but takes a turn in the middle when the narrator wakes up late and walks through endless parking lots. The slacker hero's weariness turns to contempt by the end: "And we're losin' all touch, losin' all touch/ Building a desert."
The crowd at the Bottom of the Hill seemed to get it. The band played songs from Long Drive, selections from various EPs and 7-inches, and some possibly new stuff. People listened intently (though maybe it was just the heat), shouted out requests, which were occasionally honored, and bopped their heads. Someone in the audience had called all night for the pretty, introspective "Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset." For the last song, Brock substituted "Desert" for "Sunset." That's a joke, for what it's worth -- the band actually played "Tundra/Desert," one of the most rocking, most squealing songs in the group's bag. The lyrics are a bit confusing, but the cut ends with a lovely line to finish an encoreless concert: "Filling jars full of silence you'll get nowhere.