January 20, 2011
Better than: Attending a sermon about the Father, the Daughter, and the Holy Sneakers
What kind of chutzpah does it take to name your band Holy Spirits? A deeply solemn kind, if Aaron Hodges and his quartet of generally unmerry minstrels have anything to say about it. Holy Spirits traveled the farthest to play at last night's See The Leaves- and Father/Daughter Records-curated show at Milk, so let's talk about them first. The Brooklyn outfit -- just Hodges and drummer Michael Barron back home -- is a little more grizzled than Grizzly Bear, a little less fleet than Fleet Foxes. At their best they recall Akron/Family back when they were Michael Gira's studio boys. Their songs, mostly from an EP released last April called The Afternoon's Blood, are earnest and eventually tragic, framed and paced like slow-moving car rides across state lines under cover of night. No, make that fast-moving tractor rides. In fact, their climaxes could be high-speed tractor chases, whatever that means, but still under cover of night. (Only one song, the second-to-last in the set, sounded like it should be playing during a knife fight at a quinceañera.)
Hodges and company made lush work of each composition, skillfully embroidering songs that sound fundamentally solitary with washes of dramatic accompaniment -- chorus, violin, handclaps. Their set was satisfying on the whole, but vaguely hairshirtish at times: too much tiptoeing, not enough rocking. Fortunately, the slow moments were easy to pass by identifying which precise demographic each band member seemed tailored to represent: the librarian-cum-dowager violinist staring lovingly at Hodges; the incongruously jolly fisherman backup singer/auxiliary drummer, yelping in joy between songs; the no-nonsense factory foreman drummer, who is so no-nonsense he's actually just a very good drummer; the farmer frontman, writhing in quiet religious ecstasies; the mustachioed hipster bassist, who looked so acutely miserable throughout the entire set that I wouldn't have even mentioned him had I not seen him crack a smile later on, among friends.
Mutual Benefit sound like a band from New York trying to sound like it's not from New York, or from anywhere in particular for that matter. As it turns out, Mutual Benefit is from Ohio. Theirs is a calm, dextrous pop lined with vaguely exotic touches: roving glockenspiel melodies, a snake-rattle drum tic, singer Jordan Lee's boyish croon. (Also, their drummer looks like a French lesbian I know.) "Desert Island Feeling," manifestly their best song, sounded particularly good, despite Lee's warning that it would stretch his cold-addled vocal chords. Anyway, whatever kind of chutzpah it takes to call your band Holy Spirits was lacking when Mutual Benefit christened themselves. I would have gone with "Vampire Schoolnight."
A tall lady named Steph Thompson -- performing as Steffaloo, so medium chutzpah points -- opened the evening with a four-song set of sparse, drifting numbers, which she played while swaying gently in front of Gilliamesque projections from Nathaniel Whitcomb of Think or Smile, who provided backdrop art for the entire show. Thompson's singing voice is totally lovely, although her guitar was wretchedly out of tune for the first two songs; after that she switched to ukulele for smoother sailing. Her cover of Kid Cudi's "Pursuit of Happiness" was charming, though not altogether solemn or tragic enough to transcend the fact that it was meant to be charming. It's well worth peeping her recorded work, including regular collaborations with local faves Blackbird Blackbird.
Speaking of local faves: aside from repeatedly checking with the audience to make sure they weren't playing too loud, Phantom Kicks (good name, hands down) held court gracefully at the end of a long night; they even got the dance floor going, insofar as there is a dance floor at Milk. The danceable bits of their sparkling space-rock jams aren't always the parts worth dwelling on -- for me, anyway, it's the constant interplay between melodic clarity and textured sound-smear -- but it mostly coalesced to a giddy whirl of synth whooshes and jagged guitar lines and faux-fancy drum work, a lively take on the flatter post-wave clickery of their studio tracks. (Think A Place To Bury Strangers without quite so much piercing abrasion.) The Kicks ran through the EP they're preparing to release in March, plus made time for a pleasingly forthright cover of Phantogram's "When I'm Small." Which, though I wasn't planning to find this out, made for an oddly exhilarating accompaniment to the Mos Eisley cantina scene from A New Hope, playing on three separate screens over the bar. Yeah, still wrapping my head around this Milk place.
Critic's notebook: I've been on student-built high school theater stages that look more stable than this one. Love it.