March 2, 2013
Brick & Mortar Music Hall // Noise Pop 2013
Better than: Watching bands rest on their laurels.
Full of moonlighting indie aficionados discussing an Animal Collective EP, Beach House's live set, or tweeting not-so-clever commentary on the between-set music selection, the eager Noise Pop crowd was more enthused by conversation than music during the sets of Wax Idols and Sisu on Saturday night. Wax Idols' transformation from a shambolic garage outfit to austere post-punk quartet left the crowd cold. Sisu's songs veered between electro-damaged atmospherics and pop chord progressions, but the combination felt unnatural, and the audience was hesitant to emotionally invest.
Judging by the show, indie rock's new presentation is more like early-'80s Manchester than French New Wave. Perhaps the stark ensembles writhing about the stage alienated the crowd. At a glance, even the merchandise table looked like the drab concrete outside: a big gray palette with shadows casting angles.
The crowd was clearly waiting for Brooklyn's DIIV. The Captured Tracks mainstay is still sailing on the success of its debut album, Oshin, and the crowd seemed elated to bop along to each familiar ditty. But the source of DIIV's magnetism is interesting. The band began each song with shimmering noise above a backbeat, and let it fizzle out a couple minutes later. The dense guitar saturation was never harsh, though. Even at the most energetic moments, as every other song grew into a louder version of itself, the noise was docile.
The passive guitar aesthetic mixed with heavy-handed vocal effects makes DIIV extremely blank. Whether a listener hears cathartic release, exalted bliss, or melancholy is entirely dependent on the listener. DIIV doesn't really dictate specific feelings with its music. Of course, this is a principle function of pop music. When vocalist Zachary Cole Smith said, "So that was a pop song and this next one is a pop song," was he admitting the innocuousness of DIIV's approach? DIIV invites listeners to project whatever they'd like upon the songs. It's a classic commercial technique, but DIIV appropriates it to ensnare followers of cool. Watching the Noise Pop crowd (or indie media) fall for pure pop function veiled in indie hype demonstrated the market's fickle gullibility.
Preceding DIIV, local act Wax Idols brandished their new post-punk identity with mixed results. Bandleader Hether Fortune made every change short of a new name to separate Wax Idols from its earlier incarnation as ramshackle, hook-laden garage band. The set drew almost entirely from the forthcoming full-length Discipline and Desire, due out on long-running East Bay label Slumberland at the end of March.
Fortune is a spirited performer. She sports inner turmoil proudly, without any emotional contrivance to marginalize the impact, and her newly adopted husky vocal style sounded rich and compelling live. Yet, the other Wax Idols are struggling with their new stylistic vessel. The drummer's propulsive and rumbling beats are a clear pastiche of 1980s UK post-punk, but Fortune's vigorous guitar playing emitted a trebly wash that didn't congeal with the idiosyncratic rhythms. When the drummer performed a pseudo-dub beat derivative of "Bela Lugosi's Dead," a deliberate sheen of guitar feedback eliminated what tension might have been built by the minimal percussion. Similarly, throughout the set, clamorous, straight-ahead guitar strumming felt at odds with the percussion.
Fortune's backing band was stoic and still. Of course, the music doesn't invite gleeful emoting, but their stiffness reinforced the disconnection between instrumentalists. While stiffly rehashing post-punk tropes, Wax Idols neglected the feel between players that's essential for the rock form live.
Wax Idols' most captivating moments were when instruments were given space and Fortune's vocals were most discernable, but those segments were rare in the new songs. About halfway through the set, Wax Idols performed a sole song from their debut album, No Future. "Human Condition" alternates between brooding restraint and a lofty chorus. Its bright section stuck out particularly in the set -- it was Wax Idols' solitary hook of the evening. The bleak verse of "Human Condition" reminds us that Wax Idols always had a nihilistic streak, but they crafted enduring hooks as well. Wax Idols are talented enough to be expressive with their instruments, and Fortune commands a distinct pop sensibility, but they were too distracted with creating a post-punk artifice to do either on Saturday. We'll see whether Discipline and Desire defies the live trappings of Wax Idols' new sound.
Sisu nobly aspired to combine electronic drum pads and synthesizers with pop chord progressions, but the electro additions seemed like a calculated afterthought to keep up with shifting tastes. Many songs began with artificial drums and dark atmospheric synth, but they inevitably launched into tried-and-true guitar progressions above live drum-beats. Vocalists Sandra Vu and Dee Dee struggled at times with harmonies, and Vu's performance smacked of pop calculation. Emotional involvement restrained to fit with a curled lip for authenticity, Vu's motions were learned responses to a gazing audience.
Dismal moping is arguably the new dreamy nonchalance of indie rock, but Noise Pop attendees on Saturday wanted DIIV's vague pop function through neutralized shoegaze, and they got it.
Gossip: DIIV's vocalist introduced two songs as new ones (they sounded just like the others) and mentioned they were recorded locally a few days ago with "J.R." Presumably, DIIV was recording in San Francisco with producer/bassist Chet "J.R." White of the now disbanded Girls. Also, Hether Fortune recently married Tim Gick, leader of Indiana rock group TV Ghost. The two were peddling merchandise and watching the show together.
Opener: Lenz delivered a strong set with all the assets we reported earlier further honed and chiseled. The addition of a keyboardist seems appropriate, but frontman Andy Jordan announced it was the last show for lead guitarist Ray Seraphin. Lenz will persevere, and we look forward to reporting on the new lineup.