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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Admiral Radley and Social Studies at Bottom of the Hill: A Tale of Two Indie Bands

Posted By on Thu, Feb 24, 2011 at 9:30 AM

Admiral Radley
  • Admiral Radley
Admiral Radley


Social Studies

Fake Your Own Death

February 23, 2011

@Bottom of the Hill

Better than: Starting an indie rock supergroup with your co-workers called the Water Coolers.

Every night at the Noise Pop Festival is a dilemma. The schedule holds a musical embarrassment of riches, but through an unfortunate consequence of the laws of physics, fans can only attend one show at a time. In order to decide what to watch on Wednesday, this writer had to resort to comparing the relative merits of opening acts. Luckily, the competition didn't last too long: after reading that Social Studies, one of San Francisco's most intriguing up-and-coming bands, was on the support slate for Admiral Radley, your intrepid correspondent was hooked.

The headliner Radley is, as you might imagine, more of a known quantity. A collaboration between two Central Valley talents, Admiral Radley started up in '09 when Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray of Earlimart (from L.A. by way of Fresno) hooked up with friends Jason Lytle and Aaron Burtch of now-defunct Grandaddy (from Modesto). What resulted was a far more perfect match than anyone could expect: inheriting its parent bands' sensibilities regarding the bleakness of interior California, the collaboration speaks to drug culture, post-consumerist anxiety, and humanity's ongoing creep into nature. On Wednesday, the group's performance featured characteristics of both bands' signature sounds, but couldn't have occurred without the involvement of both.

Lytle unambiguously ran the show in the Grandaddy days, back when they were receiving "Redneck Radiohead" plaudits for works like 2000's The Sophtware Slump, but with Ad-Rad he's a bit player, a multi-instrumentalist who shares vocal duties with Espinoza and Murray. "I wasn't into being a 'bandleader' anymore," Lytle said in 2010. "I'm still a little queasy about the idea of being in a band."

Regardless, Lytle sounded like he hadn't lost a step since the Grandaddy days. Espinoza has a greater share of vocal duties (with Murray sporadically taking lead), but Lytle's easygoing, persuasive tenor entered the conversation frequently. Hearing two distinct voices of indie California intertwine, especially on standouts like their signature track "I Heart California," almost justifies the apocalyptic angst behind their subject matter.

Earlier in the night, we caught Social Studies, a San Francisco four-piece led by singer/keyboardist Natalia Rogovin. In 2010, the group released a beguiling debut full length on Oakland's Antenna Farm Records, Wind Up Wooden Heart. Chock full of wistful melodies all bent into right angles, Wooden Heart showcases Rogovin's porcelain voice and the band's quaint-but-quirky compositions. This band could soundtrack a duchy or a revolt.

Social Studies
  • Social Studies
The band played a few songs from Wind Up Wooden Heart last night, but did an admirable job mixing up old and new, trying out a few freshly penned tunes on the Bottom of the Hill crowd. What's more apparent live than on record is that the interplay of Rogovin's keyboards with the guitar playing of Tom Smith is a key differentiator. Though he doesn't advertise it, Smith wields a six stringed sabre, slinging bluesy retorts to Rogovin's tinkly major-key synths. Onstage, the band also employs subtle shifts in dynamics like drummer Michael Jirkovsky (with that name, I bet he was a popular schoolboy) slightly speeding up at seemingly arbitrary times, just pronounced enough to spark a listener's synapses but not haphazard enough to seem accidental.

There's a definite quality of preciousness to Social Studies' compositions that we've seen taken to a saccharine extreme with, for example, Headlights and more recently Pomplamoose. Social Studies even describe themselves as twee-pop. But just as soon as Social Studies cuts start to sound like itty bitty pretty little ditties, the band engages in what seems like an all-out brawl with indie pop convention: Pow, double time! Zing, crazy guitar solo! Bap, unexpected transition! Just like your childhood comics, Social Studies songs are like a series of cliffhangers, with musical ideas picked up and discarded like retconned origin stories. But like classic superheroes, the band's powers drive cohesive narratives that, in the end, always seem to work themselves out.

The Noise Pop organizers perennially load the festival schedule with a mix of established groups and members of San Francisco's dynamic music scene. We know that many San Francisco music nerds want to optimize their listening opportunities in the short time that the festival holds court in the city's venues. The takeaway from Admiral Radley and Social Studies on Wednesday? When in doubt, check the opening acts.

Critic's Notebook

  • Typhoon
Other Openers: Though Social Studies had the lion's share of our early-show attention, two other opening acts graced the stage before Admiral Radley. Typhoon is a Portland based band with eleven--count 'em--ELEVEN members onstage. The band appears to fall in for big productions--horns, strings, crunchy guitars. And if the band had mugged for the crowd any harder, I'd have expected them to throw out jazz hands at the end of every song. An apt musical comparison might be UK's Guillemots, a genre-spanning group whose frontman Fyfe Dangerfield could very well have served as the blueprint for Typhoon vocalist Kyle Morton's magnetic stage presence. We arrived too late to see first opener Fake Your Own Death. 

Scruff Part 1: Lytle (an avid outdoorsman who now calls Montana home) and Burtch may have once made more futuristic rock with Grandaddy compared to Earlimart's folksier compositions, but they were certainly the more bedraggled half compared to the relatively clean-cut Espinoza and Murray. Burtch's face hides behind a Grizzly Adams mane, and last night's image of him playing drums with a cigarette in his mouth the whole time proves that guy's never getting a day job again. For his part, Lytle just keeps getting scruffier over the years, plopping a ratty knit cap over his salt-and-pepper last night and letting his five o'clock shadow flourish into a five-day shadow.

Aaron Burtch of Admiral Radley
  • Aaron Burtch of Admiral Radley
Scruff Part 2: Last night, a friend relayed the story of seeing Grandaddy live in Seattle once. To his surprise, the group had brought on a guest player for the evening who looked even more disheveled than Lytle. He asked his friend, "Who's the homeless guy?" to which the friend replied, "That's Elliott Smith." Smith was apparently friends with both bands, having met Espinoza in a chance encounter in Portland and mentoring a young Earlimart before he passed away in 2003.

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