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Friday, February 25, 2011

Noise Pop: Film School Makes Itself Known at Cafe du Nord

Posted By on Fri, Feb 25, 2011 at 8:12 AM

click to enlarge Apex Manor
  • Apex Manor

Film School
Apex Manor
Gregory and the Hawk
Melted Toys
@ Cafe du Nord
Thursday, February 24, 2011

Better than: A rainy night at the beach.

I tumbled down the stairs to Cafe du Nord last night to find the stage being cleared, rather unceremoniously, of various music-making devices. I asked around to find out who I'd just missed: everyone got "Melted" right away, but nobody could remember "Toys."

According to the Noise Pop festival guide, the San Francisco trio peddles "crunching post-punk bass lines, reverberating shoegaze guitars, and wailing psychedelic powerpop vocals all thrown together in a fiery kiln." As a fan of post-punk bass lines and shoegaze guitars, and someone who is passingly fond of powerpop vocals and homemade pottery, I was sad to have missed their set -- but moments after I came in somebody put on the 1999 Rentals album Seven More Minutes, which is perfect between-sets music, so I chalked it up to fate and wished Melted Toys the best. (Listen to some of their songs here. They're pretty enticing, and more distinctive than the festival guide makes them out to be.)

This is probably the right point to mention that I walked into Cafe du Nord without ever (knowingly) having heard a note by any of the bands on the bill. I regret nothing.

click to enlarge Gregory and the Hawk
  • Gregory and the Hawk

Next up was Gregory and the Hawk, which is actually just a woman from New York named Meredith Godreau -- making her band name as integrally misleading as that of, say, California Wives, which I wholeheartedly salute. Thanks to the festival guide again I knew this was the case, and that in all likelihood there would be no hawk, so adjusting my expectations wasn't that hard. She told the crowd she had never played in San Francisco before, to which the room managed a decidedly fainthearted "Woo! San Francisco!"

Godreau writes fetching wisps of songness, dreamy little trances in which she seems -- seems -- to lose herself. She sings in a melancholic candyfloss voice (I saw someone near me, who was also taking notes, write down her stage name and then, very meticulously, "mumble mumble" under it), and with lyrics that can be disarmingly candid, though mostly on the syntactic level: in one song she states, "I really want to go to bed." For the most part she sounds like a young Jenny Lewis, raised on a diet of Red House Painters and Nico, working to make sense of, you know, love and the world and stuff.

click to enlarge Apex Manor
  • Apex Manor

Apex Manor had never played in San Francisco before either, although they're just from L.A. (Just from L.A.?!) The five members of the band run the gamut of personal grooming, from the drummer's lumberjack/whiskeysnob beard to the keyboardist's shaved head and spectacles, as though they were an assortment of hip Californian artists selected to appeal to the maximum number of people. I bring this up only because their music sounded that way too, at the expense of a certain no-idea-what: two guitars, bass, drums, keyboard, tag-team vocals and someone constantly thwacking a tambourine, 2.5 children, a picket fence.

It's instructive that the festival guide (again) doesn't say much more about what Apex Manor sound like than "resonant and reflective garage pop." Their songs are impeccably put together and tautly played, smart and even memorable, at least kind of. But they feel, well, disposable. Think Phantom Planet without the youthful edge -- no matter what the refrain to "Teenage Blood" says -- or better yet, think of those bygone radio staples that stopped existing at some point and you'd be hard pressed to articulate why they should or should not have continued to exist: Fastball, say, or even the Wallflowers. ("They're Soul Asylum," insisted someone in front of me wearing a baseball cap advertising a company that makes golf clubs.)

click to enlarge Film School
  • Film School

My initial impression of headliners and Bay Area pseudo-locals Film School was that they're doing what bands like The Anniversary used to do, namely dressing up boy-girl emo in fancy new-wave shoes with click tracks and synth whooshes, and doing an excellent job of it. That impression faded as the set continued; the more persistent comparison is to The Cure (rest assured this comparison is trumpeted in the festival guide), in the odd bass line and vocal inflection and glimmer of goth aesthetic, but the band has its own niche carved out under the shoegaze umbrella, a polite brand of chirping and churning paranoia made of shimmering synth lines and pillowy distortion with gentle female vocals beneath and more acute male vocals above.

The sound mixing was a little drum-heavy for my tastes -- too much shoe, not enough gaze -- but Film School's subtle flair for drama and menace, for navigating that gray area between peppy and sinister, was wholly apparent. The band's performance was perhaps a little overly serious (at least until the encore, when singer Greg Bertens misplaced his capo and low-grade hilarity ensued), but the slack was picked up by a bar's worth of good-natured drunkenness. Whoever brought the glow sticks and beach ball, sweet idea -- although a beach ball could really do some damage in a room of that size.

Film School
  • Film School

Critic's notebook: Calling an album The Year of Magical Drinking is not the way to anybody's heart, and I am vaguely tickled to imagine Joan Didion giving Apex Manor a piece of her mind.

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