Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

The Hidden Chord channel a playfully nasty attitude into a new take on an old sound

Sometimes you overstate yourself just to make a point. In April's City Pages "Picked to Click" poll, for instance, I referred to the members of Twin Cities garage rock band the Hidden Chord as "a bit wicked live, like little children." Wicked? Perhaps. The band has developed a fierce, bratty stage how that taunts the audience as much as it teases them. But the Chord insists its reputation as "difficult" is unjustly deserved.

But children? Hardly: The band members are safely into their 20s, and, anyway, my own license purchases little more than cola. Feeling a touch sheepish about my earlier quip, I decided to investigate further what gilds these pretty things. This quest led me to a typical Saturday night at St. Paul's Eclipse Records--a refreshing approach to culture and consumerism where 7-inch singles mingle with mono pressings of Kinda Kinks and arcade relics like Q-Bert and Ms. Pac-Man that make even my post-Betamax self nostalgic.

Concealed weapons: The Hidden Chord's Matt Hart, Dan Buettner, Knol Tate, and Brian Severns
Daniel Corrigan
Concealed weapons: The Hidden Chord's Matt Hart, Dan Buettner, Knol Tate, and Brian Severns

Inside the carpeted concert room, the kinder among us crowd around willowy Chord frontman Knol Tate, who stands at the lip of the diminutive stage. He assaults the mic with abusive glee, apparently occupying a place in purgatory between youth and adulthood. The rest of the band, too, toes that fine line--their old-soul assurance being in conflict with their boyish looks and juvenile demeanor.

A game of call-and-response ensues between angst-ridden Tate and fervent guitarist Brian Severns, who projects his own unbridled emotion into a pillar that keeps him from view. The stately Dan Buettner holds down even basslines with a restrained elegance, while, hiding behind the kit, Matt Hart provides a Zen-like balance with steady stick-work. As usual, the group dynamic is explosive, providing a sound that often stirs the kind of frenzy among new youthquakers only glimpsed on Ed Sullivan reruns.

But tonight, the crowd responds with unaffected head-nods. After struggling through an endless number of tuning sessions, Severns turns to the audience and tartly quips, "We've been in tune--we're just trying to ignore you."

That's just one of many witticisms the audience is privy to, and that same devilish attitude is imprinted on their debut LP Eight Blue Eyes (Blood of the Young/
Heart of a Champion). With such effortlessly shrugged phrases as "I said I'd never write another song about hate again/You know I lied/But at least I tried/And I think that it's fate again," Eyes harnesses Chord's hyperactivity. Studio wizardry provided by producer Dave Gardner allows them to play with eerie fading techniques and enigmatic soft-spoken compositions like "65 High." The album explores in depth the themes of disaffected youth and burned-by-your-lover acidity with reckless abandon, all filtered through Chord's signature garage-rock aesthetic. This band's youthful sense of rebellion greets adulthood with two fingers crossed behind its back.

The Hidden Chord is quick to defend itself against charges that they cling too closely to a neo-Sixties vibe. Still, Severns candidly admits that the 45 "I've Blown It Again" has "a definite Stones feel." He's right--the slightly askew harmonies and "b-b-b-baby you don't call me on the phone" could have stuttered straight outta Jagger's cartoon lips--if Jagger had been born a skinny strawberry blonde straight outta St. Paul.

Buettner interjects: "People say that because of the kind of music we were influenced by."

Severns justifies his band's sound with quick assurance: "It's not that it sounds Sixties--it's that it sounds good!" But he concedes that at the start of their winter 1998 collaboration, he and Tate "connected" by "trying to write songs like that so we could get a loud rock sound. I do think that we've grown out of it a bit."

While mod tendencies are apparent, it's the Chord's punk-rock pedigree, established in Kill Sadie, the Misfires, and Ordination of Aaron, that has allowed them to fill a resonant niche in local rock. Clearly this is a tight-knit foursome (which currently splits the rent and has even embarked on a group exercise program).

Asked if they believe they're misunderstood, the four agree in chorus, with Severns offering, in reference to Chord's finger-pointing songwriting style, "If you're going to be angry, what better place to put it?" He then deadpans: "I think we're the most misunderstood band in Minneapolis."

Hart follows suit: "We're angry, we're pretentious..."

Then the composed Buettner supplies the voice of calm: "It comes from me..."

 
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