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Rock concerts stir strange passions in their audience members. Take the show indie rockers Les Savy Fav performed last year on Valentine's Day for an all-ages crowd in Baltimore. The performance was supposed to be all-ages, anyway.
"There's a curfew in Baltimore," explains Syd Butler, the Brooklyn quartet's bassist, between bites of his Boca burger at a diner in Manhattan's Gramercy Park. "The three bands who went on before us all went over their time limits, and most of the audience had to go home before midnight. So by the time we got onstage, there were maybe 50 18-year-old boys left. We went on and Tim started playing spin the bottle with the audience."
Tim Harrington is Les Savy Fav's bearded, rather unkempt singer and a sort of jovial madman. Onstage, he does performance-arty things like taking his shirt off and vigorously rubbing his exposed, none-too-toned belly, or climbing around the rafters of the venue as his bandmates--Butler, guitarist Seth Jabour, and drummer Harrison Haynes--continue slamming out coarse riffs.
The idea of Harrington getting his fans to kiss him mid-performance is somewhat disquieting. Tom Jones he's not. The Love Unlimited Orchestra Les Savy Fav are not. Nevertheless, Harrington not only managed to coax the crowd into playing along, but kept the game going for the rest of the show, after the singer had returned to his vocal duties. "It's one of the most amazing visuals I've ever seen," says Butler, who graduated, alongside his bandmates, from the Rhode Island School of Design. "A roomful of 18-year-old indie-rock boys with backpacks on, making out with each other. The last thing I ever expected was to be the soundtrack of something like that."
It might be truer to say that the last thing Butler ever expected was to be in a band with Harrington in the first place. "I actually hated Tim for the majority of RISD life, and I think he hated me," Butler says. A self-described "Dischord brat" from Washington, D.C. ("I had the privilege of seeing Fugazi in a decent space with 50 people," he grins), the bassist was accustomed to the post- hardcore scene's self-imposed strictures. The notion of the free-spirited singer came as something of a culture shock. "I unconsciously had all these rules about how to dress and what to like, and Tim had no rules," Butler says. "One week he wore a tail everywhere he went, attaching it to whatever he was wearing. Another week, he literally didn't talk to anybody. They were experiments to challenge people's thinking."
Harrington's lyrics work in a similar way. The first lines of the band's newest album, Go Forth (Frenchkiss), declare, "What we don't know/Could fill a truck/What we don't know/Cannot hurt us." Well, actually, yes it can, as the country has spent the last few months finding out. But those lines deserve to be taken as they were first delivered: as a challenge to the precious insecurity of more traditional indie lyrics, and as a generous invitation to us to shed our inhibitions along with the singer.
Elsewhere, Harrington yelps fortune-cookie philosophical streams like "Crawling Can Be Beautiful" ("It sure beats standing still/Crawling on your hands and knees/Takes self-control and skill") and "Disco Drive" ("Sometimes jobs turn into vacations"). But Harrington's cockeyed optimism comes through even more powerfully because of the darkness that surrounds it. On the amazing "Adopducted," the singer dreams of being "kidnapped/By a guy with a mustache/And a chick with an eyepatch." They hold him for ransom; his parents refuse to pay. His abductors end up raising him as their own, and he comes to prefer them to his real family--by the end he's lamenting, "Although we got so close, you know/They never even told me their real names."
In a similar case of ambiguous parentage, Les Savy Fav play art-punk with bar-band looseness: rhythmically blocky, with guitars evoking the angularity of Fugazi or the Gang of Four--if either of those bands got sloppy drunk before they hit the stage. And lyrically, they share a prolix, sideways approach that balances emo's hyper-emotionalism with Pavement-style smart-assedness.
"I heard someone describe us the other day as post-postmodern. Beyond ironic, the next level, another direction," Butler says, referring to Les Savy Fav as well as bands like the Dismemberment Plan and Lifter Puller. (The latter band's Fiestas + Fiascos was co-released by Butler's Frenchkiss label.) "Right now, things that try and be ironic just fall on their face."