Picked to Click 2009: Red Pens voted Twin Cities' best new band

Celebrating the 10 winners of this year's best-new-bands poll

DuCharme shuns such etiquette. "It's karaoke. It's free expression. It's like trying to take a shit with rules. 'Oh, I can't! No! Uh, no! Uh...there it goes!'"

Nikki Miller is a freelance writer and Gimme Noise columnist. Her weekly post, "Are You Ready for the Country," details her fascination with local and national country music.

5. Leisure Birds

photo: Sean McKenna

2009 Winner, Red Pens
Nick Vlcek
2009 Winner, Red Pens

Leisure Birds find joy in their simplicity

by David Hansen

A brief catalog of the lies bandied about by Leisure Birds in the deserted Clown Lounge, where they sit before heading topside to open a weekend Turf Club show, include but are not limited to the following: Drummer Alex Achen has a tail. Their next album is to be titled Megaman II. Guitarist Nick Ryan, sounding something like UHF's tyrannical R.J. Fletcher, declares that the citizens of the Twin Cities are a bunch of boobs and halfwits. As they shotgun amusing half-truths, you can all but hear their tongues clawing through their cheeks.

So when Jake Luck identifies himself as the band tambourinist, and states that he hates writing on piano, the instrument for which he is best known, it's hard to know what to make of it.

"You write on the piano," he says, "and automatically you sound like Elton John. In Leisure Birds, I try to use it sparingly."

Where does fiction end and fact begin? In May 2008, when Leisure Birds played their first show. The four-piece had risen from the ashes of Thunder in the Valley, a top-flight local outfit that made its name penning Americana pop miniatures sodden with grand tragedy before disbanding in 2007.

But Luck and Ryan's taste for cosmic calamity seems to have gone up in the fire—Leisure Birds seem to have few worldly cares; they're a fundamentally fun band whose optimistic attitude is tempered with the ballast of their virtuosic talent. Their songs are so easy on the ears, you might never consciously acknowledge Ryan's strident, reverberant soloing, or Achen's surgically precise drum work. Their musical complexity sneaks through your brain in ninja boots and ski masks while your waking senses are distracted by the dance rhythms careening through your ears in washes of psychedelic reverb. Hearing Leisure Birds is the best kind of fun—the kind that tricks your brain into some heavy lifting so slyly, you'd never notice it happening.

The difference between Thunder in the Valley and Leisure Birds is one of chemistry and youth. Ryan, Luck, and Achen are veterans of band life. They know that, after enough success and ovation, a band has a habit of becoming sentient and vengeful, of turning its members into indentured servants. It happened, so Luck says, in Thunder in the Valley. Ditto in Hockey Night, one of Achen's previous Pyrrhic victories.

But as they laugh together and weave a web of fictions, they have the sly vitality of honeymooners floating through a lost weekend of beer and rock 'n' roll. It inflects everything from their music to their stage presence. Thunder in the Valley, by way of example, rarely smiled onstage. Leisure Birds are ear-to-ear from first note to last, exuding a wry joi de vivre that infects every audience they play before. In that haze of good times, only the simplest themes persevere.

"It's the joy of being in a new band," says bassist Cory Carlson. "Every band starts out simple, and it becomes much more complicated as you go."

Luck nods. "You get to a point where you realize the less complicated the music, the better," he says. "It's the easier way, and it's a healthier way."

6. Less Pricks Than Kicks

photo: Nick Vlcek

Rock 'n' roll algebra with nu-psych rockers Dante and the Lobster

by Steve Marsh

It's often said that a new band is a product of their influences. But being "Picked to Click" is a result of some higher calculus—young bands are put through a sort of critical algorithm, where a jury of local people with good taste choose which bands have the best chance at becoming popular with local indie-rock fans in the future.

Anyway, I'm no visionary. Who's to say who will outgrow their influences, or more importantly, who will be able to pick better ones, staying just on or ahead of indie-rock trends? I sucked at calculus, but algebra was always kind of neat. 3x +1 = 10, so x = 3. So clean! So satisfying! Problem solved. In this way, at least, Dante and the Lobster are pretty easy to figure out.

This is the most common format of rock algebra: "They sound like Syd Barrett-era Floyd + Forever Changes by Love x the PA system at the Hexagon Bar." This kind of equation comes off very clichéd, except with Dante and the Lobster, it's not really—their influences are that specific. All four of them just happen to have been profoundly influenced by their dads' psychedelic rock records, mostly by English bands, but also by some English-sounding bands, from the early psychedelic era, circa the spring of 1966 to the end of 1968.

Dante and the Lobster are led by their tallest member, the 6-foot-1-inch, 28-year-old Cole Claerhout. With attenuated limbs, shaggy dark hair, and an English lead guitar player's nose, his looks might be influenced by Richard Ashcroft's. But I don't mention this, because he already seems defensive about all the influence stuff. "Stylistically, [psychedelic rock] is what comes easiest to me," he says. "I'm going for the universal—I'm not specifically choosing it because it's cool or something."

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