Brand New Heavies
Back in the old country we have a saying of great sagacity for which, sadly, there is no sufficient translation in English. A literal rendering goes something like this: For the making of whoopee or the tanning of hides, five hours is but an instant, but for the active consumption of live music, five hours is 154 minutes overlong. This is why Bruce Springsteen never opens for himself, and why I was among the few people to arrive promptly at First Avenue's Best New Bands of 2003 Showcase at 7:30 p.m. (okay, I was five minutes late) on January 14 and stay until the last note gave up the ghost shortly before 1:00 a.m.
As any jackhammer repairwoman can attest, the ears are as fatigable as any other major part of the face or head (and considerably more so than noses or hair). In light of this fact, I may have reached a peak of listening pleasure between 8:15 and 9:45 for physiological as much as aesthetic reasons. In other words, after Tiki Obmar and Zebulon Pike rocked or did rocklike things, I started to get pretty tired.
Openers the Awkwards glance at punk and metal, but their chief inspiration is soggy-with-reverb surf guitar and other types of nonvocal rock of the Kennedy era. Surf music, despite its associations with fun stuff such as huarache sandals and the Pacific Ocean, is often as ominous as it is festive, and it's the form's dark side that the Awkwards most evoke. If these songs could talk, they might say: "Lord, no! Larry just wiped out and I fear he will drown!" Except without the exclamation points. Even as the drummer pounded away as if he wanted to punish his kit for calling him a hodad, the Awkwards' likeable enough set seemed to want for urgency and surprise.
If surf king Dick Dale had fathered triplets at age 16, and if two subsequent Dale generations had done the same and then settled in Edina, the not-long-out-of-high-school members of Tiki Obmar could be Dale's great-grandchildren. (If you think this segue is bad, wait'll you get to paragraph seven.) Tik Ob (as they are known to fan-club members) might not be the southwestern suburbs' most charismatic live performers, but there's good fun to be had determining which sounds they're making on the spot and which are coming from their laptop/fourth member. I especially liked how prerecorded, leaky-faucet synth lines blurred with Chris Smalley's hyperclean guitar figures. I heard echoes of Aphex Twin, Mouse on Mars, Tortoise, and well-tempered vacuum cleaners, but the group's also some kind of budding jazz band, especially when drummer Brett Bullion lets the computer keep time and uses his mid-rangey snare for polyrhythmic accents.
If there was some kind of chops war going on during the first half of the showcase, prog-metal four-piece Zebulon Pike emerged victorious. They don't play many flashy solos, but their dual-guitar harmonies, mutating time signatures, and sprawling compositions are imposing enough. And their pretty-to-pummeling dynamic range is nearly Wagnerian.
Three bands retired to First Ave's marble-floored dressing room, and still not one song had been sung. Someone, it was clear, had to open his or her mouth and vocalize words in some kind of melodic and/or rhythmic fashion. Icebreaking fell to Darin Wald of alt-country sextet Big Ditch Road. Among the words sung were "Texas," "whiskey," "married," and other staples of alt-country semiotics. Seeing as how pop music thrives on various levels of artifice, questions of authenticity aren't typically worth the effort, but it's hard not to hear more formalism than feeling in these rustic songs. The memorable "Not for Me," however, seems to point in a promising direction.
Questions of authenticity lead quickly to questions of originality, which are also complex. An ideal copy can surpass the original, or at least stand in adequately for original thinkers unavailable due to death or other unfortunate circumstances. Bridge Club, whose Joey "Diamonds" Werner is a fairly hot-shit fuzz/acid/garage guitarist and whose debut EP has some real highlights, opened with a T. Rex cover that wasn't technically a T. Rex cover. Later, Revolver Modèle, whose lead guitarist is also quite good but whose rhythm section is a bit shaky, played David Bowie's "Heroes," except it wasn't really "Heroes." The old-timers shrugged. Who knows, though? Come next year these unexceptional throwbacks might have mutated into cunning reinventors.
A good amount has been written in these and other pages about Haley Bonar, and I'm running out of space, so I'll keep my comments brief. Bonar good. 'Specially enjoyed "Car Wreck," the drumming on which was decidedly less car-wrecky than on the record. Also, I'm curious: Is the quasi-Latin groove from "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy" derived from Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing," some South Dakota salsa band, or just pulled from the air? The college-aged Bonar's definitely beyond her years, partly in that her world-weary confessions and/or character studies sometimes feel prematurely gray, but mainly in how assured her songwriting is. I'm not sure if she's the next Edith Frost or the next Norah Jones (less likely). But for now let's settle on Most Important Under-25 Country-Influenced Female Singer Ever to Play Our Best New Band Showcase During the Early-to-Mid '00s.
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