Show review: Stop It!!, Wow Owls, Brainworms, Liza Kate, Josh Small.
Josh Small played first, doing a shorter set than he played at the Catalyst/Mass Movement of the Moth show I reviewed earlier this month. His set was every bit as good as it was before, though he didn't end up playing any songs I remembered from last time. I bought his CD afterward, and it didn't have any songs I really recognized on it either. Evidently he's got a lot of songs in his repertoire. In fact, he even played a Randy Newman cover, though I don't remember which one.
Liza Kate followed him, and while I remember her as an acoustic artist, she was playing an electric guitar at this show. She too was unaccompanied, which made me think of Jeff Buckley. But then she started playing, and I realized that what I should have been thinking of was Cat Power. Perhaps it was the switch from acoustic to electric instrumentation that changed the feel of her music, or maybe I just don't remember what the stuff I've heard her do before sounded like as accurately as I thought I did; after all, it's been a long time since I saw her play. But I don't remember her sounding much like Cat Power before. Now, she sounds exactly like Cat Power. Truth to tell, it kind of left me cold. It's not that I dislike what she was doing, per se, though I typically find actually listening to Cat Power's music underwhelming compared to what I usually go in expecting. It was more that what she was doing seemed to be contrived. I felt like she was making moves in her guitar playing, her vocals, her stage presence, her lyrics... everything, moves that were designed to evoke a similar response in her audience to the response she's seen someone else get from the same moves. It was the opposite of sincere. I felt like I was supposed to react to her as if she was some dark, mysterious, vaguely emotionally damaged singer who was onstage to exorcise demons. I didn't react that way, though. I felt like a puppet who suddenly sees the strings that were being pulled, and realizes that he doesn't have to respond to the pulling if he doesn't want to. This very realization made me not want to. I guess on a strictly technical level, what Liza Kate is doing is good. I can see why a lot of my friends really like it. But to me it just seems insincere.
Brainworms were next, the first full band performance of the evening. They were far more up my alley. My friend Brendan plays guitar for this band, and he's an incredibly talented musician, so I'd really hoped to catch them eventually. However, every time they'd play I'd hear that it was their last show, and every time they'd play I'd have someplace else to be. After the first time it happened, I figured I'd missed them. But by the third time I'd heard of them playing their "last show", I was starting to smell a rat. I ended up skipping that show because I'd bought tickets to see a different show two hours away, but I figured I'd end up catching Brainworms eventually anyway. Sure enough, they were on the Stop It!! reunion show, the fourth straight time that I'd heard of them playing their "last show". Brendan had recently moved to Charlottesville, but I figured that since he'd also been in Stop It!! and would therefore be in town no matter what, this was why Brainworms had decided to play again. However, the singer put to rest this entire line of speculation before they started their set. "We've been jerking your chain a bit," he explained. "This is not our last show. We're never gonna play a last show." With that, Brainworms launched into their first song. The band has an all-star lineup, at least within the Richmond city limits. Brendan's well-known for playing in Stop It!!, as well as having been in The Flesheating Creeps, Municipal Waste, El-ahrairah, and many other bands. Tim, the other guitarist, plays bass in The Ultra Dolphins. The drummer, Joe, sings (or plays guitar? I think he sings) in Are You Fucking Serious?!?, and Jay, the bassist, used to play guitar in John Wilkes Youth (who are honestly better forgotten). I'm not sure where the singer, Greg, comes from, or what bands he may have been in, but hey, close enough, right?
Anyway, Brainworms' music is not nearly as heavy as I'd expected, given the loud, noisy hardcore backgrounds of its musicians. Instead, they incorporate the more melodic end of mid-90s chaotic hardcore bands with the more straightforward sound of the mid-80s DC emocore renaissance. The fact that they cover Rites of Spring's song "For Want Of" is a good indicator of the place where they're coming from. The guitar riffs are melodic, yet pack a punch, and the tempos, while never being all that fast, are driving in a fundamentally upbeat rock n' roll manner. Joe, who plays a minimalist drum kit (snare, kick drum, floor tom, rack tom, hi-hat, ride cymbal), set up in front of the drum riser, on the same level as the rest of the band, while Greg stood on the floor in front of the stage to sing. The band played their songs nearly perfectly, sounding tight and well-practiced, and Greg put a lot of emotion into his vocals. I was glad I'd finally gotten to see them--they blew me away.
Wow Owls were up next, and they're a band I've seen a lot of in the eight or so months since I started going to shows again. I may even have written about them in this space (though that may actually have been before these show reviews were running in my blog, back when they were merely posts on the forums at lastplanetojakarta.com). Since I can't remember, I'll keep this relatively short.
Wow Owls play in a similar style to that of Brainworms, though I get less of a feel of sounds from past decades and more of a modern approach from their music. They aren't too different from the typical emocore bands of today, really (and by emocore, I mean the stuff that people sometimes call "screamo". If you don't understand why I don't want to use that word, read this), but their songwriting tends to rely more on powerful midtempo riffs that give the songs a powerful sense of forward motion and separate them from the pack of typical bands playing in this style. Just as essential to the effectiveness of their music is frontman Jeff Byers, who goes absolutely nuts when they play and is obviously putting his all into every word, an unfortunately rare quality in singers these days. I've seen Wow Owls have off nights, especially when the members drink too much before their sets, but they were firing on all cylinders this night and played a killer set, featuring a lot of the best songs from their CD, "Pick Your Patterns", as well as some new ones that I don't know yet, two of which turned out to be on a new split 7" they have out with fellow Richmonders The Setup. Even though I was pretty low on cash, I ended up buying that record, along with the Josh Small and Brainworms CDs, before the show was over.
After being blown away by both Wow Owls and Brainworms, I wasn't expecting much from Stop It!! I'd never really heard much by them, only a song off their demo, and I hadn't thought that much of it. This made their set even more surprising in its greatness than it would have been otherwise. It quickly became obvious to me that great leaps had been made in their sound by the time they broke up. I didn't know any of the songs they played, but I've since hunted down their full-length album, "Self-Made Maps", and have been listening to it constantly. Stop It!! weren't too far from what Brainworms were doing either, though I could actually see how Brainworms were picking up on what Brendan had been doing with his guitar playing in Stop It!! and taking it in a completely different direction. Rather than sounding like older emocore bands, as Brainworms do, Stop It!! incorporated Brendan's melodically based yet off-kilter rhythm guitar lines into a band more based on post-Fugazi heavy grooves. The other guitarist, Tyler, was more often the one who's playing anchored the song, and a lot of times he played arpeggios that provided a counterpoint to Brendan's staccato chord strumming instead of locking in with them. Sometimes the rhythm section followed Tyler, but a lot of the time it seemed like bassist Adam Juresko and drummer Jeff Grant were doing something completely different from what either guitarist was playing. This could translate into the commonly used Fugazi trick of the rhythm section playing slow grooves under fast guitar lines, or into far stranger rhythmic patterns that seemed to have no clear antecedent. Overall, what the divergent patterns of the different instruments created was a feel of space within the songs, space that was stretched out even further by the longer, more epic arrangements of a lot of the songs. This kind of arrangement technique has become far more popular in hardcore over the last few years than it ever was before, and it probably comes from the band City of Caterpillar, who were based in Richmond as well. But if it's done well, I don't care if it's easy to tell where a band is getting its ideas from--better to use new techniques from which to build a style than to reach back to the same themes that have been beaten into the ground for 20-odd years.
Stop It!!'s set had a pretty constant flow, and you would never guess from watching them that night that they'd been broken up for a year. There were a couple of drums set up on the stage separate from Jeff's kit, between Brendan and Adam, and sometimes one or the other of them would let go of their guitars and play these drums during particularly dramatic moments. At one point, Josh Small joined them onstage to play the second drum kit, while at another a couple of kids with whistles stormed Brendan's microphone and blew whistles along with the rhythm of the song. This seemed pretty weird to me, but after listening to "Self-Made Maps", I learned that the whistles are on the album. I was a bit surprised to realize that Brendan was the main vocalist in the band--I'd always thought of Adam as their singer, because he sang most often on the one song I'd heard. I found that I liked Brendan's vocals better--instead of the standard emocore scream that Adam sang in, Brendan managed to temper his screams with some semblance of singing that hit actual notes and was far more expressive of emotion. In fact, that was an overall theme of the set--extreme emotion, as expressed through music. I had no idea that Stop It!! were that powerful of a band, both live and in the studio. It made me wish I hadn't waited until a year after they broke up to finally give their music a listen.