Look to the future
PASSION PIT / HOCKEY / BEAR HANDS, 12TH FEBRUARY 2009, OXFORD BULLINGDON ARMS
It's that time again - when the new year's brightest prospects (as selected and hyped by labels, media types and bloggers alike) roll into town one by one to hawk their wares. By the time February was out last year, the likes of Vampire Weekend, Black Kids and Glasvegas had all paid Oxford a visit. And tonight we've got three of 2009's most hotly tipped bands from across the pond, all of whom have been the subject of the Guardian's New Band Of The Day feature in the last six months, performing together on the same bill.
So, the cream of new talent or just sour, rancid old milk? Without further ado...
Bear Hands hail from Brooklyn (or at least that's where they call home now, perhaps conveniently), so it's no surprise to learn that former tourmates include MGMT and Vampire Weekend. While Dylan Rou's vocals have more than a little of the Robert Smith about them, their vaguely danceable post-punk reminds me of nothing so much as fellow Brooklynites Proton Proton, about whom Sweeping The Nation tipped me off a couple of years back. The bloke earnestly preaching the virtues of MDMA in the bar before the show turns out to be Val Loper, Bear Hands' bassist who also doubles up on a big floor tom to supplement TJ Orscher's already impressive drumming.
But ultimately Rou's appeal to sympathy - the box of 7" singles is very heavy to cart from venue to venue, apparently - fails to sway me, partly because the single in question, 'What A Drag', is a curiously odd choice, by some distance the slowest song of the set and all the poorer for it; partly because the lyrics to the closing song about Vietnam are toe-curlingly bad; and partly because throughout they threaten to explode without ever making good on the promise. Still, paws for thought, you might say...
Originally, Portland's Hockey were due to headline, and it's not hard to see why: they're confident, slick and armed with an arsenal of songs that you can tell instantly will propel them to much, much wider attention before the year's out, by which time all of us here tonight will be mentioning the night we saw them in the insalubrious back room of an Oxford pub.
If I had to pinpoint a problem, though, it'd be that they're absolute wank.
"If James Murphy produced The Strokes", claimed the Guardian. Well, 'Too Fake' certainly sets out like it thinks it's LCD Soundsystem but then launches into a chorus that's pure Killers, while elsewhere their gruesome dollar-sign-eyed funk ("new wave/soul" suggests their MySpace site) is merely Maroon 5 thinly veneered in cool. The nadir? That would be 'I Wanna Be Black', for which frontman Benjamin Grubin tries his hand at rapping.
Bassist Jeremy Reynolds was the person on the receiving end of Loper's pre-gig MDMA evangelism, but, given Reynolds' yellow drainpipe jeans, afro and alternating gurn and pout, it seems as though the Bear Hands man may have been preaching to the converted. Hockey would be hilarious if the prospect of them achieving superstardom at the expense of other far more worthy outfits wasn't so appalling.
Passion Pit prove to be a significant improvement on the band they replaced at the top of the bill (how could they not be?) but are still unconvincing cast in the role of the evening's saviours.
Maybe it's the name - apparently both a porn film and the nickname given to drive-in cinemas where randy teenagers go to play tonsil tennis, but it still does them the disservice of making them sound like a very bad emo band dreamt up by a bunch of 14-year-olds who hang around shopping arcades wearing My Chemical Romance T-shirts and trying their hardest to look bored and serious.
Maybe it's their appearance - I don't generally like my bands to look like the cast of 'American Pie' fronted by Seth Rogen.
Maybe it's the overwrought, histrionic nature of much of the material, or Michael Angelakos' falsetto that's so piercing it simultaneously unnerves the local canine population and keeps glaziers busy ('Skins'-endorsed single 'Sleepyhead' being a case in point).
But, as you'd hope given that they featured in the BBC's Sound Of 2009 list and have been signed by Frenchkiss Records, there is nevertheless plenty to recommend their collegiate synth pop - and more to come, if the quality of the new song for which Angelakos asks permission to play (rather daftly - hardly any of us have heard the Chunks Of Change EP yet) is a reliable indicator. Could have done without his solo encore song about seaweed, mind.
So, on the evidence of tonight's showcase, at least, the forecast for the year in music is patchy - some brighter spells, but the odd serious fucking shitstorm too.