Maybe rock and roll is being targeted for murder in its doddering midlife crisis. Sloughed over while crossing the information highway by a runaway Amazon freight truck under the operation of a deeply stoned, pimply faced teenager freebasing Miley Cyrus and New Direction. Its quickly fading pulse obscured by the sound of its soon to be corpse caught in the undercarriage, dragged down the road at 125 beats per minute.
I glance at the Billboard Top 40. Half of which, I don’t recognize. The rest is all Bieber Fever and Taylor Swift. It makes me want to load up a Velvet Revolver and save myself from hearing any more music that sucks.
That’s not to say that the Bieb and Ms. Swift aren’t capable of occasional flashes of something that resembles interesting, and I appreciate Taylor if for no other reason than she’s incredibly sweet to her fans and reliably a positive role model for teenage daughters – mine included. I can’t help but respect the passion she induces from her legions. The fervor in my baby girl’s eyes when she whispers, “She **gets** me.”
But there doesn’t seem to be any room at the top of the pops for a modern day Zeppelin. For a Bowie or a Ray Charles or a Patti Smith. The Beatles would likely be relegated to posting links from Soundcloud in this brave new world. I have doubts that Freddie Mercury and Queen would get much traction if they were coming up these days. It’s godawful and depressing.
. . .
Given the sad state of the charts, I was happy to be impressed with Robert DeLong. Mostly I go to these things as an excuse to take photographs. Even a crap band can be fun to shoot. My process for deciding who to cover goes a little like so: I scroll through a list of upcoming shows, pull up links on Youtube, and try to notice bands that won’t make me want to kill myself for requesting a photo pass.
Electronica really hasn’t been my thing for quite some time. Is it even called that anymore? Ambient? Trip Hop? Whatever. I don’t know what the current trends are and I haven’t heard much in passing that makes me care enough to find out. Admittedly, I still subscribe to the notion that the guitar is God, and all other instruments are lesser acolytes. I’m inherently suspicious of any instrument that doesn’t output into a box packed with vacuum tubes.
But there was a time in the late 80s when my interest was briefly caught by bands like Erasure. Depeche Mode. New Order. I was young. Moody. Mostly pissed off, living in Ronald Reagan’s noxious America. There were early strains of the eventual social justice movement echoing off the walls of fly by night venues hosting those groups and it resonated. Erasure, in particular, was a pioneer of introducing the concept that homosexuals aren’t out to bugger you in some alley somewhere, force you to wear women’s underwear, or make us all listen to Barbara Streisand LPs.
Bad as things are now, kids on the front lines of the movement today really have no idea how terrifyingly dangerous it was to be queer in 1988. Robert Smith, with his gender bending and his patented “holy shit, this is a guy who actually feels worse than we do” fourth-form poetry saved many lives, even if he wasn’t especially cognizant of it then or now. Much is owed to these guys, and few today seem to recognize the fact.
. . .
All of this is the long way ’round of saying that the last Synthpop group I gave two shits about was Anything Box, and I’m not entirely convinced that emotion wasn’t acid induced. I really didn’t expect to care for Robert DeLong, but I was immediately struck by a certain literacy that poked through his densely triggered and complexly layered orgy of synth. It made me dig deeper than I’d usually go with this sort of music, and I’m glad I did.
Here’s what you need to know: Robert DeLong is essentially a glorified drum major. Everything else on the stage is there to serve a distinct vision. That drummers can be songwriters, too. He carries swagger and bravado into his shows that almost certainly descends from long afternoons spent on some godforsaken football field in the service of a halftime show or marching competition. He’s good. He knows he’s fucking good. And he’s not afraid to let that self assured ego slop off the stage into your face. That said, he’s also obviously a massive geek. It’s only because we live in an odd era wherein geeks rule that he’s able to pull this combination off.
There are nods to the age we live in of course. He throws a hell of a dance party. There’s a bit of City of Angels Club DJ culture pulled in for good measure. The self promotion necessary in a social media driven age is evident in the fact that his name’s emblazoned in bright light three feet from his face. Clever really. Means any most photos of him are going to be labeled so you know who exactly he is when you see his picture on Instagram.
None of this would matter if he turned out to be some kind of freaky midi box encased in flesh, but it turns out that the kid actually can write songs. Lyrically interesting songs. A drummer friend of mine cracked that he wasn’t sure the dude isn’t just walking onto the stage and pressing ‘play.’ I can attest from viewing firsthand that that’s not what’s goin’ on here. There’s a definite craft and musicianship grounding his presentation. And more importantly, he’s exploring interesting themes spanning a nearly nihilistic demeanor of days gone past that speak to me on a visceral level. He’s accurately reflecting a thing that’s broken loose inside his audience. Something they’re facing every day when stepping off the dance floor to head back into the greyer, dimmer world outside.
. . .
I rolled into the Norva thinking DeLong was the headliner, but it turns out he was the second opening act. The main show was a group called The Neighborhood. I have no idea who they are, and after wasting ten minutes of my life scoping ’em out I decided I had no interest in learning anything more.
This, along with the fact that they’re branding themselves as ‘THE NBHD,’ basically made me want to dropkick a terminally ill puppy into next week. Aiming the poor lil guy just so he’d bounce off the waiting face of the lead singer in the middle of their set. Wherever it is they’re unfortunately scheduled to pose at that point in time. They could be the second coming of The Jimi Hendrix Experience for I all I know, but I doubt it. The vapid, oh so deep expressions of nonchalance on faces in the few photos of the band I bothered to peruse did little to convince me otherwise. If enough of you care, drop me an email to that effect and I’ll give it another go’round, but otherwise, seriously? Fuck ’em. Bands like this make me want to contract syphilis and go deaf.
On the other hand, the first opening group caught my interest immediately. I can’t quite put my finger on who they remind me of – obviously a bit of Iron and Wine and a hodgepodge of Southern Folk Rock influences.. Maybe a teensy bit of Nick Drake. The lead singer is a bit on the pretty boy / clean cut side for my taste – I like my balladeers to look more like Tom Waits with an empty bottle of Southern Comfort rolling across the floor behind him. But I was won over effortlessly by the deeply soulful innocence of this group.
A bit of research turned up that they’re out of Iceland, which shocked me because they seemed so.. deeply.. American. Not Donald Trump’s America. No. Ugh. God no. More the sort of mythic wide open country you read about in ‘Big Sur’ or ‘On the Road.’ Kaleo makes me think of Dean Moriarty. And it’s been a little while since anything nudged a recollection of that poor, doomed bastard out from the wreckage of my skull.
I wandered off after their set, grateful and pleasant from the experience.
. . .
I caught Feral Conservatives at the New Belmont and renewed my faith in the validity of local music. Seemingly hewed out of an earthy, unpretentious folk punk kind of construction, they’re incredibly joyful to hear live.
A three piece band led by mandolinist Rashie Rosenfarb, who vocally reminds me a little bit of later Aimee Mann, the group is reminiscent of a less sloppy Pogues mixed in with a group I loved back in the day, The Heart Throbs. Matt Francis bangs the drums wearing a fuzzy animal hat and kicks ass in an adorably goofy manner. All while bassist Dan Avant manages to throw out a little bit of the guitar god role without.. You know.. Actually playing a guitar. He holds the groove down admirably.
The band is tight. The music opens up your heart and throws a little punk rock hootenanny up in there. Their sound is impressively full for a three piece – all three appear to be excellent musicians and it shows. You can’t hide any weak spots in a small band like this, and Feral Conservatives more than step up to the plate. Sure, there’s the kind of pedal trickery one expects to hide the fact that a Mandolin is thinner sonics-wise than a big ‘ole dreadnought – I’m pretty sure I spied a POG in the mix: but the end result is expansive and these guys kick major ass in a big, fun way.
I pulled up with Rashie for a few minutes to pose a few questions:
For a such young group, you’ve got a little bit of time under your belt. What do you know now versus what you knew starting out?
I’ve learned the importance of getting out on the road to make connections with people -whether it be new fans or other bands – as much as you can. I wish we had started doing that earlier. Given our ambitions, just taking our songs on tour was a big step that turned out to be more realistic — and rewarding — than we had initially thought. A lot of perceived barriers for a local band are largely self-imposed, and we would have been up to those challenges even earlier.
If you could be any other band in the world at any point of time, what band would it be and why?
It’s a toss up for me between Marvin Barry’s band from Back to the Future and The Who. I think being The Who, it’s almost cheating — you go back to the pioneering days of both this kind of bombastic, destructive, stadium rock & roll and that rock star decadence. The drummer was coming to the foreground. White pants were cool. One drawback — doing the windmill arms on mandolin is pretty difficult.
How do you want to be remembered?
“Feral Conservatives – died tragically rescuing the Hampton Roads music scene from the wreckage of a destroyed sinking battleship” then engraved in smaller letters underneath “but check out their bandcamp!”
. . .
Anyways, that's it for the week. You kids play nice in the traffic, now.
THE NBHD… SMDH.