By Kemp Baldwin
Openers Zaza were halfway through their set of bass heavy shoegaze sprinkled with airy vocals when I arrived. Maybe the first half was wildly dynamic – hopeful thinking is nice when it comes to derivative shoegaze.
Zaza is not bad; they’re just not worth that name yet. They sound like a poor man’s My Bloody Valentine with a marching band beat, which is nice, but not entirely interesting. Their drummer plays standing up – this seems to be in vogue – and in the pocket, but the band would have been more interesting if he was Shelia E or some other upright percussionist that would take them exploring new ground.
Back lit by a Pollack-ed light box, the threesome hid in shadows, which was sadly apt. They should try stepping out with a name like Zaza. Or just give it to headliners, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, who need a tutorial in nomenclature.
Suckers isn’t a great name either. It’s like naming your kid Dick, you’re asking for years of torment – at least arm yourself with the definite article, i.e. the Edge. However, after dropping their eponymous EP, which is tailored made for summer days – not bro-barbeques, but sun burst days where life takes on that sort of halcyon quality before you can even become nostalgic for it, where paganism and dancing around a fire seem like the clear choice – their name becomes an afterthought.
Stepping on stage it was clear this four piece has an itch for Bowie flamboyance. Lead singer/songwriter Quinn Walker had his face painted with cosmic teardrops, somewhere between Man Man’s annoying war paint and Lil’ Wayne’s tattoos. He also made a few slight wardrobe changes: losing his hoodie to reveal a neck draped in costume jewelry chains and then quickly tossing on a flowing gold headband. Sometimes charming other times silly and excessive, this eclecticism manifests itself more naturally and engagingly sonically than it does sartorially.
Spaced out in dark whimsy and walking in the territory of Talking Heads’ weird fun and silly seriousness, Suckers launched through a set of eccentric but nevertheless tightly wrought pop songs. Though buttressed by whoops, whistles, tambourines, reverb, Technicolor recorders, caterwauls, maracas – used to shake and beat a bass tom – and trumpets, at their core these songs are nothing less than solid, splendid tunes. I guess you can call this psych-pop. But labels like that get so reductive that they yield no meaning, especially when songs like “Easy Chairs” and “Afterthoughts & TV” feel almost bucolic if you look past their flourishings.
As they introduced a Graceland tinged new song, it became clear that these boys play island music. Their island, like Beach Boy’s “Kokomo,” is one of their own creation, floating above the seas of influence casting their nets down when they want to appropriate something into their sound – dub, reggae, drunken campfire sing-alongs, Lord of the Flies, Bowie, Dead, whatever.
For a quick, easy modern/local comparison, Suckers find themselves in the center of the MGMT/Yeasayer Venn Diagram – Yeasayer’s Anand Wilder produced their EP. This a good place to land, producing a sound that holds the odd infectious pop sensibilities of MGMT while armed with the musicianship and range of Yeasayer. And after Tuesday’s showing, they seem to have a better handle on their sound and direction than either of these bands – especially MGMT, who they’re opening for at the sold out Prospect Park show in July.
They closed with a rousing rendition of “It Gets Your Body Movin,’” their languorous party jam. When the three vocalists harmonized the chorus in crescendoing repeat the song, as many of their tunes do, took on an exultant quality all while remaining playful. Trumpeting through the Bowery it sounded like bittersweet smiles of a well-worn evening – triumphant and lamenting the end – that or a sleepy ode to an ex-lover. Either way you slice the song, it was fitting end to a stellar set.
Unfortunately, this gem didn’t do as it told. Most of the crowd, save a few brave souls, remained motionless by way of stoicism, ambivalence, or embarrassment. Playing the Bowery is a strange event. It’s arguably the best venue in the city – rich acoustics, elegantly designed, and most bands must feel like they’ve made “it” at some level when the play a show here. But very few people love your band here. They’re giving you the hip litmus test. Sadly there aren’t that many unhinged weirdos anymore that will allow music to move them and act as pied pipers for the rest of crowd. Live music, at least in New York, has become mainly a spectator sport. Venues feel like art museums. Most people let even the most danceable music hang there on the wall without interacting with it unless its been properly vetted and cosigned.
That brings me to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. I went to be an asshole and give them the litmus test at this sold-out homecoming. I like their debut. It’s good, but is it worthy of the hype?
This five piece of fresh-faced kids riffled through their slim catalog with a sort of aw-shucks ebullience that was so charming and winning that is was hard not to enjoy yourself, even if their songs become a bit redundant after an hour and a half. It was their first time playing the Bowery and they were jazzed like kids on Christmas to be there.
With their hazy keyboard vamps, heavy distortion, driving drums and schoolboy vocals, they make you feel like you’re in a twee-as-fuck commercial for London circa 1987 directed by John Hughes. This is a fun space to occupy. Towards the front, the crowd took to the music like an 80s TV prom – lots of pogo dancing, aerobic arm-pump running, just unbridled badness that can be so fun if you let corniness replace rhythm and avoid mirrored rooms. This Footloose frenzy did not infect the cooler back of the room. This guy enjoyed himself closer to the front. But by the time they stepped off stage I didn’t need to wait around for encore – too similar, too much hype, but not too bad.