Johnny Brenda’s may be my favorite venue to see a show in the city of Philadelphia. It’s small, intimate, and with a balcony that surrounds the stage in such a way that you feel like you’re actually on stage with the band. Couple that with a small crowd of attendees (less than 30, I’d say) on a sweltering early summer evening, and you’ve got an experience akin to seeing a private concert. Such was the case when Grand Archives, on tour for their debut album, made their first appearance here recently.
Show opener Ports of Call are a local Philadelphia band, but their sound places them firmly in the UK. They’ve been listening to a lot of Slowdive, Ride, Spiritualized, and the Jesus and Mary Chain, and it definitely shows. Their sound is dreamy and atmospheric, filled with whispery boy/girl vocals and pounding, crashing drums anchored by ethereal guitar lines that are equal parts metallic and airy. The dim, swirling lighting and the band’s still, almost standoffish stage presence only added to the overall effect. The songs seemed to hang in the air in waves of hazy sound before dissolving into the next one. Dramatic quiet/loud/quiet/loud melodies seem to be Ports of Call’s specialty, and they’re good at what they do, capturing the past and making it their own.
Grand Archives (led by Mat Brooke, formerly of Carissa’s Wierd and Band of Horses) evoke the pastoral beauty of the Pacific Northwest with their lush sound and wistful pop melodies that are both earthy and earnest. These are simple songs, but that’s what makes them so perfect. You can sing them in your sleep or hum them when you wake. Their debut album, a mix of mountains and back porches, feels breezy and carefree, but this doesn’t mean that the songs don’t carry any weight. For example, “Sleepdriving”, whose giant harmony driven chorus is beautiful enough to stop hearts, gets my vote for one of the most sweeping, unassumingly epic songs set to disc this year (and it’s even more beautiful in person).
Live, the band is sweetly charismatic. Lead singer Mat is quiet, almost stoic, while the rest of the band is charming and talkative (especially drummer Curtis Hall and guitarist/keyboardist Ron Lewis). Mat whispers where the boys coo, surrounding and supporting him with warm blasts of four-piece harmony and jaunty, jangly melodies. Grand Archives have called both the Beach Boys and Bee Gees as influences, and this was undeniably evident during a gorgeously languid version of “George Kaminski”—no drums, only twinkling bells, acoustic guitars, and five voices joined in unison. Throughout the evening, the band covered the majority of their album plus a new song and two covers: Sam Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night”—also covered by Cat Stevens, as duly noted by the band—and a spot-on version of the Gordon Lightfoot classic “Sundown”. (Just go ahead and pretend you don’t know and like that song, you know you do.) “Sundown” segued right into the last song of the night, an unreleased demo track called “Southern Glass Home”.
In their relatively short existence, Grand Archives have come on leaps and bounds, touring with Modest Mouse, playing major festivals, and forging their own path while seemingly floating right under the radar of most listeners. With their debut, and the strength of their live show, the band deserves heaps of praise and success; hopefully this is just the beginning.