According to Mobius Band, the group directly preceding the Hong Kong’s act at the Mercury Lounge tonight, Time Out New York has declared that this is the place to be. To me, your average small time smartass NYC rock critic, this indicates two things. First, the crowd is promised to be wildly annoying. And second, this is not the place that I want to be.
My first hunch is proven correct when I catch an earful of the argument between two friends standing near the back of the venue about which one of them is more of a hipster. It’s solidified by a couple in front dancing rambunctiously, with a blatant disregard for the safety and well-being of the nearby stage, equipment, and other concertgoers crowding the venue. And it’s driven home when a skirt-chasing oaf slamming Coors slips me an invite to a disco party the following evening, complete with a “hard body contest” and “jello shots.” But my second hunch is completely and totally invalidated as soon as I hear the first bars of the bewitching, catchy, tourniquet-tight delights emanating from the Hong Kong. Blessed be, the hype makers have it correct—I can’t imagine a place I’d rather be tonight.
1 May 2003: Mercury Lounge New York
Let’s get this out of the way first: the Hong Kong look good. Bassist Ted Casterline, guitarist Harold Griffin, and drummer Aaron Carroll are sharp-dressed men, sporting pinstripes—a sort of brooding, rocked-out Mod attire. Lead singer Catherine Culpepper dons fishnets tights and gloves, and is also dressed smartly in black. Keyboardist Sonya Balchandani offers a shock of red under her otherwise dark ensemble. They coordinate. It works. I’m tickled.
But even these looks, as good as they are, are deceiving. For the Hong Kong are not super-serious electroclashers, but rather spirited popsters—a supercharged Stereolab with the charm of the Go-Gos or the energy of the Cars. They also, thankfully, know how to rock. Despite their homage to bright, synthy pop, theirs is a noise-driven sound, built by punching guitars, full-on bass, and shitkicker drums. It’s a medley that works well on their 2003 release, Rock the Faces (Etherdrag), but explodes once the band hits the stage.
The majority of the night’s brief set is off Rock the Faces. Among these is “Mazerati”, a dance imperative near the show’s middle which perhaps encapsulates what the Hong Kong do best. After a trigger happy bass line, Culpepper sings “your dream life is such a bore,” making faces and coyly tucking her hair behind her ears. Her singing is both sweet and strong—a carefree parallel to the seriously charging bass, but also piercing enough to cut through when the rest of the instruments start in. It is also uncannily similar to that of the late Mary Hansen, lead singer of Stereolab. At one point during the song, the synthesizer couples up with her singing, dancing along the melody before digging in. But once it does, you do, too—it becomes impossible to remain stationary, and hard to not smile at the jubilant ambiance filling the room.
And dammit, these guys are having fun. Casterline cracks jokes with his bandmates and the audience; Griffin visibly laughs at the jacked up dancing of the aforementioned audience members. Culpepper giggles during songs and declares one of them her favorite; Carroll banters from the back, Balchandani struts on the sidelines. A slower march of “Birds” still keeps the crowd bopping and catcalling. The Hong Kong play flirty songs about parties, joyrides, being young, loving life and love—light topics for sure, but delivered with intelligence, passion, and an edge.
It’s refreshing, in these days of too many brutal bands posturing garage punk seriousness, to encounter one whose obvious goal is to enjoy making good music. It’s this earnestness, paired with their delectable sound, that makes the Hong Kong the band to pay attention to. I eagerly await their next local show—whether Time Out declares it the place to be or not.