Photo credit: Jasper Coolidge
It’s a recent Friday night at Sin-e. The crowd is overloaded with tastemaker types—which the guy in front of me duly notes with an incredulous “who ordered all the people?” Yes, the scene oozes with a place-to-be vibe, yet something is amiss: the night’s bill seems to be stacked the wrong way. Why are Calla—belle of the ball Calla, New York Times and Rolling Stone Calla—playing first? Their acoustic set is followed by the much-discussed On!Air!Library! showcase, with the night’s third slot occupied by buzzworthy The Occasion. What are newcomers Inouk doing closing out a set that reads like an indie-rock who’s who? Theirs is a name few people pronounce properly on first try, let alone have on the tip of their tongues.
But there is a greater lesson to be learned from both the arrangement of the performers and from Inouk themselves. Simply put, it is this: thrilling things can manifest from an inversion of the expected.
To listen to Search For The Bees, Inouk’s forthcoming debut on Say Hey Records, is to be confronted by a musical Rubix cube, every turn creating even more confusion and the easy-seeming resolution impossible to achieve. But like that ‘80s fad, the challenge is too enticing to let alone. The theoretical proggish punk of its first track “Sailor Song” seems straightforward enough until it slips away and capsizes into a slow spun march, which revs up again to only completely disappear into a tizzy of drums, a flurry of repetitive keyboards, and wailing, harmonious screams. This in no way prepares for the remaining tracks, which are a melding of confessions, shimmies, dirges, grooves, and cacophonies.
Live, they bank on their ability to undo what you thought you are in for, nailing stylistic transitions with dexterity and cunning. Their soaring folkish melodies are as tight and passionate as their turbo-rock noisescapes. Songs catch you completely off guard, with convulsive chord and tempo changes, melodies where there should be dissonance, and vice versa. Singer Damon McMahon’s voice is a wonder—curdling but also sweet, bleating like a sheep, breathy yet with a marathoner’s endurance. The rhythms carried out by Jesse Johnson (bass) and Glen Brasile (drums) are steady and airtight, yet also impossible to anticipate. So thoroughly do Inouk transcend genres that there really are no adequate checkpoints: one second it’s Echo and the Bunnymen, the next it’s Jethro Tull, or Nick Drake, or Clinic, or none of these. This is a band that fears no genre, even if they have to create one (or several) as they go.
Even visually, they are a paradox. Lead singer McMahon has an innocent, almost cornfed appearance, but the bling of his (trademark? fake?) diamond studs betrays a certain urban chic. His brother, Alex, who also sings lead as well as plays guitar and keyboards, sports a Flock of Seagulls-esque flyaway that, despite deflating somewhat over the course of the night, maintains a miracle buoyancy. Then there’s the grunge guy (Ian Fenger (guitar), complete with nondescript hoodie), the neo-Southern rock guy (Brasile, mustache and all) and the metrosexual (Johnson, Queer Eye approved bald and a dapper sport coat to boot). All appearing to be from different walks of life, yet together forming a more perfect, if more curious, union.
Inouk may have been positioned last at Sin-e because last is the new first, in the same way that Sunday is the new Friday, and Usher is the new J.T. But by the end of their set—the crowd, dazzled and satisfied—they have surely proven that no matter when they’re scheduled to play, they’ll upset the mix.