It’s easy to forget the boundless potential of the pop song until you’ve seen the King of France perform their smartly skewed take on the form. I could try to trot out a string of reference points in an attempt to describe their music, but I think that it would merely serve to confuse (try Flo & Eddie, the Violent Femmes, Rocky Dennis, and the Sea and Cake for a start). Besides, I don’t want to obscure the fact that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a band and been at a loss for words.
4 Oct 2003: Mercury Lounge New York
Say you wanted to write a pop song. You’d probably hammer out a vocal melody on your piano/guitar first, then after a while, it would flow into a chorus and a middle-eight. Pretty straightforward, right? Using this method you’d soon come up with “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”. Or “Candle in the Wind”, if you’re lucky. The King of France definitely do not fellow this method. Or maybe they follow it upside-down. Their songs run circles around you, sneak up behind you, and then poke you with a stick just when you’re starting to think, “Maybe they do kind of sound like Todd Rundgren, no, Subway Sect, no . . . ow, who poked me?” In The King of France’s music, vocal, guitar, and piano lines snake around each other, meander and shift in a myriad of directions, while choruses pop up unexpectedly, or assault you with a bracing directness. All of this set to some thoroughly inspired drumming. Once their songs finally stop toying with you, you’re left exhausted, spent, and utterly thrilled.
And say you wanted to form a pop band. For starters, you’d probably have a somewhat polished stage presence, a vocalist who stays in tune, and at the very least, a bassist. The King of France have none of these. Singer/guitarist Steve Salad sings his unconventional melodies with the most tenuous of voices, and his guitar sounds like its strings could snap at any minute. If you were look for the other musicians to save him, don’t. Tom Siler’s keyboard parts tread the lines between the beautiful, bouncy, and the bizarre. He often plays like he’s just waiting for the right moment to burst out of his cage and overtake the rest of the band with a tap of his volume pedal. Only Michael Azerrad’s taut, inventive rhythms give off any hint that he’s keeping the band reeled in. But even he seems more like a co-conspirator than an actual, bona-fide timekeeper. Live, the band sounds like a drunk on the subway acts—raucous one moment, subdued the next, and some moments just teetering on the edge of his seat. Their performance was loose, engaging, and liable to charm the pants off you; the adoring crowd at the Mercury Lounge willfully hung onto every single ramshackle, bass-less, off-key moment.
So, if you like pop music, be warned. The King of France will likely send everything you thought you knew into a completely glorious, indescribable pile-up. Plus, they’ve got a stick.