[29 April 2003]
Bloodthirsty Lovers frontman Dave Shouse and I go way back. I first got acquainted with him back in 1994, when I read a review of his old band, the Grifters, in one of the mainstream music rags. At the time, lo-fi rock in the vein of Pavement and Sebadoh was blowing up all over college radio, and the Grifters’ brand of lazily recorded garage rock was swept up in the manic hype that surrounded the so-called slacker movement. Like many impressionable kids at the time, I found heartwarming comfort in the lo-fi aesthetic. There was nobility in the way it eschewed precision and technology in pursuit of grittiness and immediacy.
I soon bought every Grifters album I could find. Of all the nineties lo-fi acts, the Grifters were my favorite, because, at least to me, they were underdogs. Less photogenic than Pavement, less tortured than Sebadoh, and less angry than Archers of Loaf, they lacked the crucial selling hook that’s so key to mainstream success. Moreover, they were exasperatingly nebulous as a band. Their albums were schizophrenic, genre-jumping affairs that rarely coalesced well. Still, despite their clear inferiority marketability-wise, they soldiered forth ebulliently, all the while warmly embracing their small core of fans. This, to me, was reason to love them more. They simply needed and deserved more love.
A little surprisingly, and like most of their peers, the Grifters eventually got a big record deal. They put out a couple of solid but commercially disappointing albums, and eventually broke up. But unlike their peers, they produced no post-breakup success stories. While the studs from the other bands either went solo (Steve Malkmus) or moved on to other, fairly high profile projects (the Folk Implosion, Crooked Fingers), Shouse pretty much vanished. He briefly helmed Those Bastard Souls, with whom he produced some great songs that deserved to be heard, but mostly weren’t. Now, past age 40, he’s throwing his hat into the rock ring again, this time with the Bloodthirsty Lovers.
With all of that in mind, it was strangely sad to watch Shouse and his new band take the stage around 12:30 a.m. on a Wednesday night in a small Indiana college town, gazed upon curiously by an undersized audience made up almost exclusively of members or friends of the two local openers. Early on, the glum scene seemed to affect the Lovers, as the night’s opener, “2000 Light Years from Home”, fell flat. After a similarly hallow second song, Shouse acknowledged that the band was off to “a Wednesday night kinda start,” and assured us that things would get better.
What I didn’t mention earlier, and probably should have mentioned, is that the Bloodthirsty Lovers is a result of Shouse’s newfound affinity for synths and samplers. He had a guitar handy on stage, but, as on the band’s new album (which is quite good, incidentally), keyboard noise figures prominently into the live show. Now two guys standing behind keyboards fronting a diminutive drummer doesn’t exactly translate into a riveting show, but what Shouse and his fellow keyboardist lacked in showmanship, Paul Taylor more than compensated for with spectacularly intense drumming. Taylor is small in size and reserved in demeanor, but does a Clark Kent-like transformation when duty calls, and on this night, it apparently called sometime in the middle of song number four. I keep wanting to use verbs like flail and thrash to describe Taylor’s style, but that suggests disorder. On the contrary, Taylor held preternatural control over his sticks and skins. As he drummed, his entire body seemed somehow slack and taut all at once. Best of all, his energy helped straighten out the erstwhile wobbly Shouse, who grew more animated and less self-conscious as Taylor continued to abuse his skins with jaw-dropping dexterity and force.
After that fourth song, every eye in the audience was locked in on the band. Conversations stopped. Half-full plastic cups were halted midway to lips. The room’s energy went from vaporous to palpable. The band then launched into “A Sonic Letter to Sarah Jean”, a poignant plea of a song that drips in Shouse’s signature spacey gloom. From then on, it no longer seemed quite so depressing that Shouse was here with his crew of strikingly more youthful bandmates, playing to a tiny audience of kids half his age. As the music ebbed into the darkest part of the night, it became clear that Shouse has plenty of aural magic left in him, even if the masses never deign to listen.