Enon + Swearing at Motorists

[5 April 2005]

By Megan Milks

Swearing at Motorists

Seeing Enon live is like watching two people engage in a polite discussion about pop music. Throughout their entire hour-plus show, John Schmersal and Toko Yasuda held back their more biting beliefs and instead exchanged only mildly progressive avant-pop ideas, making every effort to agree with one another. A good example of diplomacy in action, but for all the cool composure, for all the efficient compromise, something went missing. A fistfight, maybe. Or screaming.

On their last date supporting their new B-sides and rarities album, Enon made it a point to dip through several years of discographical history. The band has undergone several line-up changes as of late but has finally settled into: original member Schmersal on guitar, synths, and vocals; Yasuda, formerly of The Lapse, on bass, keyboard, sampler, and vocals; and Matt Schultz on drums. Guitarist Seth Jabour of Les Savy Fav had been expected to pitch in on this tour but backed out at the last minute. Jabour’s absence may explain the band’s droopy energy level, but the sound did not suffer.

Enon is versatile, defined by experimental tendencies, the rare band equally capable of loungey lap-pop and funked-up post-punk. What unifies Enon’s varied output, with few exceptions, is its catchiness. It’s pre-party music, all about clever people having fun. Whatever meaning the off-kilter lyrics instill is superseded by a bouncy, dance-and-be-smart vibe.

Of course when the songs are all about having a good time, it’s a disappointment when their composers can’t get anyone to dance. For all the party Enon talked, they failed to bring it to the club.

Perhaps it all comes down to this: with versatility as a calling card, it’s hard to put together a cohesive performance. What resulted was a show split into a more dance-oriented, drum-machine-based first half, led by Yasuda, and a latter half driven by more straightforward funk rock, led by Schmersal. Like watching two bands on stage at once—you want them to either cohere fully or duke it out till someone’s senseless.

Yasuda’s voice is not particularly gripping—she prefers a smooth, sweet lilt to counterbalance Schmersal’s more idiosyncratic yowls and over articulations. There is some balance, in theory, but the vocalists do not merge often enough to exploit this tension. And that’s the thing—throughout the night a pronounced tension infiltrated the stage, yet remained unacknowledged. Listening to the two take turns with center stage was like watching a meek, halfhearted tug-of-war in which nobody gets toppled, nobody gets hurt.

It was when Schmersal and Yasuda met in song, trading vocals in each verse and marrying the rock and dance elements, that things found a profitable balance. These were the moments which felt like the products of an original band, and not one just whipping out pretty good imitations of, variously, synth-pop, fuzz pop, post-punk, funk, and early Beck.

The trio started off by popping out new releases “Knock That Door” and “The Nightmare of Atomic Men”, with its skittery noise and unpredictable structures. The latter piece is testament to what Enon can do when it works together—Yasuda and Schmersal’s vocals overlapped and traded off, with Yasuda taking the quick scat lines and Schmersal adding some smirk to the alternate verses. Meanwhile, the song veers in and out of histrionic digiland and takes a few trips to fuzzworld. “Drowning Appointments”, on the other hand, just lolled off like diluted trip-hop with lazy embellishments—Morcheeba on Nyquil.

Surprisingly, Schultz was the most energetic of the three, blasting out the beat like he was trying to knock someone down. Not one to let a drum machine show him up, Schultz transformed lap-pop lightweights like “Kanon” into explosive low-end heavies.

The most intense, satisfying moments of the evening came when Enon dusted off “Rubber Car”, home to the band’s baddest hook. Playing this song, Schmersal had one hell of a good time, grinning under his falsetto while affecting rock-star poses. Too bad he couldn’t bring that excitement to the rest of the show.

Enon’s wishy-washy, egalitarian approach to performance was an odd contrast to what came before: Swearing at Motorists, whose frontman was so obviously in charge, his charisma nearly overpowered the band’s sound. Dave Doughman, one half of the Ohio band, was audience-superfriendly and, well, wow, I didn’t expect the big, barrelly drawl of Swearing at Motorists to look or act like that—scrawny with handlebar mustache and an endless supply of stage banter.

The band’s set was bloated with drawn-out intros rupturing into rock choruses. Doughman injected each of his lovelorn songs with soul, but still the rundown felt like “pretty good song”, “more of the same”, “more of the same”, until the band put in its last word with standout-single “Flying Pizza”, continuing to fill up ex-girlfriend/boyfriend mix tapes the world over.

What stuck out most about Swearing at Motorists’s set were Doughman’s unsuccessful attempts at rocking out with his more reticent stage partner, drummer Joseph Siwinski, who clearly just wanted Doughman to leave him alone and go back to his half of the stage. At least Doughman threw some punches though. Enon looked like they came in already KO’d.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/enon-050325/