[31 March 2009]
After the hands are stamped, the wristbands examined, the bureaucracy satisfied, the Noise Pop art machine births an impressive line-up of indie-pop’s finest: The Morning Benders and the Submarines at the grand ol’ Slim’s in San Francisco’s notorious SOMA neighborhood. This show is part of San Francisco’s Noise Pop festival: A celebration of jangly and droney indie-pop and post-rock, spanning several venues in our fine city.
I make my long winded argument to Gene the photographer about how (in theory) many of these bands are supposed to have come here in vans without a huge amount of label support, so independent journalism generating entities should spring up and inspire legions of conscientious writers and photographers eager to celebrate, photograph, and write about this magical music thing. Because, I go on, it’s all just so much bigger than money. We sip our drinks with soldierly honor and dignity.
Blake Hazard (no, that can’t really be her name), the Submarines’ mega-cute singer and sometimes xylophone player tells sweetly of how she’s seen the country on this tour, and how excited she is to finally be home in California. The people cheer for California and her sweet and hopefully-not-contrived vulnerability, and she says, “In celebration of Valentine’s Day, we’re going to play our breakup song.” And they sing a story of love and heartbreak and hope for a better tomorrow.
Blake Hazard tickles everyone with her seemingly modest, blond-haired, high school sweetheart radiance. She is the one that got away or something. She is also the great-granddaughter of F. Scott Fitzgerald (no joke). Her handsome beau and partner in crime, John Dragonetti palm mutes his lightly distorted guitar and sings his awkward, yet honest vocals to the eager audience that love him the way that you love that really great band from your high school who you always really hoped would make it big. Or, at least, get to see the country, with a bit of label assistance. And you want them to have had a really fun, romantic time as they toured away from and then back home to California.
The Submarines are pop in the tradition of the Cranberries (well, the Cranberries’ first—and only good – album) and Citizens Here and Abroad with intimations of the Cure and college rock. The drummer is oddly animated, creative in his shaky little movements. He shimmers and bobs with an awkward certainty that can only be described as gentle madness.
Like Fleet Foxes and Dr. Dog, the Morning Benders celebrate a bygone but fun revival of the ‘60s and ’70s light classic rock Neil Young kinda thing. But here, the AM Gold, jangly guitar is replaced by amiable, echoey, mid-heavy, shoegazey, lightly distorted guitar. Still, the dancing shuffle remains the same.
A good lead singer is a boon to any band. Christopher Chu is so goddamn adorable he seems almost anime. And he has the voice of an angel. He apologizes for being sleepy and says, “We’ve been all around the country. You realize how much the rest of the country sucks when you come back home to the Bay Area.” We’re moved. We clap. God bless our fine bay!
Then they do the thing where they ask the crowd to interact and then teach them a part of the song and when to sing it. This is a ritual I’ve seen before.
The Morning Benders don’t project the same “I love you so much and I’m so happy to be playing here”-vibe that the Submarines had. Maybe this is what happens as these born-of-independent-means bands become more and more popular and their audiences start to seem more abstract—less like friends and more like eager consumers who stare dumbly at the stage, like they’re watching TV.
Also, they’re tired. And I can understand. Having to live up to being called the best band of 2008 by the great and powerful iTunes would probably wear one out. As they exit the stage, Mr. Chu says, “We love you,” but either he doesn’t reeeally mean it and/or the crowd doesn’t really feel it.
… a pause…
“We never do encores, but this is San Francisco!” And they play “Ceremony” by Joy Division. “It’s one of our favorite songs,” Christopher Chu says. “This is a sort of ceremony.”