Strapping Young Men Singer at the Knitting Factory Tap Bar 4/29 and Glasslands Gallery 4/30
Watching Singer perform their deep and dirty music, I had the uncontrollable urge to grab my nether region like Michael Jackson. In another similarity with the king of pop, the band seems fond of fooling around with falsetto, courtesy of the fantastically mustachioed Robert A. A. Lowe, formerly of 90 Day Men. But the Jacko comparison need go no further, because Singer has little to do with pop music.
In fact, many less adventurous souls might hear nothing but noise when they listen to Singer’s sometimes languid and otherwise slapped-around-rock debut, Unhistories (Drag City). The record doesn’t sound completely coherent until you’ve heard it more than a few times—not surprising, as the band is the mechanical and emotional offspring of U.S. Maple, the former home of two Singer members, drummer Adam Vida and guitarist Todd Rittman.
In 1999, while touring with the indie-rock band Pavement, U.S. Maple became infamous for their eccentric presence: a piece of Saran Wrap tied like an ascot around Rittman’s throat; strange bangs and taps like the sound of a car tune-up from Pat Samson (Vida’s predecessor on drums); and the raspy mumblings of Al Johnson, the railroad conductor–capped front man who flailed like an escaped mental patient and carried (but never played) a flute onstage. Pavement fans sometimes greeted the cacophony with wrath, raining down beer cans on the hapless members of U.S. Maple.
Were you willing to go into those sunless depths with them, you realized U.S. Maple’s sound was calculated, composed, and more catharsis than just theatrics. There is similar emotional muck in Singer’s music, but it’s less personal. While Maple was considered eccentric and even painful listening, Singer strives to be more accessible. These boys aren’t free-falling into a pit of snakes, but instead coming elegantly unhinged.
While most would agree that Unhistories still retains a certain lawlessness, it is more precisely defined than any U.S. Maple album (except perhaps their last one, Purple On Time, which attempted to employ a more conventional song structure). With Singer, there are goals: subtle politicization, more articulation, and less hanging while waiting for the beat to come back. Politics seem infused everywhere nowadays, and they are here too. On the insert to Unhistories, there is a photo of a broken down (and possibly foreclosed upon, according to the press materials) house, a song called “Please, Tell the Justices We’re Fine,” and a smattering of “Oh Say, Can You See?” in the final song, “Mauvais Sang.” In a nod to democracy, perhaps, everyone in the band is a singer; the diverse voices range from feminine and breathy to rounded and deep, creating harmonies like a slowed-down, creepier rendition of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. While most of us don’t have the meditative strength to really understand Singer’s lyrics (should we have emigrated to more structured territory post-Maple), we feel like we could if we needed to.
The best song on the album is also the best live: “Oh Dusty” starts with Maplesque clanging guitar, the vocals come in soon after, and the drums bring a sort of metronomic pulse. There is a sweet scratchiness, a resistance that gives the tune a stripped-down effect. Rittman’s voice is a surprise, making me wonder why it wasn’t in the forefront sooner. It’s the only song on the album that I might catch myself humming.
At the Knitting Factory on April 29, Rittman traded his improvised ascot for a stub of a tie, chopped right under his chin (the leftovers hanging out of Lowe’s back pocket). But the Tap Bar wasn’t the greatest venue for Singer’s vocal harmonies or metallic guitar. The sound was overblown, muting the vocals, and the audience was non-participatory, still as statues, as if we were in a science lab watching a petri dish evolve.
I bitch a lot about performance quality nowadays, but this criticism leaves out the listener. It’s like a court jester: We expect the band to show up and entertain us on command, but in fact they need us as much as we need them. Energy is neither created nor destroyed—if we stand there with folded arms, they are duller performers. Applause after every song was created as a feedback system, which guides the decisions the performer make. But applause has become meaningless, because we do it even if what we have seen is pure crap. So we must give more, and differently. And get more in return.
I went to the show at Glasslands gallery on Kent Street in Williamsburg hoping that being marginalized near the river would make for a better setting to see an out-there band. Sure enough, the audience hooted and hollered, egging the boys on. (It didn’t hurt that most of them were musicians themselves.) The band fed on that energy, ratcheting up the tension with bounding sound prowess, hitting every mark. The gallery, which contained a menacing Poseidon-like installation above the stage, had an airy quality providing space for these sounds to breathe.
I was at the Glasslands show with a girlfriend (who can also see beauty in odd places), and we agreed that there was something about Singer that was intrinsically male, and reminded us of why we love men. Cojones, maybe. Yet it was sensitive too, like the Chimay beer I was guzzling, made with a sense of delicate purpose by Trappist monks. The band before, Rings, was an all-female group that sounded like Suicide getting it on with the Slits during practice. The juxtaposition reasserted the strapping, rehearsed quality of Singer.
For U.S. Maple, the deconstruction of rock felt primary. Speaking after the show with Rittman about the demise of that group, he shrugged it off in a way that suggested things fell apart in an anarchy like the one that had allowed the band to come together. Singer forges on, with a fresh sound yet still continuing in the traditions of its forbearers. Change is good when it’s no worse than you started.