May 27, 2010
Danceable, light pop was a cause that everyone united for at The Space last Thursday. Solidarity was shown in every thumping heel or head-nod in the room. Their platform? Jukebox the Ghost, Free Energy and Miniature Tigers.
This packaged deal was tailored for blanket enthusiasm in the room, each act delivering a slight variation off chewable pop rock, highly melodic and contagiously danceable (see: a preteen boy flailing around ecstatically clutching a Stewart’s orange soda towards the end of Jukebox’ set).
Eyes lifted to Charlie Brand of Miniature Tigers, knees bending every second or two just off the tempo, it was hard to determine if the girl up front and center was mouthing lyrics or chewing gum really open mouthed. She was surrounded by clumps of young girls fitted in rompers like hers, differently shorn sundresses, shorts and the straggler pair of jeans every now and then. Outfitted in argyle socks and boat shoes, the members of the band were equally as groomed. And with most of the room’s testosterone confined to an invisible radius in the back of the room, there was a definite hierarchy watching the Phoenix band through the five row-deep filter of girls.
Pop music and beautiful people. The setting felt too unblemished to be real, but that’s just what this scene is.
“For this next one, any clapping or spiritual dancing would help us out,” Brand joked to the squeals of the front row. Miniature Tigers released their first recordings as double EPs (White Magic, Black Magic) in 2008, and have since swelled in popularity, riding the tide of cheery balladry into major festivals like CMJ and snagging reviews in Rolling Stone. You wouldn’t know it from the way they carried themselves—confident, but casual enough to seem unaware of it—or from the enthusiastic though blank faces of those in the crowd. Maybe a little unknown, but welcomed.
Even the Brand-induced clap-along lasted the whole of Tigers’ ‘Coyote,’ a jerky sing-a-long whose chorus is an off-pitch repetition of the song title—just easy enough to cure any end-of-set slump. The crowd opened up as Brand inserted himself into the tizzy of high school-aged girls and boys and held an unofficial dance-off. Algernon Quashie folded in half over a keyboard which lit up at each point of contact with his fingers as the rest of the band looked on laughing at the awkward spectacle on the floor.
Free Energy comes from similar roots of recent hype. And they’re just as new as Tigers, mounting the radar in 2009 after signing to DFA Records (LCD Soundsystem, Black Dice) and releasing their heavily reviewed full-length Stuck on Nothing. There’s something about the five-piece that oozes gimmick. Their hairstyles were all just different enough to seem intentionally diverse (jerry curls AND a buzz cut?), their set—though fun—was the kind of store-brand enthusiasm which they would probably pull off with guitars swinging if they played a local dungeon. They play an interesting blend of pop with classic rock riffage. At times when the lead guitarist’s melodies weren’t needed, he would stand watching the band himself. It was simple but soulless. Paul Sprangers prided himself on frontman clichés, mimicking a running man as he cycled his arms bent at a 45 degree angle by his sides. Some can pull off less-bang-for-your-musical-buck and still save some charm in the vague world of pop, but Free Energy isn’t among them. Though, some in the audience were more than ready to sing along with “This is all we’ve got tonight/we are young and still alive” or “Bang, bang, pop, pop…” They can certainly hold their own in writing anthems for the sorts of things some like to define their lives by: love, adolescence, summer. But they forgot to sign the card for you, leaving something shallow, overdone and unpersonalized behind.
Jukebox the Ghost was subtly refreshing after this—subtle because this is something they weren’t trying to achieve. Their musical precision came with such an ease, it looked to be second nature to them. Having come through Connecticut more than a few times since their inception in 2003 (twice at Westport’s Toquet Hall, recorded upcoming sophomore release in Bridgeport), the atmosphere was a familiar one—complete with moms in the signature Jukebox shirt which features a rough children’s cartoon of a ghost. Though just a trio (guitar, keys and drums) Jukebox produced a pleasantly full sound. If the girls and boys were giddy before, some looked like they just received a personal and thoughtful gift from Ben Thornewill (vox/guitar) now. Their set certainly felt that way, with plenty of crowd interaction which, for tight-mouthed Thornewill, seemed rare and therefore special. ‘Static to the Heart’ was an infectious pleaser, with some overanimatedly singing the lyric “Mum and dad wake wake wake from your slumber because we're gonna burn this motherfucker down!” And then there was the Donna Lewis’ “I Love You Always Forever” cover which sounded nearly authentically theirs. This is a skill all their own, developed after years of constant touring with big-little national names like stylistic predecessor Ben Folds and Jenny Owen Youngs. Jukebox has taken their minimal amount of instruments and honed it into a sound firm enough to be unique to them—and that gives fans one more reason to love them to add to the bunch.
(photos: Grace McGovern)