Friday, October 06, 2006

Stills @ The Independent 10/5/06

We went back to our old neighborhood last night to see The Stills at The Independent, which is tied with Café du Nord for best live music venue in San Francisco (no fries, but better sound & stage). Camille and I have loved the Stills since 2003, about six seconds into “Lola Stars and Stripes.” Wait, that’s not accurate. She’s loved them since then, but at the time they released Logic Will Break Your Heart (their debut) I was engaged in an aggressive boycott of New York haircut bands. So I dismissed them like so much unnecessary conditioner.

You remember that era. Strokes, Hives, Vines, Doves, etc. I had this suspicion that, despite the improbable catchiness of Is This It?, these bands had no shelf life and secretly sucked. And I didn’t want to get too invested. It also really bothered me that Rolling Stone would “predict” some band like The Vines to be "the next big thing," then two months later would put them on the cover – like, See, we were right! It's always been that way -- just in the past, I'd had the time and inclination to investigate the music and figure out what I felt was actually good, separating it from the garbage. Now, even though I still have no time, I've got better sources. But then, I had to give up on pop music altogether. Anyway, I was right about the shelf life of all those bands, but wrong to lump the Stills in with them. For one thing, they’re from Montreal. They only look and sound like a New York haircut band. And, really, they don't sound too much like that -- their record was produced that way (in Brooklyn, no less), and they were certainly marketed in that way, but it doesn't fit well. They don't fit well with the slightly more recent Canadian invasion either, but no one fits these labels in the first place, and there's no such thing as a metropolitan music "scene" anyway, so forget I said anything and let's move on.

The band killed. Like every other mainstream popular rock band right now, The Stills are five white guys, aged 25-28 in suits/ties/formalwear of some sort, with camping hair. Left to right:

A guy who was too French for the Strokes, a guy who was way too French for the Strokes, fat Steve Caton, and my 13-year old cousin Benjie. [aka Tim Fletcher (Vocals/guitar), Olivier Corbeil (bass), Liam O'Neil (keyboards), and Dave Hamelin (Vocals/guitar)] Drummer Julien Blais isn’t pictured – but that’s fine. During the show Camille summed him up fine: “He’s kind of cute…wait, I can’t see him.”

You have to hand it to this band, though. They understand the difference between a song formula (boring) and a song recipe (tasty!), they know that it’s easier to rock out to simple melody & complex harmony, and they play tight new-wave arrangements in a loose, bombastic manner. Best of all, when their lead guitarist left, their drummer switched to rhythm guitar and took over half the vocals while their lead singer/rhythm guitarist switched to lead and made space for a new voice. It’s rare to have multiple lead singers of the same gender, and especially rare for the singing lineup to change three years in. What’s even more rare is when the less-attractive, less charismatic singer with a dorkier voice gets to sing a larger percentage of the songs on the sophomore album. But we loved him. He wasn’t totally comfortable on the guitar, so at first, due to his awkwardness and concentration, Camille starting referring to him as the “boy genius” of the band. It made sense later when we found out he’s not the regular guitarist or singer. It gave the band a more democratic feel, which is always nice.

They started with “It Takes Time,” from their new album Without Feathers (no idea whether they named it after the Woody Allen book or not – probably not). Great, but just a warm-up for “Lola Stars and Stripes.” Three years ago I would have thought the Kinks had mined that name for all its catchy singability, but obviously the Stills found unexplored potential. It’s impossible not to like that song. The follower, “Gender Bombs,” tried a lot harder to be dark and unlikeable, but since everyone in that club plays Smiths and Galore when they’re doing dishes, no luck there. Other highlights from the old album included “Yesterday Never Tomorrows” with sparkling keyboards, “Love and Death,” and a propulsive, snarly “Changes are No Good,” which Dave Hamelin (aka “Boy Genius” or “Teeny Weeny Rock Star”) prefaced by saying: “I wrote this one about a party that I wasn’t at, and wasn’t happy about it.” Camille leaned over to say “Yeah, cause you were at Hebrew school.” Buuuuuuuuuurn!.

About halfway through the show they announced that they were about to blow our minds, then revved up “Retour a Vega” and Tim Fletcher (who's hot enough as it is) started singing in French. Macy's panties department instantaneously made $900.

The songs from the new album got enthusiastic treatments too, which I always like to see. Nothing’s worse than a band that doesn’t commit as hard to its new material because of the crowd’s unfamiliarity. “The Beginning” had that bright, sunshiney epic feel, and their intense delivery of “Helicopters” helped bring out the lyrics’ lurking paranoia. I love lurking paranoia:

So keep this song
Till you catch diseases
And wait them out
Till the tundra freezes

Helicopters are chasing
Animals through the fields
Helicopters are chasing
Our spirits into the sea.

Can't front on a song about helicopters chasing animals through the fields, especially when it's set to soaring harmonies in a coda that makes you scared and elated at the same time. Good stuff. Also good: the rollicking guitar/drums/tambourine version of “Oh Shoplifter,” which offers a completely different take from the Smiths on that five-fingered art.

All in all, excellent show by a band with just a little more talent and depth than their hype would suggest. Don’t miss them if they’re coming to your town.

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