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Tugging the heartstrings: The Dears do it large at Northern Lights.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Lost in the Rock
By John Brodeur

The Dears, Apollo Sunshine, By Divine Right
Northern Lights, Jan. 14

The folks at Manchester, Vt.-based WEQX have continually trumpeted their independence over the past 20 years, and their playlists have consistently differed from those of most mainstream modern- or alternative-rock stations. Hell, all three of the national acts on the lineup for EQX’s 20th Anniversary show record for indie label SpinArt—how many commercial radio stations can boast of having three SpinArt bands in rotation, let alone one? Of course, that can be both a good and a bad thing, as the bands themselves showed.

The Dears, a six-piece ensemble from Montreal, were third out of four bands (local band Horse in a Box played an early opening set), and they plainly showed up everyone else on the bill, despite having to play through a terrible sound mix that made feedback the seventh band member. Singer-composer Murray Blackburn is posited as a pop/pomp visionary in press materials, and their “Lost in the Plot” is about the coolest thing going on radio right now, but the band’s ability to pull off such complex and dynamic material in a live setting was especially stunning.

Opener “We Can Have It” found Blackburn quietly strumming his acoustic guitar, crooning, “What we want is gone for good, it’s simply nowhere to be found,” before George Donoso III’s insistent drumbeat catapulted the band into high gear. Donoso and Blackburn anchored the band with their truly passionate performances, while Martin Pelland added burbles of soulful bass guitar. The secret weapons, however, were keyboardists Valerie Jodoin-Keaton and Natalia Yanchak, both of whom complemented Blackburn’s velvety Morrissey-meets-Damon Albarn croon with their haunting unison backing vocals. On the duet “22: The Death of All the Romance,” Blackburn and Yanchak diagrammed the, um, death of all the romance, over cinematic flourishes of Mellotron chorus and live flute (courtesy of Jodoin-Keaton). Sounded a bit like if Belle and Sebastian were to grow some balls.

Be not mistaken: The Dears practice in high drama. Songs shift from a cinderblock-on-the-accelerator stomp to a psychedelic slow burn that wouldn’t sound out of place on Dark Side of the Moon (or OK Computer, for that matter). Tsunami-size swells give way to slinky, almost-dub grooves, then segue into free-form noise jams or screaming post-punk blasts. Meanwhile, Blackburn will ride a suspension until you’re all but begging for resolution, then deliver a noirish melodica interlude or a fluid guitar lead that would make George Harrison proud. He’s a talent to be reckoned with, and he’s got the right manpower to see his vision through. Watch out for this band.

Thanks to a gastronomical scheduling miscalculation, Apollo Sunshine had the unfortunate task of closing out the evening, taking the stage at the crack of midnight. While the younger portion of the audience looked to be buying into their Weezer-meets-the-Violent Femmes-y shtick, the silliness fell flat in the considerable wake left by the Dears. The band members felt the crunch as well: It was noticeable in their haste when setting up, and in their mannerisms while performing. To their credit, the instrument-swapping trio did offer up a rather nice rendition of Sam Cooke’s “I’ll Come Running Back to You,” and a few of their nerdy dance jams almost hit the mark, but a mangled version of “I Was on the Moon” (their current single) was a complete turnoff. Come on, it’s the frickin’ single, guys. It’s the only one that people are going to recognize. If the guitarist breaks a string on the second chord, stop the song and start over. Didn’t you read your handbook?

By Divine Right’s much-too-long set earlier in the evening ranged from moderately engaging to absolute tripe. A few of singer-guitarist Jose Miguel Contreras’ tunes smacked of the self- conscious angst of Material Issue’s Jim Ellison; by the middle of the set, all that came to mind was mid-’90s treacle like dada and Dead Eye Dick. After a more-than-ample 35 minutes onstage, they finally got around to their best song, “Semi-White Boy,” after which Contreras led the band into yet another song. Come on, guys, you know how the saying goes—save the best for last. Guess you didn’t read your handbook either.

 

 

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