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Discord is bound for glory: French Kicks at Club Helsinki. Photo by Martin Benjamin

Bang the Drum Intensely
By Shawn Stone

French Kicks
Club Helsinki, July 12

The French Kicks are genuinely unusual. You can pigeonhole them, if you prefer, as garage rock with great hooks. There is always a melody or hook in the mix somewhere; they love discord and dissonance too much, however, to really be pop. With this New York City-based quartet, a catchy tune is likely to be locked in a death struggle for musical supremacy with hypnotic, violent guitar noise, or set against some demented, but well-planned, vocal harmony.

Part of it is having a lead singer who is also the drummer. Nick Stumpf’s drumming is intense, and he often snaps the snare like he’s in a marching band. It easily passes the Don Henley “Could he get a job drumming if he couldn’t sing?” test. Having the drummer up front changes the dynamics in interesting ways, though this is probably more apparent in a larger venue.

If they had been playing in such a hypothetical cavernous club packed with patrons, the startling opening of “Crying Just for Show,” their first song, easily would have cut through any noisy indifference with its eerie sense of warning. In the intimate confines of Club Helsinki, the effect of guitars, bass and drums ringing together in perfect discord was really alarming. Stumpf’s vocal floated over the marchlike beat as the instrumental intensity never wavered. It was pop music without any melodic payoff, edgy and impressive, and it got everyone’s attention.

The French Kicks kept the intensity level high throughout their set, and their varied arrangements prevented the band from turning intensity into monotony. In “When You Heard You,” the vocal alone carried the melody, sounding lonely against the heavy mix. “One Time Bells” had a catchy wordless refrain, while Josh Wise made intriguing noises with his guitar. The hypnotic “When We Went Off” brought the march beat to the front, while adding electric keyboards (played by Wise). The most pop-sounding songs were “Close to Modern,” which featured falsetto harmonies, and “Piano,” which closed their first set with a burst of light, happy energy.

There was no opening act, and the club was only half-filled, unfortunately. More folks showed up as the set came to a close, so after a break, the band obligingly returned to play a couple more tunes.

Sorry Somehow

Grant Hart, Rob Skane
Valentine’s, July 10

Grant Hart’s show at Valen- tine’s last Wednesday got off to a painful start. Unhappy with the sound onstage, and gesfturing repeatedly to the soundman to up the monitors, the former Hüsker Dü songwriter finally snapped a few songs into his set. “I can’t hear a fuckin’ thing,” Hart yelled as he soundly berated the dejected sound guy. Perhaps Hart’s frustration was understandable (I’ve been told it was the soundman’s first night on the job), but the viciousness of his anger made the audience truly uncomfortable. Like being caught in the midst of a domestic dispute, the situation was ugly and unpredictable at the same time.

Hart also had shown up extremely late for the gig, which meant the lack of a preshow sound check was his own fault. “He still drives the old Hüsker Dü van, so maybe it broke down,” a friend informed me as we milled about the club beforehand, not knowing whether Hart would show up at all. After the temper tantrum, Hart angrily grabbed his guitar and sat cross-legged in front of the stage to play unplugged. A group of fans cheered and sat around him in a circle on the floor.

The smallish crowd of fans—many of whom seemed to be at the show to relive Hart’s career with the legendary ’80s punk band Hüsker Dü—seemed willing to cut the volatile Hart some slack, as I was, solely because he has written so many great songs. The crowd also found it easy to forgive Hart’s anger (and his horrible mulletlike haircut) because he eagerly satisfied almost every request for a Hüsker Dü-era song. “Would you like to hear that?” Hart asked, still seated on the floor, before fulfilling a request for his classic bitter pill, “Never Talking to You Again.”

By midset, Hart, who had returned to the stage following his brief stint on the floor, was in a better mood. He had even thanked the soundman for the improved sound onstage (it was almost an apology). The show picked up when Hart followed his haunting drug allegory “Pink Turns to Blue” with the nearly effervescent “She Floated Away.” By the time Hart closed with a few audience-chosen favorites (“Diane,” “Sorry Somehow,” “Books About UFOs”), the evening’s earlier tension was close to being forgotten. Still, for those who may have witnessed the superior, drama-free show that Hart put on last year at Valentine’s, it was easy to feel let down—and a tad disturbed—by the petulance of this one.

When local garage-folk songwriter Rob Skane went on stage, he had to contend with the uncertainty of a no-show headliner (Hart didn’t appear until the end of the opening set). Still, Skane made the best of the situation, cracking lighthearted jokes in between songs from his latest album, SelfNoise. Almost belying his extremely tall stature, Skane’s tunes tended to be wistful and sensitive: “Jennifer and James,” a melancholic love song that name-checked Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley; the reclusive “In My Room,” which showcased Skane’s subdued, hushed vocals; and the mournful “How Many More Times.” Skane concluded his set with the upbeat, irrepressibly catchy “It’s a Great Day” and a memorable cover of the Clash’s “Train in Vain.”

—Kirsten Ferguson

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