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Kinda hip, kinda wow: Hot Hot Heat’s Steve Bays. Photo by Joe Putrock

Gee, Your Band Smells Terrific
By Kirsten Ferguson

Hot Hot Heat, the Sun, the Erotics
Valentine’s, April 9

It’s damn near official: Hair is back (in the male rock world, anyway). There must have been a fashion alert in Maxim or something: Chain wallets, tattoos, buzz cuts and other trappings of punk-rock masculinity are out; skintight pants, flyaway British Invasion mop hairdos and overall foppery are way in. Of course, the fashion roulette wheel was already spinning that way, but Hot Hot Heat’s show at Valentine’s last Wednesday was a welcome reminder that, during a time of war, at least we can depend on rockers to reject machismo on occasion.

Fashionwise and musically, Hot Hot Heat’s biggest virtue may be their perfect timing. Singer and keyboardist Steve Bays has the now look, with his hip- hugging pants, Kewpie doll face and spiky Rod Stewart (Faces-era) rooster hair. Musically, Hot Hot Heat’s polished, edgy pop also draws upon the hippest of retro references: skinny-tie new wave, degenerate synth-disco and the sort of Blank Generation lite propagated by the Strokes. Hot Hot Heat’s catchy, art- damaged sound is so self-consciously au courant that when I first heard their Make Up the Breakdown (Sub Pop) album on college radio last year, I thought for sure the band had sprouted from New York City’s painfully trendy dance-rock scene.

That assumption about Hot Hot Heat’s place of origin couldn’t have been further from the truth. “We’re from a little island off the western tip of Canada—as far west as you can get and still be in Canada,” Bays declared during the Valentine’s set. Yep, it seems the four young Canucks in Hot Hot Heat developed their hip-now sound while living in the relative isolation of Victoria, British Columbia (accessible by ferry across the Strait of Georgia from Vancouver), where they must have indulged a geeky appreciation for late ’70s and early ’80s new wave (XTC, the Cars, Joe Jackson). Given their young ages, it’s just as likely that band members absorbed a great deal of keyboard- driven ’80s synth-pop as well (Soft Cell, A Flock of Seagulls).

Fortunately for Hot Hot Heat, their stylistic bag of influences still sounds relatively fresh these days, and out of the many bands currently trying to re-fuse rock with dance, they may be one of the best. (Judging by the size of the crowd at Valentine’s, they’re either getting radio play or they’re on MTV2.) Hermetic island existence, perhaps, has contributed to Hot Hot Heat’s tightly wound musical precision. The band’s tense pop hooks, agitated vocals and herky-jerky rhythms inspired the sizable crowd to handclap and, yes, dance along (if bouncing up and down can be called dancing).

“This is one of the first dance songs we ever wrote,” Bays said, announcing “Five Times out of 100,” a rapid-fire song that recalled the acerbic-yet-danceable dissonance of art-punk forebears like the Au Pairs. The band saved their best song for last: “Bandages,” a dervish of nervous energy, swirling keyboard and insistent bass lines. Frontman Days attacked the keyboard with both hands as he chanted the song’s vaguely sadistic lyrics (“I’ve been poking a voodoo doll that I made for you/Let’s see what needles do”).

The Sun unexpectedly replaced the French Kicks on the bill, though it wasn’t an unwelcome exchange. Hailing from the rock & roll hotbed of Columbus, Ohio (and featuring New Bomb Turks drummer Sam Brown), the Sun were a mixed bag of ’60s garage, piercing punk rock, keyboard psychedelia and twitchy new wave. They were all over the place to their detriment, perhaps. But singer-guitarist Chris Burney—a scrawny little guy with a Woody Allen schnozz and a mop of shaggy hair who looked all of 12 years old—had the conviction it takes to be a great frontman (call it being possessed by the moment). A walking spasm, he interrupted one song to castigate his guitar pedals (“I will beat you again and again”), before he threw back his head and howled.

Playing second on the four-band bill (DC’s the Washington Social Club opened), Albany’s the Erotics were a headlining act unto themselves. Members of the other bands looked on with veneration as Mike Trash and co. blasted through songs like “Supermodel Suicide” and “Gas Chamber Barbie Doll,” unleashing a veritable sleaze fest of blazing guitars and shock-rock lyrics (Helen Keller was a bed wetter—who knew?).

Daddy’s Dirty Laundry

Loudon Wainwright III, Erin McKeown
The Egg, April 11

Loudon Wainwright has been performing for more than 30 years. His songs have fallen pretty much into three categories: comic/observational novelties, topical songs and autobiographical explorations. The first type netted him his only chart hit (“Dead Skunk”), but it is with the latter that he’s made the most enduring impression upon his audience. With an admirable measure of honesty, Wainwright has plumbed the depths of all manner of family dysfunction. Granted, it’s a public presentation of honesty that may differ at its private core, but that is the nature of art in any genre, to be built upon skills and insights in such a way as to feel fresh and real to each new listener.

Wainwright’s well-received set at the Egg had a curiously revealing pair of songs at its midpoint. First he performed “A Year,” a song from his 1995 album Grown Man, which painfully details a father (him) who is unable to make a meaningful connection with his child due to the surrounding circumstances (divorce). Having lived many of these circumstances in the public realm, it’s easy for one to ascertain that the child in question is his daughter Lucy, whose mother is Suzzy Roche (Rufus and Martha are his children with Kate McGarrigle). He followed this song with a cover (something he rarely does), “Daughter” by Peter Blegvad. This overlooked gem by one of our finest and most overlooked contemporary songwriters is rich with a father’s pride and awe. It’s written from the standpoint of a parent who’s been present every step of the way, with such lines as, “That’s my daughter in the water, everything she knows I taught her. . . . Every time she fell I caught her.” Wainwright sang the song with alluring passion and commitment, but also under a cloud of melancholy, for here he was inhabiting a role he never lived. His own song reported on the distance and the missing but didn’t say why it occurred or if he wished it could be different. Adopting the character in Blegvad’s song (which is, after all, the role of a performer) called into question Wainwright’s role in his own songs. He fearlessly reports on his familial failings, but effective reporting also requires a certain detachment. Of course, that needn’t and doesn’t diminish the emotional resonance of such quietly powerful songs as “White Winos,” which lovingly chronicles his mother’s final years, fading out with a mix of unhappiness, love, memories and her nightly glass after glass after glass of wine.

Erin McKeown opened the show, and while similar in volume and instrumentation (just a guitar, though hers was a stunning Gretsch electric hollow body) the two performers are different in key ways. These differences will serve McKeown well as she embarks on her career. Her second album is being released in June, and she’s a writer of remarkable breadth, penning songs that sound at once classic and wholly original. Where Wainwright’s songs are so tied to either him or the times that they’re knotty candidates for interpretation by others, McKeown’s sound like standards already.

—David Greenberger

Life Is a Carousel

Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players
Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, Mass., April 13

Nothing sends my bullshit antennae skyward faster than the words “darlings of the New York art scene.” I got one word for you and that’s Cremaster. Or is that considered, like, over?

So I had a healthy amount of trepidation going to see darlings of the New York art scene the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, whose oeuvre is to sing songs over photographic slides found at garage and estate sales—essentially entertaining with the detritus of other peoples lives. An interesting concept, I guess, but was it going to be precious, pretentious, superior in tone, weird beyond belief, and fundamentally lacking in that thing called talent?

Last week’s show at Club Helsinki was none of those things and more. The Trachtenburgs—daddy Jason on keyboards and vocals, mommy Tina on the slide projector, and daughter Rachel, who is all of 9 years old, on drums and vocal—presented one of the most original, hysterically funny, and in its own little way, complete chunks of entertainment you are likely to see.

Everything revolved around the slides: pictures of Japanese and Western U.S. vacations from the early 1950s, of the Vietnam war, of Quaker Oats, of a 30-ish woman and her friends hanging around the house (again from the 1950s). It is difficult to describe the power of these images as they fly by, and the juice they bring to a room.

Especially when your guide is Jason Trachtenburg. A small guy with huge Lew Wasserman glasses, Jason talks in the stop-rush-stop cadence of Woody Allen, and his rambling setups for the songs were performances in and of themselves. His words and comedic timing were just sublime. His songs are ditties, really, much like the songs of They Might Be Giants, and the lyrics careen around the things happening on the screen, often foreshadowing a slide change or pointing out something in a shot that is just supremely odd, incongruous and silly.

Little Rachel was a joy to watch. She played the drums primitively, and often approximated the beat. But she was always in the game, and the approximations only added to the lo-fi charm. She sang (while playing!) with a reedy and true 9-year-old’s voice. Rachel had no compunctions about interrupting Dad, in that voice, to correct him about some fact, or about how a song was supposed to start. She wasn’t wrong once.

The cumulative effect of all this was an honest and real performance of a dimension that was bizarre only if one could stop laughing long enough to think about it. I couldn’t. Unlikely as it may seem, the Trachtenburgs’ show was fun of the purest sort.

After a fabulous song set to some vintage driver’s education slides, the Trachtenburgs performed their opus, the “extended version” of a six-song “rock opera” set to a bunch of McDonald’s national-sales-strategy slides from the early ’70s. It only took the slightest suggestion to make these li’l suckers funny.

—Paul Rapp

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