hip, kinda wow: Hot Hot Heat’s Steve Bays.
Photo by Joe Putrock
Your Band Smells Terrific
By Kirsten Ferguson
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
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).
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?).
Wainwright III, Erin McKeown
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.
Is a Carousel
Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players
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,
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.