Earnestness Revival: A Night with Somos and The Hotelier
by Chad Jewett
Boston is an earnest city. Essentially built out on an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, there are sea-born winds that rattle down Mass. Ave., or Boylston Street, or through Copley Square that you can lean into and never be anything less than perfectly vertical. There are winters – 2010 comes to mind – where the already apocalyptic parking situation (only D.C. is worse in my experience) just becomes hopeless; long stretches of sidewalk look like labyrinthine snow forts. It makes you wish you were young enough to appreciate it; instead, you walk your half-mile to a T stop with painstaking care. Cars stay put for three months, because who knows when you’ll next be able to find a safe landing spot before April? During the winter, those forced to drive will drag trash barrels or other large-enough space-fillers to save their parking spots while they’re away. Boston seems to make a virtue of this stuff. Snow is a challenge, just like the Lakers and Yankees are challenges. Just like the expectations of Emerson, Harvard, Tufts, Brandeis, Wellesley, Berklee, Mass Art, are a challenge. Just as the constant, angular tangle of one-way streets is a challenge (maybe it is harder to park in Boston; at least D.C. follows a grid, where you can confidently retrace your steps to your actual location, now fourteen blocks away). Watch any Comcast SportsNet ad for the Celtics and you’ll get a sense of just how much the city seems to invest in the idea of pugnacity. Boston’s star player is Rajon Rondo; “earnest” is most certainly the word. The idea seems to be that you and Boston are made for each other once you figure out how to enjoy scrapping with it all the time. It’s a city that apparently has little time for irony.
It’s an apt place to see Somos and The Hotelier, two bands who are leading a silent revolution in emo and punk rock, one of sincerity and committed feeling, one that surgically pares away the layers of sarcasm and distancing bro humor that can make it hard to invest in this scene. (You could call this attitude “humorlessness,” but when was the last time flippancy– divorced from satire or trenchant critique — was the most useful thing an artist did with a microphone?) I’ve discussed this before, in relation to the chic of Cap’n Jazz, and the literalism that attempts to duplicate its junior-high relationship to the world around it, as Xeroxed by twenty year olds. Because if the bands don’t take it seriously, why should you? Like Two Knights, Little Big League, Tancred, and Foxing (and the longer-running history of ever-compelling, poignant work from Into It. Over It.) who seem similarly locked-in to an aesthetic of self-questioning and an expansive relationship to the world around them, Somos and The Hotelier have a very specific understanding of what makes emo and punk rock go – call it politics, social engagement, even simple thoughtfulness. To watch the bands, one after the other, in the compact space of The Middle East Upstairs — the venerated Cambridge rock club, spaced almost equidistant between Harvard and M.I.T. – is to realize the extent to which both bands are hammering away at a wholly similar, utterly embracing aesthetic; one of earnestness.
After very good sets from Off and On, Grandview, and Choke Up (Off and On was especially promising), The Hotelier took its thirty minutes to offer a triptych of their recent, likely (someday) essential album, Home, Like NoPlace Is There. To listen to the album is to marvel at the band’s grip on its own recoded cinematics, on its ability to be both painterly and utterly effervescent, quick, explosive. There’s a fascinating, almost intangible balance to the album, the kind of record where the whole band is able to move so nimbly that you wonder if they even played to a click track, if they might have recorded it in one go (the layered, carefully-produced craft of Home not withstanding). Live, the songs are more fleet, athletic. The guitars glint around Christian Holden’s salient, massive bass (the Middle East is one of those clubs where you feel bass, kick drums, and floor toms in your chest – a feeling I’ve always loved), giving the songs a different, more spry aura. Each tight pause and splash of tough-angled rhythm is newly transparent. Holden, whose vocals are something to be behold on the album — a reedy tenor that never fails to grasp for the most moving melody — were utterly compelling as the singer pushed through lines that always seemed either at the bottom or the top of his range, even as they were cloaked with a room full of twenty-something’s who knew every complicated, fraught, tangled word (and sang along accordingly). Holden was forced to shout, somehow raising the stakes of an album that is nothing but raised stakes. “Among The Wildflowers,” the album’s most gorgeously evocative song, (and an answer to the question “What if Saves The Day wrote “Closing Time”), was especially stirring, its pensive downs and blossoming ups arriving with new emphasis in a room not a whole lot bigger than the one in which I’m writing this, right now.
Earlier in the set, during the band’s performance of “Life In Drag,” a complex, risky exploration of gender identity and the heteronormative closures of middle-class suburbia, I was reminded of the flipside to Boston’s self-prizing of “toughness” as a group of young men, all fairly large, all arrayed at the front of the dance floor, began shoving, pushing, and, bafflingly, crowd-surfing. In a space that, for reasons both logistical and fair-minded, would and should be saved for smaller audience members, that should be safe for those who don’t want to put up with the bullshit violence of punk shows, there was instead a weird burst of just that violence. That crowd-surfer? He gave a young woman a possible concussion (this according to the partner of the girl in question) — during a song in which The Hotelier interrogate our society’s callous attitudes toward gender. To point out the irony risks glibness – the point is a young woman suffered injury from a young man who didn’t stop to consider who he might hurt. [Ed.: It should be noted that the Hotelier, quite admirably, reached out to the young woman in question, making sure she was alright]. The point is also that if there’s a charmed humility and perseverance that hangs over Boston, there’s also a history of pugilist ultra-masculinity in its punk rock. The Hotelier, to their great credit, gently implored the crowd to “be careful;” one has little doubt that their concern was for the five people forced to be wary for each individual who decided to respond to songs of committed self-critique by swinging their fists. Indeed, Home, Like NoPlace Is There is an album almost singularly concerned with quiet desperation, with how we suffer in silence. To hear them play the songs live is to feel that intrepid questioning amplified, to feel it vibrating across you. Shouldn’t that be catharsis enough?
Somos, whose expertly-crafted, ever-growing Temple of Plenty was being celebrated this evening, was similarly revelatory live. Founded most saliently on the twin-guitar cascades of Phil Haggerty and Justin Hahn, it is precisely this aesthetic that blossoms when the stuff is actually filling the air, as Haggerty’s rich, whole-chorded blankets are threaded by Hahn, whose careful, pointillist melodies betray a youth spent with Modest Mouse LPs. A quick glance at the stage, where the matching guitar cabinets are evenly spaced, everything in its correct place, underlines just how much purchase Somos gains from symmetry and balance. Temple of Plenty is beautiful pop-punk, an album so friendly in its major key, Vagrant-era emo sunniness that one might be inclined to worry about it. There are certain records that are so easily liked that scenes don’t bother to spend much time with them. I’ve written elsewhere about how the emo renaissance was built upon signifiers that could clarify what was “in” and “out” like a secret code – signifiers largely built around the frazzled knots of mid-90s Midwest post-hardcore. Somos’ aesthetic is learner than that; their songs chase willful connection, open-armed melody, hooks piled upon other hooks. Like Youth In Youth, Annabel’s similarly gracious, warm album whose knack for pop was near-stunning, Temple of Plenty offers careful, well-wrought capital S songs. Hopefully enough people see the virtue in that.
Live, the subtle brilliance of the album was more insistent. The quick stops and starts, the smoothly hewing dynamics, they all became physical as the band shapes them in real time, in actual space. Somos is a band that moves, they strum with the whole of their arms, always balancing on the balls of their feet. Hahn and Haggerty are both wiry, their strumming looks young-David-Byrne elastic. Singer/bassist Michael Fiorentino regularly cranes his neck to get at the higher notes that float at the very top of his oaken low-tenor. When the band finishes its quick, agile set, the crowd of about a hundred calls out for another song. You could crystalize who Somos are from their reaction, as various members shyly lift up their guitars, share glances, wonder if they actually should, then almost don’t, then decide they probably ought to. At one point during the set, Fiorentino dedicates a song to Chelsea Manning; during every pause he finds a different way to say thank you. You might think I’m joking, but I assure you I’m not: Earnestness Revival.
[Check back next week for my feature/interview with The Hotelier.]