FEATURE: You Blew It! / The So So Glos / The Front Bottoms / Say Anything, Live in New Haven
by Chad Jewett
Occasionally, shows fall on weird nights. They coincide with blizzards or sync up with full harvest moons or day six in a week of rain. This particular evening, headlined by Say Anything and filled out by You Blew It!, The So So Glos, and The Front Bottoms, happened to arrive on New England’s first real day of humidity. Just about ninety degrees and with air the quality of a wrung-out sponge, you could run your hand along one of the black-painted walls of New Haven’s Toad’s Place and see the streak, feel a tablespoon of condensation on your palm. The bands played into air that caught sound like a damp washcloth. It wasn’t so much that the venue was over-warm as it was simply in a sort of off mood. There was never that moment of sheer overwhelm when one is forced to simply breath upward for anything like actual air, but I found myself noticing, for the first time, ceiling mist-dispensers that had presumably been there for years, spraying jets of silver air into the ether.
It made for an evening where seemingly everyone was at least slightly on edge, the barometric pressure spiked. At one point, after The Front Bottoms set, a traffic snarl formed between audience members trying to reach the band’s merch table and a larger set trying to leave the club. It’s the sort of tangles that panic is made of. One young man attempted to shove through, only to get into a minor scuffle with another, waiting to buy a t-shirt. It was like that the whole night, an atmosphere weirdly in sync and intensified by the kind of over-warm angst that defines Say Anything. Some bands evoke fall, others spring. Say Anything has the rubbed-raw quality of broken air-conditioning.
You Blew It! began the night with expanded, compelling versions of songs from their most recent, excellent full-length, Keep Doing What You’re Doing. If the album was notable for the ways in which Tanner Jones found himself pushing his voice to a more expressive, agile place, then, live, the singer was able to fill the room. Songs like “Match & Tinder” translated to barbed accelerants live, songs that You Blew It! have honed and figured out with thrilling alacrity. Indeed, on a night where just about every sound coming from the stage seemed to be trying to make its way through a plastic sheet (this was especially true of Say Anything’s weirdly muffled set), Jones’ melodies actually managed to cut. Andy Vila’s bass, expertly recorded by Evan Weiss on Keep Doing, was similarly salient, given a boost typical of Toad’s. The band avoided playing any of the five Weezer songs re-worked for the upcoming You Blue It, which of course mainly exemplifies how canny the band has become, choosing to sidestep the quicksand of cover songs. Instead You Blew It! pounded away at Keep Doing and a set of songs that are quickly becoming remarkably precise engines of guitar-pop.
The So So Glos seemed to gauge the night’s temperature quickly, addressing “apathy” early in their set, and seemingly cycling through a tour’s worth of ideas to maintain anything kinetic. Throughout the set Alex Levine resorted to blowing into a drill whistle, intended as some sort of echo for the World Cup you could watch if you craned your neck toward the bar, but also ironically appropriate for a crowd whose weariness might remind one of an indian summer football practice. Yet The So So Glos persevered. The Brooklyn quartet’s version of punk rock is so archetypal as to be semiotic – green means “Go,” red means “Stop,” and “punk” means scuffed jeans and songs about American youth. Sporting the mohawk/fades and sleeveless denim of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”-era Clash with songs that leavened the thickness of Give ‘Em Enough Rope with the buoyant stadium fizz of Combat Rock, charged the bleakness of Darkness on the Edge of Town with the electricity of Born In the U.S.A., The So So Glos are a band of capable historians and alchemists, bringing record collections to a condensing boil. There were sentiments about music and pain, odes to “American losers,” ideas that have turned the corner from cliché back to being something charming and likable. One finds themselves glad for bands like The So So Glos.
Yet, inevitably, during shows like this, you ask yourself what any of these bands have to do with each other. What does the circa-’78 punk revery of The So So Glos really have to do with the idiosyncratic folk explosions of The Front Bottoms, for instance. Punk rock has two forms of variety – the one characteristic of healthy local scenes brimming with ideas, and the kind that is weirdly focus-grouped and shaped by management firms. This particular show felt like the latter. The evening also reinforced the existence of certain silent majorities that you would otherwise miss in punk and indie unless you happen to attend a show so oddly arranged. The Front Bottoms and their fans constitute one of these quiet phenomena. Indeed, all one has to do is take a rudimentary head-count before and after the New Jersey band’s set, noting the pockets of space left for Say Anything, to gauge their very real popularity. Flanked by inflatable letters T, F, & B, mostly resembling spare crumbs of Alphabits cereal, the odd mix of enthusiasm and fizzling synapses made for a weirdly kinetic set for the band, playing for an audience both incredibly excited to see them and seemingly visibly displeased with being anywhere near anyone else. The band’s set forces one to realize just how much the scene is in fact a galaxy of tiny planets with even smaller orbits.
This was made even more palpable by Say Anything, who, ever since their first follow-up to …Is A Real Boy have been trying to steer something like an emotional cruise-liner. The band’s new songs are good, but have the misfortune of being fine scalpels in a discography weighted on one end by blunt objects. When Max Bemis interrupts himself on a pretty, ornate song like “Six Six Six” with the titular phrase, delivered in Iron Maiden cadence, you can’t help but wonder to what extent the choice exemplifies an anxiety about having to actually play these songs live, having to keep them in some sort of contention with “Belt” and “Woe.” Because of course they can’t contend with those songs – not because they aren’t as good, but because they’ll never be allowed to; it’s the nature of serendipity, of your first season ending with a championship. One can measure the response, for instance, to the purposefully clumsy trickle of “Every Man Has A Molly” and admire the resolve that keeps Bemis working on new things – at times having to live in the decade old world of …Is A Real Boy seems Sisyphean.
In some ways, there are few figures as singularly difficult as Max Bemis. One is never sure how to feel about the many-headed hydra that is Say Anything. The Los Angeles born singer-songwriter presents a positive example of aging in punk, always searching out new ideas, challenging himself with an odd, orchestral left-turn like this year’s Hebrews. And, when records like that sell (which they do), it’s reassuring to find a scene capable of supporting an artist as frequently strange and confounding as Bemis. Yet there has been a dark side to what Say Anything does, to what Bemis’s reactionary narratives really have to say, that forces an asterisk to the end of all of that optimism. Indeed, in an interview with Ian Cohen, Bemis describes dropping out of Sarah Lawrence College because of a music community that struck the singer as elitist and unhealthy. The notion is baffling, and not a little ridiculous, and indeed, one notices how frequently Say Anything’s narratives are built around abnegation, denial, anti-social angst, and, at their worst, anti-intellectualism. Many of their songs toddle on the line between speaking truth to power and refusing anything that doesn’t make sense, airing uncomfortable truths and wallowing in walled-off ids. Bemis can roll his eyes at “post-modernism” on “Admit It!”, but that streak of pushing away all that isn’t instantly comforting or legible is an ugly one. Why not stay at Sarah Lawrence and make something new?
And of course Bemis has made something new, plenty of it in fact, not least of which being the brave art music of Hebrews. Yet you can sense the frayed nerves of the crowd and the bitterness of much of what Say Anything has created and recognize a weird feedback loop, evidence of the fact that Bemis, at both his best and worst, has excelled in writing self-fulfilling prophecies.