FEATURE: Owls / Hop Along / Glocca Morra — Live at the Sinclair, 7.15.14
by Chad Jewett
The Sinclair strikes one as a fairly anodyne space for the scruffy eccentricity of Owls. A relatively new venue, wedged into a sidestreet of Harvard Square and across the street from a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Starbucks (the two things you can’t look in three discrete directions without spotting in greater Boston), The Sinclair is a welcome addition to a city (Cambridge) that, for the longest time, was more or less limited to the venerable Middle East and the smaller T.T. & the Bear’s Place. If the Sinclair doesn’t address the vacuum of open-access punk spaces that has knee-capped indie music in the Bay State’s capital – in fact, the venue seems even more intent on national acts than the Middle East – it at least satisfies a yen for a small club with good sound in a neighborhood you’d be glad to spend an afternoon in.
Yet something about the club’s tastefully-appointed wood furnishings and curated beer selections left a palpable veneer of space between the audience – as if the room was too comfy, too much like the prestigious college town micropub it almost was — and the three bands taking the stage yesterday evening. Each tried to fill that gap in different ways. Glocca Morra, a quartet from Philadelphia who make punk music variably inflected by the twisting surfaces of emo (think Bear vs. Shark) and the echo-y blooms of modern indie pop (think Local Natives), seemed tempted to battle indifference with more indifference. The band’s set was confident and wholly solid, their brand of muscular indie rock at its best when it managed to sweep away some of its own clutter and embrace the scuffed romance of say, Jawbreaker. Yet one got the sense that the band – like many opening acts for tours like this – had had their share of serving as appetizers for legends. Near the end of the set, one of Glocca Morra’s two guitarists moved to leave the stage after finishing one of an announced two last songs. The band had fun with the moment, but you’d be hard-pressed to say with certainty whether the moment was a knowing in-joke or an earnest desire to call the game early, to move on from the blank air that seemed to float over the room.
If Glocca Morra’s strategy to a room full of shrugging was to shrug harder, then Hop Along instead did everything they could to find a spark. Fronted by singer-songwriter Frances Quinlan, and like Glocca Morra, hailing from Philly, Hop Along’s aesthetic is a many-splendored thing, facets of alt-country, folk-pop, second-wave emo, and SST-vintage indie rock all smoothed down to something vivid and expressive. Quinlan’s voice is a jaw-dropping instrument, capable of deep, painful rasps and radiant, moving pronouncements. The band, which began as an almost strictly folk-shaped project and has gradually expanded and widened, still seems to operate with the kind of darting, quicksilver flexibility that defines Court and Spark or Pink Moon. The songs seem sinewy and malleable, shaped and directed only by Quinlan’s expansive voice like a conductor’s baton, wholly committed to a free-form humanism that seems like it should be harder to steer than the quartet manages to make it. Get Disowned, the band’s 2012 LP, was a punk record that managed to operate as a jazz album. Live, this was even more true, and the results were stunning.
The evening’s general pall of fogginess – perhaps one could blame the humidity – turned into vague antagonism and mottled enthusiasm for Owls. The cerebral post-emo quartet, consisting of members of the venerable Cap’n Jazz (and American Football, Joan of Arc, and Owen), and responsible for two very good albums, did an admirable job translating both the byzantine constructs and the expressionist post-modernisms of Owls and Two. Tim Kinsella, the band’s singer and its primary provocateur, leaned into the punk-rock-David Byrne oddity of Owls’ oeuvre. Suffering from a sore throat that actually fit the damaged characters and pathological narratives of those records, Kinsella was at his most compelling whenever he was able to part with his guitar, immediately beginning to roam the stage and gesticulate to his own melodies. The entire band was wholly adept in managing the weirdly firing engines that power songs like “I’m Surprised…” and “Everyone Is My Friend.” It was especially entertaining to watch guitarist Victor Villareal, a renaissance painter of a musician who seemed blithely indifferent to the fact that the shimmering arpeggios that constitute his aesthetic are also the building blocks that constitute an entire wave of modern emo.
Yet the entire set was punctuated by a baffling trend amongst the audience attempting to get Tim Kinsella’s goat. Nearly every break was dotted with shouted requests for Joan of Arc (and one would assume Cap’n Jazz) songs. At one point, Kinsella finally heard (or at least dignified) the requests, meeting the shouts with (likely faux) baffled surprise. The audience knew this was a different band, right? Indeed, such is the rigged game of reunions and attempts to sate finicky fan-bases that a beloved band like Owls can reunite after ten years and be met with requests for songs by a band that has never gone away and likely plays for much smaller audiences almost all of the time. Later, when another such request was shouted out, Kinsella dead-panned “Not gonna happen.” Yet there seemed to be a distinct subset of the audience intent on pushing the singer as far as he would go (I always marvel at the fact that I’ve never seen a band simply leave in these situations, though I suspect that most have trimmed set-lists in response. Wouldn’t you?), I suppose simply to see what his reaction would be – which turned out to be leaning further and further into his taste for Dadaist absurdity. At one point in the set Kinsella placed two picks over his eyes like pennies for a corpse and performed the bulk of a song blinded by plastic. At another point the Chicago singer would attempt to broker some semblance of amity by offering “I don’t know anything about your life, but I know it’s weird” – his version of empathetic interconnection. Instead, the band simply played into a weird miasma of snark and misplaced enthusiasm – and drunkenness. Owls were wonderful live, offering an impressive mastery of a particularly thorny suite of songs – a picture of resourcefulness on a night that was weird, just not their kind of weird.