V: The Bay Area
By Andre Perry & The Bay Bridged | 22 May 2008
Several months ago I teamed up with some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best music bloggers, the Bay Bridged, and together we compiled a tracklist of artists and songs that represent the scene around those parts. But given the distance of a few months, all I can say now is: what the hell was I thinking? You see, while many cities would like to claim a diverse scene, San Francisco and its adjacent surroundings really do represent a vast range of musical projects. It truly is the scene of a thousand faces. There’s just so much going on it’s kind of mind numbing: from the indie-rockers to the noise-rockers; the country folk revivalists seeping into the hippie-folk purists; the garage rockers, the Goth rockers, and the minimalist techno-heads swirling around the jazzy house-heads, the diva house-heads, the drum n’ bass fiends, the electro freaks; or, between the found-sound geeks, the alt. country dudes, the punk marching band enthusiasts, the left-field hip-hop crews, the hyphy hip-hop crews, the post-rockers, the glitch-rockers, the prog-rockers, the dream-poppers and space-rockers, the “we only use recording gear from 1970 and before” rockers, the “we only use recording gear made after 2000” rockers, and the “we’ll mix one or more of the above genres” folks, there’s a lot to take in.
So it seems most appropriate for me to commit to not just one impossibly exclusive Bay Area Scenecast but to a series of them in which I will do my darndest to do justice to one of the nation’s best music scenes. While New York and L.A. have always been places where musicians go to “make it,” the Bay Area remains a place where musicians simply go to develop their craft within a larger community of like-minded creative types. Accordingly, for each Bay Area Scenecast I will work with a different group of Bay Area writers, bloggers, musicians, and/or scene enthusiasts to offer select mixes of the area’s many scenes. Thus, this first stab is by no means complete; it’s just a beginning.
Behold the first entry in the Bay Area Scenecast series: Cokemachineglow and the Bay Bridged Present Bay Area Indie-Pop.
1. John Vanderslice: “White Dove”
- (0:01 – 3:58)
- from Emerald City (Barsuk; 2007)
Vanderslice has long been a foundation in the Bay Area music scene. His late ‘90s band MK Ultra was a local fave, but following its breakup Vanderslice carved out a solo niche for himself. His trademark has always been remarkable production: he crafts crisp and sparkling tracks while retaining a certain lo-fi, analog warmth. Vanderslice also runs the renowned San Francisco recording studio, Tiny Telephone, a space that has served as home for countless indie albums. Additionally, Vanderslice has been an important element in the sound of latter-day Mountain Goats, acting as co-producer on some of their more recent albums. “White Dove” comes from Vanderslice’s latest album, Emerald City, and is a great example of his ability to pair airy pop melodies with dirty drums and guitars.
2. Magic Bullets: “Heatstroke”
- (3:59 – 7:40)
- from a Child but in life yet a DOCTOR in love (Words on Music; 2007)
1980s British pop deconstructed and reassembled from its individual parts by a hyper-talented group of young people who channel the unpretentiousness of their punk roots into something more pensive and refined. The minimal layers of guitar and keyboard call to mind early Luna alongside their heroes Altered Images and Orange Juice, while singer Philip Benson has developed a unique David Byrne-cum-Morrissey yelp/croon to affably deliver casual pearls of wisdom. The proof is in the pudding: despite the absence of coordinated outfits or big synthy hooks, the kids dance to this stuff and we’re all better for it.
3. Thee More Shallows: “Night At the Knight School”
- (7:41 – 11:01)
- from Book of Bad Breaks (Anticon; 2007)
Like some cursed phantasm whispering to you from the corner of your room, Thee More Shallows have always been weird and hushed. Collections of humming and buzzing keyboards and sweetly textured guitars are poured into their songs while almost abstract and fantastical stories fill the lyrical space. Onstage they are an intimate group, peering into suitcases of analog gear and patch cables, carefully approaching microphones as they hesitantly unfold their words. They also run a recording studio in Oakland, CA.
4. Audio Out Send: “Call on the Girl”
- (11:02 – 13:56)
- from Sharpen the Hours (Three Ring; 2008)
These four lads have quietly shifted their weight around the Bay Area scene for five or six years, emerging periodically to drop an album or an EP on us. To wit: After releasing 2003’s …Or Does It Explode, the band hibernated for a couple years, recording an album, then throwing it out, and finally settling on a seductive, if anemic, four-song EP. Next to Vanderslice, they might be the nicest guys in the Bay Area, as eager to play prime indie venues like Bottom of the Hill as they are to cozy up to East Bay coffee shops and stun crowds who come for caffeine but are instead floored by a wall of space-pop worthy of Pink Floyd comparisons. Audio Out Send have spent considerable time in the shadow of their college buddies Rogue Wave—a shame because these guys possess the same kind of melodic catchiness—but unlike Rogue Wave, Audio Out Send doesn’t pull punches when it comes to getting all gritty and in your face with their sound.
5. Papercuts: “Judy”
- (13:57 – 18:30)
- from Mockingbird (Antenna Farm; 2004)
You’d think Jason Quever would be in his prime in the ‘60s, but no: this guy, a former Portland dweller, is alive and kicking. His Papercuts project is an achingly beautiful homage to the vintage sounds of that previously mentioned era, sporting a handful of songs that seem to count the Velvet’s “Candy Says” and “Stephanie Says” as their key source material. The Cult of Quever is only strengthened and mythologized by his infrequent and slightly uncomfortable live performances. He winces as he considers the microphone, squinting as if to render the audience into an unintelligible blur. The point being that Quever is a studio hound but not some guy with brand spanking new machines. A former Papercut revealed that Quever’s gear is literally held together with batches of Scotch tape: old mixing boards with wooden siding, immaculately preserved instruments from past decades, and nothing but tape, tape, tape! The results of Quever’s dedication to vintage sound often results in mesmerizing and dreamy pop nuggets.
6. Scrabbel: “All the Things We Have”
- (18:31 – 22:24)
- from 1909 (Three Ring; 2005)
Make awesome music and then disappear. This seems to be the game plan for San Francisco’s Scrabbel. You might not have trouble running into Scrabbel mastermind Dan Lee at various shows around town but, seriously, when you ask him about a follow-up to 2005’s pop gem 1909 all you’ll get is a laugh in your face. Go talk to his label, Three Ring Records, and all you’ll get are a bunch of shrugged shoulders. But I guess when his last album was so good we’ll continue to wait. Mixing elements of pure pop with eccentric instrumentation and electronic flourishes, Scrabbel is certainly one of the best indie bands in San Francisco, if not the most prolific.
7. Tartufi: “Mourning’s Wake”
- (22:25 – 30:50)
- from Us Upon Building Upon Us (Self-released; 2006)
One might wonder how a band flexing an eight-and-a-half minute track might sneak itself onto an indie-pop podcast? It’s the endless hooks. They just don’t stop. Armed with a drummer, a guitarist, and a series of loop pedals, this SF duo keeps it hectic, building voice upon voice, guitar upon guitar, and noise upon noise, all the while pulling you in with a sinister hook or a sensuous harmony of sounds. Roll down to the Mission and catch Lynne, their guitarist/bassist/vocalist/loopist, casually serving up Tecates and Coronas at institutional watering hole, El Rio (as popularized by Vetiver in “Down at El Rio”); her laid-back and cheery attitude can be misleading. This duo approaches their show and their recordings (often produced by Citay and Fucking Champs’ Tim Green) with relentless energy. The secret to their success? Getting rid of extraneous band members. After running through the dead weight of old drummers and half-assed guitarists, Tartufi found that their power is in the minimalist construct of two making sound that’s anything but minimal.
8. The Velvet Teen: “Gyzmkid”
- (30:51 – 35:07)
- from C*m Laude (Slow Dance; 2006)
A lot of people, I think, just don’t get the Velvet Teen. Sure, they are Radiohead enthusiasts (isn’t that a good thing?) and yeah, they like to undermine your expectations with each successive album. But at least they’re fucking trying. 2004’s criminally overlooked Elysium remains a classic and a genre-bending piano album while 2006’s schizophrenic C*m Laude has some gems as well. These boys officially represent the Santa Rosa sector of the Bay Area. Hiding out in the lush hills of Sonoma County they tinker away on their progressive sounds, occasionally emerging in San Francisco to share the music with the masses. Call them the recluses, the mad-scientists of the scene, turning their backs on the hustle and bustle of hipster city life in exchange for intense wood-shedding and bottles of wine.
9. The Dodos: “The Ball”
- (35:08 – 40:45)
- from Beware of the Maniacs (Self-released; 2006)
Meric Long, one half of the Dodos, has been wandering around San Francisco’s music halls for some time now, a youthful wunderkind of sorts with obvious and immense musical talent. His connection to drummer Logan Kroeber has resulted in a proper band, the Dodos, who, in a few years and two albums, have established themselves as one of the nation’s most daring acts. The Dodos strike a perfect balance between the intimacy of folk songwriting and the energy of percussion-driven rock, but Kroeber’s beats are far from straight-ahead. They’re rhythmic roller coasters, rushing up then falling down and shape-shifting as Long moves from lyric to lyric.
10. The Lonelyhearts: “Ntozake Nelson”
- (40:46 – 45:47)
- from Dispatch (DIY… or Else/Three Ring; 2005)
The Lonelyhearts write perhaps the best bumming-you-out music in a scene with some great downer rock. Feel-bad stories are a dangerous gamble, but this synth-folk duo makes the melodrama work through characters and situations that ache thanks to a keen eye toward domestic and personal strife. Put more simply: when their characters express hurt, it’s palpable and it’s tragic. Add a talent for hushed melodies and sparse compositions and the result is winning music for a foggy, almost naturally melancholic region. Perpetually delayed by work/life commitments and months spent in different time zones, the group’s next album may arrive later this year.
11. Film School: “P.S.”
- (45:48 – 50:59)
- from AlwaysNever (Amazing Grease; 2003)
Simultaneously putting the pop back in shoegaze and restoring elements of noise to pop music, Film School may have relocated to Los Angeles but they still remain hometown heroes in San Francisco (where they formed roughly ten years ago). A story in adversity, these guys—especially band leader Greg Bertens— have powered through various lineup changes and hype waves (and crashes) to remain a glowing example of how perseverance and focus will keep your indie band alive for the long haul. Look into Greg Bertens’ eyes and you’ll see that he’s damn tired, but when looking to his face there’s a guy still smiling. And he should be: Film School’s haze of delay and feedback, while daunting at times, never lets us forget that underneath that blanket is a handful of dazzling pop hits.
12. The Hot Toddies: “Motorscooter”
- (51:00 – 54:29)
- from Smell the Mitten (Asian Man; 2007)
The Hot Toddies’ “let’s just get drunk and play!” posturing suggests they don’t give a damn about the music. It’s just part of their performance; beyond the cocktails and ironic prom dresses these four ladies have nothing but taste and talent. They’ve culled together the best parts of surf-rock, girl-group pop, Velvets guitar licks, and a day-glo penchant for mushroom tea into one of the Bay Area’s most energetic rock parties. With those blaring sunshine harmonies it would seem that, on the surface, all of the Toddies’ songs are taking the piss, but when you realize that they’re just terrible tales of misguided shags and false, drunken romances and that they’re all about your life, you kind of wince a bit, because when they sing, “I’ve got a new friend, his name is Motor / We used to dance in the summer, in the backyard,” they’re not talking exactly talking about a new Vespa.
13. Port O’Brien: “My Eyes Won’t Shut”
- (54:30 – 57:07)
- from The Wind And The Swell (American Dust; 2007)
The earnestness begins with the band name, the Alaskan port where Van Pierszalowski’s parents first met, and continues through to the songwriting, which draws from Van’s (and now his bandmates’) summers spent working on a salmon boat in Alaska. That setting, a compilation of long hours of hard work spent in isolation from the real world, provides a backdrop for the band’s meditations of life and love, mixed with a loose but energetic blend of honest folk and all sortsa American rock. It might be disarming to cynics, but Port O’Brien’s developed a compelling live show that has taken them cross-country (supporting Rogue Wave) and to the British festival circuit, thanks to championing by folks like Conor Oberst and M. Ward. The band’s poised to take the next step as blogs are already afire over the release of All We Could Do Was Sing, their first studio album, which comes out this month.
14. The Harbours: “Lonely Heart”
- (57:08 – 61:32)
- from Second Story Maker (Stab City; 2006)
Ah, Miguel Zelaya, the Americana-tinged pop star of San Francisco. Slipping from Zeitgeist to the Phone Booth to shake hands and share drinks with just about everyone in the Mission, this former member of the Bay Area’s forgotten greats, The Headlands Band, is perhaps the most recognizably endearing guy on the scene. He’s always down for a beer, some laughs, and a hearty discussion of the Band.
His music tightens up the psychedelics of Kelley Stoltz while loosening the tight R&B grip of Spoon’s groove. Zelaya wandered up to San Francisco from San Jose several years ago and since then his music has focused heavily on the concept of “The City”—who it attracts, who it repels, the romances it creates, and the loves it destroys. It wouldn’t be unfair to posit the oeuvre of the Harbours as one passionate love song to the Bay Area.