Fuck American Idol
Tonight voices ruled: not the tiresome parade of flashy melismatic effects that the American Idol crowd reaches for, but uniquely individual voices, each with its own signature style. Pure, unleashed passion, wit, sadness, rage, exuberance, the whole gamut. Real, original voices delivering real, original material with real emotion.
After several rounds of stiff Bacardi 151 drinks at the Holiday Lounge, the Ukrainian bar on St. Mark’s (that venerable dive doesn’t take credit cards, so there’s no worry about losing your place at the bar to some trust fund child from Malibu), we made our way down to the LES to a tourist trap we would normally never be caught dead at. Ninth House was scheduled to play, but their drummer was stuck in midtown traffic, caught in a security gauntlet, a byproduct of the current westside gathering of multinational robber barons. So frontman Mark Sinnis did a trio show with his lead guitarist and piano player. Sinnis sings in a low, ominous baritone somewhere from the nether regions where Johnny Cash, Ian Curtis and Jim Morrison reside. He can croon with anyone, but he’d rather belt, raging against the dying of the light. Death figures in most of his Nashville gothic songs: he knows that country is the original goth music and mines it for every eerie tonality he can pull out of that deep, dark well. The sound at this yuppie puppie trashpit usually frightfully bad, and it was tonight, the vocals struggling to pull themselves from under the piano. One would think that at a folkie club like this that bills itself as sonically superior, vocals should automatically be the highest thing in the mix, but the sound guy was lost in his comic book and didn’t do anything to fix things. Sinnis fought the PA, and like John Henry, man against machine, the machine won. But he put up a good fight: hearing him project all the way to the back of the little room, virtually without amplification, was pretty impressive. If you were there (you probably weren’t – it was a small crowd) and liked what you heard, wait til you hear this guy through a mic that’s on.
Elsewhere, janglerock quartet Sputnik took the stage just as Sinnis and crew were wrapping up their set. Shockingly, the sound they had to deal with was actually pretty good: their tall, willowy blonde frontwoman Genie Morrow has never sung better. Tonight she was in effortlessly seductive mode, her sultry, breathy, sometimes whispery soprano peeking around the corners of the melodies. You have to listen closely for the drama in this band’s pleasantly catchy, jangly songs, but it’s there. Part of a frontperson’s job is to grab the audience somehow or other and hold them, while keeping the band all on the same page at the same time (a job that most corporate and indie rockers don’t have a clue about). Morrow delivered as if she was born to do this, and with a little luck (maybe a song in a good cult indie flick), she’ll be able to. She’d borrowed an accordion from an especially generous neighborhood shop, and its gently wistful tones were the perfect complement to her vocals’ gentle allure. This band has everything it takes to be big: hooks, tunes, a generally sunny disposition and casually virtuosic musicianship. And they were clearly having a great time onstage. It was particularly nice to see excellent drummer Nigel Rawles involved with something that has as much promise as his previous band Scout.
The high point of the night was at Lakeside where the excellent 4-piece punk band Spanking Charlene were playing. They’re not straight-up punk like the Ramones or UK Subs, but more Stonesy, like the Heartbreakers. Like Sputnik, they also have a casually charismatic frontwoman, but she’s a completely different type of animal, armed with a big, powerful wail. It’s a dangerous weapon, and she wields it expertly. This band’s lyrics are sardonic and funny. As with any punk band, they also have some anger, but in their case it seems to be inner-directed. In the night’s most intense moment – there were a lot of them – the singer launched into a crescendoing chorus, singing “stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid me,” berating herself over and over again, and this was as incongruous as it was disturbing. From the lyrics, it was obvious that she’s no dummy: what on earth could she have done that was so stupid? Maybe the song is a cautionary tale. Either way, it made an impact. She also proved that she’s no one-trick pony with a surprisingly quiet, sweetly twangy country song. Their big audience hit right now seems to be a riff-rocker called Pussy Is Pussy (“People are afraid of pussy,” the singer knowingly told the audience) which isn’t even their best number. But it’ll be huge if they can get somebody to pull some public-domain footage (or, hell, any footage), make a primitive video and put it up on youtube. Spanking Charlene have a cd coming out in November, and if the live show is any indication, it will kick serious ass. Stay tuned.
Like Bob Lefsetz is fond of saying, the mainstream is dead. But the underground has never been more vital. So good to be alive in a place where, against all odds, there are still so many great bands – and killer singers. American Idol? Simon says, stick a fork in it.