Concert Review: The Brixton Riot and the French Exit at the Mercury Lounge, NYC 11/16/08
The Brixton Riot’s name is something of a misnomer: they’re not a reggae band, nor do they sound a bit British. The outfit they most closely resemble, at times is the late, great Twin Turbine albeit with a Fender instead of a Gibson guitar attack, hewing closer to that band’s more accessible post-Guided By Voices side. If there could be such a thing as “good top 40” in this decade, the Brixton Riot would rule the charts. With both guitars blazing, they roared through a tight set, one catchy song after another. Even their lyrics are good. Their best number lamented that there are “too many people in the Garden State, too many vanity license plates…you better deal with the devil or the devil’s gonna deal with you.”
While the payola required to get on commercial radio may be beyond their budget, wait til college radio gets ahold of their song about being “born with a knack for inebriation.” They did a Strokes-ish number that bounced along on a fast Motown bassline til the Telecaster player lit into a slashing, rapidfire solo. Another pretty scathing tune lit into rockers who sell out, warning that they’ll “never win the battle of the bands” by trading their boss at the corporate dayjob for another one in the music business. A little later they segued out of a slower song into a deadpan version of the Dead Milkmen’s Take the Skinheads Bowling. On several occasions, the guitarists played twin solos and actually didn’t embarrass themselves: welcome to the Hotel California, not. The band’s only misstep was the pointless Replacements cover they closed with, although at least their frontman didn’t bleat the vocals the way Paul Westerberg would have.
If Tonic was still open, the French Exit would be headlining Saturday nights there. Sadly, that was 2006 – a lot has happened in this city since. There’s been a big buzz about this band lately, not just because of frontwoman Mia Wilson’s cheekbones or the distant, offhandedly menacing allure she cultivates. Like the band before them, they kept the ever-growing crowd rapt throughout their set of long, hypnotic noir anthems that sometimes bordered on goth (but in a good way – like Joy Divison rather than Nine Inch Nails).
Drummer Bryan Sargent began with brushes, switched to sticks and by the end of the show was playing with mallets. Like Jim White of the Dirty Three, he’s an uncommonly musical player: throughout the show, he wasn’t content simply to keep time, sometimes pushing the numerous dynamic shifts, sometimes following them with deftly placed, counterintuitive accents. Henri Harps began on guitar, flavoring the songs with eerie, minimalistically twangy spaghetti western licks when he wasn’t blasting out chords lush with reverb and distortion before switching to bass and then back again. Wilson began on piano, switched to acoustic guitar (battling all kinds of sonic difficulties that could have been fixed had the soundman known how to do it) and then went back to keys for the remainder of the set. Vocally, Cat Power is the obvious influence, except that Wilson sings completely without affectation – in other words, she sings, she doesn’t seh-heng. Like the preceding band, the French Exit also have excellent lyrics. Wilson projects them with the same raw, wounded, vengeful authority as the great blueswomen of the 20s and 30s: she speaks to anyone who’s ever been done wrong.
Their first two songs built from creepy, minor-key intros from Wilson’s piano and then her guitar. The third song of the set was long and ominous over a repetitive three-chord descending progression: “I think I have seen this coming,” was Wilson’s lyrical mantra. They picked up the pace for a moment after that. “What I lack in speed I make up for in cruelty,” Wilson warned, “I don’t care what happens next, just don’t sleep near me…I’m rejecting them before they get me.”
A fast one in 6/8 maintained the bitter edge: “It was a slap in the face, can’t believe that’s what you dragged home after me,” Wilson wailed, “See you’ve found yourself a true fan who loves you like a child.” They closed with their best song, a magnificent new one titled Bad Sign that built to a towering, symphonic crescendo, Wilson expertly laying down layer after layer of piano and string synth loops as Sargent played big, beautiful cymbal splashes with his mallets. What a viscerally intense way to end what what’s been the best week of concerts in New York all year long.