Monday, October 24, 2011

The Ushers of "Anti-Pop-Rock Pop-Rock," the great Big Troubles

    On a rainy Wednesday in Cambridge, I met a hallucinatory sea of pop from Big Troubles, today’s ushers of “anti-pop-rock pop-rock.” (What‘s that mean?) Simply that their style both celebrates and rebels against today’s popular rock. Big Troubles’ songs are exceptionally catchy, enjoyable, cathartic, and thus, “poppy." But their wall of fuzz, reverb, and delay separates and rebels against what you’d find on Billboard's Top 40. Big T reminds us that rock (like its name) must be hard-hitting, strong, intense; the sound unmasks today’s pop-rock as flaccid, boring, and lame.

    Take a listen to “Freudian Slips,” an early 2010 Myspace hit that helped propel them into the NYC concert scene, and eventually the formidably hip, indie record label, Slumberlands.

    The melody of “Freudian Slips” is a progression timelessly beautiful— it could fit with 80’s synthesizers, or 50’s doo-wop. Big T turns the “pop” against itself with blistering overdrive, delay, reverb; they give the guitars an orchestral power, bombing our ears with so many frequencies the effect is hallucinatory, like there could be an infinite layer of harmonies. But they're just a 4-piece band, which makes their live performance so spectacular.

    While their sound may be non-mainstream & progressive, it's hardly new or unique. What's impressive is their accessible balance of noise-pop/shoegaze (anti-pop-rock), with good ol' poppy, alternative rock. Influenced by the 80's/90's scenes of My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr, Ride, Pavement, (early) Smashing Pumpkins, Swervedriver, (early) Starflyer 59, Medicine, Black Tambourine, Velocity Girl, Lush, (early) Lilys, Chapterhouse, Failure, Adorable, Rollerskate Skinny, Tocotronic,  (now I'm just listing favorite bands)— Big T also holds rank with younger acts like A Place to Bury Stranges, Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Wavves, Yuck, Young Prisms, Weekend, Skywave, Best Coast, Whirl, Loomer, Ringo Deathstarr, The Raveonettes, Pia Fraus, No Age, No Joy, Asobi Seksu, Rrailss, Reading Rainbow, The Manhattan Love Suicides , Maribel, Los Robertas, For Ex-Lovers Only (to name more than probably necessary).

     Their new album, Romantic Comedy, while being highly enjoyable, sounds like an obvious step into "mainstream." The effect likely alienates previous fans of their abrasive debut, Worry. While the songwriting's enjoyable, Romantic Comedy's mix sounds like a betrayal of their live performance. Yes, it has elements of loud ("Misery," "Time Bomb"), and generally lots of reverb & delay, but it lacks variety in extremes of soft or loud. The songwriting's intensely catchy and cathartic— but I'd blame any mixed reception on the imbalance of past success: deafening orchestral rock with the beauty of pop. Romantic Comedy feels like its trying to sound too pretty. Most songs feel around the same intensity of distortion & delay, with none too loud or soft. Even the famous "loud acts" like JAMC or Dinosaur Jr counter their noise with softer songs, and this polarity heightens the best of both moods.

    Take a listen to their new single, a fun flirtation with gloomy pop (it’s still way better than the new Cure albums; but it sounds much better in the roar of a live show).

She Smiles For Pictures - Big Troubles from Army Of Kids on Vimeo.

    I can't recommend or predict what's best for their "next move." My tastes are so fringe, I'm in the minority that thinks Worry is one the best albums of 2010. I'm in the minority that thinks shoegaze & noise-pop are better than hip-hop or rap (yes, taste is too subjective for argument; even with convincing theories, taste cannot be changed). I’m not Big T's manager, or record label, or even an established critic; so I can’t give qualified advice. But I am a huge fan. So here's what I think: Big Troubles' name itself mirrors its sound, and it suggests its origin and inspiration. As their Angelfire website jokes, they're an admittedly goofy group, but they're also an expression of "big troubles"! And their noise communicates this angst, woe and (as their debut says) worry. With titles like "Sad Girls," "Drastic & Difficult," "Minor Keys," "Never Mine," you expect something sad or hard-hitting as (a) rock; you want something that's "big" and "in trouble."  Worry’s album cover shows a chaotic, junk-filled trailer, as if its inside was hit by a tornado. And its mixing is just as intense and bizarre. On Romantic Comedy the image is more ironic— showing two mannequins on a date, it suggests the feeling of love could be lifeless. But does their new album lose the band's strength of being big trouble?

   However, the band members entertainingly broadcast contrast to such "trouble." They appear quite charming, funny and friendly (yes, surely they're deep and in pain too). Their website's a hilarious homage to early-internet design— where the color palette is non-unified pastels, and where scrolling text is scientifically progressive. Their twitter posts are goofily great examples of absurd, ironic humor. They diminish a bland Pitchfork review with comedy, quoting vagueness like " “guitar... drums... music...” - Pitchfork." Their quote makes the review itself vague and singular. While also tweeting important concert info, they share bizarre anecdotes, which because of their irrelevancy and non-importance, they're hilarious. Like, "The Elios Pizza homepage was tremendous until they started using Spyware in 2004." It’s as insignificant and unhelpful as internet is to pizza. It's as if the minor & unnoticed annoyance is 7-year-old tragedy worth remembering.

     I met co-singer/songwriter/guitarist, Alex Craig, before their Wednesday set, at the absurdly named bar, T.T. & the Bears. As a huge fan, the effect felt like meeting Billy Corgan circa 1990. Only Alex was disarmingly humble, friendly, and appreciative— so it wasn't like Corgan at all. Mr. Craig was honest about their new album’s mixed reception, but he was also genuinely excited about the Big T‘s future. The rest of the band contained all the ingredients of a enjoyable show. A giant-sized, performative bassist, Luka Usmiani, frequently gave arena-style windmill strums; this contrasted the more somber and melancholy singers/guitarists, Ian Drennan & Alex Craig. Their well-composed drummer, Sam Franklin, would humorously inject loud coughing to cover silences between song tunings (personally, I‘d encourage James Iha-style banter, similar to Big T's bizarre tweets, to fill any pause). But the band’s joke of awkward coughs over awkward silences interested me. The venue was small, but the 40-person crowd gave generous applause & rooting (especially for a rainy Wednesday past 11pm in Cambridge.) The coughing implied a self-conscious filling of uncomfortable silence, as if the crowd were glaring with judgment. But I’d stress there was nothing negatively critical about the silence. The setting was so intimately self-conscious, any excessive cheering (which I almost made) would’ve appeared belligerent or crazed. As their set proceeded, they attracted a greater crowd from the bar, and no one left early. After their last song, people cried “play more!” This led to a strange solo by their bassist, who, without his bass, rousingly repeated “HEY!” into the mic. It led nowhere, though I thought they might cover The Pixies.

Both times I’ve seen Big T, they’ve opened with this song— another great example of “anti-pop pop-rock.”

Big Troubles - Bite Yr Tongue from Spencer Dennis on Vimeo.

In short, if you’re dissatisfied with today’s “pop rock,” and with a hard & exciting edge— keep up with Big Troubles, one of the most promising young acts of today. If you prefer your listening easy, goodbye.

Below are their upcoming tour dates (they just finished with the classically-shoegaze youngsters of Young Prisms, and now they embark with Real Estate)--

10/27 Bruar Falls, Brooklyn, NY
10/29 Lafayette, IN Jurassic Park
10/31 Chicago, IL Lincoln Hall % &
11/01 Minneapolis, MN 400 Bar %
11/02 Omaha, NE Slowdown %
11/03 Denver, CO Moe’s %
11/04 Salt Lake City, UT Urban Lounge %
11/05 Boise, ID Neurolux %
11/06 Portland, OR Doug Fir Lounge %
11/07 Seattle, WA The Crocodile %
11/08 Vancouver, BC Biltmore %
11/11 San Francisco, CA Slim’s %
11/12 Los Angeles, CA Echoplex %
11/13 San Diego, CA Sunset Temple %
11/14 Tempe, AZ Sail Inn %
11/16 Austin, TX The Parish %
11/17 Dallas, TX Club Dada %
11/18 Memphis, TN Hi Tone Cafe %
11/19 Lexington, KY Cosmic Charlie’s %
11/20 Pittsburgh, PA Garfield Artworks %
11/21 Philadelphia, PA Johnny Brenda’s %
11/23 New York, NY Bowery Ballroom %

% = w/ Real Estate
& = w/ Julian Lynch