By Gabriel Mathews
Having been hungover all day, the red glow emanating from the ceiling of The Showbox felt incredibly appropriate: I am now inside my head. When a girl in the front row passed out two minutes before the show started, that felt about right, too (She was fine, don’t worry). We were, after all, here to see the reunion of hometown heroes The Blood Brothers, who have a the fanbase of an evil Jesus.
But first, Naomi Punk. I have so much to say. I had only listened to a couple of songs before the show, so I kind of knew what I was getting into, but I didn’t know. When three self-consciously weird-looking young dudes stepped onstage, looking like they hadn’t emerged from the Olympia basement where they wrote these songs pretty much ever, they immediately had me stunned. It’s been ages since I’ve seen the guitar-as-instrument made so compelling. Frontman Travis Coster played a low-strung guitar, detuned for maximum weighty impact, while his foil, Neil Gregerson, in all his bowl-cutted glory, worked a regular six-string. The guitars were creatively amped, again for max heaviness. The moment these two started playing, along with brutalist drummer Nicolas Luempert, my jaw fell slightly open and I couldn’t quite move from where I stood.
I’m not really sure how to describe Naomi Punk. They use rock and punk tools and signifiers without making a single ordinary punk/rock move. The guitars move in obtuse patterns, chord progressions don’t make sense, musical phrases seem to last as long as they feel like lasting, without being constrained by meter. Song structure does not exist. Luempert’s approch to drumming doesn’t once really involve a “beat,” per se, he more just makes sure to be hitting something on each eighth note, and every once in a while, somewhere in between. This means most every note involves all three members attacking their instruments at once, in a way that actually sort of physically assaults you. Coster’s approach to singing is mostly intensely a-melodic, so that when he actually does something pretty and tuneful you really feel it.
The melodies are worked by the guitars, where certain motifs seem to pop up across the songs—lines are drawn easily from “Firehose Face” to “Linoleum Tryst #19” to “Television Man.” The same three-note ascending riff, the same rhythmic pattern floats up frequently, as if these are just elements of music Coster’s mind never stops circling.
Because Naomi Punk is from the Northwest, critics clamoring for some comparison to make immediately land on grunge. As far as I can tell, the only real through-line is that these guys tend to favor the low end of their guitar necks, and that the music is pretty heavy as a result. (I suppose they do thank “Kurdt” in their liner notes, but come on, this is not grunge music.) Honestly, the only influence I can point to directly is their use of looped noise tracks during tuning sessions, a hallmark of early Sonic Youth shows, before they could afford multiple guitars. If there’s any regional connection, it’s to Tumwater/Olympia band Unwound, who took a rather different approach to a similarly jaundiced, sour tone.
Naomi Punk are intensely DIY—they have pretty much zero online presence, their records are distributed by Captured Tracks, but as far as I can tell they pretty much do everything else themselves. As a result, listening to this stuff on record, as I’ve now been doing pretty much since I got home, is a slightly less intense affair. The weight of their live sound doesn’t come across to quite the same extent on this year’s Television Man or 2012’s The Feeling, due simply to production value. So please, for the love of god, go see them live. This band’s highest-profile champions are Parquet Courts, with whom they played the Vera Project a couple weeks ago (I went to Diarrhea Planet instead). I find it interesting that Parquet Courts, the band currently riding the “Guitar-Rock Saviors” wave of hype harder than anyone else by virtue of doing pretty much nothing original (though, yes, they are a lot of fun), are promoting Naomi Punk, who are nothing if not original, and who, in my personal opinion, are vastly more deserving of this praise. If anyone is making guitar music relevant today, it’s these guys. Just listen to “Rodeo Trash Pit” for proof.
After the show, Coster let me short-change him by a buck for a copy of Television Man, because that was all the cash I had. The back of the sleeve bears two directives: “RECLAIM YOUR LIFE” and “PLEASE BLAST THE RECORD.” After last night, I am fully inspired to do both.
Okay. There. I think that’s everything I wanted to say about Naomi Punk. So, The Blood Brothers.
A bit of history: The Blood Brothers formed in high school, and put out their first record, 2000’s This Adultery Is Ripe when they were 19. By 2006, they had released four more willfully erratic, difficult, theatrical post-hardcore full-lengths and a couple EPs, and they broke up in 2007, at the age of 26. Co-frontman Jordan Blilie, bassist Morgan Henderson and drummer Mark Gajadhar formed the alright Past Lives with founding Blood Bro Devin Welch, while other frontman Johnny Whitney and guitarist Cody Votolato teamed up with Jay Clark (ex-Pretty Girls Make Graves) for the pretty bad Jaguar Love. Blilie and Welch also started an apparently pretty good Rolling Stones cover band called, of course, The Rolling Stones, Henderson worked with Fleet Foxes and Hamilton Leithauser, Gajadhar became a beatmaker for hip-hop act Champagne Champagne, Whitney and his wife formed a clothing line, and Votolato played with Telekinesis and Cold Cave. Somewhere in there, Epitaph decided to do vinyl reissues of the band’s four main records. Then, seven years post-breakup, somewhere around age 33, they decided to reunite. (No one really looks like they’ve aged much, either, except maybe Votolato, whose hair was intricately styled to mask his growing forehead.)
I say all this just to emphasize their youth—how many people “get the band back together” at 33? How many have built up a legacy like the Blood Brothers by 26? Almost as many records bear the stamps of these five men as there are records by the actual Rolling Stones. They are important.
As a massive banner bearing the cover of their assumed swan song, 2006’s Young Machetes, went up, the crowd went apeshit. The moshing started before the band even took the stage, and it didn’t ever let up. These fans are devoted: I’m rarely able to decipher Blood Brothers lyrics, but everyone here seemed to know every single one.
I have to confess that I’m only super familiar with their 2004 record Crimes, and having now heard the other three (no one counts Adultery), I feel justified in considering it their best. 2002’s March On Electric Children and 2003’s breakout Burn, Piano Island, Burn are so incredibly dense, winding, and intricately composed that it’s hard to find a place to sink one’s teeth into—the songs blur together into one maelstrom that’s obstinately hard to listen to. Young Machetes’ returns to this pattern, with the focus on start-stop tempos, endlessly morphing song structure, and overzealous production from Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. Crimes, however, is where Votolato learned to play one string at a time, Blilie was given the opportunity to actually sing for the first time, and the band as a whole figured out how to write songs with hooks. The album had them realizing that their rhythm section could really swing when given the chance to slow down, and that they could do some interesting stuff at lower tempos and lower volumes. It’s also where they let their taste for the theatrical run wild—the whole thing should probably be named after a different one of its songs, “Live At The Apocalypse Cabaret.”
So, point being, I was a little disappointed by how little they played off of Crimes. The title track sounded great, “Trash Flavored Trash” was an excellent opener, “Peacock Skeleton With Crooked Feathers” was a blast, and naturally, they killed it on their biggest hit “Love Rhymes With Hideous Car Wreck,” which found Whitney shrieking “LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE” into one of the overhead drum mics as his mic cut out. But where was “Apocalypse Cabaret?” “Rats And Rats And Rats For Candy?” And “Devastator?” Come on, guys, everybody needs a little devastation… (That said, of all the records I saw people clutching, Crimes seemed to be most popular, especially amongst the female contingent, of whom there were shockingly many for a show like this.)
The other surprise in the setlist was how heavy it was on Young Machetes, a record I foolishly assumed people didn’t really like. But songs like “Set Fire To The Face On Fire,” “Camouflage, Camouflage” and “Vital Beach” got at least as many cheers as every other song, if not more.
The sound was so blown out, and Votolato’s guitar so deliberately tinny, that there was a general piercing hiss over everything, making many songs hard to distinguish (then again, I have the same problem with Piano Island and Electric Children material on record). But I can testify to this band’s showmanship. Where pretty much any other band of their ilk would have doubled down on guitars, The Blood Brothers go for two vocalists, a technique which serves them very well. The dialogue between Blilie’s sultry baritone and Whitney’s androgynous shriek makes tracks like “Peacock Skeleton” really stand out, and when they scream in unison on pretty much every other song, it’s really that much more powerful. Blilie tended to stalk the stage predatorily, while Whitney, always the showboat, gesticulated and writhed. Votolato did his part, too, screaming along, jumping into the crowd, a giant medallion hanging from his neck.
After an impassioned speech from Blilie about how much he loves these other guys, during which Whitney placed his hand on his heart and looked like he would cry, and an announcement that it was Henderson’s birthday, the band launched into the organ-driven main-set closer, “Cecilia And The Silhouette Saloon,” which I’d never really noticed on Piano Island, but which killed live. They returned for an encore of “Set Fire,” a few songs from Adultery for the die-hards, and the only song they could conceivably close with, Piano Island closer “The Shame.” While I was hoping they’d imitate the recorded version’s cold ending, it was good enough chanting along with “Everything is going to be just awful when we’re around” until the final chord struck. It’s nice and awful to have you back, Bros.
PS: To the guy in the fairy unitard and tutu, wandering around waving a paper fan: Thank you. That was an amazing act of charity.