All words: Alan Pyke — All photos: Tim Snyder
We Were Promised Jetpacks broke onto my radar courtesy of The AV Club’s annual Best Band Names list a few years back, and the instant allure of the name – angst over broken promises! Wit! Fucking jetpacks! – probably colors my impressions of the band to this day. But if they weren’t awfully good, that gimmicky pull wouldn’t mean much years later. Luckily for the couple hundred people who showed up to the Black Cat on Wednesday night, they are good. Quite. Rather.
But there were a pair of openers – Fort Lean from New York, and London’s own Breton – to get through first. I almost missed Fort Lean, and I’m glad I didn’t. Dreamy, melancholy rock that’s been to a beach lately, and wants badly to go back. Plus a huge bleach-blond half-fro-half-mullet on the lead singer. These kids might have a future. Ditto for Breton, though I’m not sure quite what theirs looks like. The Guardian’s writeup said they played their shows in black cowls, so I was braced for self-seriousness, but they came out in t-shirts, swigging beer and tuning up the projector they use to play their short films. (More expensive than a big “THIS IS ART ROCK” banner, but no more subtle.) The songs were energetic and good. Driving, noisy, messy, dub step-inflected pop, with hints of a sloppier Foals or a noisier Modest Mouse about it all. If I’d thrown a layer of club drugs into my system beforehand, I bet I would’ve loved it.
But the main event, Scots playing beautifully sad balls-to-the-wall ballads, didn’t have to work their way into my heart, or anyone else’s apparently. They launched into an hour-long set pulled from both of their records in equal measure. Frontman Adam Thompson has a clean, haunting voice that pierces the din of the band just as convincingly in person as on wax. The brogue helps, to be sure. He frequently stayed far from the mic, letting his shoutsinging find the wires from afar and creating an airy quietude that had folks hanging on every word, even shushing each other at a couple points.
Jetpacks have the discipline to replicate their on-record sound nearly exactly, but enough personality that that doesn’t feel like a letdown. It’s all controlled fury under the melodic, brogue-laced howling, a nice contrast to the bemused decibels and muddy vocals of Breton.
The headliners hardly paused between songs, which helped compact the set and keep the energy high. “Boy in the Backseat” from last year’s The Pit Of The Stomach led into “Quiet Little Voices,” the lead single off 2009′s These Four Walls, and one of the closest things they’ve got to a hit judging by the hoots that greeted the opening notes. The crowd provided the OHHH-oh-oh-ohs on the chorus of that one – not the last singalong moment in a show where those felt perfectly appropriate. Next came “Human Error,” again from Pit Of The Stomach, and typical of their high-paced, high-tension sound. Nobody would ever call this emo if they weren’t Scottish, I kept telling myself, bitterly.
“Hard to Remember” from Stomach, whose refrain should’ve been inappropriate on a day that hit 80 degrees in DC (“It’s hard to remember/A colder November”), then “Keeping Warm” from Four Walls, and oh that’s right this is post-punk not emo, thank god. The melody-to-yelling ratio is well above the necessary thresholds. They bring the resentment and caution out of your soul in a way that feels more joyous than maybe it should. On “Keeping Warm,” they stretched out the riff so many times that it whipped the more passionate folks in the crowd into a jumping, clapping frenzy, and then let their energy fall again before breaking back into the verses. Kind of a neat trick, though I wonder if anyone felt duped.
“Sore Thumb” is one of their best riffs, and the song as a whole sounds like being underwater. Perhaps for a bit too long, given the somewhat morbid bent of the band. But it’s a lovely way to drown. Thompson leaned into that vibe by standing a full five feet from the mic to sing it, drawing shhhh-ing from several fans. And it bled nicely into “Pear Tree,” another lovely bit of gentleness from a band known best for other techniques.
The most obvious problem with We Were Promised Jetpacks is that all their songs sound so similar, and seem to draw on the same frustrations – the anxiety of a new love, the anguish of a lost one, the grunting frustrations of a life more full of trouble than possibility – but the songs are so well written, and the band so keyed into each other, that none of that matters much in a room full of fans. And even if they were tour-weary, as Thompson declared two thirds of the way through their set, weariness is a natural gear for these tunes. Tired or not, they seemed to be having plenty of fun playing for us.
The set-closer was “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning” from These Four Walls. Of course it was. People went mad. It’s a bruiser of a tune, and many in the room were singing every word. No encore necessary.