Photos: Shauna Alexander (they don’t really match the words, no worries)
Words: Philip Runco
A good Suckers song doesn’t progress so much as unfurl. It swells, soaking up sounds and harmonies, to the point where the seams of whatever structure initially contained it seem ready to split. That it doesn’t split, that the band never loses control over a song’s swaggering momentum, that it’s able to draw a song back from the edge, is a tribute to the band’s rhythm section.
So what happens when you remove the drummer from the equation?
That was situation unexpectedly playing out Friday night as drummer and keyboardist Brian Aiken was sidelined, “puking and shitting all over himself,” as frontman Quinn Walker discretely explained. Rather than postpone its show at Black Cat, Suckers mustered modified and sometimes impromptu arrangements. While songs predictably lacked the force of their fuller counterparts, the results on the whole remained surprisingly resonant and dynamic.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been such of a surprise. The band approaches songs communally even in the presence of Aiken. Members Austin Fisher and Pan – just “Pan” – are nominally a guitarist and bassist, but the two’s responsibilities can shift fluidly to trumpet, synth pad, keyboards, or percussion during the course of a given song. Walker too contributes where he can, pounding his standalone tom with drum sticks, maracas, and, at his most heated, a fist.
With an elevated platform looming empty in the background, Suckers took to the stage with the expansive “Save Your Love for Me.” Over six-and-a-half minutes, waves of atmospheric guitar led into a series of sweetly plaintive pleas that intensified with a sudden eruption at the song’s halfway mark. Voices rising together, the song took on a hymnal quality: Fisher and Pan’s ghostly chants to “save your body, save your mind” playing solemn choir to Walker’s caterwauling intonations.
Fisher, whose rigid vocals recall Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth and by extension David Byrne, took lead on the follower “Roman Candles” before the song, like several others after it, devolved into a yelpy three-way sing-along. The band has most frequently drawn comparisons to Yeasayer, and it’s not an unfair comparison with each band’s Eastern-tinged percussion, but Sucker’s approach to composition – ramshackle arrangements giving rise to, and occasionally dropping out for, ecstatic group vocals – the band more directly recalls a different Brooklyn band: Akron/Family.
Akron/Family, not unlike Yeasayer, may have jumped the shark with its new age mysticism, but before the band got drunk off its own hippie kool-aid, it was putting together the kind of sprawling shanties and freak-outs for which Suckers are striving. (See: Akron/Family’s 2005 split LP with Angels of Light). The difference lies in a much keener pop sensibility on the part of Suckers. “You Can Keep Me Running Around” and “Afterthoughts and TV” swung with sharp melodies and a strong sense of rhythm, even in Aiken’s absence.
The only people who seemed ill at ease with the smaller line-up were the band members themselves. “We’re making this up as we go along,” Walker sheepishly informed the modestly-sized audience mid set. In fact, Suckers sounded ready to throw in the towel six songs in, but the crowd, roused by slow-building standout “It Gets Your Body Movin’”, coaxed an additional two songs from it.
“I always stay ‘til I make a fool of myself,” Walker sang on closer “Beach Queen”. On this night, however, Suckers proved that it won’t be outwearing its welcome anytime soon.
Opener Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson told a different story. Like his name, Robinson’s set could have used some editing.
Armed with several guitars, a keyboard, and Canadian tuxedo, Robinson emoted earnestly over programmed beats and synths that at their least favorable recalled the house band of a Club Med resort. Dressing up traditional singer-writer material in fetishized 80s regalia isn’t a non-starter if done right though. Unfortunately, Robinson’t voice, amplified by reverb, often hung in the air too long and too forcefully for comfort.