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all words: Philip Runco
all photos: Jeff Martin

Remember Rogue Wave? Yes, Zach Schwartz Rogue is still making music, but I’m remembering Rogue Wave when we first met the band, in the summer of 2004: the summer of Garden State love.

Following a well-received tour opening The Shins, Rogue Wave was scooped up by Sub Pop, who rereleased the band’s debut Out of the Shadows, an album that sounded, well, a lot like The Shins. People got excited. Rogue had tapped into the right influence at the right time. He borrowed Oh, Inverted World’s worn-in 60’s pop aesthetic, imbuing it with brighter West Coast harmonies and – upping the hip quotient – fluttery electronics. But lost among the buzz was that, unlike his more adventerous counterparts, what Rogue had merely grafted onto this aesthetic was pedestrian singer-songwriter material. Thus, six years later, I don’t find many people telling me Out of the Shadows will change my life.

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And six years later, The Shin’s polite 60s pop kaleidoscope is yesterday’s news. In its place we have more muscular trends: polyrhythmic percussion; complex multi-part harmonies; and the reemergence of afro-pop. But while the stylistic winds may shift, we will always have Rogue Waves, appropriating the latest fashions to dress up tired songwriting.

Which brings us to Local Natives.

The Los Angeles band incorporates all three of the aforementioned trends. Its harmonies are full and lush. Performing live at the Rock and Roll Hotel, those vocals were punched up even higher in the mix. Rarely was a voice unaccompanied by a bandmate or three.

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The polyrhythmic drumming can be dynamic and fluid. On Wednesday, it came in tandem, from drummer Matt Frazer and frontman Kelcey Ayer. Ayer paid more attention to his tom and cymbal than his keyboard, even on the band’s slower songs. On “Wide Eyes” and “Camera Talk” the interlocking guitars and percussion flowed seamlessly together.

Technically speaking then, the band was proficient and well-practiced. So why was its performance ultimately so unmoving?

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Mainly it’s because under all the flash, these are some boringly earnest, solipsistic songs. And here, I’ll lower the veil of complete objectivity a bit and admit that I just don’t have the stomach for this cheese. Listening to the band’s debut, Gorilla Manor, one can allow the lyrical content and smarminess of it all to fade into the whole sound, but live, with Ayer front and center, beaming in his unbuttoned linen shirt and peach-colored soft cotton t-shirt, there’s no avoiding it.

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From the night’s opener “World News” (“The bad feeling so bad makes the good so goooood!”) to closer “Sun Hands” (“I want to lift my hands towards the sun / Show me warmth”) the band peddled gratingly bright-eyed, new age optimism. Eulogizing a departed grandfather, “Airplanes” aimed straight for the heart strings.  When does this song get its American Idol makeover? The slower songs dove further into more sentimental territory. “Cubism Dream” detailed the trials of long distance video chatting (“She flew across the sea / We talked on a small screen”).

Clearly there’s a market for this stuff. The concert sold out this show months in advance. Local Natives have gutted avant-garde indie rock – building on the backs of Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, even The Dodos – and used it to carry inoffensive music as warm and welcoming and dull as bathwater.

Opener Suckers aren’t afraid of ruffling some feathers.

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There’s something feral about the band that makes lends its performances a certain magnetism. Like with Local Natives, the songs almost always evolve into three-part sing-alongs, but Suckers’ vocals grow increasingly unhinged as its music drunkenly swaggers towards crescendos.

Guitarist Quinn Walker and multi-instrumentalist Austin Fisher trade lead vocals. The band is at its best when Pan’s straight-laced intonations play against Walker’s careening falsetto. Walker alone can be a mixed bag. Opener “Before Your Birthday Ends” uncomfortably pushed his falsetto to its upper register, putting him in Wild Beasts territory, but a Hayden Thorpe he is not.

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And then there’s drummer Brian Aiken. The last time the band played DC, Aiken called in sick, leaving the band to admirably carry on without him. As if to announce his return, Aiken came on stage alone to begin this night… with a drum solo. Arms flailing, eyes wired, face intense – the guy’s an Animal. Riding his hi-hit, Aiken gave “Black Sheep” a disco pulse akin to Wolf Parade’s “Disco Sheets” or “We Built Another World”. Suckers again evoked the Montreal band on “It Gets Your Body Movin’”, recalling the monstrous “I’ll Believe in Anything”.

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The band was unwilling to settle into one groove. Over a stretch of three songs from the forthcoming Wild Smile, the band successively deployed a huge, swooning trumpet line, a buoyant whistle, and lurching keyboard. The band’s willingness to push its boundaries while confidently maintaining its own personality should have people excited for what can I only hope is the sprawl of Wild Smile.

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