all photos: Emily Cohen
all words: Colin Wilhelm
Before I dive into a review of We Were Promised Jetpacks’ excellent show, please allow me to pull back the curtain on how BYT operates (and presume you care).
Typically we concert reviewers submit a monthly list of shows/bands they’d like to cover. Oftentimes we get what we want to cover, unless there’s a Jay-Z/Kanye West concert at the Verizon Center coming up that everyone wants to attend.1 In statistics (and the polling business) this is called self-selection bias: it leads towards coverage that’s usually more positive than negative since each reviewer (typically) writes about bands they want to see. That doesn’t mean every review’s so glowing the band’s publicist could have written it; allegedly there used to be an Urban Dictionary definition of BYT in its earlier days that described the site as [paraphrasing] ‘a group of rich white kids living off of their parents, hating on bands because they can’t make music themselves’. I think most if not all reviewers here will check their preconceptions at the door and honestly assess each show (I and several others I know certainly strive to). All of which is to say there’s a lot of gushing that goes on in critical circles, musical, literary, film or otherwise, usually motivated to drive pageviews/get blurbed on a poster or jacket cover, but typically the love that happens on this site is genuine. Apology out of the way now, I’ll get to the crux of this argument.
I’m not a fanboy of We Were Promised Jetpacks. At least not prior to this show. I had heard of them in passing, mostly because of their absurdly indignant name. I’d listened to them a little, only in preparation for their appearance at Black Cat. They sounded decent but not terribly noteworthy. Of course, live shows often are what separates noteworthy bands from studio-produced crap, Wilco2 from the Black-Eyed Peas.
Almost needless to say at this point, WWPJ put on a terrifically entertaining, near-flawless set. In literature, there’s a term called ‘total novel’. Its definition has some wiggle room for interpretation, but it essentially means an immersive work that leaves no word wasted. Everything has a purpose, as if the novelist’s created a Rube Goldberg machine world of predestination. That’s how WWPJ’s music felt to me: (almost) no note left behind. Whenever the progression of a song seemed certain, they took it in an unexpected direction or added a surprise drum flare or bass improvisation, cramming an interesting sound or note into nearly every second of each song. From the moment bassist Sean Smith led the band onstage whilst doublefisting to the moment they exited stage right following “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning,” nearly every part of their performance felt essential. Will WWPJ’s music make the world a better place? No. But we’d probably all be better off if more folks listened to music like this rather than shitty dubstep remixes3.
The simplistic but effective marriage of post-punk with little bits of post-rock epicness sprinkled in had a lot to do with this. By no means is this an original concept [I would argue post-punk band Juno was one band at the forefront of this sound in the late ’90s and early ‘00s]. But WWPJ does it extremely well. Their opening came with a couple minutes of layered, building noise not unfamiliar to the impression a rocket warming up makes in the memory. “Quiet Little Voices” followed as the penintroductory song, and the crowd met its commencing guitar riff with a responsive scream, followed by enough bouncing up and down to make me neurotically worry that the floor would collapse (it didn’t). The loud-soft-loud combinations had the desired effect of making them both intimate and arena-worthy in the same song; the near interminable build, quickly stripped down atmosphere, and then touch and go takeoff towards a frenetically danceable climax of “Keeping Warm” is an apt example. If there’s one strong criticism, it’s that the lyrics felt a little trite at times. However, the earnestness with which they were delivered, as well as the strong voice of singer/guitarist Adam Thompson, made up for it. Thompson also would periodically back away from the mic and sing-shout from there, bringing the audience emotionally closer in those moments while at the same time creating a sense of physical distance that he exploited throughout the set.
On skill alone, Bear Hands could have headlined this show. They leaned more towards the danceable side of post-punk, evoking the indiepop of Title Tracks and grooveability of !!!, amongst some other influences. I heard everything from surf to yacht rock thrown in, and they chameleonically shifted between intense rocking4, extended jams, and dueling synths. While not every song worked as a sum of its parts, with the exception of maybe one or two of those that weren’t as thoroughly baked, they had enough interesting parts to keep the ear engaged.
Opener Royal Bangs had some good thrown in with mostly unrealized potential. First the good: whoever in the band writes their songs has a knack for bass and drumbeats, which their rhythm section play excellently. The mediocre to bad: most everything else. They used a lot of textural guitar, which isn’t necessarily bad, but never really let the guitarist do much else. The singer’s voice was often thin, sometimes grating, and he played synthesizers that sometimes seemed superfluous and obligatory. That said, there’s enough of a baseline in the basslines5 to build upon, and they could be a fun band to get drunk and brazenly sway to. However, once two extremely talented and more fully realized bands played after them, Royal Bangs’ set diminished some in retrospect. Overall though it was a legendary night of grandiose, undaunted proportions; either that or a really solid indie rock concert.
1. In cases like this, the assignment usually goes to an “A-Team” who’s been with BYT for a while and established themselves as reliable and talented, usually one of the ‘adults’ in charge like Cale or Shauna. If no one like that’s available then the assignment’s determined in descending order of: events volunteered, grammatical adherence, how much one looks like an Urban Outfitters model, feats of strength…the usual
2. Ok-pre “Wilco-the Album” Wilco
3.Though I suppose that could go for just about any noise, including the sound of puppies being murdered. (Just kidding. Most dubstep is the sound of puppies being murdered.)
4. Their amps could’ve had the sound lines comic book artists use to indicate “loud” during their first song.
5. Puns ‘r fun!