Click to hear: “Love”
Portland’s music scene has traditionally been heavier on cheerleaders than actual cheer-inducing bands, but at least within one genre, it’s hard not to feel what all the fuss is about. Between Phantom Buffalo, Cult Maze, Satellite Lot and Diamond Sharp, our small city currently has an inordinate number of quality indie-rock bands.
One group that might outshine them all is Citadel, a new-ish band fronted by singer Barry Burst. That is, if they ever get around to it.
Burst first drew attention a few years ago with a short, rapturously received solo set at Bubba’s Sulky Lounge. An album was planned and promised and possibly recorded, though never actually distributed. Citadel has, so far, followed a similar path. They have recorded some of the area’s best music, but have yet to release a recording or perform live in public.
Citadel is an indie-rock band within the wide definition of the term, as a matter of method and association, not of sound. The group’s music might be slightly better described as acid rock. In the late ’60s, modish bands like Love and the Pretty Things – as well as another contemporary group called The Rolling Stones – briefly morphed into psychedelic folk bands, recording a handful of great records less wide-eyed but no less hallucinogenic than the hits of their flower-powered peers. That sound – hazy and expansive, but also texturally and melodically rich – is the base for all of Citadel’s music.
It’s not an influence the group is shy about. Their best song is called “Love,” and it’s shamelessly and impressively reminiscent of that band. Other songs evoke other groups Citadel cite as influences (in a rare and commendable MySpace aberration, Citadel actually sounds most like the bands it cites as its influences). The Attack, the Factory, and the Smoke also come to mind, but Citadel doesn’t merely ape its inspirations, it joins them. Unlike most groups that could be called revivalists, Citadel are as adept as the bands they emulate, merely less timely.
Burst has mastered the phrasing and production of classic psychedelia. His vocals and arrangements are as strong as his songwriting. At their best, Citadel are as worthy of your time as any group in the genre, now or then. Strong praise perhaps for a local band, but for once it’s well deserved. Citadel are ready for the next level. That is, of course, if they ever get around to it.
Woe are those modern-day ska bands, practitioners of the uncoolest of all musical genres (hate-rock doesn’t count). Derided, misunderstood and hopefully bullied, their lot is a tough one.
That said, for every thing, there is a season, and like bowl haircuts and Fatboy Slim, ska was once ridiculously popular. As an antidote to grunge, so-called Third Wave Ska made some sort of sense in the mid-’90s, and it achieved a level of success, if not respect, that many people find difficult to fathom today. Though you won’t read about it in their official biographies, the frontmen of some of your favorite (Franz Ferdinand) and least favorite (The Bravery) hipster bands of today did time in embarrassingly named, peppy plaid groups during the Clinton era. However, its trendiness since reduced back to zero, ska is once again where it belongs – in the hands of its small core of ignored true believers.
Free Refills, a young Cape Elizabeth band, are a true throwback to that mid-’90s heyday. Their tempos are spastic, the lyrics are “funny,” and a certain dogged, futile determination to fuse distorted guitars and brass instruments marks their adherence to all that was best and worst of the period. On “Ska Bander” (available at myspace.com/patallenisstupid) the band sing a goofy, catchy and probably sincere account of their formation: “My friend called me up, he said, ‘Hey want to be in a ska band?'” They’re obviously having fun, and there are worse things for teenagers to do, so why knock Free Refills?
Here’s why: Since its inception in the early ’60s, ska has only survived by evolving, and like a virus, skattaching itself to healthy young hosts. In the late ’70s, British ska bands combined it with new wave; in the late ’80s, Operation Ivy and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones invented two kinds of ska-core. The groups of the ’90s weren’t just playing ska, they were skamalgamating it with the skattributes of pop-punk – Skali-punk, if you will. Like Avian Flu, ska will just continue to scare people without being a real threat unless Free Refills take action. As the guardians of ska tradition, they must skadapt this tired genre to something new and popular.
And so back to the drawing board, Free Refills. Skrunk just won’t work, and you’re too late for electrosklash, but I have something even better to suggest: “Skreamo.” Think about it. You know we need it.
Beaux de l’Air
New bands hoping to establish themselves through a MySpace music page have a number of options ready for easy exploitation. They can cover their page with biographies, pictures, descriptions and influences, framing the music in whatever proper context they might imagine. They can garner hundreds of listens or new fans by sending friend requests to like-minded souls or bands (or – in some cases, it seems – to just anyone at random). They can also make a rotating selection of demos available for listening (or even better, for downloading) since, after all, it’s always the most familiar songs that get the best reactions live.
None of those options seem to have struck Beaux de l’Air (myspace.com/beauxdelair), though. The somewhat amusingly named cabaret jazz trio, led by Portland singer, bassist and songwriter Elizabeth Trice, has only three “friends” so far (including Tom), one photo, no background, zero groups it associates itself with, and one lonely recording available for listen – the file for which Beaux de l’Air are selfishly keeping to themselves. They have, however, lit upon one very appropriate, barely utilized function of MySpace pages. Click on “lyrics” under that one track, and you can read along, and try to keep up, as Trice tongue twists through “Mercury,” one of the most lyrically intricate songs you’re likely to hear this year, or any.
It takes a particularly beguiling and adroit vocalist to put across couplets like these. At one point Trice sings, “It could be the neurotoxicity of mercury on the posterior pituitary/It could be the AGATTACT of zic-1 on chromosome 3.” She’s only half up to the challenge – a couple of the denser polysyllabics get run together on “Mercury,” which may be why the band is keeping this rough draft out of circulation – but it’s affecting enough. You may not expect to hum along to lines like “Neurolinguistic and cognitive programming, biofeedback therapy/Eating organic, minute bovine extracts and megadose vitamin C,” but isn’t the charm of the unexpected what good music is all about?
The best way to listen to “Mercury” is to play the track alone first, and then a second time with the lyric page open, getting to know all those missed details. A hopefully even more enjoyable option would be to catch Beaux de l’Air live, when the well-rehearsed band can really knock this song out (not to mention any unsuspecting neurologists and biochemists in the audience). Luckily, there is one MySpace convention the band hasn’t ignored: a list of all upcoming shows.
— Jeremy Skehan