Red Christmas lights lined the grungy showroom at The Mercury Lounge last night, heralding a night of “ROCKDECEMBER.” A handful of mostly unknown bands played to a mostly empty dance floor. The Nenad Bach Band and Alan Merill (songwriter and member of The Arrows) drew an older crowd than The Lounge is used to (more than one patron walked with the help of a cane), while the usual hip youngsters (young hipsters?) drank it up at the bar, listening to the old-timers with a strange mixture of reverence and unconcern. The two generations rarely mingled.
I got to the venue in time to see Kid Nixon, a very young band from Yonkers. They played straight riff rock, shouting into the mics more than singing. They had great energy, but their inability to carry a melody convincingly and their partially-formed songs were more miss than hit.
Alan Merrill, by contrast, displayed the songwriting talent that made him a minor legend in early/mid 70’s rock. If you don’t know who he is, don’t feel bad; I’d never heard of him either. He’s one of those poor souls whose songs get picked up by everyone around him and made into hits, his name attached to everything but never on the cover. Highlights include “I Love Rock n’ Roll,” which was made insanely famous by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and “When the Night Comes,” the first song ever broadcast back to earth from outer space.
Merrill perfectly fits the archetype of the rocker who’s drifted towards a softer sound with age. He has mangy, overgrown hair sitting above a craggy face, plays an acoustic guitar with no backing band, and talks a lot about where each song sits in history and who it was that made it famous. He played with quiet confidence, obviously not worried about the small crowd. It seemed as if he were playing mostly for himself, and if he happened to communicate his music to a few people while he was at it, that was nice too.
The most interesting band of the night was the last, Quiet Loudly. They bill themselves as “Soulgaze,” listing among their influences Al Green, Otis Redding, Sonic Youth, and Slowdive. This makes them very much a band of the present, despite the fact that Classic Soul is decades old. Soul-tinged and Shoegaze-influenced bands are dominating the New York scene these days, with only Synth Pop, perhaps, at a higher apex of hipness.
Soul, to me, is all about the voice. The best Soul singers stretch their voices as far as they can go, bucking against the strict time and repetitive chord changes set up by the rest of the band. Otis Redding – one of my favorite singers, and apparently one of Quiet Loudly’s too – is an absolute master at this. Quiet Loudly does use Classic Soul’s 6/8 time signatures and the stark guitar riffs, but what makes them vitally Soul-like is this same tension between their frontman and the rhythm section. Lead singer/lead guitarist Max Goransson doesn’t have the voice of Al Green, but he’s got range and can pull of some vocal fireworks. His favorite move is a sudden leap up into falsetto, a musical cry of passion. But where the friction and the magic happens is in his guitar playing. Goransson likes to kick on a mantle of massive, screaming distortion. He alternately strums delicately to create a blanket of noise, and rocks out on vaguely bluesy riffs. In short, his guitar was the real Soul singer last night, drifting constantly away from the rest of the band while somehow still feeling right at home in their sound.
Against all odds, Quiet Loudly’s music didn’t feel forced, or like an intellectual exercise. Through Goransson’s guitar playing they’ve found a way to make these two genres click.
Quiet Loudly’s rhythm section was beautifully tight. Drummer Sal Garro played cymbal-heavy versions of Classic Soul beats, laying down the band’s foundation while complementing Goransson’s high-end distortion. Keys player John Weingarten was especially solid, and although he rarely stepped out of the background, he held the band together like glue.
The Sunday night crowd at The Mercury Lounge was (understandably) small, and I hope Quiet Loudly play another show at a better time. More people need to hear what they’re doing. Their first album, Soulgaze, is out. You can pick it up here or get a virtual copy on iTunes or Amazon. Here’s a sneak peek of one of the songs on the album, “Church of Mud,” live at last night’s show:
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