Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Album of the Week: Lo Moda "Replica Watches"

This week's album of the week selection is something of a happy accident. When my calendar was first booked for a work trip to DC last week, the first thing I did was look to see what bands were playing in the various DC live music venues I've long wanted to visit (i.e., the 9:30 Club, the Rock & Roll Hotel, and the Black Cat). Nothing I was familiar with was on tap at the Rock & Roll Hotel, and though The National were playing three shows in two days at the 9:30 Club, it wasn't going to work out for various reasons. What did catch my eye most, though, was a St Vincent show at the Black Cat. For various reasons, I've long been following Annie Clark's career and had heard good things about her newest album, Actor. I figured out who was opening and went to the band's page to learn a little more about their sound. It was here that I got hooked.

The opening band, Lo Moda, is a foundational act in the art-rock Baltimore scene and their music immediately turned me on. A few song listens and I was all set to see them and St Vincent.

When the show date finally came, I took the train to the U-street stop and after paying homage at the African-American Civil War memorial, headed toward Ben's Chili Bowl, home of the Cosby half-smoke and the site of President Obama's first public meal post-inauguration. The joint was crowded and filled with photos of famous patrons. It was also a proud establishment, with signs boasting of 58 years of black ownership and perhaps the awesomest dining soundtrack ever, with the very best 70s soul selection I've ever had the pleasure of chewing a chili dog to.

After dining, it was off to the Black Cat, which immediately reminded me of our Grog Shop, both in size and scope (though to its credit, the Black Cat is A LOT cleaner). I was a bit early, so I scooted over to a bar and ordered a beer to nurse while I waited for the show to start.

While sitting there, I started chatting with a guy who occasionally writes for the blog, BrightestYoungThings. Then an awesome song came over the sound system that I couldn't place but was just too good to ignore. The bartender didn't know it, nor did the bar manager, though she said her sound guy might. I went over to the sound booth, but it was vacant. There were, however, a couple guys with laptops hooked into the sound booth and I asked one of them. Immediately upon speaking, I recognized the voice, and the speaker confirmed, he was indeed Bob Boilen from the NPR podcast All Songs Considered. I probably totally creeped him out when I tried to explain I go to sleep each night to his voice, and then definitely did when I hit him up for a photo. Nonetheless, he was totally cool and the chance interaction became the highlight of my week in the nation's capital.

Eventually, the real music started, and I returned to my seat at the bar. After a couple songs, the band started to reel me in, and I stood and walked a few steps toward the stage. A few more songs and I was at the back of the crowd. A few more and I was at the front of the crowd, hands in the air, totally digging the Lo Moda sound. Lead man Peter Quinn's live vocal performance was surprising, as it was not nearly so restrained as the recorded material I'd found online. In fact, were it not for the middle-manager Morrisey appearance tying the two together, I would probably have some difficulty believing that the man I saw howling on stage was the same one I heard crooning on the album.

If I can say anything about this band, it is that they finish strong. The last few songs of their opening set were as well-executed as anything I've seen live in a few months, probably since the encore of the Thao set and before that, the awesome Phosphorescent show at the Tavern this winter. In my mind, it totally overwhelmed the St Vincent show that, well, was quite boring. (The cool Washington Post post-rock blog has a nice little bit about the boredom factor here.) It feels to me like Annie Clark is just treading water until she is old enough to appeal to the PBS crowd, which is a shame as she's a tremendous rock guitar player. I'd love to see her get back into a band and amp up her sound a bit, but for the time being, the success she's received as of late all but guarantee she'll continue the complex adult contemporary sound she's grown in to on her own.

As a result, on my drive back from DC to Cleveland, I was a lot more excited to listen to my new copy of the recent Lo Moda release, Replica Watches, than I was to listen to St Vincent's Actor. Replica Watches is blissfully and darkly redundant, experimental yet simplistic. Elsewhere the band has been characterized as art-school dropout rock, and I totally envy the dude that came up with that description, as it is as cool as it is true. The artiness of the band is comprehensive, identifiable not only in their sound but also in their album art and the extra-curricular activities of the band members, particularly Quinn, who also works with anti-label Creative Capitalism, perhaps best known for releasing Ponytail's first album (before Ice Cream Spiritual), but which does a whole lot more cool stuff than that.

A couple of "little" things about albums that I really like. First, the album art is worth the purchase itself. Second, the album clocks in at over 57 minutes long, making this an LP worthy of the acronym. More important, of course, than these little things, however, is the big picture question itself: does the album rock? Yes, it does. Like their live show, Lo Moda recorded features a strong finish, with most of the album's best songs coming at the very end of the album, including my favorite track "Simple Geographies" and other killer tunes such as "The Serial" and "Paris Now." Things are good in the beginning and middle, too, including the stellar track "Real Real" and the divinely repititive "C.O.N.T.R.O.L." There are a bunch of other good tracks ("Robespierre," "Anonymous Cats," and "Paper Bombs") and admittedly some forgettable ones ("Independent Dance Party" and "Blank Society") -- like I said, this is a lengthy LP.

On each track, the one thing I really love about this band is that they are always doing something interesting, but not too many interesting things at once. There are so many music school graduates out there right now trying to convince us of how smart they are that, in the end, all those layers and layers of smartness only yield dissonance. Lo Moda is disciplined, laying down a simple backdrop time and time again, and putting one or two cool effects on top, whether affecting a pipe organ or a harrowingly sharp violin attack. Quinn's vocals consistently work well and in tandem with one instrument or another - this is a man and a band that know what sound they are going for and are patient in getting after it. Their execution reminds me that talent lies not just in being able to play a bunch of different instruments, but in knowing what to do with all that ability.

All in all, the great outweighs the good on this album and the good outweighs the not-so, so returning once again to my homemade rating system, I score this one a "buy it new" - though you'll probably have to find somewhere other than a record store to buy it. My best guess is through the Creative Capitalism site, as it isn't likely the folks from Lo Moda will be making their way up here to NEO any time soon.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Be sure to check out Gospel Store Front (their first album) too.. Totally awesome.