Wednesday, April 4, 2012

SHOW REVIEW: Keep Shelly In Athens w/ Jonquil

Keep Shelly In Athens is the awkward appellation of a Grecian duo who value an air of mystery. Named for the neighborhood in Athens in which they live – not a captive friend or lover – vocalist Sarah P and producer RΠЯ have only released a few atmospheric, Balaeric-tinged EPs and handful of remixes made available on soundcloud, but they've garnered a huge amount of interest and buzz on the internet and beyond. Their clever production incorporates occasionally hectic, glitchy breaks into otherwise smooth, surreal grooves with dark undertones. Breathy feminine vocals double back over intricate synths and chopped guitar riffs to create haunting textures, and the mesh of styles and tempos comfortably keeps the band from falling too squarely into any category. Keep Shelly has big plans to release a full length sometime this year, and with all the intrigue they've generated abroad are striking out on one of their first US tours, which opened Monday night at Glasslands.

I arrived at the venue a few songs into opening act Jonquil's set and was surprised to see Hugo Manuel at the helm, backed by a full band. If last summer proved anything it's that I'm a huge fan of Manuel's solo project, Chad Valley. Under that moniker, he's released two solid EPs chock full of beachy beats as well as a handful of remixes that in many cases improve the original track by leaps and bounds, all of it in heavy rotation in my iTunes for months and months out of last year. So I'm not quite sure how I missed the fact that he was also the lead singer in a full band. And a good one at that – Jonquil plays an immediate, earnest brand of indie pop tinged with the same tropical elements that make Chad Valley's production so infectious. In Manuel's solo work, he uses his voice more as an overarching melodic element, submerging it under echoic or fuzzy effects, dropping it deep into his rhythmic fray. In Jonquil, he lets it soar to its fullest expressive potential, sliding effortlessly into falsetto and back again into its urgent depths, brilliantly complemented by exuberant brass notes from dual trumpets. My parents watch pretty much every vocal competition show on television (though personally I think someone should combine all of these into one show, creatively titled So You Think America Has a Talented Idol Voice With The Stars?) and having seen a few of these by osmosis while visiting I found myself thinking Manuel would totally own any of the contestants that usually get picked for such drivel. Luckily, he's far more focused on his own creative output. Also, he's British, so he might be disqualified off the bat.

Keep Shelly In Athens began their set with guitarist Stefano, drummer Angelo, and hooded beatsmith RΠЯ alone on stage. Soft projections behind the band featured what looked like falling leaves, or something caught in a drift – appropriate, given the mood set by their shoegazey instrumental take on some of their remix material. Before long, they were joined on stage by tiny, spritely vocalist Sarah P, whose hair fell in soft waves over her face. Considering the subtle ebbs and flows of their dreamy releases, their live sound was much more plugged in than I'd expected it to be, creating a moodier atmosphere than is present in their recorded material. It was like being sucked into a whirlpool in all the best ways. And at the bottom of this whirlpool, a glassy-eyed mermaid awaited, cooing and sucking me deeper into the abyss. In this hallucinatory equation, that mermaid was Sarah P, whose voice sparked and burned with with swirling sensuality, while Angelo's deft drumming and Stefano's hazy guitar work took turns in the spotlight. Through it all, the mysterious man known as RΠЯ acted as maestro, confidently holding it together with connecting loops, samples, and synths.

For a band who has rarely toured the US and yet garnered so much buzz, one would think a show in Brooklyn at an impeccable venue would have been packed to the rafters (or, in the case of Glasslands, to the tissue paper clouds). The fact that they played on a Monday might be partially to blame for the surprisingly sub-par attendance, not to mention there were a handful of competing acts booked the same evening (SBTRKT, for instance, played just around the corner at Music Hall of Williamsburg). Still, Keep Shelly's live shows are a great way for such a new band to experiment sonically and cut their teeth on instrumental techniques. It's exciting to see those wheels turning and to imagine how they'll incorporate what works into their debut release. Even with the current level of talent and innovation that this band presents, it's hard to imagine their shows being ignored for very long.

My only caveat with the performance was the closing number, a cover of The Jesus & Mary Chain's seminal tune “Just Like Honey”. They'd posted their rendition on soundcloud not too long ago, so it wasn't any surprise that it made the setlist, though I found it a rather disappointing addition. This song is well beloved by pretty much anyone and everyone you know that gives any kind of shit about music, making it kind of obvious in terms of choice for cover. It's also been given a splendid re-work by Alela Diane side-project Headless Heroes. But KSIA don't change it up enough to make it interesting, and Sarah's wilting vocal delivery doesn't demand any extra attention. After performing such a strong set of original material, no one was about to get even remotely excited for such glaring retread; in fact, because they played the opening verses rather quietly, you could hear the audience talking amongst themselves as if the band had already finished playing. If I could make a career of it, I would do nothing but advise indie bands on which songs they should cover. Even if this job paid but a paltry sum, it would be well worth it in terms of bestowing the world (and myself) with rad remakes of awesome songs. Since the best I can do in the meantime is write show reviews on this blog, I've here compiled a short list of songs that Keep Shelly In Athens should consider as replacement for “Just Like Honey”, should any of the band's members stumble across it.

  1. “Passenger” - The Deftones: This might seem off-the-wall and distastefully nu-metal. But in the wash of horrible rap-metal bands to emerge from the mid-nineties, I will stand by both Around The Fur and White Pony as bastions of technical wizardry, killer vocal work, conceptual originality and oddball sexiness. And you know what? These tracks actually stand the test of time, particularly this gender-bending, possibly bi-curious duet between Chino Moreno and Tool's Maynard Keenan, a tribute to unmentionable vehicular acts. Keep Shelly In Athens' touring drummer, Angelo, would have a heyday with this one; his rapid-fire staccato made me look over to the friend whom I attended the show with and say “Shut up and drive.”
  2. “Glory Box” - Portishead: This is probably the obvious Portishead jam to cover. But no one ever covers Portishead, though I can see why. Beth Gibbon's voice is kind of untouchable. However, Sarah P's often wry vocal delivery is a good match for pretty much any track in Portishead's oeuvre, and it's no challenge to draw parallels between the two acts. They could punch up the production to give the track an original twist and better suit their own style.
  3. “#1 Crush” - Garbage: I have this fantasy that one day a bunch of chillwave bands will re-work the soundtrack to Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet song for song. Even that lame Everclear song.
  4. “You Oughta Know” - Alanis Morissette: In a rare moment, I was listening to the actual radio while actually driving an actual car, and this song came on. While I had memorized all the words to it long, long ago, that was at a point in my young life where I really had no concept of how embarrassingly vehement the lyrical content of this song truly is. I had not had any lovers at that point in my life and had therefore not been scorned by any lovers, so while I played my Alanis cassette pretty damn often, I really had no way of knowing what she was getting at, even if I wasn't quite so naïve as to not be aware of what going down on someone in a theater entailed. Now I can say I've experienced my fair share of relationships, but none that have ended so badly as the one that prompted Ms. Morissette to air Dave Coulier's dirty laundry at the top of the pops. Anyway, since hearing this song again, still alive and well on whatever fm frequency I was tuned into that random day, I've been obsessed with the idea of hearing some heartbroken version to replace the irate one we're all so familiar with. Sarah P. could easily deliver a rendition with equal parts snarl and sadness that would have blown the socks off anyone listening.
  5. any other Jesus & Mary Chain song not prominently featured in a Sofia Coppola movie

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