Love can’t buy a full room, no matter what the prophets of new media might say. Even when the gushing adoration gets issued from the fast-typing manicured fingers of a name-checking rock critic, it’s not enough to ensure that there will actually be warm-drinking bodies filling the club when the band finally walks out — at least not at Iota.
The Antlers shuffled into Iota on the last languid Thursday night, dragging the sonic fruits of an inaugural album, “Hospice,” and the slow-snowball of a slew of positive reviews and early “best in 2009” lists, stretching from Pitchfork to NPR. It’s the type of trilling whisp-heavy work, managing to build and stretch droning little pop songs into eerily depressing, slow building atmospheric foothills. The dark little missive may enchant and bewitch, but make it through the ten tracks, and a very strong chance that you probably won’t be in the state of mind known as happy.
It’s an album that plays better in the headphones than the speakers — the canvasses quaver but rarely overwhelm — but on Thursday when I sat down with front man Peter Silberman, drummer Michael Lerner and keyboard stroking effects-slathering master Darby Cicci, the trio promised that the sound would be brought.
“We try to make each song as dense and expansive as we can,” said Silberman. “I don’t always know who’s making each sound or where it’s coming from, but we try to build each song as full as we can.”
The back story running alongside those dense stretching songs is a powerful one, drawing a dreary theme into a powerful statement.
“Hospice came from the idea of caring for a terminal patient who’s mentally abusive to you,” says Silberman, in the press notes. “You don’t have the right to argue with them, either, because they’re the one who’s dying here; they’re the one that’s been dealt a wrong hand. So you take it, but you can only take so much.”
On Thursday, he would only stretch that out a line farther, mentioning that, “it was actually about a relationship I had at the time.”
Not the most talkative of front men.
When the band finally took the small stage inside Iota, the floor was empty, with the few people hugging the corners of the room, and the chairs of the bar. Silberman, Learner and Cicci climbed onto the stage, delayed as long as they could and finally kicked into one of “Hospice’s” standouts, Bear.
The song manages to harness a meandering little pop song to some of Silberman’s most stark and confessional lyrics.
“We’re terrified of one another/ And terrified of what that means.
But we’ll make only quick decisions/ And you’ll just keep me in the waiting room.
And all the while i’ll know we’re f-d/ And not getting unf-d soon.
When we get home we’re bigger strangers than we’ve ever been before.
You sit in front of snowy television, suitcase on the floor.”
The opening turned into a closing as the song ended in the type of swelling crashes usually reserved for thirteen-strike crescendos and second-call encores. It was a song that just kept distorting, fizzing and crashing with the cymbals, denying every applause-ending attempt. It was something different, something almost big, but unfortunately it would turn out to be one of the highest climaxes of the night.
Throughout the show, The Antlers built story after story of synth-heavy, cymbal-punctuated compositions — you never wonder what’s happening with Cicci or the keyboards— which saw Silberman’s voice draped into the middle of the noise and only allowing a few words to slip out. Then there would be the breaks when the drums would be pulled back, letting the drone of the underlying guitar melody and the lyrics of a song like “Two” to slip out in a running line of fog-draped patter about isolation, death, and a father whose selfish angry actions ensure that the psyche of his daughter will be eternally twisted.
Silberman’s stage prattle consists of a few mumbled words and quiet thanks, which plays well into his shy and sheepish, shoe-staring, effects pedal loving image. The type of self-contained world that The Antlers built works well when the room’s nearly empty, the trio seem like they would play the same way, fans or no fans, but sometimes just observing that world wasn’t enough. There were times where you wanted more of the pedals, more distortion, a loop or two, some type of consistency that could build on the swirls, and allow the band to build a greater and angrier climax. Every song built to the same middle-ground place, and while that middle ground is still higher than most bands can reach in their entire set, the delayed gratification was lovely, but ultimately unfulfilling — you just wanted something a little more.
There’s a lot to like about The Antlers, the music that rolls off of the stage is beautiful, sweeping and contains a sense of directed purpose that guides and moves the undulating waves of sound. Silberman’s voice can croon and wail on top of those waves with the best of them, and when he would throw out a line like, “there’s no saving you,” chills grab your spine.
When you’ve got the headphones, the sound grabs and wraps around your ears, and you can slip into the sliding melancholy world of The Antlers, you may never go very high, but you become accustomed to every corner and dip of the lows. There’s a comfort to the depression. When the band brings that sound live, it’s an entirely different world and sound. You could swear that you’d weren’t even hearing the same material, and while you’re never that low, somehow you just can’t quite get high enough. But for now, it’s just enough to tease you with what there might be in the future.
You’re going to hear a lot more from The Antlers in the blog-stained coming months, there’s a lot of room for growth, for development, and with a heavy touring schedule that’s highlighted by a stint of dates with all-stars of the broken hearted, Frightened Rabbit, and a spot at Pitchfork Fest, the little kids will be nodding their heads — hands firmly in pocket — and drawing the mix and match genre connections all summer long.
And that’s not a bad thing, because despite a little bit of the underwhelm, there was enough whelm (is that even a word?) to make the band worth a listen. Eventually that wall of sound will be built high and full enough that you’ll get swept into it, it’ll wash you somewhere that’s nothing like anything you’ve heard, and then we can talk again.
Oh, and for the sake of this blog and its mission, let the record show that The Antlers need more experience with D.C.
What do The Antlers love about D.C.?
“I haven’t spent a lot of time here, the only time I’ve been here is when I play these shows,” said front man Peter Silberman.
Synth/keyboard player Darby Cicci didn’t have too much of an opinion either, but his father was moving to the area for a job, so that has to mean something.
“Getting to drive down through D.C. proper with all the monuments, I think it’s different because coming when Obama is in the White House versus before, it was kind of….. sh—y…,” said drummer Michael Lerner. “Everything was negative when Bush and Cheney were here, and now that Obama is here, it just feels positive.”
And yes, even fractured health care debates couldn’t bring that optimism down.
There was another band on the bill, the headliners Cotton Jones, but I’m sad to say that I wimped out after about 5-6 jangly folk sing-alongs. It’s nothing against the genre. I love organs, harmonicas and female-backed harmonies with the best of them, and actually I have a special place in my heart for what Cotton Jones used to be–Page France. Some nights you can only handle so much new music, and after awhile repetitious bass lines triggered a throbbing headache and I just had to call it a night. Failure on persistence. Go check out the boys (and girl) from Maryland, they’ve got a lot of talent in their whiskey-soaked vocal chords, and you’ll walk out with a smile.