I went up to Baltimore on Friday for a night of good old fashioned American indie rock. The kind of early to mid-90’s, DIY-fueled, noisy indie rock that produced local legends like Ian MacKaye and J. Robbins. I guess it’s what music historians are calling post-hardcore these days. Emotional rock music with hardcore’s heart but with a compositional sophistication that punk could never pull off. This music has got guts and up tempos and expresses deep emotion without ever sounding limp or boring. It is music that can keep a room full of people moving or just as easily soundtrack your loneliest moment.
The big draw for me on Friday was finally seeing Office of Future Plans headline a show. This is J. Robbins’ new project that he has been incubating for almost two years now. Anything new from J. Robbins of Jawbox (et al.)* is going to peak my interest, but I had been hearing great things about his latest group and I wanted to check them out in the right setting. A special bonus on the bill was SPRCSS, a mysterious post-punk band with minimal internet presence, who surface like a submarine surprise attack every few years to blow audiences away with their select performances. Kicking things off was Baltimore’s own psychedelic freak-out heroes, Whoarfrost. Watching this spastic, noisy triple bill in The Wind-Up Space really took me back to my first days in DC, back when almost every other night offered great shows full of sonically interesting, passionate, local indie-rock bands who mixed power and emotion perfectly.
This was my first time at The Wind-Up Space and I liked the venue a lot. It was a big open space with a nice looking bar down one side of the long room, tables in the middle of the floor, and a stage tucked into the back left corner. The decor of the bar was very cool but the stage took the cake; wrapped in red velvet curtains with a black and white zig-zag pattern floor. Each time a band took to this stage I felt like I was watching them with Agent Cooper in the backwards talking midget room from Twin Peaks. In fact, I just googled the room that I am talking about and The Wind-Up Space stage is a replica! Very cool.**
Whoarfrost are a three-piece that for the most part play very difficult, psychedelic noise jams. Their music seemed so chaotic that I couldn’t imagine it was written, but then they would introduce almost every song with a title. I don’t know these guys, so how close they replicated their recordings was a mystery to me. I imagine from the length and nature of most of their songs that they are masters of timing, who can improvise noise stretches in the middle of songs, then pull them back together for planned closings. Either way, whatever they were doing worked! I found their playing very exciting, especially their bass player; he played wide, fuzzy bass lines and seemed to be on his own internal tempo separate from the drummer and guitarist. Good opening set!
Look at that! A photograph of SPRCSS! For those who follow the band and were wondering what these indie-rock recluses look like these days, there ya go.*** Here we have a four-piece with a very attractive and talented female drummer, two hairy looking singer/guitarists, and a normal looking bass player. I have searched online and am unable to peg down the names of the current line-up. Just know that this unit is tight as hell.
I’m talking a post-punk A-Team where the A stands for Angular. Their dual guitar attack recalls The Ex at times with a sort of jagged dueling approach. Vocally the two front men traded off singing duties for most of their songs, but it was when they were harmonizing or spitting lyrics back and forth within a song that I found them to be the most compelling. When you could pull your gaze away from the captivating performance of the front men; the drummer was a force of nature with taught, lean arms pounding away on the kit in a flurry. Her interplay with the bass player sounded great. From their excellent performance on Friday, you would never know that this is a band that rarely performs live.
The main event of course was Office of Future Plans. They performed a nice 45 minute set of material that for the most part we the audience have had no chance to get to know. OoFP have no recorded material yet. Well no, strike that. They released a 7″ single last week just a few days before the show. So at least we knew two of J.’s new songs. Well no, strike that. We knew one new song and one song by The Stranglers that OoFP decided to cover. I am not a total set-list rain man fanatic when I go to shows, but I do get a little music geek glee when a band puts some obvious thought into the order of the songs. From their first song, Office of Future Plans had me hooked. What better way to celebrate your new 7″ single than to open with the single itself? Side A: “Harden Your Heart” was instantly recognizable from just the few listens I had time to give it. It is a great single that capitalizes on J. Robbins’ hallmark vocal style over a killer musical engine; each instrument propelling the listener to the song’s finish.
Speaking of Office of Future Plans’ musical engine; Robbins has assembled quite a talented crew around him. Darren Zentek the former drummer of underrated and criminally forgotten DC band Kerosene 454 is on the kit for OoFP and watching him thunder away while wearing his headphones was like watching Lando Calrissian’s android assistant, Lobot, going crazy. On bass was Brooks Harlan from an excellent Baltimore punk band Avec. I’m not sure if Harlan is now pulling double duty or if Avec is finis. Occasionally Harlan also sang call and response or harmonized with Robbins for great effect. Robbins has always used these two vocal tricks in his songs like secret weapons to put the emotion of his own voice over the top. I thought it was great whenever Harlan crept up to the microphone because it was an indicator that a great stretch was about to begin in an otherwise unfamiliar song.
Finally, I was surprised to discover earlier last week that Office of Future Plans features a cello. Gordon Withers plays cello and guitar in OoFP and during Friday’s performance he came across as the universal adapter. Whatever extra thing a song needed, Withers and his cello or guitar was there to provide it. The set-list seemed to be split down the middle with the first half being Withers on cello and the second half being Withers on guitar. For the most part the cello sections added tension and/or noise behind Robbin’s high-pitched, sharp guitar lines. On one song in the middle of the set though, Withers got a nice opportunity to really show off his chops on the cello playing the song’s primary melody.
Office of Future Plans’ set on Friday reminded me that J. Robbins is without a doubt my favorite indie rock vocalist. Something about his delivery just feels…I don’t know…like how I would want to sing or something. He has this emotional weight to his voice without every sounding weak. As a lyricist Robbins can often get pretty cryptic, but even when he is at his most obtuse, his voice always lets you know exactly what he is feeling and what, by proxy, you should be feeling too. About half way through the set it struck me that I haven’t seen Robbins sing live since the last time I saw Burning Airlines. Which makes that almost 8 years since I have seen him perform. Office of Future Plans made me realize that that is way too fucking long.
J. Robbins is one of my musical heroes. His band Jawbox is one of my all time favorites. After seeing Office of Future Plans play live last week, I feel like this is the closest Robbins has come to revisiting the emotional well and sound of his Jawbox days. I do not say this as a dismissive comparison slighting the new band. I say it as an endorsement for the new band to keep up the good work! Robbins makes great music with pretty much every project he starts (check out Channels for evidence of that) but he has yet to fully revisit Jawbox territory and on Friday it seemed like he may have discovered miles and miles of new material there. Robbins was tossing out genius lyrics left and right on Friday night. I tried to take notes of some of my favorite lines, but by the end my napkin was shredded from writing on it too much! One thing is certain, the new 7″ is a tease compared to some of the other songs these guys are playing right now. I demand a full length album!
To close out their set, Office of Future Plans played their cover of The Stranglers from their new 7″. Side B: “Everybody Loves You When Your Dead” was a classy way to end their 7″ release show. That set-list music geek glee I mentioned earlier kicked in when I realized they were book-ending the set with the new single’s A and B sides. I was already in complete music geek heaven hearing a set of new music from one of my favorite musicians and his excellent new band. That added touch was the icing on the cake. Hopefully Office of Future Plans will be playing again very soon.
* Government Issue, Jawbox, Burning Airlines, Channels, Report Suspicious Activity, did I miss any?
** Forgive me if The Wind-Up Space/Twin Peaks connection is old news but it was something I didn’t know about until I saw the place. For the record I think that is a great idea for the decor of a stage and bar.
*** More pics of SPRCSS if you click on the photo caption.