By Night Three of CMJ, music journalists begin to resemble the walking dead. And unless an Adderall prescription keeps them bright and chipper, many start to hallucinate from sleep deprivation. I decided to stake out the Audio Perv and Pledge showcase at Stage 2 of the Rockwood Music Hall in hopes that a chiller, folk pop sort of night could be restorative for the wearied soul. Two bands I found there woke me up and far exceeded my expectations. Here’s how it went with Firehorse and Robbers on High Street.
Leah Siegel, frontwoman of Firehorse, is one of those people that gives the audience a reason to poke the person next to them and go, “Wow.” There was the half-intangible stage presence thing—part of it, of course, was that she was wearing a full-length white jumpsuit, part of it was that she was short and dark with a clearly trained, jazzy pop voice (reminiscent of early Gaga, I guess, but with songwriting integrity) and part of it was that she had some sassy one-liner banter, determined to rock out despite a slew of mic problems.
Above the sum of those parts though, was, duh, the music. Holy moly, this was a performance. Siegel was backed by a guy working three tiers of computers and a keyboard, in addition to a drummer, a bassist, and guitarist Brian Wolfe (of My Brightest Diamond). And, quickly, it all made sense. I had been trying to think of ways to describe Firehorse without comparing her to Shara Worden’s (My Brightest Diamond) brand of chamber punk and grunge for a reason. Like MBD, the band played female vocal driven songs, but each could transition from a jazzy lounge-singer intimacy to a total psych rock breakdown in seconds. That type of versatility, the fusion of funk and pop and grunge, and a trained, confident voice were all the right ingredients, but the songs themselves were some of the best crafted I’ve heard at this year’s CMJ. Firehorse has an album out called And So They Ran Faster…, which I just ordered on iTunes. It’s a little less satisfying and cohesive than the live show, but here’s a stripped down acoustic version of the song “If You Don’t Want to Be Alone” Siegel played for LP33.tv, which should give you a sense of her singular performing chemistry.
ROBBERS ON HIGH STREET
Robbers on High Street is not a baby band. Frontman Ben Trokan has been making music with shifting line-ups since 2002, but it had been a three-year hiatus from releasing new material until this past September, when Robbers came out with their new album Hey There Golden Hair. They had even reached a decent degree of commercial success before, especially with songs like “Japanese Girls” that aired on Californication and Six Feet Under. I had never seen them live, but my inner snob had also never put too much stock in what I assumed would always be the poppy ordinariness that surfaced only in establishing shots on HBO shows.
Wrong, wrong again. It was a six person set up, featuring Trokan, who I can’t help but compare to a baby-faced Paul McCartney, and his bandmates on keys, guitar, bass, drums, with a Thor, God of War look-a-like on tambourine and cowbell. What they played was, yes, adorable, soulful indie rock reminiscent of the glory days of Death Cab or Interpol, but with a sound and energy wholly unique unto Trokan’s songwriting. For those of you who have dined on Brooklyn’s lowest lo-fi for so long, this was welcome relief. I even found something I thought had mostly been buried under cynicism, and it was that cheek-aching grin you get from standing in the front row, watching bandmates give each other goofy smiles when they know they’re playing a good set and enjoying it.
A standout track Robbers played from their new album was “The Man from the Turnaround,” which you can watch (thanks, YouTube!) from a show they played at the Roxy last month. Not only is it danceable, but just has that Beatles “Taxman” riffing guitar thing going on, which simply makes me mushy. They also covered one of the most fun songs of all time, Electric Light Orchestra’s “Evil Woman,” which garnered extra brownie points. On the way out, at least four people asked me if I knew “who that band was.” Thank goodness for CMJ, a place where experience first (rather than a numerical rating) can tell us what’s good.