It's a low-key kind of Noise Pop year compared to the past three or four, without the huge, attention-grabbing headliners of yore (looking at you, Flaming Lips at Bimbo's), but Wednesday's show at the Hemlock Tavern could have been nuzzled in nicely in any very early NP lineups, which is what made it feel authentically true to the inherent spirit of the festival.
No pomp or glitz, no big names or sold-out, packed-to-the-gills chaos. I initially went to see Olympia, Wash.'s Lake, a twee, lo-fi indie pop quartet with great hooks, but found much enjoyment out of the two bands that sandwiched that act (Cruel Summer and Blank Tapes), perhaps even more so?
I arrived early in Cruel Summer's set; I'm told the jangly San Francisco act had only played a few songs to the neatly packed in Hemlock crowd. There were casually smiling faces stretching from the front of the stage back to the sound guy, however there wasn't that trademark Hemlock hot stink just yet. You could stretch your legs out without knocking into a sweaty mess. Though I detected a wafting hippie scent.
Cruel Summer, which consists of two hard-rocking ladies out front (bespectacled lead singer-guitarist Thea Chacamaty and bassist Chani Hawthorn), along with guitarist Josh Yule and bassist Sean Mosley, created a rolling wave of reverb and noise – so loud it drowned out the vocals – in a “dreamy gazey noisey hazy wavey gravy” way, as the band is wont to describe it. During the loud-sound-wave a few heads in the audience bopped and jerked hard, meeting each thundering drum hit with a nod of approval. Cruel Summer's been around since 2011, but could easily fit in with '80s shoegaze scenes or '90s K Records stock.
The latter goes for second band Lake as well. Actually, Lake is currently on the K roster. And it fits right in. An aside: when I was first learning there was music being made beyond pop radio ('sup KIIS-FM?) in my early, impressionable tweens, I had a friend with an older sister who was of the super cool girl alternative guild. She and her friends were in to riot grrrl, and twee, and K, and Kill Rock Stars, and the like. They wore cardigans, boat stripes, short skirts with nubby tights, and thick-framed glasses, and had glittery Fenders and drum kits. I feel like the older sis and her crew would've dug both Cruel Summer and Lake.
Anyway, Lake played mostly new songs last night, some that had sexy Bossa nova bass lines – the bass was noticeable after Lake asked the crowd if anything needed to be turned up louder. Some got so funky a few people noodled along to the beat. The four band members switched instruments a few times during the set, and three traded off covering male/female lead vocals, including Eli Moore and his wife, the sweet-voiced Ashley Eriksson, who also played keyboards.
Next up was the Blank Tapes; the trio also traded off male/female harmonies and pop hooks, but with a garage-rooted rock'n'roll edge – that was also due in part to standing drummer Pearl Charles smacking just two drums, a floor tom and a snare, often with a mighty thwack. This is also when the scent changed from hippie to pizza, as someone brought in a delicious-smelling pie, and I got jealous.
The dynamic between Charles and Blank Tapes pied-piper/multi-instrumentalist Matt Adams reminded one of my show-going companions of the famed Lee Hazlewood-Nancy Sinatra collaboration. Though on looks alone, it could've been Lindsay Weir and Ginger Baker. The band – which has the advantage of a rotating lineup and addresses in both LA and SF – sounded great, alive and full of energy, pumping up an already pleased crowd with crackling beach garage songs like bubbly “Coast to Coast” (a new single on Oakland's Antenna Farm Records), a song I feel like must be called “Beach Party," and tracks off 2012's Sun's Too Bright (Burger Records) tape. Live, the songs seemed far less relaxed than recorded versions.
It's the way I imagine Noise Pop began, 21 years back, with talented, eclectic, lo-fi, noise-pop-genre-specific acts from up and down the West Coast huddled in a favorite little local venue, beating the shit out of their instruments. No fuss, no muss.