Last night, in the stiffling heat and humidity of Atlanta, Georgia, one had the privilege of being able to choose from among at least three worthwhile shows: Knoxville's Royal Bangs at 529, Lower Dens and Cass McCombs at The Drunken Unicorn, and Dent May and Real Estate at The Earl. As much as I've wanted to see Lower Dens for some time now, I opted instead for the familiarity of The Earl and the pleasant pop sounds of Dent May and Real Estate (and a delicious Earl Burger, the quality of which has been praised by no lesser an authority than The Wall Street Journal) .
What I was neither expecting nor prepared for in any way were The Back Pockets. Even before they started playing, I thought that I might like them as they took the stage, if for no other reason than because of the two pretty blondes adjusting their microphones, even if one of the two "blondes" was soon revealed when the stage light changed to have green hair (or was it blue?). I was almost sure that I would like them when I realized the band's instrumentation included an electric violin and a trombone. Or maybe it was when they threw a drop cloth down in front of the stage and covered it with stuffed animals, or when four or five other performers, beyond the seven already on stage, began writhing around on the floor wearing gauzy costumes and animal heads among the audience.
The Back Pockets are not so much a band in the traditional sense as a performance art and music collective fronted by singer Emily Kempf, who also plays banjo and guitar, but their music does not come at the expense of their theatrics. The Back Pockets are sort of like an art-damaged Frankenstein amalgam of tUnE-yArDs and the B-52s, brought to life by a winking Kevin Barnes (of Of Montreal). To triangulate this delightful strangeness, toss in some Freelance Whales instrumentation, the communal spirit of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and a potentially unhealthy obsession with furries. Here are a few video samples, lifted from the Ohm Park website, that collectively might suggest the combination of anarchy and creativity in their performance:
Gay? Probably, but so what? Fun? You bet. By the end of their set, they had the whole audience using drum sticks (thoughtfully provided by the band) to bang on the floor or whatever else we could find.
Here are my obligatory and largely unloved treated cell phone pictures of their performance:
The Back Pockets were followed by something completely different - Oxford, Mississippi's Dent May, a former NYU film-school student and apparent Beach Boys devotee, who records on Animal Collective's Paw Tracks label. That "something completely different" would apply to May both in context of following The Back Pockets but also probably in relation to anything else happening now. Part Brian Wilson, part Buddy Holly, Dent May performs harmonically rich beach music so sweet and so pure that one wonders if it isn't a relic of some long-forgotten way of life in a distant corner of the Gulf Coast.
He calls himself and his band Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele, although he doesn't play the uke at all (not that there's anything wrong with that), his first album is called The Good Feeling Music Of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele, and he looks a little like that guy in the video for Destroyer's Kaput. Cynics that we are, we might wonder if May's music is part parody or put on. Can people still be seriously making music like this? Listen for yourself to hear what I mean:
He's even recorded a Christmas song that's so gentle and sweet, I was able to include it in a holiday mix-tape I made for my Mom, and makes me feel now that it's alright to post Christmas music in July:
Although it was his first-ever performance in Atlanta, he appeared confident on stage and seemed comfortable with both his retro music and his Mississippi roots. He played a great set of tunes from both The Good Feeling Music and a new album, and left the crowd hungry for more.
The evening's headliner was the New Jersey band Real Estate. It's not easy to find Real Estate on Google - a lot of stuff unrelated to the band comes up first. But the Real Estate that played last night are led by singer/guitarist Martin Courtney, formerly of Titus Andronicus, and features guitarist Matthew Mondanile (Ducktails) as well as Alex Bleeker on bass. They'e touring with two new members, drummer Jackson Pollis and keyboardist/guitarist Jonah Maurer.
Although they've been classified as a "surf pop" band, Dent May defined the genre so precisely that I came to hear Real Estate's music as something else. I might call it "IBM" (Intelligent Beach Music) or possibly just "pop rock." Fun fact: their drummer allowed the first two bands to use his drum kit, so that both Back Pockets and Dent May performed in front of a bass drum that read "Real Estate." In any event, they capped a great night of great bands, and I still get to look forward to seeing Lower Dens some day.