Friend or faux
It's been a minute since The Spin paid a visit to the Springwater Supper Club and Lounge. We were glad to find that the ceiling tiles still sag, the beer is still cheap and plentiful, the walls are still coated with stickers commemorating bands of yesteryear, and the front half is still occupied by the same pool-playing, dart-throwing crowd of regulars who generally couldn't care less about what goes on in the dark and smoky back room.
First up on Friday night were Timmy and the Tumblers, who as we were about to find out, take their identity quite seriously. We'd been doing our homework, so we knew the ragtag Athens, Ga., psych-pop ensemble was fronted by one Tim Schreiber, a fixture of the Athens scene for the better part of a decade. Timmy and the Tumblers showcased their Elvis Costello-meets-Frankenstein-and-The Wolfman brand of power pop to the crowd on hand, which happened to be pretty thin. That didn't discourage Schreiber from trying to engage every last person in the building, taking cues from his time with legendary Athens psych band Dark Meat. He used every inch of his extra-long mic cable to explore the space, offering one verse reclined with his feet on the merch table, the next crooning on one knee to an unsuspecting patron, the next rolling around on the floor after doing a somersault from the lip of the four-inch-high stage. Straining against his tether, he even sang face to face with the regulars watching football. They smiled and nodded — yeah kid, that's nice.
Almost as soon as the Tumblers were packed up, Memphis' Hi Electric announced their presence with a blast of detuned alien guitar fuzz, which frontman Neil Bartlett melted quickly into a nimble minor-key lead like sugar into a glass of iced tea. Bartlett's vocals come across like Kurt Cobain with less vitriol and nicotine splashed on his vocal cords, and the group's sound has a distinct '90s throwback flavor, with moody riffs sometimes poking out at odd angles over unusual harmonies. Often, the less said about contemporary groups that follow that pattern the better — after all, the slippery slope to nu-metal is just a few staggering steps away. Bassist Alan Yee and drummer Henry Talbott bring a fair amount of soul to the table, loping along a backbeat rhythm during the quieter bits, which makes brute-force metal inflections even more powerful when they emerge to pump up the choruses. As the music of the '90s slowly circles back around, we'll be keeping an interested eye on these guys — even if the fashionista cohort who was accompanying us hopes Talbott abandons his backwards hat somewhere along the line.
Looking a little worn from the road, headliners Faux Ferocious nonetheless wasted no time in gathering the faithful to what was now a packed house. While founder Jonathan Phillips made sure the gear was in order, his co-frontman Terry Kane established the mood by taking the end of his microphone into his mouth and letting loose a hearty burp. Like a pissed-off Chuck Berry hopped up on trucker speed, the quartet burned through number after number, with Phillips and Kane shouting each line in unison over churning rhythms, not unlike also-local faves Natural Child. Their vintage American punk and New Wave sound and good-natured faux-bad-boy attitude were highly satisfying. Their set clocked in at barely 30 minutes, and we were genuinely bummed when they declined calls for an encore.
This was quality fun — rough and tumble, genuine, but more carefully put together than some efforts in this field; definitely on a par with other locals like Ranch Ghost, D. Watusi or the aforementioned Natural Child. We never got the sense that it was a put-on, but also never got the sense that the performance was on the brink of falling apart. Faux Ferocious trades some of that uncertainty for an opportunity to appeal to audiences who get off on musicianship more than showmanship, though working a crowd has not been ignored in their repertoire: Instead of everyone just standing around during a drum repair, Kane fired off an impromptu rendition of "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory." Faux Ferocious' relative dearth of shows on home turf is still something of a mystery, but whatever the reason, we'll be watching the calendar for the next one.
The way pop music ceaselessly reinvents itself has always fascinated The Spin — from the baroque-Beatles creations of such 1960s groups as The Left Banke, to the fusions of classical music and rock that Electric Light Orchestra recorded, to the combination of African music and indie rock that characterizes the work of Vampire Weekend, pop has used many sounds and structures in its search for new twists on the same old thing. The Spin made it to the Ryman on a windy Sunday night that provided an objective correlative to pop's eternal quest, and there waiting for us was the innovative pop musician Regina Spektor, for whom those ever-so-conventional structures are mere jumping-off points. Spektor creates telescopic pop that defies time, space and distance.
After a well-paced set of songs by opening act Only Son — the stage name of guitarist and singer Jack Dishel, who is Spektor's husband — that demonstrated his flair for synthesizing divergent strains of punk, garage rock and Dylan-esque folk rock, Spektor walked onstage to roars from the smitten crowd. The Spin admired her soulful audacity as she tapped her mic to create a kind of abstract shuffle rhythm that complemented her melismatic, intricate vocals. She moved to the piano to perform "The Calculation" from her 2009 full-length, Far. Her voice — a marvelously flexible instrument — communicated the barely contained enthusiasm that marked her entire performance.
Much like the progressive rockers of the '70s, Spektor subverts conventional song structures. A song such as "Small Town Moon" from this year's What We Saw From the Cheap Seats moves along in stops and starts that remind The Spin of the approach Yes took on The Yes Album and Fragile. But Spektor's harmonic sense suggests the influence of Laura Nyro or Joni Mitchell, while the sudden — and expertly performed — changes in register her voice undertakes give her compositions an emotional component that Yes usually lacked.
"Ode to Divorce" from 2004's Soviet Kitsch illustrated Spektor's approach: Its advanced harmonic language coexisted with full-out emotionalism, and cellist Yoed Nir created lines that seemed to merge with Spektor's vocals. Other tunes, such as "Patron Saint," used pauses and silences, along with wordless vocals, to create a kind of art song — in most of Spektor's compositions, piano ostinatos drive the music, but her songs rarely remain in one place for very long.
The Spin noted Spektor's flawless piano technique, and the other players were equally accomplished. Drummer Mathias Künzli was adept at driving the music, and he knew how to lie back and let Spektor do her thing. Nir's cello provided color that could be dark or light, while keyboardist Brad Whiteley blended perfectly — and unobtrusively — with the other players. Still, it was Spektor's voice and piano that defined the music. Her songs — classical-pop and singer-songwriter hybrids — work well. The Spin detected similarities to the music of Rufus Wainwright, whose tunes can be as multilayered as Spektor's. But Spektor operates more within the realm of European-style textures and sonorities than does Wainwright, and she specializes in the old progressive rock trick of interrupted flow.
Spektor's encore included "Us" and "Fidelity," two of her best songs. The Spin walked out of the Ryman into the windy night, and realized we had learned another lesson in ceaseless reinvention, pop style. Few artists could have pulled off Spektor's combination of emotionalism and virtuosity, and it wasn't any kind of kitsch — it was heartfelt, and very progressive.