Tora! Tora! Torres!
Seeing as how Torres, the project of local songstress Mackenzie Scott, released her eponymous debut only a couple of weeks ago and has already earned glowing reviews from the likes of Pitchfork and, well, us, we thought it'd be appropriate to catch her in the flesh. So we headed to her free release celebration at The Basement on Friday night, listening to Fleetwood Mac's Tusk while en route. What a fine, weird record of unlikely pop that is — and an appropriate soundtrack for a night, we hoped, of unlikely pop music with a bit of character.
Despite sharing their name with the Internet-era phenomenon, local newcomers and openers Catfish didn't seem to be peddling anything inauthentic. Rather, the four-piece created the sort of breezy, 'verby indie pop that you could say lands somewhere between Real Estate and Best Coast, or in a local context, maybe it's a bit like a less multidimensional Evan P. Donohue. There were layers of tuneful arrangement, not to mention occasional hints of Kurt Vile in frontman Joe Aiello's dry, straight-ahead baritone vocals. The Catfish youngsters clearly have an affinity for shoegaze, surf rock, New Wave, indie rock and punk, so we're curious to hear how they'll further flesh out their sound. Most definitely not a disappointing way to start off our evening.
Over at the other end of the pop spectrum, BF/GF Sex utilized hip-hop beats and heavily electronic instrumentation to make what could only be called "indie" due to the fact that the outfit is unsigned. No, this was pop in the broadest sense of the term, from frontwoman Hailey Collier's full-voiced bubblegum hooks to sidemen Cannon Kinnard and Neil O'Neil's gaudy flourishes — the latter of the two is known to us, of course, as a member of radically less lascivious local outfits The Protomen and Cheer Up Charlie Daniels. BF/GF Sex, via songs with names like "Lose Control" and "Don't Care," attempts to be pop in the way that Robyn or Kylie Minogue or, hell, Gwen Stefani are pop: loud and flashy and unapologetic and sex-obsessed. Fair enough, we suppose.The crowd, by this time at full capacity and consisting mostly of what appeared to be Belmont types, seemed semi-engaged and ready for Torres.
Scott was greeted by the crowd's excited whooping, which died down once she started in on her smart, emotive and intermittently hushed indie-songwriter fare. Scott's Torres has fetched comparisons to Bat for Lashes as well as onetime Tennessean Sharon Van Etten, and it's easy to see why: These are performers who demonstrate what The Spin is comfortable calling empowered vulnerability — singing about heartache in confident voice and backed by a band, strings included, that follows her lead carefully. The excited response to Torres' breakout song "Honey" prompted the singer to say, "Don't, I'm gonna cry!" Yes, it seems people can identify with the sense of vulnerability Scott so naturally conveys, whether or not it's currently buzzworthy (which, of course, it is).
Scott called Scene fave Natalie Prass up to the stage for background vocals on "November Baby," and that was a treat, but we were most pleased to find that Scott knows how to utilize dynamics to her advantage: Her arrangements were blown out and aggressive at times, delicate and slight at others. She attacked some phrases with what our music-school-grad buddy would later tell us is a technique called "rinforzando" ... at least, we're fairly certain that's the term used to describe emphasizing certain phrases and laying back on others. Anyway, despite having hardly enough room to breathe, we remained rapt during the set. Maybe Torres' first effort isn't quite as far-out as Tusk, but for a debut batch of songs, it's pretty impressive.
Meadownoise is turning into one of The Spin's favorite groups, and as we stepped into The Stone Fox Monday night, the first thing we noticed was the enormous set piece that is becoming their calling card. Depicting a WWII fighter plane, surrounded by lightning bolts and roses and bearing the Space Invaders-esque insignia of local artist Arcade Death, the 6-foot-diameter painting mounted on a spindle was hard to miss, but it didn't attract an undue amount of attention. In this town of creators, it can be difficult to impress a crowd.
Meadownoise frontman Matt Glassmeyer is a Middle Tennessee native who spent several years in avant-garde art-music and jazz groups in Brooklyn before returning to join the rapidly expanding arts community in Nashville. The most apparent label for Meadownoise might indeed be "art music" — it's filled with keyboards, Middle Eastern hand drums and guitars used as percussion instruments. You'd never mistake it for something mainstream, but Meadownoise's music also grabs your gut. They opened with the funky, muscular groove of "Mousey." Though Glassmeyer's Shuitar was absent Monday, a custom electric guitar-bass hybrid called the contra-tenor guitar provided the ominous growl underneath the song. A pair of percussion stations, featuring marching drums and various shakers, graced the slow tango of "Tell Me All The Reasons Why." They quite literally threw the audience a rope, as Glassmeyer invited "the bold people in the audience" to give the painting a spin, which they did during "This Machine and Me."
Then James Jackson Toth, better known as Wooden Wand, took the stage, unassuming and alone with his guitar. The onetime Murfreesboro resident who currently lives in Lexington, Ky., has been on stages all over the world and been backed by a wide variety of bands, but he used his characteristic eye (and ear) for detail and the living-room-comfortable atmosphere of the Fox to bring his characters to life. We were greeted by the singer of "Winter in Kentucky," who keeps an optimistic outlook despite losing his menial job as a snow shoveler to the recession: "Sometimes you gotta stop and consider the good things / Like how your money don't get ruined when it gets washed in the pockets of your jeans." With the gauzy drone ringing through the latest incarnation of "Servant to Blues," Toth skillfully lulled us into the narrator's trance. We were surprised that he drew heavily from his last two records, only pulling a handful of songs from his excellent new release, Blood Oaths of the New Blues. Among these was "Days This Long," on which tourmates Lylas provided spectral accompaniment, as they did for the last half of the set.
During their own set, the longtime local favorites focused on mostly newer material, skipping the songs from debut album Lessons for Lovers entirely, and even bringing out some tracks from their almost-finished new record, due out this summer. Since 2009's Do You Believe in Blood?, Lylas has pursued a folk sound that's perhaps more fragile and elegiac than their debut, but frontman Kyle Hamlett and his crew stop short of getting precious. "All the Worst Sins" was the closest Lylas got to a rocker, and while drummer Rollum Haas didn't get a powerhouse workout, his skill in dynamics and the carefully tuned sound of his kit got a chance to shine through.
Though Toth is still in the process of promoting his new album, it looks like he is already clearing his buffer for the next one: He returned to the stage to sing a number, and announced that they would be recording a few tracks at Battle Tapes the next day; they already tracked a few songs together at Loney Hutchins' studio earlier this month.