It’s way easier to shoot guns at Pretty Girls Make Graves when they stand in front of a target like that
Pretty Girls Make Graves
Pretty Girls Make Graves‘ slashed-up all-cried-out tension-core debut Good Health was as big a part of my senior year of college as Labatt Blue and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. The band took on the post-Fugazi vein-pop tangled-guitar stress thing dominating indie-rock at the time and nailed it perfectly, showing this gorgeously innate sense of when to pitch the freakout up and when to allow a breathtakingly pretty quiet bit to invade the storm and let everyone breathe for a second. The band sounded like it was playing in a hurricane, staying upright by pure force of will while the world whippped around it. Good Health dropped in 2002, the last possible moment when anything great could’ve been salvaged from emo, and I’ve always had this creeping suspicion that At the Drive-In broke up because they knew that someone was doing their thing better than they ever could. The first time I voted in a year-end critics’ poll, I had Good Health on the ballot at #6 (right between Radio 4’s Gotham and Jay-Z’s fucking Blueprint 2, both pretty good indications that you should never, ever take my opinions seriously), and it might’ve deserved to be higher, even after factoring in Scarface and Spoon and everything. Then the band signed to Matador and sanded down its rough edges just enough to make its next album, 2003’s The New Romance, about 78% as immediate as its predecessor. The band has been on a long summer vacation lately, focusing on bullshit side-projects like the kiddie-table bedroom-pop of Dutch Dub and the ghastly skronk-hop of A Gun Called Tension, bad looks all.
I was good and ready for this band to come back, but I was a little surprised to see how many other people agreed with me, enough to sell out the Knitting Factory on a Monday night (though apparently not enough to keep tonight’s show from getting bumped from Warsaw to Northsix). These people could’ve been there for the flat, charisma-free pudge-rock of the Double, but I doubt it, even if Riff Raff seems to like that stuff OK. People jammed in, sang along loud, danced, clapped, and generally did stuff that I don’t usually see at New York indie-rock shows, so there’s an audience still up for this stuff. The question is whether the band is still up for it.
I’m not entirely sure if they are. They didn’t have the same charged self-importance they had a few years ago, when they were playing to crowds half the size of the one last night, when they seemed just about ready to eat the world. These days, the band is playing sloppily, especially on their older songs, though much of that probably comes from not having played together in a while. But the early self-assurance just wasn’t there, especially at the beginning of the set; Andrea Zollo remains a defiant, forceful presence at the front of the stage, but she doesn’t seem as ready to commit to the role as she once did. But as the set went on, the band leaned more and more into the songs, feeding off their own nervous energy and finding focus. They still weren’t playing as well as they once did, but they were trying. After a few months of touring, this band might again have the confidence and rigor it once had. They probably won’t have it at tonight’s show, though.
Encouragingly, the night’s best moments came from the band’s new material. They’ve apparently been spending some time listening to TV on the Radio, and the new songs have a decentered lurch, like they’ve finally allowed that hurricane whipping around them to blow them off the ground and they’re just relaxing into it to see where it goes. And the band has let little flecks of dancepunk and prog into their sound, letting brittle, skittery disco hi-hats and free-jazz saxophone trills into their songs without ever letting the new accents take over. The group has a new member: Leona Marrs, who plays keyboards and melodica and accordion without ever letting traces of Decemberism sneak in; everything she did made the band stronger. If she can help her new band shake its barnacles off, she’ll deserve our gratitude forever; indie-rock needs Pretty Girls Make Graves now more than ever.
Download: “All Medicated Geniuses”
Voice review: Todd Kristel on Pretty Girls Make Graves’ Good Health