April 27, 2006
The last time I saw the Secret Machines, they didn’t even have an album out. They were opening for Blonde Redhead at the Black Cat in DC, the place was half-full, and virtually nobody there had ever heard of them, at least as far as I could tell. And still they came out with a huge, blinding light shining out behind them, which made only their silhouettes visible and made them look like absolute titans. The lights thing is important to the Secret Machines. So are the enormous John Bonham drums and the soaring processed-up guitars and the woozy keyboard-blankets. All this usually tertiary sound-and-vision stuff is way more important to a band like this than actual songwriting, and that’s not even a bad thing. They’ve carved out a space for themselves by carving space, by making the big rock gesture the entire basis for their band, and I admire that. But bands never realize when their peripheral stuff is way more important and powerful than their songwriting. Even after a good run of swinging for the fences, spectacle-bands usually eventually try to strip their thing down to its essence without realizing that there isn’t any essence there. That’s why Ten Silver Drops, the new Secret Machines joint, is roughly one third as interesting as Now Here is Nowhere, their first album. When a band has proven that they know what to do with crashing lockstep drums and interstellar guitar whooshes, nobody wants to hear it when they decide to start foregrounding their melodic chops, but that’s what they’re trying to do on this new album, and it doesn’t work. It’s also I guess what they were trying to do yesterday at their Virgin Megastore in-store, when they made the unfathomable misstep of playing an acoustic show. When a band’s whole thing is that they’re the shoegazer Zeppelin, why would they perform in a way that’s pretty much guaranteed to leech out all the shoegazer and the Zeppelin from their music and leave pretty much nothing? It just doesn’t make sense.
It didn’t help anything that the Virgin Megastore seems to be getting progressively worse at hosting in-store performances. They’ve got a better setup for it than any record store I’ve ever seen: a coffee-shop area with enough room for a few hundred people to pack in, a makeshift stage with lights and a sound-guy and everything, and a soundsystem that allows bands to play at actual live-performance volumes. But this time, whoever makes these decisions had the bright idea that the store should only let people into the coffee shop if they bought a copy of the band’s album and showed the receipt, which meant that about twenty album-buyers stood around in the cafe area before the band went on, along with the LIFEbeat table that always seems to be at these things, while most of the crowd stood in the rap aisle across from the coffee shop ready to watch the band from across the stairwell. Right before the band went on, someone decided that they needed to clear the area out and ended up letting everyone in anyway, which must’ve annoyed the people who’d already bought the damn album. If you’re going to have a free show, have a free show; nobody likes jumping through hoops. Even after they let in all the people who’d waited around, the cafe was less than half full, so the whole publicity-stunt thing didn’t quite pop off as planned.
“It’s different, right?,” Brandon Curtis mumbled after a couple of songs. “If you buy our album, our album doesn’t sound like that.” It was true. Everyone who jumped through all those hoops got to hear a bunch of thoroughly average cliched-up acoustic-rock songs that went on way, way too long. The band left enough space in the songs that you could tell they were hinting at something much, much grander without ever getting anywhere near it. Curtis’s big adjustment was to do his big-rock howl slightly quieter, which ended up sounding totally ridiculous, while his brother Ben tried to do Simon and Garfunkle close-harmonies, which worked a little better. Drummer Josh Garza, who usually provides the vast majority of the band’s epic heft, was reduced to shaking a maraca and, on one song, slapping his knee, which had a microphone helpfully pointed in its direction. “First Wave Intact,” from the first album, sounded marginally OK; everything else was utterly forgettable. And in the cruel light of day, the three of them didn’t look anything like mythical figures; they just looked like three vaguely hungover dudes with acoustic guitars. “That one guy looks like David Spade,” said my friend Jeff, pointing at Brandon Curtis. He was right, and I never would’ve noticed that when he was just a silhouette.
Stream: “Lightning Blue Eyes” video
Voice feature: D. Shawn Bosler on the Secret Machines
Voice review: D. Shawn Bosler on the Secret Machines’ Now Here is Nowhere