Better Than: Catching whiffs of patchouli-doused protestors at the Climate March.
After extensive touring in support of wildly successful sophomore record Portamento, it seemed as though the Drums were about to break up. Charismatic lead singer Jonny Pierce announced the impending release of his first solo album late last year, as did co-founding member Jacob Graham under the moniker Cascading Slopes. Everyone else, including the band’s management, had parted ways. For an indie band with that much momentum, the radio silence said everything.
Pierce and Graham, it turns out, were more dedicated to keeping the Drums beating than they’d been willing to admit. They revealed that a third Drums album, Encyclopedia, would hit stores in September. NYC area fans had the chance to get their paws on the record a few days ahead of its release at the Williamsburg outpost of Rough Trade, and as though that weren’t reward enough, the LP came with two wristbands to an in-store performance on Sunday afternoon.
Since getting its show space up and running, Rough Trade has increasingly used this tactic to boost sales of new releases, and for the most part, it’s a win-win-win situation for fans, artists, and the store itself. Moving from the fluorescent-lit aisles into the black box that acts as Rough Trade’s live music venue, the thing that stood out most was a huge road case looming on stage like a opened book turned on its spine, filled with curious knobs and switches and indicators glowing like some analogue omen. It had to have weighed at least a hundred pounds, and it begged the question: had the Drums been replaced by a robot?
Considering that Encyclopedia‘s cover art features only Graham and Pierce, that might have been a real possibility, but as it turns out, the duo were joined by three other flesh-and-blood gentlemen. The place wasn’t packed, but the crowd was as reverent as if attending church. The band opened with “Let Me,” a slow-building jam from the new record. Early in the set, Pierce thanked the crowd for “giving Encyclopedia a try,” faint hints of pride inflecting his tone. “It means a lot to get it out there,” he said, before launching into newest single “I Can’t Pretend,” one of the album’s standouts.
That crazy synth contraption might as well have been a sixth band member; it’s what makes Encyclopedia sound as wonderfully warped as it does. Graham was in control of the thing, mostly to re-create the bizarre X-files-esque whistle that plays through certain tracks on the record, like “Magic Mountain,” “Break My Heart,” and “I Hope Time Doesn’t Change Him.” It’s a strange direction for a band that built its reputation on sunny melodies and cavalier lyrics à la “Let’s Go Surfing” and “Money.” They haven’t sworn off all pop sensibility, but the material on Encyclopedia comes from a darker place, more akin to the somber segments of their catalogue. Those rakish, youthful flourishes have given way to disenchanted attitudes; even the more anthemic, new wave-infused numbers visit themes of resignation or disdain.
Dichotomies like that have always existed for the Drums, really, it’s just that the experimental route they’ve taken sonically on this record provides no cover for its weighty concepts. Pierce summed up the idea behind exorcising negativity in song when he introduced “Best Friend,” saying, “Sometimes life is great, and then your best friend dies. And then you write a song about it, and every time you play it you feel joy.”
And Pierce does exude a kind of tranquility, which is central to his mesmeric presence as front man. Maybe the rest of the band was exhausted after playing sold-out shows earlier in the week at Music Hall of Williamsburg or the night before at Bowery Ballroom; they didn’t do much except play mechanically well and have nice hair, their facial expressions rarely changing. But Pierce, in a bomber jacket and skinny black jeans, with his languid sway and astounding vocal control, knows how to perform, and does so as if he were destined to do it, as if there is nothing else for him to do.
For the most part, Pierce aims to please – after playing a string of new songs, he promised, “We’ll get to the older stuff too, so everyone will have a good time.” The older songs they went with tended to reinforce the aesthetic on Encyclopedia – no “Forever and Ever Amen” here – but in the slightly truncated afternoon set nothing felt out of place. Even ending it with contemplative album closer “Wild Geese” felt oddly appropriate, as if to signal (the same way the song’s namesake animals do) that there’s a new season afoot, and it’s one of tremendous change for the Drums.
Critical Bias: “I’d like to buy you something, but I don’t have any money” pretty much sums up my experience browsing through Rough Trade’s highly inflated but well-curated stock.
Overheard: “Jonny, it’s Sunday!” – someone with a finely-tuned internal clock correcting Pierce’s weekday confusion (he thanked us, at one point, for coming out on a Saturday)
Me and the Moon
I Can’t Pretend
Kiss Me Again
Book of Stories
Book of Revelation
Face of God
I Hope Time Doesn’t Change Him
How it Ended