Jersey City Spring – Pet Shop Upstairs
Darkwing is too loud. I’d feel that way if I was watching them in Terminal 5. But I’m not in Terminal 5; I’m in the Pet Shop, a small and smart-looking neighborhood club on the corner of Newark and Jersey. The last time I was here, the rock was confined to the cellar. Tonight it’s at street level, right under the neon birdcage sign and the fairy lights in a back room with a high ceiling and a brick wall. In a room like this, a single guitar amplifier goes a long way. Add another guitar amp, and two guitarists and a bassist, and a drummer with a full kit hitting hard, and buddy, you’ve got a war dance savage enough to call down a rainstorm.
I’m upfront for half the set, enjoying the band’s inventiveness, but after six songs the volume becomes unbearable and I retreat to the booths behind the mixer. The room is full: people aren’t exactly dancing, but they’re drawn to the music and reacting to the performance. One guy bangs his head, another salutes a solo with an upraised fist, another just closes his eyes and nods along in deep concentration and maybe even communion. Some music listeners love loudness and the sheer physical thrill of soundwaves bouncing hard off their chests. It’s a kind of psychedelic experience, and it’ll get the heart racing. I do understand the appeal. But I do sometimes wonder if it doesn’t alienate more people than it attracts. I imagine there are many people who are disinclined to take a chance on a live show because they’re afraid of getting bludgeoned by noise. To be honest, I can’t really recommend the experience I’m having tonight to the previously uncommitted.
Ironically, I *could* recommend the band. Darkwing has a lot going on, and despite the slacker insouciance these four guys are cultivating, it seems like they’ve thought pretty hard about arrangements and the architecture of their songs. They’re also stylistically omnivorous and intellectually restless. They give us a little wipeout surf-rock, some pure, howling punk, a fake-Hawaiian number complete with drunk Don Ho slide work, periodic stabs at throwback grunge and Pavement-like wiseass college music, leads run through cheap but oh-so-effective stompboxes, serrated-edge rhythm guitar, frantic finger-style bass, and quick and vicious drumming. At times, the material achieves the ragged, half-exhausted, grubby grandeur I associate with David Nance: impressive in spite of its sneer at of professionalism. The last song has… well, I won’t call them movements, because that implies something way too proggy for a group like this, but the composition takes so many left turns that after awhile I just get dizzied up by the maze and fall over. Best of all (at least for me) is that half of the songs have genuine hooks, and the other half give the impression that Darkwing could have included a hook if they wanted to, but they’re just not going to give you everything you ask for, now, are they? What do they look like, a school cafeteria?
They surprise me by announcing they’re from New York City. From the little I knew about the band, I was under the impression they were a bunch of Bergen County (New Jersey) guys – and their songs do have those specific flashes of fuck-it-all throwaway brilliance I associate with North Jersey punk. Their stage demeanor, on the other hand, does remind me of bands from New York, Bushwick in particular: shoulders hunched, self-effacing and unsmiling, minimal interaction with the crowd and with each other, the savage treatment of their instruments and their material made to feel like a natural reaction to an atmosphere of fatalism they’re generating themselves. That’s an old Brooklyn trick. The wise-guy between-song comments, though? Those feel awfully Jersey to me.
The Vice Rags, on the other hand, lead with their Jerseyness. They open with a song called “Jersey Boy”, and I’m pretty sure I recognize the frontman and the bass player from other shows with other combos in Asbury Park and New Brunswick. There’s some rugged Springsteen in their sound, but mostly, this is a high-speed Turnpike collision between Tom Petty and gutter punk, with wreckage artfully scattered on the highway. After Darkwing, who kept me on my toes, their songs feel compositionally safe. Which isn’t exactly an issue – the singalong choruses do what they’re meant to do – but I do find myself wishing they’d throw me a few curves. The problem, again, is the ear-busting volume: three songs in, and even the singer is astonished by how loud the band is. But the drums sound great!, he assures us, with a smile that’s only halfway sheepish. They do. They’re huge and abrasive and, by a certain definition, rock and roll, although I do wonder if there’s some nuance to the songs that The Vice Rags aren’t able to put across because of all the thunder. In the middle of the fifth number, the rhythm guitar goes out of tune and the singer gives up on his strumming, and suddenly there’s nothing but bass, drums, and voice. It isn’t exactly an improvement, but it does feel more survivable.
This is only the sixth installment of this writing series, and already I’m singing a familiar song from my repertoire: I wish there wasn’t so much midrange electric rhythm guitar in Jersey independent rock music. Back in the ‘90s, it was the only thing a clubgoer ever heard; by the ‘00s, with ringing ears, we’d already started to move against it, and now half of the bands attempting rock on many small New York stages barely have any guitar in them at all. In New Jersey we’ve never quite had the same overreaction. We still like our menacing, deafening punk rock, and we don’t seem to mind quite as much if the singer is obscured. Yet I know this: when the Jersey City music revival produces its first genuine star – the artist who makes the rest of the country sit up and take notice – that star will be a singer, and all of the words will be intelligible. I’ve been listening hard for the past few months, and although I like almost everything I’ve heard so far, I don’t believe I’ve heard the band that’s going to produce that star yet. Could it be yours? If you think so, please let me know, as soon as possible.
Tris McCall is a stalwart of Jersey City music, it’s scene and the artistic culture. In this new series, he’ll be covering the emotions and, more importantly, the journey to certain exciting venues around town. We’re happy to have him traverse around town, helping all of us feel a bit more connected to the JC music scene; which has always existed and now, deserving even more highlighting.
This series is dedicated to all you Rockers, Musicians, Artists, and of course, JC fans.