Jersey City Spring – pronoun At White Eagle Hall
Before I knew anything about Alyse Vellturo, her stage handle appealed to me and troubled me in equal measure. I figured that any songwriter who named herself after a part of speech probably paid close attention to the language she used. Then again, a pronoun is also an abbreviation of sorts – a substitution for something specific. Was her writing a kind of shorthand? Full of generalities?
Well, sort of. Early pronoun singles established Vellturo as a pop-rock chronicler of romantic conundrums, and they had to be broad enough to elicit some identification from fans. But her peculiarities were always evident, too: she was indeed careful about her words, and she had a deliciously blunt way of putting things that was, from the very outset, hers entirely. Also, the vexed relationships she sang about felt singular, each with their own specific damage, and like Tegan and Sara Quin or Cacie Dalager of Now Now, she was good at giving the listener a quick, tantalizing pinhole view of a couple whose affections were in disarray, and hinting at the rest. The ship is taking on water, but you didn’t know exactly why. There are secrets. Lean in closer, and you might catch them.
Then there was the voice, which, from the very beginning, gave her immediate i.d. and, once heard, couldn’t have been mistaken for anybody else’s. Androgynous, intimate, just growly enough, conversational, laden with sideways meaning and occasionally descending into cracks and whispers, it’s a just-out-of-bed voice, a voice of a restless sleeper shaking off a night of bad dreams. Even if she didn’t like crisp, confessional songwriting, synthesizer pads and guitars that shine over the top of the mix in the general style of Jimmy Eat World, Vellturo’s voice would have marked her music as a type of emo. And say what you want about emo, but give it this: among contemporary rock subgenres, only emo accommodates this kind of direct, unvarnished delivery of personality.
Across the river, apologies might need to be made, but in New Jersey, there never needed to be an emo revival. We’ve got the Starland Ballroom here; we had the Bamboozle before Live Nation sunk it. Both the scrubbed-up mall variant of emo and the ragged, bloodletting basement-show version never went anywhere – the Garden State supports all kinds of emo and always has, and we don’t try to disguise our enthusiasm for it. So far, White Eagle Hall has been sensitive to that history, bringing in the Early November to perform the classic The Room’s Too Cold in its entirety last autumn, welcoming the Get Up Kids in July, and booking a series of female rock singers who wear their emo influences proudly: Julien Baker, Mitski, Waxahatchee.
On Friday night it was Basement and Citizen, two latter-day punk rock and emo bands, in the headline slots, and a yearning, if loose, California emo group called Souvenirs opening the show. Right in between – and making perfect sense in this context – was pronoun. Early, small-club shows played in the wake of the There’s No One New Around You EP didn’t always capture the rapturous romantic sweep that Vellturo has always been able to achieve in the studio, but with the stagelights swirling at White Eagle Hall and a band of good musicians behind her who were absolutely down with the program, that wasn’t a problem. Vellturo still isn’t quite the rock star she could be: she has a tendency to be self-deprecating in her banter, and she did not always exhibit the command that her own songs demand of her. Sometimes she seemed as if she was just happy to be along for the ride with bigger bands (she anticipated crying along with the rest of the crowd during the Citizen set). Yet she’s got pop potential that her tourmates don’t – and when she stood still under the gels and surveyed the packed house with deadly intent and utter concentration and let the music swell and ebb around her, I got the sense that she knows it.
The seven songs in her set ranged from mildly exciting to deliriously great. All are immediate, and all foreground their hooks and hard-sell them. Wordy as the verses can be, she usually makes a beeline for a rafter-raising refrain. Much like the material on Tegan & Sara’s The Con or Now, Now’s Threads, pronoun’s songs may strike your ears at a funny angle if you’re only paying attention to the voice or if you’re caught up in the web of the storytelling. Surrender to their logic, and they resolve to pure pop-rock (or pure emo-pop anyway). “Just Cause You Can’t” and single and show closer “Run” manage to simultaneously provide sugar-coated choruses, propulsive rhythms, and words to think about: no mean feat, there. Rock these songs do, and when a pit opened on the floor in the middle of the sixth song in anticipation of the rougher stuff to come later in the night, Vellturo encouraged it.
But rocking isn’t really the point here, not exactly. While nothing about pronoun is sedate, this is not a raucous act – Vellturo is way too thoughtful for that. Tegan & Sara and Now, Now have both recently taken sharp turns toward synthpop, and given the new wave underpinnings of Vellturo’s songwriting, that’s a chessboard move available to pronoun, too. For the moment, she’s well-served by the nerviness of her two-guitar arrangements: lead lines that scrawl out melodies in counterpoint to the ones that she’s singing, or complete her ideas, straight-up emo-pop high stuff meant to twinkle over the verses, and her own rhythm parts, redolent with vigor and worry. She’s loved and lost and she’s searching for release, any escape from her own anxieties; I reckon a listener would pick that up from her music even if they couldn’t make out any of the words. Just as in all good pop, there’s paranoia here. Just as in all good emo, there’s a fighting spirit, and a desire to kick back at a world that won’t play fair. Put them together and you’ve got some dynamite. Her next step ought to be fascinating.
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.
EDITOR: We’d been introduced to pronoun fairly recently, however, the more we have gotten to know her body of work, the more we are becoming larger fans. Her ‘subtle intensity’ and professional ‘ambitions’ were attributes we initially felt a bit ago. At this particular show, we wanted more of her on stage. But you have to take what is at hand. So, we hope to cross paths with her again, in the near future in a more in-depth way. Also, this show at White Eagle Hall was sold out, with the ever enthusiastic love of the fans who’d attended. The floor was rocking (and flexing) at each hop of each and every ticket holder. Fabulous show all around. Kudos fans.