When David Bowie released Young Americans (RCA Records) in 1975, it was pushed as his disco album. Of course, being Bowie, it was far more than what appearances suggested. With the help of Luther Vandross and John Lennon, Bowie took vocal arrangements and treated them like instrumental components, reimagining what dance/soul/rock music could sound like.
Station to Station and Low (1976 and 1977, all on RCA Records) kept stretching the idea while the smash single "Golden Years" nudged doo-wop into krautrock. Those albums still hold up but more importantly 30 years down the line a younger generation of musicians are taking the aesthetic of using vocals as components (rather than making them the point) and constructing songs from counter melodies, double hooks and sonic puzzles with the vocals as just part of the mix.
Bands as diverse as Foster the People, Nine Inch Nails, The Smith Westerns, The White Rabbits and Xina Xurner (pronounced Zeena Zurner) have made the conceit their trademark, but none of that would mean shit if the music didn't make you shake your ass. This is why the Rabbits have always stuck out. If you've heard the instrumental "Percussion Gun" in t.v.'s Friday Night Lights or Gossip Girl you probably have a clue as to what this six man band is about.
This brings us to their third album, the brand-spanking-new Milk Famous (TBD Records), which is simultaneously more of the same and none of the same. The lead off track, "Heavy Metal," is a low-key fusion of the Bowie aesthetic, with drone-tinged rock served over a submerged beat. With its pulsating bass line, ominous coiled guitars and hypnotic tone, "Heavy Metal" sounds like Oz's Tin Man imploding quietly in a demonic trash compactor. But where that fills out, the "more of the same" portion "I Had It Coming" and "Temporary" are songs first and devised constructions second. For a change the song and vocals seem to be the point, which doesn't suggest that the Rabbits have gone soft or bland. It just shows that they have enough sense to leave a great song alone and let it do the talking. (Kevin Barnes, please take note.)
On "I Had It Coming," vocalist/pianist Steve Patterson repeats the song's title in a shifting whisper while clouds of layerered strumming guitars surround him and a snarling barbed guitar line stalks in the distance. "Temporary" has a buffered feel to it, although the Rabbits' trademarks run all through it: squiggly guitar lines, a chugging bass beat and explosive unexpected guitar shrieks. Both of them are "handled" with such finesse that they sound like massive silk flags blowing elegantly in the wind. Who knew that the White Rabbits could embrace pop bliss?
The real treat with the Rabbits is to see them loose onstage where they get off on (savagely) reconfiguring/rebooting their music and their recent sold out show at the Metro certainly didn't disappoint. To see Patterson push his near-falsetto to a ragged bark (the perfect "instrument") while furiously pounding on his keyboard and nearly crawling on top of it like a feral cat gave the show a serrated edge. "Kid On My Shoulder" ripped but "I Had It Coming" was such a brutal rave-up that I now regret hearing the far more subdued studio version. The straightforward "The Plot"thanks to Alex Even's soaring vocals and Matt Clark's jungle-god drummingnailed the song's hook so far into my skull that I doubt I'll ever get it out.
The night before I had my first visit to Chances Dances, the monthly LGBTA-friendly pansexual dance happening that takes place at the rustic alt showcase The Hideout. Thanks to audio designer Jeff Kolar ,who clued me in on DIY band Xina Xurner, this was something I didn't want to miss. Being far from the North Shore, Chances Dances is hardly part of the "typical" gay scene with a young crowd that indulges in creating their own queer centric universe. Mousse, posturing, rehearsed dance moves, attitude, "cool," and sartorial extravagancenone of that was present. Chances Dances is more like a tribal celebration where acquaintances, friends, lovers, and strangers bond on the dance floor and get loose. All of which served as an appetizer for the band.
However, "band" isn't really the right word to describe Xina Xurner; "abstract collective" is closer to the mark. Yeah, keyboard/computer wizards Mike Perkins (aka Mr. 666) and Marvin Astorga came with shaggy heads of hair, baggy worn jeans and an amiable scruffiness. And yeah, vocalist Young Joon Kwak performed in dragon-lady drag while strutting and twisting for all he was worth in the tallest pair of platform stilettos that I've ever seen in my life. But like I said, this ain't Boystown, and Xina Xurner ain't ya mama's drag show. Fifteen seconds after they got onstage they ripped into their set and what went down next was like watching a hydrogen bomb go off in Carmen Miranda's fruit-packed head wrap.
Kwak's voice is like a wild beast with a mind of its own. He has a high-pitched tone that shimmies to a demonic growl with ease and resembles a theremin with a human soul. Although Astorga and Perkins stayed stationed at their consoles they kept flooding the room with waves of industrial/disco/funk/rock noise wedded to a pile driving beat. Taking that Bowie equation to a brittle extreme where the sounds seemed designed to collide, crash and shatter made taking notes pointless though the snarky disco stomper "Poppers" had a fetching hook and the best punch line/chorus I've heard all year; "I'm not a player...but I fuck a lot."
Where the White Rabbits seem to design their songs like an architect designs a building, Xina Xurner sounds like their music was hot-glued together in a nuclear furnace in a rush. The sound, and Kwak, come at you like the business end of a sand blaster and it's impossible not to be swept into it. Better still, Kwak exuded personality and killer legs to spare (he's what you would get if the god Pan knocked up Mata Hari) while grabbing Perkins and Astorga and pulling them into his spotlight. Of course, the Chances Dances crowd went apeshit and I was surprised not to see undies of every persuasion shower down on the stage.