Show Review: Jumbling Towers, the Hibernauts, video? and Exercise at the Firebird, Friday, September 11

Sep 12, 2009 at 4:17 pm

After a seemingly interminable hiatus, Jumbling Towers made its long-awaited return to the stage last night with a powerful, if occasionally shaky, reminder of why it's one of St. Louis's best indie-rock bands. Not playing a show in about a year left the quartet with some rust to discard, but the Towers still put on a winning performance that offered a great showcase of their unique sound.

This sound still earns the group some detractors, and anyone previously annoyed by their horror-movie synths, surf-rock guitars or Joe DeBoer's polarizing deranged-British-aristocrat singing voice would not be converted. But for the many loyal fans in the crowd, last night's performance was just what they needed.

The group officially ended its respite by launching into "Instant Doom." The short song's segue from a dreamy melody into a prickly march and back is still effective, as is Towers' decision to extend the song live and add crushing drums. Less effective is the band's still-lingering problem of how to end the extended version; the group stumbled to an abrupt finish as DeBoer said "Yeah, that'll work." The Towers then moved onto two new songs. "We Could Be West" featured bassist Nate Drexler assisting DeBoer with high harmonies over a backdrop of Rhodes and a spare, swinging beat while "Black Courage" hemmed even closer to the "classic" Jumbling Towers sound.

Two other songs also made their live debut: the shuffling "Black Courage" (see the Supergrass song "You Can See Me" for a vague frame of reference) and the recently leaked "Gilberta," which gained a welcome kick from Louis Wall/Demetrius Sludge's dynamic drumming. All of the new songs went over well, but the crowd was most excited for old favorites such as "Pure Jew," "Cowards" and "He's A Cop Now." The latter in particular killed, as DeBoer gave one of his most vocal performances of the night and guitarist Kyle McConaghy blazed through his excellent solo. The alternately creeping and beautiful "Beggars" also resonated with the audience, nearly all of whom shouted along to the song's early "How can it be?" chants. And really, any performance of "Cowards" can't miss because of its stunning outro.

Unfortunately, McConaghy had problems keeping his guitar in tune, which led a noticeable delay between "Pure Jew" and "Aryan Slaughter." The problems flared up in the set again, causing DeBoer to grow frustrated and set the axe aside for a few songs (he mostly plays keyboards). Everything went well from then until the bridge of "Vice Rake." DeBoer switches from keys to guitar for this part of the song, but with his guitar far away, he ran to grab McConaghy's guitar off of his shoulders during McConaghy's keyboard solo. Although he waited until the solo was almost over, DeBoer's move still interrupted the flow of the song and threw off the timing of his guitar solo. By the time he started it, DeBoer, Drexler and McConaghy seemed to all be playing different sections of the song at the same time. As DeBoer said upon exiting the bridge, "Wow, that was rough." The Towers made a slick recovery, though, and did the song's dramatic climax justice.

Although its absence from the scene hasn't been as prolonged as Jumbling Towers' break, the Hibernauts hasn't been gigging regularly as of late either. The band's time away from the stage has been productive; out of its whole set, only "Air Force" was not new. The new material boasts intertwining guitar parts, heartfelt singing and the occasional blast of keyboards. In other words, it's similar to the sound the Hibernauts established on 2007's Periodic Fable.

Yet, many of the new songs had a spark that made them more immediately compelling than the band's past work. How the band downplays the standard post-punk drumbeat (bass drum on the beat, hi-hats on the off-beat with intermittent fills) in favor of a more straightforward rock approach has something to do with it, although overall the group's new music sounds more focused and engaging. The second song in particular had a simple but riveting section where most of the instruments dropped out to highlight a great keyboard hook. Although the band still tends to stretch out songs longer than necessary, and the often-employed three-guitar attack sometimes led to a muddy sound (although the soundman might share some blame for this), the Hibernauts has improved upon its potent debut and still rocks with convincing sincerity.

Likewise, Exercise continues to improve. The trio's songs are still all over the place (and as previously noted, the songs are more or less multiple fragments of art-rock stitched together than cohesive tunes). But something about its set clicked with me in a way that didn't the other two times I saw them. Of course, it always helps having a drummer like Justin Hickey in the group. His busy but precise style would be invasive in more straightforward groups but here it compliments the spacey atmosphere the rest of the group creates perfectly and gives the music teeth. It's probably not a coincidence that the parts where Hickey sits out and the rest of the group plays floating looping grooves are generally some of Exercise's weaker moments.

Much to its credit, though, Exercise played only its best music last night. Opener "Robot" has a charming post-punk vibe appropriate to its subject, "Panama" is hypnotic in the best sense of the word before changing gears to a catchy sing-along melody and the herky-jerky "Tail Feather" continues to be the group's standout moment. Also good was a new song that featured some tasty harmonies. A big disparity still exists between Exercise's A material and its lower tier, and some of its transitions feel forced, but this performance showed the group's vast potential

Impossible-to-Google act video? opened the night with a brief but memorable set of electro-rock. The general go-to comparison for the trio is The Postal Service as both marry emo vocals and guitar lines to dancey beats. video? strays from the formula with occasional flights of fancy into expansive dance breakdowns. Opener "Watercolors" provided a great example when it gradually sped up at the end and culminated in furious explosion of sound. It was especially fun to watch Justin Miller pound out beats on his MP24 and see singer Paul Jenkins coax odd sounds out of a theremin-like device simply by waving his hand over it. The band's use of lighted superballs and colored, flashing lights was also a big hit with the crowd, especially when the band handed the toys over to them. Overall, their performance can be best summed up in what I overheard one person say in front of me: "Well, that was really enjoyable."

Jumbling Towers Setlist:

Instant Doom We Could Live West That's Some Boredom Pure Jew Aryan Slaughter Gilberta He's A Cop Now Black Courage Beggars Vice Rake Cowards Indian Slaughter