Opening the night, Boston's Ashpark showed themselves to be a professional band in the least interesting sense of the term. As if letting them know, the gathering crowd at the Empire clapped politely and compulsorily after each oily melodic pop cut they played, just loud enough to span (and highlight) the sizable gulf between audience and stage. It must be difficult to distinguish yourself from your influences when they're the biggest, most well-sponsored arena-rock bands on Earth; Ashpark skirt this issue by not being all that interested. With a sound moussed into place by Ariel Aparicio's rangy, mawkish croon and lyrical palette culled from the almanac of sentimental platitudes, the band's songs were crisp, well-rehearsed, and forcibly cinematic. Remind me never to rent that movie.

Soft Bullets were much more intriguing. Though they'd only rehearsed for two weeks, the quartet of English singer/keyboardist Christopher Wall (visiting from overseas) and three accomplished local musicians hammered out six dexterous tracks of grittily baroque chamber pop. I appreciated how Mike Caminiti thoughtfully waited out Wall's sinewy melodies before coaxing puddles of color from his guitar, and watching Dan Capaldi — here playing drums — made me wonder why the Phoenix Best Music Poll doesn't have a Best Musician category. Apart from his sing-speak approach on the gorgeous off-kilter rhythms of "Posterity," Wall's vocal patterns could use a little blanching of their Thom Yorke-isms, particularly on the verses, but maybe that's the English variant of how young American males can't help but summon Eddie Vedder whenever they hold a microphone. If that's the case, no complaints.

Not that Soft Bullets were anything like a chore to watch, but their set was an exercise in emotional strain that, while impressive, felt a little like watching a music video. It didn't occur to me until midway through Theodore Treehouse's first song what had been missing from the night: fun. I take a certain pride in curmudgeonry, but damn if these guys aren't a joy to watch. For such a young band, Theodore Treehouse have already honed their punkish, disjointed sort of indie rock to a level no band's been able to pull off since Cap'n Jazz. Though it may seem illogical to simultaneously have yacht rock and hillbilly influences, they do it effortlessly, energetically, and without affectation. The Treehouse is made of oak — climb in.

  Topics: New England Music News , EMPIRE DINE AND DANCE, EMPIRE DINE AND DANCE, Theodore Treehouse,  More more >
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