No sleep ’til Brooklyn

Maine ties to Slumberland Records’ 20th anniversary weekend
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  November 18, 2009

WELCOME TO SLUMBERLAND Pants Yell! swing into Portland.

There’s a lot to love about Slumberland Records, the DC-born, Oakland-based label that celebrated its 20th anniversary last weekend with sold-out shows in Washington, DC, and Brooklyn: its recent, hard-won renaissance of guitar-shimmer heavy pop and punk bands (bands of the moment include the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Crystal Stilts; early releases included Stereolab, Lilys, and Velocity Girl); and their hardcore-DIY brownie points (label operator Mike Schulman runs the show as a hobby, not his full-time job). Us Portlanders, though, have a couple other reasons to thank Slumberland: Ferdinand and Peapod Recordings.

It turns out Ferdinand proprietor Diane Toepfer had a college-radio show as a Bay Area student where she happened to occasionally play songs by a band called Nord Express. The dreamy guitar-pop duo, guitarist/vocalist Rob Goldrick and drummer (and sometimes singer — who knew?) Ron Harrity, had transplanted from Baltimore to Oakland in 1997, after a stretch recording and opening for labelmates Lorelei (in town for the recent Picnic festival) and Henry’s Dress, and huge modern-day indie players like the Mountain Goats and the Magnetic Fields. After the move, Nord Express disbanded, but Harrity and Toepfer met and (because Harrity is a “smooth operator,” Toepfer says) the rest is history. And, two awesome things about Portland.

Save a 20-minute set at a Peapod festival at SPACE Gallery last summer, Nord Express hadn’t played out in more than 10 years before their two concerts this weekend. Harrity said “we had about six hours to practice;” at dinner before the show, his loving wife informed me the duo looked like they were going to vomit. (One of them may have.)

As the second band in an eight-act, seven-plus-hour lineup, they did yeoman’s work with their short, wistful set, and also played a part in one of the night’s most memorable moments, when Schulman joined them on stage for an exhilarating, utterly unexpected noise-rock jam. (Schulman, hopping excitedly among the crowd and onstage with his wife all night, is an aggressive shake-and-basher of a guitar player; he and Goldrick played in a band called Whorl I’ll be digging crates for in short order.)

The Slumberland celebration at the Bell House (a gorgeous club full of exposed hardwood framing, which — like seemingly every Brooklyn bar — has some Maine brew on tap) was full of highlights. Frankie Rose, the former drummer for Vivian Girls, played an inconsistent but galvanizing set with her new five-member girl group, the Outs (it was their fourth gig). The Pains of Being Pure at Heart — whose cloying shtick is to write every sentimental/rousing song the Cure never did — put on a tight, youthful performance wrapped in shimmery haze that forced me to reconsider my dismissal of one of the year’s breakthrough bands. The brooding, excellent post-punk group Crystal Stilts closed out the night with a muddy 2:30 am set, but it started with a bang, as Henry’s Dress/Aisler Set legend Amy Linton surprised and wowed the crowd by playing a few tantalizing, blistering classics with members of the group.

One of the best sets of the night came from the Boston indie-pop trio Pants Yell!, recent Slumberland signees (their first album on the label, Received Pronunciation, is hot off the presses) who have been rejuvenated since taking on a new drummer, Bath native Casey Keenan (formerly of Boston’s audacious Major Stars). The group, following in the underdog footsteps of countless wimpy pop bands (notably the Lucksmiths and Go-Betweens), have modest ambitions, but transcend them through appealing, intelligent songwriting and active arrangements. (It’s worth noting that every band on Slumberland has “modest ambitions” — Schulman says everyone on the label’s a “musical neophyte” or a professional fan and part-time musician — but if so, this is some of the most loving and inspired amateur tribute music around.)

On stage, Pants Yell! transform their mannered pop songs into something orders of magnitude more energetic. Keenan refuses to become mired in formula — a difficult trick in this genre — and his muscular performance juiced up his bandmates: frontman Andrew Churchman’s guitar lines were coiled and anthemic, while Sterling Bryant’s bass kept a slippery, sped-up pace. The band, who come to SPACE Gallery on Friday night, did what Slumberland bands past and present do best: they honored the college rockers of yore, and made their craft feel vital all over again.<0x00A0><cs:7><cbs:-0.9>^<cbs:><cs:>

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