This evening was yet another reason why Emo’s is my favorite place to see bands. The club begins every new year with a week’s worth of free shows, most of which end up being showcases for local talent. There were four local bands a piece on both stages, but I stayed on the outside stage to see Zykos. Both I and this website’s editor have fallen in love with this Austin quintet over the last couple of years, and every time I see them play I know that they’re a couple steps closer to getting the national recognition they deserve. Surprisingly, they weren’t the only highlight of the evening. In the many years that I’ve been attending Austin shows, this might have been the first all-local bill in which I liked every single band.
Opening band the Chapters took a couple of songs to grow on me, mainly because the guitarist sang in that same throaty Ian Curtis-style croon that makes bands like Interpol and the Arcade Fire a bit difficult for me to tolerate. Once I got used to his voice, I noticed that the Chapters have some pretty decent tunes in their repertoire. Their songs didn’t deviate much from the art-punk template: four-on-the-floor rhythms, simple bass lines, wheezing synths, minimal guitar parts and anguished one-note crooning. Most of the people in front of the stage seemed to be either relatives or friends of the band, and they were an expectedly supportive audience, shouting things like “You sexy bitch!” at the guitarist in between songs. Fortunately, the Chapters are good enough that they can be recommended to people who don’t know them personally (which I can’t say about many Austin bands). I didn’t buy their CD, but I would definitely see them live again.
The second band, What Made Milwaukee Famous, was awesome. Their sound isn’t as easy to pigeonhole as the Chapters’, mainly because they have two distinct singers/songwriters who are adept at both guitar and piano. The lead guitarist wasn’t as good of a singer as the rhythm guitarist, though, and it was a wise decision to leave most of the singing to him. Sometimes they played rollicking power-pop in the style of the Replacements and Centro-matic; other times, they played long and dissonant epics in the style of Radiohead. The rhythm guitarist pulls off a Jeff Buckley/Thom Yorke quivering falsetto effortlessly. Each stylistic change is buttressed by the band’s amazing rhythm section --- a jazz-trained drummer who makes his cymbals beg for mercy, and a bassist who isn’t afraid to use his distortion pedal.
The third band, This Microwave World, is fronted by a friend of mine named Sean O’Neal. He is most famous for finishing “Dr. Buck’s Letter” for Mark E. Smith when he dropped the microphone at the end of the Fall’s show at Emo’s last year. I’d seen O’Neal’s other band the Arm live at least three times, but this was my first TMW experience. It was a good one, even though they didn’t play “Dear Disaster,” my favorite song of theirs. This evening was notable for them because it was their drummer Kevin’s birthday. The rest of the band got the audience to sing “Happy Birthday” to him during the set. Whereas the Arm is basically a Mark E. Smith tribute band, TMW borrows more from Les Savy Fav. O’Neal hollers and strums to his heart’s content atop a backdrop of rolling bass lines, squelchy keyboards and metronomic, hard-hitting rhythms. It seemed pretty superfluous to have two keyboardists play extremely simple lines, especially since you couldn’t even hear one of them. Also, the songs tended to sound the same after a while. However, O’Neal’s stage presence gets more and more animated each time I see him, and most of the songs held up fine when examined individually. I am definitely looking forward to their upcoming full-length.
Zykos put on a terrific set that was almost as good as when they opened for TV on the Radio last year. They recently got a new guitarist, who occasionally looked like he didn’t know what he was doing but, fortunately, didn’t sound like it. He replicated the loops that drive many of the songs on their new self-titled album effortlessly. Because of this lineup change, this evening’s set was truncated a bit. The rest of the band, though, was in rare form. Singer/guitarist Mike Booher, always an intense front man, pushed his strangled whine (which splits the difference between John Darnielle’s reedy croon and Conor Oberst’s shaky warble) to its absolute limit, often taking his hands off of the guitar to wrap them around the microphone and put his all into the lyrics. Bassist Mike Roeder’s playing is getting more melodic and aggressive by the minute. Drummer Jerod Cykoski and the incredibly gorgeous pianist Catherine Davis held down the fort, playing hard but looking cool. They concentrated mainly on songs from their new album, which is great because all of them were MUCH better than the ones on their debut Comedy Horn. They’ve tightened up their arrangements and experimented more with dynamics; the climactic moments sound great on record, but become almost titanic live (especially “Understanding Fire,” a song from Comedy Horn that appears in a much better version on the new album). From beginning to end, Zykos had the audience in the palm of their hands. The audience imitated the handclaps on “Calliope” and pumped their fists to many of the band’s more upbeat songs. Right now, Zykos are one of the best rock bands that Austin has to offer, and after what I’ve heard was a pretty gruesome national tour, this warmly received homecoming couldn’t have come at a better time.