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The Stipulated Axes
2006 ITA Software Battle of the Bands
In an unusually precise intersection of my writing-about-music life, my software-design life and my family life, I spent Monday night sitting at a judges' table at the Middle East assigning numbers to rock bands. My sister Melissa, who is the Director of HR at a Cambridge company called ITA Software, orchestrated ITA's sponsorship of a geek-rock Battle of the Bands in which each band had to have at least one member who works for a Boston-area technology company. My judging qualifications are wildly tenuous, since my long history of writing about music is no longer current, and was always heavily centered on recordings instead of live performance, and deliberately biased against assigning numbers to rock bands, but for a music war among technologists I guess I am as relevant a judge as anybody. It also made sense to have ITA represented on the judging panel somehow, and I now work for them, too.
So there I was, ITA-logoed pen in hand, gamely co-officiating. To my left, Ralph Jaccodine (who manages Ellis Paul and Flynn, and co-runs Black Wolf Records, among other things) proclaimed the evening his idea of heaven as soon as he realized that in addition to getting him an actual chair with an unimpeded view, the organizers would also willingly bring him drinks so he didn't have to get out of the chair and walk the four long steps to the bar. To my immediate right, Weekly Dig editor Dave Wildman scowled at everybody at least once, the bands perhaps for the way in which they all failed to be The Stooges, and me for describing one of them as how Conor Oberst might have turned out if he'd spent less time listening to Nick Drake cassettes and more time reading old NME stories about Julian Cope. Russell Ferrante, in the chair past Dave, was too far away to talk to under club conditions, but endeared himself to me by seeming, every time I looked over, to be both surprised and pleased at whatever noises someone was producing. Russell is the father of ITA event co-organizer Claire Ferrante, so I wasn't the only judge with family connections, although I was the only judge with family connections who is not also a thirteen-time jazz Grammy nominee and two-time winner.
It wasn't originally obvious to me that the technology angle would work, but I'd guessed that we'd get at least 12 or 16 entrants at any rate. We actually got 64. An independent screening panel performed the heroic reduction of 64 entrants to 8 finalists, so all we had to do as judges was show up, listen to those 8, and give them 1-10 scores for Stage Presence, Vocal Ability, Musicianship and Crowd Response. I didn't pick the categories, and would have wanted to add one for Creativity if I'd been asked, but I'm not sure that would have been a meaningful improvement. I would also probably have been tempted to run the votes through some complicated per-judge normalization, instead of just adding everything up, but then if you're arguing about whether an amp ought to go to 10 or 11, scientific notation doesn't really help much.
So here's how it went:
Three Day Threshold
It's a pretty thankless task being the one Country band at a geek-rock battle, and maybe that's how these guys ended up in the opening slot. At least they're an aggressive, menacing Country band, much more Harley-Davidson than Vince Gill. Crowd Response is minimal, but it's only 8pm and most people are still on their first drink. The band's stage presence is largely a function of hats, and the singing is genre-appropriately unflashy, but they're strikingly good musicians. Bonus points for banjo shredding, an Explorer-shaped electric mandolin, and a drummer who plays like nobody told him rock isn't always this twangy. One of them works at Monster.com. I'm guessing it's the bass player, since he's the only one not wearing a cowboy hat. I'm pretty sure these guys aren't going to win this Battle, but they're very good at what they do.
Joe Turner and the Seven Levels
Without a scoring category for Creativity, Turner and his puzzled-looking band have absolutely no chance. Musically, they are almost certainly the most adventurous of these 8 by a wide margin, wandering with an interestingly erratic self-direction through a shifting hybrid of neo-retro Americana, space-noise psychedelia, indie understatement and ensemble ambition, a combination that seems less arbitrary to me after I go back and notice that Turner was in Abunai!, although I don't know why something should seem less arbitrary just because one person does it twice. He and his Levels, however, have confrontationally flagrant anti-presence, epitomized by a backing vocalist standing center-stage doing, most of the time, nothing but making it even harder to see Turner himself back behind the drums. Turner is clearly singing because it's his band, not because he's technically gifted, and the arrangements call attention away from the individual merits of the players toward the oddities and awkwardnesses of their interactions. Crowd response could be generously characterized as skeptical, where by "skeptical" I mean "deciding now would be a good time to go see if there's anything interesting at the other end of the room". This band will not win this contest, any more than an imaginative pate will win a summer-picnic chili cook-off. Arguably they are already the technology winners, however, as during the time between entering and competing Turner has applied for and gotten a job at ITA himself.
Nicole Russo
"Wow," reads my first note about Russo's band, "that's some bass." My notes remain on the subject of the bass for several lines. It has been mixed louder than I can either justify or, frankly, even explain. The bass player is, mercifully, good and in-tune. Russo's whole band is extremely professional. She plays guitar and piano well, and sings well, and strikes me maybe like a version of Vanessa Carlton with a little more of Alanis Morissette's edge. Her songs are more thoughtful than incendiary, which translates into crowd response in a much less easily observed way, but I think she has the room's center of gravity shifting back toward the stage. A Battle of the Bands is all about immediacy, though, and this is the kind of music that only hopes to make a first impression that leads to the possibility of second and third impressions. Without time to hear these songs in a quieter room, study how they express her range, read the lyrics, find out what they are curious about, I have no way to really even guess whether Nicole is earnestly mediocre in the shape of other people's talent, a fragile genius working on understanding her proper idiom, or some other thing I'm not even thinking of. She'd stand a better chance at an Open Mic Night, or in a Songwriter's Contest, but in a Battle of the Bands she's the front-runner only until somebody shows up with bigger guitars.
The Francis Kim Band
Ditto Francis, more or less. He's a pop classicist, something on the temperamental order of Elvis Costello without the gawky handicapping. On record, or over the course of a longer set, his personal style may be easier to discern, but in this club setting his demeanor is pleasant and comfortable at the expense of thrill. He sounds like he could be one lucky soundtrack-inclusion away from sudden minor success, but also like he could be the popular kid who won all your high-school talent shows and then ended up being a programmer. And he isn't pandering to the crowd, and the later the night runs, the more likely it is that somebody will.
Colin Green
As Green's band is setting up, somebody bangs into the wrong connector and a jagged shard of noise knifes through the room. "We're doing our best", Green snarls at somebody in the front row. His drummer is wearing headphones, and he's got two guys huddled behind laptops in addition to the usual guitars, and out in front of them Colin is the first performer all night to wield geek charisma as a weapon. "It's Trent Reznor, but his parents haven't broken up yet", Ralph mutters to me. I pass my Oberst/Cope theory on to Dave, who is offended on both Conor's and Julian's behalves. Russell looks surprised and pleased again. Everybody we've seen so far has some form of potential, or maybe the potential to have potential under fairer scrutiny, but they have all been trying to fill this room, and Colin is the only one who has walked onto the stage like he's already bigger than the space. He's skinny and haunted-looking, but moves as if he believes that at any moment the crowd will lose control of themselves and start tearing off his clothes. I can't possibly follow what he's saying, but I'm pretty sure he's saying something, where the rest of these singers have only sounded like they're singing. The songs jump and cut like they were born in sequencers, and I wish I could hear the textures coming out of the laptops better. He's been listening to Trent and Conor and Beck and Radiohead and Pulp, I'm sure, and maybe Jesus Jones, and maybe back past that to Gary Numan and David Bowie. More than once a song has a chance to kick into sprint, but backs off defiantly into paced diffidence. It feels to me like the people are with him, or trying to be, but that he draws his energy from their tension, not its release. This isn't a contest set, this is a performance.
The Lizzie Borden Band
I had a flare of curmudgeonly self-righteousness when I saw this entry on the finalist list. Damn kids don't know enough Boston rock history to realize this name has already been used once around here. But they come on stage, and oh, it's Lizzie and Rita. This is not really fair. These two were in Lizzie Borden and the Axes, and Lava Beat, and the Finch Family. Somebody in the new band works for Wingate, but at my last company one of our technical writers had been a backing vocalist for My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult. Next year we should think a little harder about eligibility rules. To what shouldn't be anybody's surprise, Lizzie rocks the place. The band plays a mash of AC/DC stomp and the Ramones' churn and bits of the local history of pop-tinged all-women metal bands that Lizzie herself helped write. The crowd is moving. Rita snaps a string with about a song and a half to go, looks around exasperatedly for her guitar tech, and then shrugs and tears into the rest as if the difference between five and six is just round-off error. New guitarist Lisa Addario also adds a second sparklier singing voice, and the songs where she and Lizzie both sing hint at grunge/metal/girl-pop crossover. The band gets my highest number for Crowd Response, but their stage presence is deliberately gimmickless, their technical abilities are good but rarely the point, and now I want the singing to sound so much more like Nina Gordon and Louise Post. I never truly loved the Ramones, either. Ralph is happy, but I couldn't guess how Russell is scoring anybody, least of all this one, and I'm sure Dave knows Lizzie from long scene experience and I don't know if that'll work for or against them.
My Flash on You
When I agreed to do this, I expected at least 4 or 5 of the 8 finalists to fall, at least subjectively for me, somewhere on the pain scale between trying and excruciating. I mean this as an observation about me, not the entrants. My tastes are tastes, and maybe less explicable in their exact variation, and less generous in their dynamics, than others' might be. So I'm relieved that in the end there is only one band the whole night that I simply hate. But there is one, and this is them. In my notes to myself I complain, peevishly, "Guitar Center does not count as a technology company..." I think they think they're playing ironic glam-rock, but I also think they think that "irony" means being unoriginal with insincerity. If Francis Kim is the guy who won all your high-school talent shows, My Flash on You is the band that won all the Battles of the Bands staged by your state college's dopiest fraternity. There is nothing they do that some real band doesn't do 35% better, but real bands are expensive and unavailable, 35% isn't that much, and My Flash on You are here and don't mind playing on a Monday night for a club full of hackers and friends of hackers and a few bemused airline executives. Crowd response is a little bit less effusive than for Lizzie, but still vigorous. The singer is not as good at singing as the players are at playing, and the players have learned an astonishing amount of technique without, as far as I can tell, ever seeing a reason to cultivate any original inspiration to motivate it. The only thing I'm genuinely surprised by is that they get through their whole set without either guitarist playing a solo with his teeth. I do my best to score them fairly along the stipulated axes, but I really hope they don't win.
I thought someone told me Hepburn's technology connection was Cakewalk, but the notes say Aptima. Anything would make more sense than Cakewalk, since it doesn't look like a computer would survive a whole song in the room with Hepburn. They are a tight, powerful, muscularly-flailing big-guitar/big-shouting speed-emo band. Three guitars, one bass, lots of fast drums, lots of jumping around and swinging of instrument necks like pikes, lots of stentorian two-or-three-note vocal klaxons. Spend a couple hours at the iTunes Music Store, or listening to any radio station with "Modern Rock" in the name, and you should be able to find at least a dozen of these bands without much trouble. Somewhere in the distant past, their common ancestors listened to Braid and Fugazi and Helmet while watching Live videos with the sound off, but probably for the last few generations they've just been listening to each other. If you like this style, Hepburn do it as well as anyone I've ever heard. By this late point in the night I think a few people in the audience are jumping around for the sheer fun of jumping around, but Hepburn still support whatever they aren't directly inspiring. The singer is limited, but the genre limits him whether he's limited to begin with or not. Getting three guitarists to play in unison is not the world's hardest test, but keeping it up at these speeds is by no means trivial. In a night of consistently impressive drumming, Hepburn's drummer gets some of the most interesting complexity. I feel like this band, too, is playing below their level, but if Colin Green is playing below his level because he's still figuring out where his skin ends, and Lizzie Borden is playing below her level because it's fun to play and who gives a crap about levels, and My Flash on You are playing below their level because it makes them look better, then maybe Hepburn are playing below their level because they're just on their way through it. I bet they didn't sound this good a year ago. I bet they didn't sound this good a month ago, and I bet they'll sound even better in another month. The bottom will probably fall out of the shouty speed-emo market before they crack it, sadly, and I don't know how they'll respond to retraining, but for twenty-five minutes, on a Monday night in June, the goal is much closer than that.
There's no jury deliberation, or we'd probably still be there. We hand in our ballots and the numbers are added. On our 4-40 scales, I think my low was an 18 and my high was 32. I had Colin Green first, Hepburn a few points back, Lizzie Borden a very close third, and everybody else except Turner clustered around 24. There are prizes for the top 3. It seems safe to predict that the 3 winners will come from the last 4 bands, but not knowing my co-judges' predilections I won't be surprised by anything beyond that.
My extra-contestual curiosity doesn't follow my scoring. I'll check out Nicole Russo's demos to see if there's a creative spark to go with her talents, and if I have low expectations they are purely statistical. I'll look up Joe Turner's music because I know this wasn't the best way to hear it, but it doesn't seem likely to be my kind of thing. And not only do I want to hear what Colin Green can do in a studio, but whatever he's been able to do so far, I bet it's only a beginning. I don't have any questions about the others, and I'm trying to stop buying records that don't feel likely to somehow change my mind. I care a lot more about doubt and discovery than I do about winners.
But there's a contest to finish, and so my sister gets up on stage, in the club where I've probably seen half the best shows in my life, and all of the best mosh pits, and tells the assembled remaining entrants and hackers and interns and deafened clients the winners of a bizarrely plausible battle I helped judge. If I'm right about the top 4, then Lizzie Borden is the random victim of the accumulated randomnesses, as My Flash on You get 3rd prize, leaving me wishing I'd been meaner to them. But Colin Green gets 2nd place, so maybe that's thanks to me. Hepburn win 1st, which I think is fine and basically just. A Battle of the Bands should, by its nature, be won at least in large part by force, and Hepburn definitely have force. As ITA of all companies could tell you, the kind of discrimination you employ determines the character of your results, and giving 8 bands 25-minute sets in front of 4 judges will only ever tell you something simple. Hepburn were the loudest, and the most focused, and the most self-contained. I think you could easily argue that they were the best at their chosen style according to its own criteria, and that they chose the style with the most visceral immediacy.
But the least interesting thing about winners is that they usually only win by winning. So what if it works? Immediacy is definitively short-lived, and for now we're done with it again. The losers didn't lose anything. And I go back to my job trying to get computers to help us discriminate more effectively, and to tell us less-simple things, and to help us help each other appreciate the qualities we actually appreciate, not just the ones that are easiest to score.
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