Live: Whatever Brains show their sides

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Whatever Brains, Burglar Fucker
Kings Barcade
April 26, 2012

In the cut: Whatever Brains

If one didn’t know better, the fact that Thursday night’s gig was in honor of Whatever Brains’ second LP release might’ve gone unnoticed. Frontman Rich Ivey offhandedly mentioned the new album twice. Once, after the set’s first song, “Bad Dads,” he acknowledged it as the LP’s lead track, and at the end of the set, he mentioned the album’s existence once more. That was that. Sure, the set drew heavily from the new album’s tracklist, but not more than any number of recent gigs have. And plenty of first-album standouts—“Blues Lawyer,” “The Fisher,” etc.—made their way into the set, too. Just three songs in, the quartet even brought a new synth-heavy song into the fold.

So by the band’s demeanor and the song selection, this could have been any recent Whatever Brains show. But a little after midnight, when the band members had vacated the stage, it quickly became apparent that there wasn’t much ordinary about the evening’s performance. Taking the band’s performance in two parts—the set proper and the encore that followed—offers a demonstration of Whatever Brains at its poles.

As the Brains raced through well-known songs to a receptive and polite crowd, the quintet played with taut precision, shedding the shaggy basement punk history for sharp and acidic new-wave—the type they captured on record with a cover of Wall of Voodoo’s “Can’t Make Love” on a Record Store Day 7-inch. Drummer Evan Williams and bassist Matt Watson drove the band with lockstep propulsion while guitarists Ivey and Will Evans cut sharp riffs in close harmony and tangled counterpoint. Keyboardist Josh Lawson added wobbly sci-fi soundtrack gauze and curt, Devo-esque melody. The performance was tight without sacrificing urgency, and the venue offered a bold and clear mix, making for one of the biggest-sounding Whatever Brains shows I’ve seen.

After the band dutifully trod offstage, giving no indication they wouldn’t be coming back, the wound-up crowd grew louder and more boisterous. And where the proper set was the Brains at their most polished, the encore started and ended with Ivey on stage alone, challenging his audience with ambling guitar noise, dodging playfully thrown beer cans and grinning as the less-dedicated observers started to file out the door. Between these bouts, with the full band back onstage, the music was more frenzied and frazzled. The weirdness that drives the band’s skewed vision of pop but which shows up unfettered only occasionally was fully present last night.

Together the pieces highlighted Whatever Brains as a band equally capable of stunningly singular pop and daunting mayhem. Clearly separating those attributes ultimately strengthened both.

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