Ears still ringing, head still singing

Carsic Cars & Snapline album release

One of the English-language magazines described this show as “four of Beijing’s seven best bands” and since I haven’t seen the other three, I can simplify and say “Beijing’s four best bands.” My usual concert-buddy RR just returned from the US a couple days ago and couldn’t handle going out, so I went by myself. I’m certainly glad I made the effort – it was by far the best show I’ve seen since coming to China. I’m going to write this as if it was all discovery, when in fact I knew some things about these bands before seeing them.

Yugong Yishan is a pretty cool venue with a nice sound system and a good layout, though there are lots of stairs up and down to watch out for, which is odd by American standards, but pretty typical in China. It’s located in a restored hutong building practically on top of a subway station, making it convenient to get there, if not to get home after the lines close down at 11. One thing always mentioned about this venue, which until recently was located in a different part of town and was described as “grotty,” was cheap drinks. I think maybe they raised the prices when they upgraded the facility, though they’re still reasonable.
Guaili (怪力) started out around 9.45 with a nice set of tunes that combine roughness and complexity.
Roughness in the female lead singer, who screams a lot (but mostly in a good way), and complexity in the interplay between the two guitars. I really liked the way those two guys worked with each other, using contrasting tones and different parts - they were almost never playing the same notes.
The drummer was a little shaky at times, but not enough to ruin things.
Hedgehog was up next. I have their CD and really like it, and as I expected, they were a bit more rowdy live than in the studio. I’ve noticed that trios seem to be pretty common among Beijing bands, this band (bass/drums/guitar) being the standard line-up.
Two things set them apart: the singer/guitarist can actually sing (though he does a great rock ‘n’ roll scream as well) and has enough energy to light a whole village if there was a way to harness it; and the drummer (who from appearances isn’t old enough to be out this late, though I know she is) is rock-solid and has enough energy to make me worry that she contributes to global warming – they don’t call her Atom for nothing.
Plus the tunes are good. And did I mention energetic? All in all, an incredible show, and the evening was only half over.
They were followed by Snapline, and I was pleased to see that this band also featured a female member. It’s another trio, this time bass and guitar/keyboards with a dedicated vocalist and a drum machine.
A drum machine?! Well, yes, but in this context it works pretty well. They are not about thumping programmed beats – the machine is used in more minimal fashion, like an artsy take on early techno. The singer wears nerdy glasses and has awkward movements a little like David Byrne, though aside from the vocals and the general art-school vibe they’re not much like Talking Heads. More like early Ultravox before they went all pop.
The guitar was a combination of more-or-less normal playing and sound effects, but always making sense in the context of the songs. Her keyboard playing was in a similar vein. The bass parts were repetitious and on the mechanical side, in keeping with the general aesthetic. For their last number, a second keyboard player joined them, and from the first two beats of the drum machine I recognized the tune. “Aw, it can’t be!” Followed by, “Interesting and appropriate.” Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark’s “Electricity.” Cool.

While the keyboards were being pulled off stage and the guitar rig was getting rearranged, Snapline’s guitarist went and sat behind the drum kit, waiting patiently for the next set. The bassist left for a few minutes and returned with a different bass (I swear it’s the same one Hedgehog’s bassist used). Eventually the guitarist was ready.
Carsick Cars feature the same kind of line-up as Hedgehog: bass, guitar, female drummer, , though aside from that and the level of energy, they’re not much alike. Many of the songs are catchy, but there is a wave of distortion lurking behind the music that breaks out quite frequently.
Both drum and bass parts tend to be pretty simple, leaving lots of room for the guitar to make noise, which it does, both straight out of the amp and with the assistance of a string of little boxes on the floor. My only real complaint is that by this time in the evening the decibel inflation had hit the guitar so heavily that the drums ended up too low in the mix. Maybe it sounded different a few feet behind me where you get more from the mains than from the stage, but I wasn’t willing to move away.
Of course, the obvious comparison is Sonic Youth, though I wouldn’t push that very far. Carsick Cars are definitely their own band.

On my way out the door, I hit the merchandise table and bought the CDs by both Snapline and Carsick Cars. I looked longingly at the CC T-shirt, but decided no, leaving myself cab fair for the trip home. It took a while to get a taxi at 1am in that neighborhood, but I was still warm enough from the venue that the cold didn’t get to me.

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