Paper Chase and Explosions in the Sky are two peas in an experimental pod.
At least, that's what it looked like at Monday night's twin bill at the Granada Theater. In many ways, these two groups couldn't be more different, but in others they mirror each other almost perfectly, though the mirror in question might be one of the funhouse variety. Obviously, Paper Chase's delightfully twisted tunes are sort of anti-songs, with verses and choruses so inventive they invert typical song structure, or at least give the illusion that they do. PC manages to milk the soft-loud-soft/loud-soft-loud motif better than just about anyone because they eschew melody and lyrical platitude for postmodern punk vocals and harsh edges. Of course, two grandpas of loud-soft-loud—the Pixies and Nirvana—did this to an extent, but rarely traversed across poppy boundaries. Both bands were brilliant, of course, but in 2007, doing the same thing would be, frankly, boring, and damn if Paper Chase doesn't jump right over that pitfall and land in a spot that is, for the moment, safe.
I say "for the moment," however, because this is not a band that plays it safe for long. This is a band that avoids one trap, only to dance precariously on the edge of another. That dance often is literal; when singer/guitarist John Congleton really starts getting into his frenetic physical freakout, it's as though he's a puppet with a coked-out master. Of course, the tradition of spazzy art-band dancing also goes way back in rock history, but Congleton's synchronized, double-jointed body spasms are fun, bizarre and occasionally creepy.
Explosions in the Sky
Congleton's visual spookiness is matched by the band's eerie lyrics and the menacing hard edges of the music itself. Paper Chase clearly has a formula—variations on the method of starting off slow, with Congleton vocally lurching through a few bars, then the instruments kicking in with a heavy dose of Mars Volta-like, metal-edged, up-your-butt rock, with interspersed waves of blistering free-form. But it's a formula that adds up to a refreshing take on what rock is supposed to be: freaky, maddening, scary, heart-rattling, transfixing, sometimes difficult.
Difficult, yes, but still accessible in its own way. Much of the frattish crowd, most likely familiar with EITS through the band's work for the movie and TV show Friday Night Lights, clearly had EITS on the brain, and the white-capped fellas seemed perplexed by the Paper Chase's jarring way of putting together a song. They seemed to like the hard interludes the best, when Congleton would bellow in his scraggly voice while shredding metal notes way up the fretboard, and the bass pounded and drums roared.
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Of course, the capacity crowd roared louder when EITS took the stage. At first, the Austin group sounded like the diametric opposite of the Paper Chase: flowing, intense but relaxed, with no vocals and slowly building ebbs and swells. EITS' trademark chiming guitars, the ethereal drums, the slow burn of the song structure sent about 80 percent of the crowd into ecstasy. Still breathing hard after the Paper Chase's blast of a set, I didn't get it. It's not that EITS aren't worth the hype—matter of fact, they are one of the finest, most original bands out there. It's just that, given their preferred style of music, there wasn't a whole lot goin' on, no vocalist to stagger about the stage, no dramatics.
Yet, as the evening moved on, it became clear these two bands share a very important trait. Neither is afraid to mess around with song structure, and as such, neither is afraid to mess around with the traditions of rock 'n' roll. With both, verse-chorus-verse gets thrown out the window; it's not unchecked cacophony, but the reins are loosened and the song can turn any corner it wants to. Verse-chorus-verse becomes verse-verse-verse-chorus-ver...what? Or simply V-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-r-r-r-r-s-e. With the Paper Chase, this M.O. results in a band of startling intensity and power. With EITS, it results in a floaty, long-form rock lullaby. But with both, the result is a new form of an old form, or vice-versa, that embodies the evolution of rock.
Don't freak: That NAMBLA thing in last week's Critic's Picks? April Fools joke. The B-side claiming PPT was gonna charge 99 cents for downloading their "Rowdy, Loud and Proud" song? Ditto—seriously, did you really think those guys were such assholes?