Kurt Vile and Soft Pack Show Off Rough Edges at Neumos

Kurt Vile (center) and the Violators played with the Soft Pack at Neumos on Thursday, November 4, 2010.

Neumos has always felt a bit cavernous and unfriendly to me, like the room was built less for rock shows and more for raves or building airplane engines or something. Thankfully, last night's show wasn't one of those packed to the gills rockstravaganzas that the club normally hosts; red velvet curtains lined the sides and the back of the room, closing off the back of the room and making it seem much more like a small, welcoming room than it normally is.

San Diego's The Soft Pack (formerly known for a short while as The Muslims) are still relatively new kids on the block. 3 years and one record into their career, they've done time on the road opening up for Phoenix and Franz Ferdinand as well as getting some decent airplay on KEXP with their single "Answer To Yourself". At Neumos last night, they seemed to show the joys and pains of still being a young band, struggling with finding a consistent tone and level of energy in their set. Starting the set off strong with "Pull Out" (which I can't ever hear without thinking that it's a nod to Drive Like Jehu), the Soft Pack immediately went for their big guns, all strangulated surf guitar licks and primal, driving beats that erupt into bashed-out choruses.

Drummer Brian Hill's stand-up, cocktail style kit is a strange aesthetic choice for the band, but it somehow makes sense, and watching him wail through the Hawaii 5-0'isms of "Parasite" behind guitarist Matty McLoughlin's careening, buzzsaw guitar work made the Soft Pack come off a bit imposing and borderline dangerous, in the best possible way. However, on some slower songs like the drunken luau-vibe'd "Mexico", the band just seemed sloppy and sophomoric. Hill and bassist David Lantzman held down the tropical foundations of the song, while singer Matt Lamkin seemed glassy-eyed and listless and guitarist McLoughlin's slide guitar work was just a little too seasick. I'm all for slopping through some songs in exchange for energetic delivery, but the overwhelming lethargy coming off of the stage during "Mexico" brought the energy level in the somewhat sparse crowd down quite a bit and did no favors for the Soft Pack. Thankfully, the band came back with a vengeance on their album's opener ("C'mon"), casting away the aimless caterwaul and putting their sights directly on what they do best: straight-forward, ass-shaking garage pop songs. They played a song from a just-released 7" ("Gag Dad") that bridged some of the gap between their desire to write perfectly fuzzed-out, dirty pop songs and their more atonal, rambling side. It was a promising indication of the band's versatility and a hopeful nod to their future direction. The set ended with the ragged jangle of "Answer To Yourself", which is a strangely goosebump-inducing, fist pumping feel-good anthem on par with the likes of the Hold Steady's "Stay Positive". If the Soft Pack can find a way to keep their energy up and focus on their penchant for writing jagged hooks that are as sweet as they are menacing, they're going to be a very dangerous band.

Philadelphia's Kurt Vile and his band (the Violators) came on stageand went directly into a one-note, meditative loopy drone, full of ticking drum machines and the relentless phasered fuzz of 3 guitarists (and no bassist, a theme held through the entirety of the set) that seemed to go on for an eternity. Following that up with another drawn out dose of sonic exploration (this time with drummer Mike Zanghi pushing through the thunderous tribal beat using only his bare hands on his kit) that only slightly differed from the opener, Vile had essentially filled the first ten minutes of his set with one note wandering. While I'm a huge fan of loop-based shoegazer-y noodling, Vile's first few songs seemed to come off as resoundingly loud, but slightly monotonous and without any real indication of effort toward reaching a set destination. While setting a vibe is one of those highly elusive goals that differs for everyone, the vibe that was set in my corner of the room was one of unfocused meandering and unfortunately simple compositions, amounting to little more than a droning hum over a looped beat. Thankfully, the next few songs started to settle less into one-note opus territory and more into the weird, post-acid classic rock-isms that Vile excels at. "Hunchback" sounds like a lost Neil Young and Crazy Horse cut, and the drawn out freak-folk fuzz of "Freak Train" was a perfect example of when Vile's rambunctious rambling works well. Spitting out the chorus ("Riding on the freak train! TRAIN! TRAIN! TRAIN!") while the song built into a looping, layered ball of harmonic static, I finally felt unreservedly on board with Vile and the Violators. Vile works best when he plays with some of the dynamics of what he's working on, and when he pulled back some of the grandiose layers of fuzz to reveal the more haunting, acoustic side of his catalog during "He's Alright", Vile comes off as much more compositionally capable and relateable than in the more cataclysmic moments of his set. "He's Alright" has a bit of a sad, lonesome vibe, sounding like a haunted melody that escaped it's mortal coil but has resigned itself to aimless wandering, with it's repeated refrain of "I don't care, I don't care, I don't care". Finishing the set all by himself with only a space-echo-drenched acoustic guitar, Vile played "Blackberry Song", and yet again showed that the strongest parts of his catalog are the meandering, folkier numbers that push his simple melodic exploration into more haunted, epic territory. What began as a bit of a rough, monochromatic set had exploded into much more vivid color, and all it took was stripping away a few layers.

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