Tarpeian Rock

Protomartyr, Grave Babies, Unnatural Helpers at Black Lodge, Seattle | 20 May 2014


Detroit post punks Protomartyr played the Black Lodge in Seattle Tuesday night. This was their third time in Seattle, but only the first time I had the pleasure of seeing them. After sold out singles and the band’s debut album No Passion All Technique selling out of multiple pressings on Urinal Cake records, the band have followed it up with Under Color of Official Right on Hardly Art. Where Techniques was a lo-fi punk record, the new record keeps the punk attitude and intelligence while adding in better songs and better sound.

Label mates and localites Unnatural Helpers and Grave Babies began the evening’s intensities with two quality if workman-like sets. When the time came for Protomartyr, there was no big entrance or formality for the band, they merely stopped setting up and started rocking. No pomp, no circumstance, just the goods. In Protomartyr’s case the goods are frontman Joe Casey barking over his very good band. The solid rhythm section (besides being really good, drummer  Alex Leonard was wearing a Spray Paint shirt) laid down the law which left Casey and guitarist Greg Ahee to fill in the picture with their riffs and rants.

Protomartyr write gutter anthems. They write about the underbelly of society and coming from Detroit they have first hand knowledge of the downtrodden. Detroit and Detroit rock is in their veins. They employ the abrasive qualities of the Stooges, MC5 and Tyvek (Kevin Boyer was the original Protomartyr bassist) while incorporating the likes of the Fall, Girls Against Boys and Nick Cave into their brew. Their first record was recorded on the cheap while their new one has a noticeably better budget. Live they veer toward the budget sound of the first record but that rawness keeps it vital. I like how Casey dresses in a double breasted blazer and a button up shirt but sings like he’s dressed in rags. The juxtaposition catches your attention and you wonder why this mad man is dressed up. Besides looking quite good, Casey is the kind of songwriter that will have you looking stuff up in your encyclopedia. He’s smart, he dresses up and he rocks. I also loved Ahee’s endlessly inventive guitar. Casey gets a lot of attention for his lyrichs, but Ahee’s guitar really took these songs to the next level beyond just another garage band.

Before the show I had heard from numerous people about how Protomartyr were a jaw-droppingly good live band. They did nothing to make me think otherwise. My only complaint would be that Casey’s vocals weren’t as clear as the recorded songs, but that’s what the album is for.

stream: Protomartyr – Come & See (from Under Color of Official Right on Hardly Art)

proto_setlist - Copyproto2

Singles of the Year Countdown: 10-1

We’ve made it to the fat on top, or the fruit at the bottom, in other words the top ten…I bought way too many seven inch singles this year. I’m not trying to brag. It’s a problem really. The seven inch is like crack to the record geek, a fleeting moment of pop perfection and then it’s off to either flip the record or put on another one. This was a daunting task this year and I feel like I left out a lot of stuff, but a top 60 would have been too much and limiting it to 40 makes you have to really decide, what were your favorite singles of the year. Without any further ado, here are numbers 10-1.

1. Unnatural Helpers – Sunshine/Pretty Girls (Hardly Art)

Here’s what I said back in April when this record came out: I can state unequivocally that the A-side Sunshine / Pretty Girls is the best Unnatural Helpers song I’ve heard, and it could very well be the anti-summer jam of the erm, summer, though it’s a bit early to predict those kinds of things.

Back to present, it turns out it was the anti-summer jam of the summer and the year for that matter at least for me.  At a minute and 55 seconds, Sunshine/Pretty Girls is over before you know what hit you, and it has you jumping up from the chair to pick up the needle and put it back down again in a futile attempt to keep the euphoric endorphins induced by this song flowing.  This is everything a great pop record should be, a pummeling guitar riff, second guitar diving in, strained words through gritted teeth, girl singing backing harmonies, lyrics about smoking and drinking till you die and a killer sleeve by CMRTYZ.

mp3: Sunshine / Pretty Girls

2. Tender Trap – Do You Want a Boyfriend? (Slumberland)

I said it succinctly back in June and don’t think I can improve on my description of this near perfect single: Oh my (Talula) Gosh, The new single from Amelia Fletcher’s Tender Trap is Heavenly.  Not only that, Do You Want a Boyfriend? is smart, cute (does he have to like the Jesus & Mary Chain?  Yeah, that would be heaven!), packed full of harmonies and sees the band swinging back towards a more guitar oriented blast of sound reminiscent of Fletcher’s two earlier bands.

mp3: Do You Want a Boyfriend?

3. The Limiñanas – I’m Dead (Hozac)

The Liminnanas suddenly appeared on the scene with singles on both Trouble In Mind and Hozac, a posthumous release of their former band Les Bellas and then an album on TIM all within a few months. It was like they had been stockpiling songs getting ready for a barrage.  I’m Dead was the opening salvo and turned heads with its Spectoresque garage coupled a hint of Morricone.  It rode a sparse echo filled groove and penetrated the dark side for three minutes of eerie pop bliss that was hard to forget.

mp3: I’m Dead

4. Outdoor Miners – Twelve Hundred Dollars (Pop Echo)

With slicing angular guitars and lazy slacker vocals Edmunton, Alberta’s Outdoor Miners on their debut single evoke a time not too long ago when it took way too long to download a web page so an entire album was out of the question. You still went to the record store on Tuesday’s to pick up the new releases, and seeing Pavement on daytime MTV was an amazing thing.  In other words 90’s indie guitar rock is back!

mp3: Twelve Hundred Dollars

5. Myron and E with the Soul Investigators – It’s A Shame (Now Again)

Brought to my attention by Fire Escape Talking, I was unsure if this was not some lost soul record that he normally posts.  No, Myron and E hale from California and they get together somehow with Finland’s Soul Investigators to make records that don’t sound of this time.  It’s a Shame is a stone cold classic, right down to its Shoo bee-doo-wah’s.

mp3: It’s a Shame

6. Frankie & The Heartstrings – Fragile (Pop Sex Ltd.)

Edwyn Collins tweeted at some point this year that he’d seen the future and it was Frankie and the Heartstrings.  If the future is big sounding heart on the sleeve pop then Frankie and the Heartstrings are it.  Fragile with its quiet versus and bombastic chorus is everything an A-side could ever hope to be in the past, present or future.

mp3: Fragile

7. Catwalk – (Please) Don’t Break Me (Captured Tracks)

Will 2011 be the year that indiepop broke?  With likes of Wild Nothing, Sea Pony and now Catwalk getting so much positive attention this year, anything is possible.  Catwalk’s previous two singles on Yay! were beauties and the streak continues onto Captured Tracks.  This sunny yet sad 60’s inspired pop song could have fit on the  Bus Stop Label’s Peppermint Stick Parade from 1995.  As it is, it stands on its own quite nicely at the number seven spot.

mp3: (Please) Don’t Break Me

8. Liechtenstein – Passion For Water (Fraction)

Sweden’s Liechtenstein besides having a Passion For Water, have an evident passion for Dolly Mixture, bouncy bass lines, wonderful horns and angelic oohh’s.  The band have put out some excellent singles to date, but I think this may be the best one yet.

mp3: Passion For Water

9. German Measles – Color Vibration (Wild World)

German Measles are the epitome of ramshackle, their songs seem like they hang from within an inch of collapse.  Live,  even more so.  Color Vibration is an ode to getting high off one’s sense of vision.  It rumbles along threatening to collapse at any moment, only to see our heroes preserver almost to very end when the song ends with an explosion.

mp3: Color Vibration

10. Felt Letters – 600,000 Bands (M’lady)

With 600,000 Bands Felt Letters summarize with pinpoint accuracy and humor the craziness that is today’s music landscape.  Former Nation of Ulysses singer Ian Svenonius delivers his spot on observations over a musty gin joint backing  provided by Brendan Canty of Fugazi and Tom Bunnell.  “Everybody wants you to listen to theirs, but you can’t right now because you’re listening to this.”

mp3: 600,000 Bands

[40-31] [30-21] [20-11] [10-1]

Doing What Comes Unnaturally

photo by Kelly O

Not sure how the Unnatural Helpers got their name, but my guess is that drummer/singer Dean Whitmore has to twist arms to get people to be in his band. He must be a pretty good arm-twister because he’s got Brian Standeford of Idle Times, Leo Gebhardt also of Idle Times and his own solo endeavors, and Kimberly Morrison of the Dutchess & the Duke. Whitmore himself has been around the block in Seattle, doing time in both the Dipers and Intelligence. obviously working up the muscle to form his own band.

Up to this point The Unnatural Helpers have been releasing stuff mostly on Seattle’s Dirty Knobby including last year’s very entertaining split single with the Intelligence as well as another single and a full length. They also had a single in last year’s Sub Pop singles club before inking a deal with Sub Pop’s kid sister label Hardly Art.

For their new album Cracked Love and Other Drugs the band went into the studio with Fastback, Sgt. Major and all around Young Fresh Fellow Kurt Block to record it.  The first fruits have just been released on the first ever Hardly Art  7″ single.   I can state unequivocally that the A-side Sunshine / Pretty Girls is the best Unnatural Helpers song I’ve heard, and it could very well be the anti-summer jam of the erm, summer, though it’s a bit early to predict those kinds of things.  It’s backed with three non-album songs and is limited to 500 copies.

mp3: Unnatural Helpers – Sunshine / Pretty Girls

Order up a copy of the 7″ or pre-0rder the album from Hardly Art.  Unnatural Helpers are also opening for King Khan & Shrines and the Fresh & Onlys this Tuesday, 13 April at Neumos.

Definitely Not Dead: Obits at Neumo’s

Obits | Lights | Unnatural Helpers at Neumo’s | 16 May 2009









Neumo’s felt like a greenhouse Saturday night, partly from the 75 degree day we had and partly from the blistering sets from all three bands which kept the temperature quite tropical throughout the night. I arrived mid-way through Unnatural Helpers sweaty opening set. The band just singed to Sub Pop spin-off label Hardly Art but have released an album and single on Seattle label Dirty Knobby. The band do post punk/hard core that reminds me of bands like Holy Rollers and Candy Machine from back in the 90’s DC/Baltimore scene. Guitarists Leo Gebhardt and Brian Standeford do time in Idle Times and bassist Kimberly Morrison has another gig in the Dutchess and the Duke, leaving drummer/singer Dean Whitmore the defacto head helper.

The Lights were very good, so good, I wondered as they steamed through Victims of the Pleasure of the Sense of Hearing from their first album if the Obits could match the intensity of  these Seattle angular noise-nicks. The Lights played mostly all new songs, with a few old favorites thrown in to string us along.  The old songs weren’t really necessary to keep me interested, but everyone, myself included certainly appreciated hearing the afore mentioned Victims, probably their most straightforward pop song.   I shouldn’t have really doubted the Obits’ ability to rock.  Their pedigree for rocking is unmistakable considering Rick Froberg’s former face blistering bands Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes.  I mentioned how it was hot, well at least hot for Seattle. During the Lights’ set there was a woman at the front with a hand fan that she waved the entire set. The Lights played faster, she danced and waved the fan faster. I don’t think it was doing much good, and she was probably making herself hotter as fast as she was waving it. I lost track of her during the Obits set, but I’m guessing she may have passed out sometime during their ripping, heat inducing set. The Obits started off a bit wobbly with the first two songs not really hitting on all cylinders, but they owned the room by third song. Oddly it was the only one in which former Edsel front-man Sohrab Habibion sings lead. Something seemed to click with the band at this point, whether it as them just taking a couple songs to get warmed up, or if it was the first song in which Froberg and Habibion combine not only guitar but voices as well for the chorus.  From then on the band were on it with lightening hot Pine On, the tense eeriness of Light Sweet Crude, and the just plane fun Back and Forth.   Now that the album has been out for a few months I had a better familiarity with the songs that I was missing last summer at SP20 and earlier this year down in the ID.   My familiarity also made the way Froberg’s and Habibion’s intertwined guitar riffs play off each other become much more apparent. Their styles are different, Froeberg delivers his surf-punk licks juxtaposed with Habibion’s post-punk, but they combine to create a tense wallop. The other half of the band are no slouches either, bassist Greg Simpson drummer Scott Gursky laid down some pretty amazing riffs as well, the best being the intro to Two-headed Coin which starts with Simpson’s bouncing bass line over Gursky’s shaker’s and drums. The way these guys play together you can tell that they’re totally digging and exploring their sound, It seems like a simple straightforward formula, but the Obits add an experienced complexity to it that is easy to miss because they make it look so easy.  It’s almost as if they rock without even trying.

mp3: Obits – Military Madness (Graham Nash cover found on their Record Store day 7″)

Here are the rest of the Obits’ west coast dates with the Lights:

May 19 – Blue Lamp, Sacramento CA w/ The Lights
May 20 – Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco CA w/ The Lights
May 21 – Cellar Door (CA), Visalia CA w/ The Lights
May 22 – Spaceland, Los Angeles CA w/ The Lights
May 23 – Casbah, San Diego CA w/ The Lights