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Sunday January 1st, 2006 at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA
The Specific Heats, The Smittens, B For Brontosaurus, & Math The Band
Mat Patalano from The Specific Heats
Holly Chagnon from The Smittens
Ben Morse from B for Brontosaurus
Kevin Steinhauser is Math the Band
[more photos]
[15.8M mp4 video]

I walked out my front door just in time to watch the bus roll by. Happy New Year to me. The next bus wouldn't have come in time to make the required connection, and a taxi would have cost $10 that I didn't want to part with, so I turned up my iPod and started walking. It takes about 45 minutes to get to the Middle East from Allston, Union Square. The more you know, right?

When I arrived at the club, Kevin Steinhauser of Math the Band was actively recruiting his friends to serve as dancers. He began by pulling his own costume from a large cardboard box, and then dug deeper to find a costume for each dancer. Steinhauser chose a red-and-white striped sweatshirt and matching beanie for himself and announced he was Waldo. Despite conventional wisdom, he was not hard to pick out of the crowd. Nor was his crew of dancers: a gent in a furry pink bunny costume, a wolf man in a vest, a cardboard box robot, and a red-suited make-shift lobster – complete with sign stating "Beware of Attack Lobster" to ensure both proper identification and hilarity. When the moment came for Math the Band to start its set, Steinhauser led his motley crew onto the stage, instructed the robot on the use of the computer that provided all backing tracks and then explained his sequenced shtick to the audience.

Let's get this out of the way now. Atom & His Package. Atom & His Package. Atom & His Package. There. Wait. One More. Atom & His Package. Now that isn't to say Math the Band is not entertaining. After all, since Adam Goren hung his sequencer up a year ago, now has a kid, and will release the debut CD from his new rock outfit in February, we need someone with levity and an ear for the wacky. So yeah. Atom & His Package. Oops, that one slipped out.

Now to say a few works about Math the Band. Songs were sequenced with simple percussion and keyboards. Steinhauser sang each song live into a cordless microphone that allowed him to spend the majority of the set amongst the audience. When the computer-as-karaoke machine played the occasional guitar solo, Steinhauser generally stopped what he was doing and aped air guitar for the appreciative fans. Steinhauser is young, and his musical points of reference show this. His set was nearly half covers, including songs by such luminaries as 3 Doors Down, Blink 182, and Ace of Base. The latter he prefaced by asking if folks remembered the 80s or at least had seen "I Love the 80s." Of course Ace of Base formed in the 90s and had their breakout in 1993, but when you're 18 or 19 years old, I’m sure the early 90s and the 80s blend together.

While Steinhauser may be a young kid doing absolutely nothing new, he is doing it exceptionally well. His songs have big hooks, his lyrics are silly but engaging and his interaction with the audience is superbly entertaining. I have no reservations in saying that Math the Band is a must see. If you can't appreciate the pure elation that is Math the Band, then you have lost your soul somewhere along the way.

A quick change brought Boston's B for Brontosaurus to the stage. The band is lead by vocalist/guitarist Ben Morse along with bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Joanna Solins and drummer/vocalist Abe Lateiner. While this trio of live instrumentalists works in a "precious" motif instead the zany one preferred by Math the Band, both bands deliver a similar whimsy. In fact, it's this whimsy that seems to override all other stylistic elements. Songs may be jangly 60's-styled pop, country influenced burners, tender acoustic twee, loose power-pop numbers, or, in one case, sprawling indie rock. It is the aim and outcome, not the route, that’s always the same. Those looking for musical touchstones will unquestionably find hints of Cub, Beat Happening, Magnetic Fields or even They Might Be Giants, but the band is securely its own.

While I had seen B for Brontosaurus before, it was at a non-venue with no lighting, poor sound and without Lateiner. This time I was able to enjoy the full and beautiful harmonies from all three vocalists, as well as study the band a bit more carefully. While Morse is a bit stiff and Lateiner very relaxed, Solins is completely amped. She oversells both her vocals and body language as if she's doing a dinner-theatre performance of "Showboat." If her fingers weren't firmly planted on the keyboard or bass, I'm sure we would have seen jazz hands.

Thankfully the band's songs distracted the audience from the varied dynamics of the stage show. The endearing "Who Will Sail My Ship" had the audience wrapped in a warm, wistful sigh. The crowd shouted along gleefully to the participatory elements of MySpace favourite "RUT!" And when the band closed with an epic new tune entitled "Ghosts," the audience was completely entranced. This final song is likely to draw favourable comparisons to The Decemberists, not only due to its macabre subject mater, but also to its rambling lyrical nature and tumbling rhythm. This song was the highlight of the set.

Years back the term "cuddle-core" was used to delineate a particular unthreatening subset of bands in the indie pop scene. While I haven't heard the term since it was used to describe Bunnygrunt, I believe the third act of the evening, sweater-clad band The Smittens, are ripe to resurrect this sub-sub-sub-genre of indie pop.

The Smittens is similar to that of B for Brontosaurus, although more refined in both sound and performance. This Vermont quartet also played revved up bubblegum pop, but with a fuller sound, more swagger, and definitely more gusto. As such, the band's obvious twee overtones were diluted by pop-punk tendencies reminiscent of The Smugglers or Mr. T Experience. Furthermore the band has several more years of stage experience; a broken string in the first number didn't stop the set, but merely provided an opportunity for the a cappella duet "Deep Blue Sea" from the band's first album. Throughout the night, everything worked for The Smittens.

In each of the band's songs, melody is key. And the melody is typically held by guitarist Dana Kaplan's vocals. Her voice is light and often airy, but always backed by guitarist Colin Clary, keyboardist Max Adrucki, or both. Many of these songs progress to full-blown duets between Kaplan and Adrucki. In either arrangement, the songs are charming without being saccharine. A few slower numbers brought the deep, dry, bass voice of 6'4" Andrucki into the spotlight, creating obvious ties back to The Magnetic Fields or Beat Happening. This is a good thing. Everything about The Smittens (save maybe Clary's eerie resemblance to the comic Gallagher) is a good thing.

With hopes high, but time running short, the final band of the night took the stage. The Specific Heats is a pop trio focused on the same 60s pop as The Smittens, just with less bubble gum and an obvious debt to 90s/00s indie pop. In attempt to make up for delays earlier in the evening, vocalist/guitarist Mat Patalano opted to forgo stage banter, which had the unfortunate effect of replacing the loose, fun atmosphere of the earlier acts with an off-putting push forward. Sadly, this rush didn't carry over to the band's songs or performance. From the start, the set lacked the snap and energy the songs required. After all, pop music should "pop" right? Underneath the malaise and confusion were delightful songs with big hooks and butt-shaking rhythms; they just weren't coming across.

While Patalno seemed flustered by the shorted set time, bassist/keyboardist Jen Kamisnky seemed downright scared. Later in the evening she privately confessed that the camera made her nervous. Should she pose? Should she look away? While Math the Band's Kevin Steinhauser came out to slow dance with audience members, Kamisnky was afraid to make eye contact. There was a severe disconnect between The Specific Heats and its audience.

When all seemed most dire and it seemed certain this delightful show would end on a sour note, the night's other bands came to the rescue. When The Specific Heats played announced closer "Ice Cream Shop," a wave of dancers, lead by The Smittens rushed the area in front of the stage. Bolstered by this energy, the audience sang along with the infectious "doot doot doo" and "ba ba badda ba" chorus, and The Specifics Heats finally caught fire. Now energized by the audience participation, the band ignored the soundman and played one more song. A shaky start, but a superbly satisfying finale.

After picking up a CD by The Smittens, signing a few mailing lists and passing out a couple of Too Much Rock buttons, I walked out the door and into a waiting cab. It was late, I had to be at work the next day, and my iPod had run out of juice – there was no way I was walking another 45 minutes to get home. Exercising in the cold can be someone else's New Year's resolution.

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