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Wednesday March 21st, 2012 at Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park, NJ
Wreaths, Casey Desmond, Stereo Telescope, & Phantom Power
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Last week I stumbled upon Asbury Lanes, and instantly felt at home amidst the sounds of crashing pins and punk rock. Free evenings are somewhat rare when I'm traveling for work, but I vowed to return at the very next opportunity. A week later I had that chance. Out of curiosity – as the decision had already been made – I checked the website for the night's line up. I paused for a moment as I read the headliner had been a contestant on The Voice, but knowing the club hadn't steered me wrong last time, I ventured out all the same. If nothing else, sitting on comfy couch listening to a good DJ play punk rock records would beat sitting alone in my hotel room listening to tinny music from my laptop speakers.

A little after 8pm I arrived at the club, parking in the same spot, and paying my cover to the same gal with unnaturally red hair. After that, however, it was all different. There was no DJ, the plastic booths were arranged differently, there were no bowlers, the crowd was older and had brought their toddlers, and the comfortable perch I had cherished so much last week was gone entirely. What a difference a week can make.

Eventually a DJ did pierce the uncomfortable silence, but it wasn't last week's smartly intertwined assortment of new and old punk rock, but darkwave and cold danceable industrial. This wasn't the loving embrace I had expected. In the harsh fluorescent lighting I chuffed and cleaned my camera lenses, waiting for the first band to start and my fortunes to change.

It was 9:00 when the foursome of Asbury Park's Phantom Power took the stage. Details about the band are fuzzy, but if I had to make a wager, I'd suggest this band has probably not been active very long, and that it's largely a hobby for fathers and husbands who fondly remember the bands they played in during their misspent youths. The demeanour of its players was staid and confident, but no one on stage seemed enthused or hungry. I later found out it was the vocalist's birthday, which shocked me as this did not seem like a jovial evening at all.

Describing the band's sound is a bit of a task. Most of the songs were dark and dense, dwelling in the minor keys. Vocalist and guitarist Joe Nicita's voice is low, full, and round. His guitar, like his vocals, was drenched in reverb. Behind him stood bassist John Mathias whose bass work was nearly invisible, but whose high backing vocals countered Nicita's nicely. For the first song, Domenick Marmorato sat down with his lap steel, adding eerie atmosphere to the composition, when he shifted to electric guitar his mission was still one of colour and not melody. There were no leads or solos, just lots of echo and tremolo from the pedals at his feet. The plodding, fill-free drumming of James Sefheck offered no more rhythmic flair than Mathias's bass.

Although assigning superlatives to the band may be rough, the overall creation was quite nice – particularly the closer "#9" which recalled the relaxed vocal delivery and guitar churn early REM.

While Phantom Power played is curiously long set, the aforementioned toddlers sprinted back and forth across the alleys, occasionally waving to a band member on stage (and sometimes getting a wave back). Mothers beamed at adorable children, and took photos of handsome husbands. When two of the toddlers formed their own circle pit – skipping around in a circle with arms flailing – the spectacle stole most of the audience's focus away from the band. This was a good night out for mommy, daddy, and baby too.

The evening took a sudden, but not entirely unexpected, shift as the next band took the stage. This four band bill felt a lot like two separate two band bills, with two local bands deeply committed to dense guitar rock, and two touring bands (friends of the effervescent promoter) devoted to buoyant synth pop. The two camps couldn't have been more different, yet the bill sent one pair to bookend the other. So now, it was on with the touring acts, and on with the Show.

Boston's Stereo Telescope is vocalist/keyboardist Nikki Dessingue and bassist/guitarist Kurt Schneider. The two stood behind a mysterious assemblage of keyboards, effects, controllers, and computers that may have provided beats, may have controlled the light show, or may have served as the VPN concentrator for a small office that Schneider may manage in his spare time. Dessingue's voice is solid with a pleasant vibrato that adds just enough brass to her vocals to keep them from being clinical. She spent most of the evening leaning over a Korg synthesizer playing melodic leads over the bubbling rhythm tracks, her long hair hanging over her right eye, while her left eye remained exposed to highlight a Bowie-esque makeup glowing under the black lights. When she stepped away from the keyboard, gripped the microphone, and danced, the set was much more entertaining. The small unsynchronised laser light points flitting over her form and the back of the stage was almost hypnotic. Schneider, however, was all business. Although he occasionally fussed with the Roland keyboard that obscured him, most of the set was spent playing either bass or electric guitar in order to flesh out the pre-sequenced backing tracks. Both Schneider and Dessingue addressed their affable audience in a warm, unassuming way, but neither made the set much of an event.

Throughout its 35-minute set, Stereo Telescope drifted pleasantly between '80s synth-pop, the lap pop of the '00s, and timeless pop rock with synths. I preferred the later, and really enjoyed a particularly guitar-focused song near the end of the set, though I didn't catch its title. Unfortunately this high was offset by a dull and lifeless cover of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven." But really, the band was just setting the stage for main attraction Casey Desmond.

After a 15-minute break, the stage was flipped for Casey Desmond, and guitarist Taylor Barefoot. Sure the stage was still lit by black lights mounted to microphone stands and dancing points of laser lights, and still a male guitarist stood to one side while a female vocalist in face paint and spandex stood behind a keyboard on the other, but now the intensity had been turned way up. Principally, Desmond is all show. From her enormous teased out hair, to her pink bustier and exposed black bra, to her elaborate tribal (Ke$ha-esque to be blunt) glowing face paint, everything was a spectacle. While Desmond did manage melody lines from her keyboards, the majority of her time was spent free from the keyboards, dancing, crawling, and seductively cooing at the audience. She's sure of her voice, but electronics provide a sound safety net. A full backing track provided most of of the pounding modern dance pop (Lady Gaga is an obvious touchstone in many ways), with Barefoot contributing notey guitar elements almost as if he were soloing through the band's 50-minute set. Whether it was this posturing, or merely his posture, I was reminded of Steve Stevens's various lead guitar contributions throughout the '90s.

I must confess at this point that I just don't understand how modern pop happens. Where do pop divas come from? I always assumed they fell out of the sky fully formed with no back story (isn't that what Katy Perry would have us believe?). It just seems unfathomable that the enormous circus of Nicki Minaj began small, so seeing Casey Desmond work out her costumes, her makeup, her stage show, in a bowling alley on a Thursday night in Asbury Park, NJ is a bit confusing. Shouldn't this be saved for a giant stage at an arena? It seems so foreign and out of place to me.

That isn't to say that Desmond hasn't already earned adoring fans. While the crowd was definitely varied due to the schizophrenic nature of the bill, there were those who stood far apart from the rest of the rabble. It was easy to identify this crowd as fans from Desmond's national TV appearances on "The Voice." Several were attentive older women who were curious to see a television star in real life, while others were younger men who looked on lasciviously as they took iPhone video of every song. I know from my wife's experiences on Jeopardy that television draws out some odd characters.

At 11:40 Desmond ended her set, cleaned the stage of her gear, and cleared the audience of her fans. Filling the void left by the now-sated hipsters, departing reality TV show fans, and the toddlers who has been scuttled home, was a crowd of professional dive bar inhabitants who had just seeped out of the club's lounge. These were Wreaths' fans. While this influx made sense, the waves that followed were curious. First there was a gaggle of girls in short tight dresses giggling and slurring like they were already on their fourth bar of the night. Following them were a few couples that looked as though they'd logged 3,000 dirt-road miles on a Harley Davidson earlier that day, with another 400,000 logged on their sun-damaged and deeply creviced faces. Does Asbury Lanes have regulars, or do Wreaths just have a bizarrely diverse fan base?

In only ten minutes the five members of Wreaths had assembled on stage, tested their amplifiers, and strung a decorative strand of lights over a keyboard. Korgs and custom lighting are about all Wreaths has in common with the evening's earlier bright and tightly sequenced pop acts. Instead Wreaths was long-winded, brutish, and meandering. Songs developed slowly, sometimes gruellingly so, built to climaxes that hammered their points home, then either moved on to explore other themes, or simply ended abruptly. Elements of psychedelia skirted around minimalist post-rock creating a groove-conscious space rock that very well may cast a net wide enough to ensnare all the characters I witnessed arriving moments earlier. Wreaths are a mysterious lot.

The band's signature is built by the three guitarists that span the front of the stage. The trio eschews complex interplay and instead each guitarist merely serves to amplify the next. Overlapping guitars drift in and out of phase, though an oppressive layer of reverb dominates all choices of tonality. Each of the players also contributes vocals similarly dripping with reverb, similarly eliminating any real nuance from the performances. None of the players at the front of the stage seemed interested in the traditional duties of a front man, instead they collectively brought music to the audience, and let the audience take it from there. Behind this wall of guitar hyperbole sat the ever steady rhythm section. While appropriately content to merely hold the beat for long swaths of time, the duo were most effective when they created tension by either holding the guitarists back, or galloping forward daring them to chase.

Nearly an hour into the set, the band called out to the sound man, asking for a time check, as if determined to claim its right as headliner, despite the curious conditions of the bill. When the final song was played it was nearly 1am, and so I quickly packed my gear and retreated to my rental car. As I drove back to my hotel, away from Asbury Park and its deserted streets and thick salty fog, I wondered about Asbury Lanes. I wondered about its shows and other events, its lanes, and its regulars. All of it seems fractured, and a bit damaged, but I suppose that's home for many of us. Although there are other venues I could visit during my final weeks in New Jersey, I already feel a duty to Asbury Lanes. And I hope I can make another stand with it before my project ends.