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Vertical Scratchers: Dynamic Soundscapes, Psychedelic Influences, and Left-of-Center Melodies

John Schmersal of Vertical Scratchers.
John Schmersal of Vertical Scratchers.
Merge Records

Vertical Scratchers come with one helluva goddamn resume. John Schmersal is a former member of '90s synthpunk luminaries Brainiac (and Enon and Crooks on Tape and a touring member of Caribou, but who's keeping track?), and partner Christian Beaulieu has put in his time with Triclops! and Anywhere. Their debut album Daughter of Everything was released by the venerable North Carolina label Merge just a few weeks ago, and features a guest spot from Guided by Voices' frontman Robert Pollard.

All of which is reason enough to pick up their LP or check them out when they hit up the Hard Rock Cafe as part of the Viva PHX festival on Friday, March 7.

But -- and this sucks -- it makes it just as easy for some listeners to dismiss them, too. "Veteran musician" too often is conflated with "coasting on former glories," and the concern that the folks behind the record aren't doing something new or exciting. That concern here, though, is criminally misplaced.

Schmersal and Beaulieu seem reenergized in each other's company, and the brevity and urgency of the Daughter of Everything fifteen tracks sounds like the work of people who have just discovered a taste for snappy, hooky, slightly left-of-center melody.

To be sure, the guest spot from the irrepressible and ageless Robert Pollard seems like no accident. The Vertical Scratchers' efforts recall a slightly better-produced Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes-era Guided by Voices in the best possible way: a million ideas crammed into two minutes of song, as influenced by late sixties British psychedelia as they are Wire-brand punk.  

The guitar work steals the show again and again (that early versions of the album mail out with a Vertical Scratchers guitar pick seems perfectly suited to Daughter of Everything's sound), and Schmersal seems more interested in writing a straightforward pop-rock song than he has in most of his recent efforts.

It's a pretty dynamic soundscape that suits them well, allowing for the relatively quiet and introspective "U Dug Us All" and the hazy "Rainbows" alongside the snappier album-opener, "Wait No Longer." Beaulieu favors the hi-hat as much as Schmersal digs easy chords, but they're able to stretch the garage pop format left and right. More importantly, though, it bodes well for the live show.

Schmersal has discussed the band's live approach as wanting to keep things organic and simple, no small consideration given his previous efforts, which tend toward complicated, eclectic, and produced.

It's quirk, I guess, but quirk that doesn't feel like an outfit the band is merely trying on. For two guys who've played in so many different bands, and with so many different approaches to song, the Vertical Scratchers somehow sounds like it's the sound they've both been wanting to make all along. To say that the band sounds like the work of much younger musicians misses its precision, or perhaps more accurately its ability to sound ramshackle while still being precise as fuck.

Vertical Scratchers are scheduled to perform at Hard Rock Café on Friday, March 7, at Viva PHX. Tickets are $20.

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