The first time I laid ears and eyes on Los Angeles quartet War Tapes, I thought to myself, "Now this is a band that's going somewhere!"
Ultra-chic and unabashedly dramatic, their debut disc, The Continental Divide, has all the ingredients for success:
• A brooding, pathos-splashing baritone vocalist who croons every syllable with the oversize gravitas of Orson Welles — with lines like "All day long I sit and communicate with the dead / Corpse that I call my girlfriend" — and still somehow pulls off the trick of making it all sound desperately profound rather than silly.
The Marquee Theatre in Tempe
War Tapes are scheduled to perform on Thursday, July 30.
• Stately, widescreen guitar riffs that occasionally veer off into shoegazing, atmospheric explosions but remained anchored by an expertly solid and propulsive rhythm section.
• Little-girlish backing coos that haunt the bleak edges.
• Dollops of synthesizer borrowed liberally from Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me-era Cure, and here-and-there stylistic nods to the Mission U.K., Sisters of Mercy, Modern English, Doves, Cranes, and Morrissey.
• Nü-Romantic hooks that aren't simply radio-friendly — they eagerly hump radio's leg, especially War Tapes' killer lead single "Dreaming of You."
On top of that, there are the press photos: Invariably clad in black, with asymmetrical haircuts framing their head-slightly-down, forlorn puppy-dog-eyes-aimed-at-the-camera expressions, or their sideways glances at the outside world coming down on them like a Thomas Hardy novel, perfectly articulating their self-described "heart-quaking doom-pop" vibe. Yow!!
Put together, it's the stuff that compels the black-eyeliner-and-interminable-despair set to scrawl the War Tapes logo on the back of their notebooks or etch it into their pale skin. Or at least pay good cash money to see War Tapes play live, singing along to every tortured lyric alongside the other not-quite-so-angsty folk drawn to the foursome's catchy, arresting tunes, keeping the band in the black.
And then I read up on the quartet and realized they seem to have fallen victim to one of the all-time classic blunders. No, not getting involved in a land war in Asia, or going in against a Sicilian when death is on the line, but having a brother and sister (frontman Neil Popkin and singer-bassist Becca Popkin) in the band. It's a recipe for disaster! Think of the bro/sis combos in music history. If we're not talking premature death (The Carpenters), we're talking groups whose music gets progressively suckier with every release (Fiery Furnaces), groups that go on "indefinite hiatus" just when things are finally going well (The Knife), and groups who can no longer buy a fan no matter how good their musical output (Cowboy Junkies).
In fact, with only a few exceptions — Radiohead, Kings of Leon (though there's still time) — bands featuring siblings in general are a bad idea. Think of all the various calamities — from death to scandal to plummeting careers and more — that have plagued The Jackson 5, Pantera, The Allman Brothers, The Stooges, The Andrews Sisters, Hanson, Oasis, The Bee Gees . . . the list goes on. It's no coincidence that of the top 25 best-selling albums of all time, only one was made by a band that includes siblings: Back in Black, by AC/DC. And they paid for it with Bon Scott's life.
With these troubling thoughts in mind, I rang up War Tapes' Becca Popkin. Fortunately, she assured me that they're all in fine health, they have no plans to split up, they feel like their best work is ahead of them, and, "With Neil, there's that history and that bond that's inseparable, but we all consider ourselves to be one big family at this point — there's really no difference between me and Neil and anyone else in the band as far as our relationships."
But what of those infamous sibling squabbles: You're not gonna stab your bro in the chest with a fork, à la Ray Davies, and he's not gonna call you "a fucking idiot" in the press, à la Noel Gallagher?
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Laughs Becca, "No matter what we fight about, I'm still gonna sit down with him at Thanksgiving dinner. This is family — there's something stronger there. We have our moments where we get along great and everything, and we also have our moments where there's some tension. Not like the Gallagher brothers or anything. But it definitely creates a really good energy in the band. If it was too lovey-dovey all the time, or too angry all the time, our band would suffer for it. We have that balance, so it's cool."
And what of the strange fates that always seem to befall sibling bands?
"Well, what can you do, you know? I guess we'll just try to be careful."
Whew. Maybe they are going somewhere, after all!