Typical Tempe guitar-rock isn't so typical anymore. Not if a recent twin bill featuring Gloritone and Sleepwalker is any indication. The Saturday-night Nita's Hideaway show on May 9 was an eye-opener in a variety of ways, a series of mini-epiphanies that featured some of the same, a lot of the new and a healthy indication that the local music scene is maturing just fine.
Indeed, that a band like Sleepwalker even exists is heartening. The sounds that fly from this three-piece mood group are far removed from the jingle-jangle pop and bar-band power chords that pump from most speakers around town. Sleepwalker is a more sonically startling beast, its slow, meditative songs constructed by way of singer/bassist Jamal Rule (who used to be in One), the equally expressive drumming of Darren Henley (ex of Boontree) and, most notably, the striking, otherworldly pedal-steel swoons of guitarist Jon Rauhouse, who also plays with the neocountry act Grievous Angels. It's an experienced, confident lineup, as evident in the way nothing is hurried, the way tasty licks are allowed to play and reverberate and die, all in good time. The result is a wondrously deliberate form of minimalism, a contemplative soundtrack of melodies pocked with little galaxies of empty spaces.
This is not the kind of thing you tend to hear at smoky Tempe bars on Saturday nights. But Sleepwalker, playing just its third show ever, carefully uncorked its sound at a crowded Nita's, where the band used the evening to celebrate the release of its new CD, The Man in the Moon, on Hayden's Ferry Records. ("We're selling CDs back by the john," Rule offered for the uninitiated.)
With the logistics of free enterprise duly noted, the show, like the disc, started with "Kidding," a measured, ethereal tune led by Rule's nicely trained vocals and Rauhouse's meandering pedal-steel. The mix was initially heavy on the bass, but the sound straightened itself out in time for the next song, a pseudo-industrial tint on the old standard "Shenandoah."
Sleepwalker's take on the tune was highlighted by Rauhouse's textured tones careening across the familiar melody like slow, fuzzy lightning. It shouldn't have worked--not the song selection, not its audio deconstruction--but art happened nonetheless, as it did again a short time later on a similarly skewed cover of "Don't Stop Believin'," the heretofore entirely forgettable Journey hit. The song was a birthday present for a friend of the band, and the weird but loving way it was performed succeeded in entertaining those who appreciated the effort (raised cigarette lighters accompanied Rauhouse's note-perfect solo) while keeping the lesser-amused from getting too nauseous.
Innovative stabs at known songs notwithstanding, Sleepwalker is very much an original act. As a nod to potential influences, "Out of Here," one of the band's best songs, offered a slight hint with its patient, near ambient tracks recalling the restless muses from the once influential 4AD import label. Indeed, when Rule sang alongside his band's evocative instrumentation, it sounded like the best stuff Dead Can Dance never did.
"Out of Here" was followed by "Please," which closed out Sleepwalker's 11-song set on yet another psychotic traipse around gradually stretched synapses. "Bruises are still sore/No one's keeping score/But I've been wrong before," Rule sang as the intermittently attentive audience watched Rauhouse pluck lazy circles from his guitar. By the end of song, Rule's vocals rose to impressive, impassioned levels, the sheer force of his screams steering toward to a strong finish. The man can definitely sing.
And Sleepwalker is a definite musical force. Artists often go to extremes to find new ways of expression. The results usually wind up so painfully self-conscious that little is made relevant to anyone beyond the performers' own ears. Sleepwalker takes the right kinds of chances, making for an inclusive sense of adventurousness. Here's hoping the band gets out more often.
Gloritone gets out quite a bit, so much so that the band's appearance at Nita's was its last before taking a monthlong break. The band members better enjoy the time off. Gloritone's major label debut, Cup Runneth Over, on RCA subsidiary Kneeling Elephant Records, has a national-release date set for the end of June (it's already available locally). Considering the strength of the CD's rock 'n' pop material, the band should be busy for quite a while.
Gloritone certainly looked the part of future alt-rock heroes at Nita's. Lanky front man Tim Anthonise ambled around the stage in suitable slacker garb, his long, black hair hygienically challenged and winning a game of hide and seek with his face. Bassist Nick Scropos added a backward baseball cap and facial hair to a similarly untucked look, and drummer Dan Lancelot, casually dressed, seemed lost in concentration behind his kit.
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Anthonise began the set by quickly thanking the crowd and a local radio station that sponsored the show and gave away free tickets. He then turned, nodded and led the band into a rousing version of "Flying Kites," a straight-up, tuneful pop-rocker and one of the better efforts on Cup Runneth Over. The mix, again, took time to catch up with the sound, leaving Anthonise precariously close to air-guitar status. But the appropriate soundboard knobs were twisted and readied for the next song, "Cut My Heart," and its spilling of herky-jerky, New Wavey tempos. Still, even with the better sound, "Cut My Heart" wound up the least convincing of Gloritone's material, mostly because its disjointed schematic of a quirky melody followed by a fluid chorus sounded like an experiment, as if Anthonise decidedly mixed up his song style to keep the set list from sounding too similar. It was one of the few times Gloritone came off like a young band still feeling around for an identity.
Momentum was restored thanks to nice versions of slower songs, like the archly introspective "Walking Dead" ("In your room the candles burn/Still I see you haven't learned/To lie"), and "When Grey Skies Come," a wonderful, sideways ballad replete with trippy swirls and shadings. Things continued to pick up as the band burned through "Broken Arrow," a straight-ahead pop-chugger in which Anthonise copped a few Perry Farrell sing/shout inflections, Scropos pitched in with well-placed back-up vocals and Lancelot admirably bashed along. The evening later hit its highest point on the back-to-back sure hits "John Wayne" and "Halfway." Both songs are radio-ready monsters on disc, and the band translated the tunes live with a requisite dollop of gusto. "Halfway," already getting airplay around town, surged on a fast track, its pop smarts including an instantly memorable guitar intro and a short, sharp chorus. "John Wayne" came off even better, its wistful vocals and guitar escort reminiscent of the old Brit-pop band the Records. "John Wayne" also showed Anthonise as a capable teller of tales in describing a chase to keep a special someone from seeing a special something, with Anthonise singing of "speeding to the scene/Like a movie with John Wayne."
Gloritone's songs are especially effective in the way they sneak up on you. Anthonise writes material that's heavy on repetition and dependent on subtle hooks that hang long and loose off major chords, a sound that invites revisits. He's also a disciple of the Cobain/Corgan school of dynamics, in which passages are allowed to drag so as to make for an extra umph when things kick back in. A good example on the CD is "9 Summers," which the band didn't play live; a good example during the show was "Bird," which the band didn't include on the CD. "Bird" was the last song of the set and made for a nice exit, with Anthonise's guitar chords in full chime and the band in comfortable overdrive.
The evening ended with a sense of wanting more--a feeling prompted in part by Gloritone's 13-song performance wrapping up well before last call. But the encore mood was also the result of watching a promising band maturing by the measure. Gloritone could well be the Valley's top pop export of the summer (though the Pharaohs may have something to say about that). In any event, keep an eye on Anthonise and his pals. They're the real deal.