The problem with supergroups is one guy does his songs, another guy does his songs, and what you wind up with is a diffused patchwork of widely different styles on the same album. The center, as a famous Irishman once said, cannot hold. Take Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. David Crosby contributed his big dumb hippie ode “Almost Cut My Hair,” (“Oh my God, tragedy nearly averted!”) to CSN&Y while Graham Nash gave us “Our House”—a song so utterly banal that I believe that it was personally responsible for the Fall of Saigon.
But Divine Fits—who played at the 9:30 Club Thursday night—miraculously get it right. The alt-rock supergroup—its members include Britt Daniel of Spoon, Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade (on indefinite hiatus) and the Handsome Furs (defunct), and Sam Brown of the New Bomb Turks—have somehow come up with a seamless LP of songs on A Thing Called Divine Fits, on Merge Records.
Theirs is 1 sound, not 2, not 43. Daniels does his songs and Boeckner does his, but they mesh perfectly. One mystery: Alex Fischel plays keyboards and synths all over A Thing Called Divine Fits, and he played live at the 9:30 Club Thursday night as well. So why doesn’t he show up in any of the band photos or line-ups of the group? Is he not superstar enough? Is he the Man Without a Country? All I know is that his contributions are integral to the sound of the Divine Fits, and he deserves acknowledgement.
Washington DC’s own Cane and the Sticks opened for the Divine Fits with an excellent set of barnburners. Cane and the Sticks is a three-piece, with Peter Hayes on guitar and vocals, Arthur Noll—a friend of mine—on bass, and Liz DeRoche on drums. They opened with “Freak of Nature,”a bluesy hand grenade of a song with a big bottom, followed it with “Jump Off the Boat,” a faster and more melodic tune, and followed that with “Feels Alright,” a really snappy number with the bass and drums locked into a tight groove that made me think—I’m not kidding, LaRoche hits those drums hard—of John Bonham and John Paul Jones.
Hayes played a gritty guitar throughout—although he modulated it for “Bounced,” with its catchy riff, and “Baby’s Brain,” an almost power poppish number where Hayes and LaRoche sang together. On the furious “Mind Stop” Noll kicked ass, and on show closer “10 Foot Mark,” Hayes played a truly vicious guitar riff and the band stopped and started before descending into beautiful noise. It was an ideal showcase for a young band with the right stuff, and I look forward to hearing more of their bottom-heavy groove in the future.
With that the Divine Fits took the stage, and Daniel and Boeckner traded bass and guitar through the set, along with vocals. They played all the tracks off of A Thing Called Divine Fits, opening with “Neopolitan,” a slow and hypnotic ode to dreams with an irresistible keyboard figure, basic drumming, and a simple guitar part that speeded up with some simple guitar strumming that verged on the magical before coming to an abrupt stop. They followed “Neopolitan” with “Baby Get Worse,” a catchy and minimalist number where both Boeckner and Daniel took turns singing and Fischel played a deliriously catchy synthpop keyboard riff that brought the 80s back in all their dubious glory.
“Flaggin a Ride”—a paean to hitchhiking, which doesn’t everybody know by now is dangerous?—featured a simple drum riff, a repetitive bass line, and a funky guitar figure that underpinned Daniel’s efforts to “get to Providence, no matter the cost.” The Divine Fits then followed this deceptively simple number with “The Salton Sea,” a syncopated synth-driven and fast-paced number with a mournful chorus that featured Daniel repeating “In my heart.” They ended with a brief jam, and some lugubrious synth, before abruptly cutting the song short.
“What Gets You Alone” was by far the fastest number of the night, a drum showpiece with a slow middle section where Boeckner sings, “I’ll never never know/What gets you alone” before some gorgeous keyboard comes in and they return to the race to the finish with a brief fuzz-guitar jam. The Divine Fits then turned to the slow and simple “Civilian Stripes,” a basic guitar-driven song with Boeckner singing and Fischel playing some cool keyboard figures behind him. It was one of the simplest songs of the set and one of the best.
With that they turned to the night’s shocker, a cover of R&B and rap singer Frank Ocean’s “Lost.” The crowd laughed as Daniel sang “Double D, big full breasts on my baby,” but soon got caught up in Daniel’s earnest treatment of the tune. With both Boeckner and Daniel on guitars and Fischel laying some major keyboards over it all, the tune delighted the audience.
Boeckner played no instrument on the midtempo and very synthpoppish “My Love Is Real,” the single off the album and a catchy love song that definitely brings the 80s back to ghoulish life. Boeckner crooned, he sprawled on the floor, and generally played the anguished lover for all it was worth while Fischel played a synth that recalled New Order.
After that the band played another cover, this time of the Rolling Stones’ “Sway.” With both Daniel and Boeckner on guitar, and the two of them taking turns singing, they brought new life to a great song, giving it the reverential treatment and generally playing Jagger and Richards for all they were worth.
The band then played Daniel’s “Ice Cream,” a funky number that featured Daniel singing “I could have taken all summer, she waited for me like ice cream.” A syncopated beat was transformed by Fischel’s keyboards, which got dissonant before the song ended. Daniel also sang “Would That Not Be Nice,” with its big bottom and funky bass line. “I wish I was in Minneapolis” sang Daniel, echoing nobody else’s opinion, before the chorus with its sinuous synth line came in. It was one of the highlights of the show, along with the song that followed, “For Your Heart.” Another synthesizer-driven number, it featured Boeckner on guitar—Daniel briefly left the stage—and was so catchy you wanted to take it home with you. “Up all night, I walk the ceiling,” sang Boeckner, before Daniel returned to the stage and the two of them engaged in some guitar heroics while Boeckner crooned “You’d better tell me why/You keep me searching in the dark/For your heart.”
With that the band left and returned for an encore. The first tune was a generally uninspired and overly reverential treatment of Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky.” A straight-up cover, it failed to transcend the original in any way. The second encore was “Shivers” off A Thing Called Divine Fits, a superb cover of the The Boys Next Door (Nick Cave’s first band) song written by the late Roland Stuart Howard. (I owe this piece of esoteric knowledge to an Asian woman and her boyfriend, who stood beside me throughout the show, larding me with facts about the Fits.) A moody Lou Reedish number that caused controversy with its opening line “I’ve been contemplating suicide/but it doesn’t really suit my style,” “Shiver” featured Daniel singing, guitar flourishes by Boeckner, and a crescendo that had Boeckner playing freakout guitar on his knees in a daunting example of sonic mayhem.
With that the band left the stage, and I was left with a feeling that I’d seen something special. These guys are going places, and not just Minneapolis. Let’s just hope they avoid the hitchhiking; there are lots of serial killers out there.
Photos: Erica Bruce