TVD Live: The Growlers at the Black Cat, 1/22

Emo equals death. I’ve known this for decades, since DC bands like Rites of Spring spewed sincerity all over the stage and in so doing spawned a seemingly infinite number of cringingly earnest bands that simply had to tell you how they really feel. Diary-entry rock: what an utterly demoralizing development. Oscar Wilde once said, “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” The incomparable Oscar was, as usual, spot on. Someday scientists will recognize earnestness as an untreatable illness, like Mad Cow disease or yoga, and I say all this to explain why, while I was supposed to review emocore band Hot Water Music at the 9:30 Club, I begged off to review The Growlers at the Black Cat that same night instead.

What happened was simply this: to prep myself for Hot Water Music’s gig, I sat down and listened to several hours’ worth of their tunes. It turned out to be a harrowing experience, far more painful and much longer lasting than the time that Dr. Josef Mengele Jr. at Gettysburg Hospital abruptly yanked–without providing advance warning–a nasogastric tube from my stomach via my left nostril. True, Hot Water Music aren’t a heart-on-sleeve weepfest of a band; they’re simply an admirably tight emo-punk outfit devoid of anything even remotely resembling a sense of humor. Can’t blame them, I suppose—the poor souls probably suffer from an irony deficiency—but still, I strongly suspected that two hours in their angst-filled company would inspire me to find a way to gnaw my own ears off.

On the other hand, it took me but six minutes and seven seconds to realize that The Growlers were my cup of mirth. That was exactly how long it took to listen to the hilarious combination of mariachi horns and denial that is “Gay Thoughts.” Then I checked out their “Drinking Song for Kids”–nothing heartfelt about that–and I was hooked. Ditto “Something Someone Jr.” (“I haven’t read an outline/On how to pass youth/Rather than get passed/I pass doobs”).

No way was I going to miss these guys for Hot Water Music.

How best to sum up the music of The Growlers, a band of surfer dudes from Costa Mesa, Orange County? They’ve dubbed what they do “Beach Goth.” I would describe it as a lo-fi salmagundi of surf, country, and psychedelia prepared in Timothy Leary’s kitchenette, with blues and Hawaiian spices thrown in, then garnished with a liberal dollop of strong halluncinogens. The Growlers have released three full-lengths—2009’s Are You In or Are You Out, 2010’s Hot Tropics, and Hung at Heart, which dropped the day they played the Black Cat. There’s also the mysterious GREATEST sHITS, which may or may not exist on some astral plane other than YouTube.

It goes without saying that the Growlers are a whimsical, but occasionally fatalistic (hence the Goth in Beach Goth) lot. They have a yen for outrageous stage costumes and used to tour in a dilapidated bus they’d dubbed Fursure in homage to Furthur, the psychedelic bus driven by Neal Cassady for those intrepid trippers, Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. This combination of the dark and the surreal brings us back–I haven’t had the opportunity to peek in their medicine cabinet–to the probable influence of LSD on both their songs and their view of the world. Suffice it to say that their tune “Acid Rain” is not about the dangers of fossil fuel combustion. And it’s true that there’s nothing like acid to teach one to accept both the dark as well as the light.

But what I like best about The Growlers is their highly developed sense of the absurd, which is well demonstrated in songs like “Use Me For Your Eggs” and “Barnacle Beat” (“I’m a go down to the carnival street/Stand on my hands and smoke with my feet”). Then there’s the video for “What It Is,” which they did in blackface. Oh, and let’s not forget the total lark that is “Soul Train,” nine minutes of carnival organ, odd percussion, and indecipherable vocals that probably has Don Cornelius spinning in his groovy grave. And here’s the bio on their website: “The Growlers are a rock and pop group formed in Long Beach California in 2006 who are yet to become one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed bands in the history of popular music. During their years of stardom yet to come, the band consists of Brooks Nielson (vocals), Scott Montoya (drums), Matt Taylor (lead guitar), Anthony Braun Perry (bass), and Kyle Straka (keyboards, guitar).”

I showed up at the Black Cat’s packed backstage on Tuesday night expecting to have fun, and ended up having the time of my life. The Growlers wore no outrageous costumes, just thrift shop hippie wear, and wasted no time in opening their set with one of my favorite tunes off Hung at Heart, the fifties-friendly “Someday,” a perky and romantic number with a chipper guitar line and the wonderful “Oh, oh someday/When bubbles turn into champagne/And baloney turns into steak.” They then moved onto the fast-paced and catchy “What It Is,” with its breezy and reverb-heavy surf guitar and cool organ figures; “Acid Rain,” with its great bass intro, perky guitar, and happy-go-trippy lyrics (“Last night I dreamed that it rained/And nobody complained/And when it quit no one was ever the same”); and “Drinkin the Juice Blues,” which boasted a nasty cool guitar riff, a propulsive rhythm section, and some great organ, not to mention a set of bizarre lyrics that went something like, “Yuhashama weed yuhashama/Yuhashama weed yuhashama.”

And of course The Growlers played “Gay Thoughts,” an ode to orientation disorientation (“I try to stop all these/Gay thoughts and feelings/I don’t know where they come from”) which set the crowd to bouncing and didn’t lose anything by its lack of mariachi horns. They also sped through the insanely catchy “People Don’t Change Blues” (“Change/People don’t change/ You still gotta lotta drugs to do”). “Row” was another crowd pleaser with its great opening riff, funky drumming, twisted psychedelic guitar, and lines like “Virgin lands with sandy lips/Open arms with perky tits.” As was the quietly romantic “Naked Kids, which incorporated a prominent bass line and a guiet, deceptively lazy-sounding guitar solo by Taylor (the king of the laid-back guitar solo that somehow works). Then there was the Mexicali blues “The Graveyard’s Full,” a brief, uptempo number that complained, “The graveyard’s full/We’re running out of dirt/But we can use the bones/To build another church.”

The slowish “Modern Bummer Blues,” with its changes in tempo and happening psychedelic guitar riff, was followed by “Badlands,” which utilized western guitar and quick tempo changes to produce a kind of aural spaghetti western. Then there was “Wandering Eyes,” a slow-burner featuring psychedelic guitar and the cynical opening lines, “I tell you I’ll never leave you/If you believe me/Then it’s your fault.” “Old Cold River” was a psychedelic country number with a great echoing guitar and shifting tempos, while “I Met You in the Past” (aka “Empty Bones”)—one of several numbers The Growlers played off the mysterious GREATEST sHITS—boasted a propulsive beat, some funky surf-western guitar, and Nilsson singing into two microphones at once to achieve some eerie vocal distortion.

The slow, succubus-themed “Wet Dreams,” which featured low-key guitar and hilariously mournful vocals by Nilsson (“When you’re lying in my arms/She’s still tugging on my dick”) was followed by a pair of should-be hits from Hung at Heart, “Living in a Memory” and “One Million Lovers.” The former, a plea to forget a former lover featuring acoustic guitar and country western drumming, had Nilsson reminiscing about “making love stronger than drugs,” while the romantic “One Million Lovers” made do with some fancy organ work, another somnolent but effective solo by Taylor, and the acid-friendly line, “You know you’re livin’/When it all becomes a blur.”

The Growlers then performed “In Between,” a band anthem of sorts featuring shards of feedback, drumming that was much heavier than on the record, and a summation of their lifestyle (“We don’t want to live like you/Not square, not hippie/And not like you/We just want to live in between”) before closing the show—much to my delight–with “Sea Lion Goth Blues,” which boasted a really hip surf guitar line, lightning tempo changes, and some rather morbid lyrics (“Sea lions have 8 lives and/ I’ve gone through 9/And I don’t want to die”).

What can I say? Some stick-in-the-muds would have it that music is no joke. I say let them eat Dashboard Confessional. I believe that all of life is a joke, and the punchline is unspeakable. Like that weird flute-playing guy from Jethro Tull we’re all skating away on the thin ice of a new day, and it behooves us to laugh as loud and hard as we can at the absurdity of our fate. It’s said that emo fans wept uncontrollably at Rites of Spring shows; I cried once at a Doobie Brothers show, but it was out of sheer agony. There’s a time for everything, and the time for weeping is called a funeral.

Me, I believe The Growlers get this, and it’s what separates them from Hot Water Music. Let’s face it–laughter is the essence of being human; without it we might as well be sardines. And Great Killdozer’s Ghost, that goes doubly for music. Ken Kesey once said, “You can’t really be strong until you see the funny side of things.” The Dictators, Cows, Patti Smith (just joshing, she’s a shaman!!), the Beastie Boys, and now The Growlers have all produced wonderful music that does just that. So my advice to all you emo kids is to heed the words of Camper Van Beethoven: “You know, you really shouldn’t take yourself so seriously/If you want to know why/It’s ’cause no one else does/Somewhere along the line someone told you/You were deep and sensitive/But you’re not/But you’re not.”

To conclude, let us never forget the words of that sage Brandon Flowers: “Are we human or are we dancer?” Me no dancer, me human. I know, because that’s one of the most hilarious lines I’ve heard in years.

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  • Martijn

    This man Michael H. Little is just getting better & better!

  • Martijn

    This man Michael H. Little is just getting better & better!

  • Martijn

    This man Michael H. Little is just getting better & better!

  • Martijn

    This man Michael H. Little is just getting better & better!

  • Martijn

    This man Michael H. Little is just getting better & better!

  • Martijn

    This man Michael H. Little is just getting better & better!

  • dan_oz

    “Irony deficiency” Unfortunately it’s reached near plague proportions.
     If only there were a blood test for I.D.

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