TVD Live: Minor Alps
at the Black Cat, 11/19

On Tuesday night backstage at the Black Cat, Juliana Hatfield and Matthews Caws, performing as their new act Minor Alps, treated fans to beautiful new tracks along with some ’90s nostalgia.

Both Hatfield and Caws have a long history in alternative indie rock and pop. Hatfield is best known for her role in the alt rock band Blake Babies, which reached its peak in the late ’80s, as well as her work as a solo artist and with the Juliana Hatfield Three. For nearly the past twenty years, Caws has fronted rock band Nada Surf.

Minor Alps came together naturally, an experiment after Caws and Hatfield guest recorded on each others’ albums and were pleased with how it turned out. But while the origin might have been natural, the process of making the record seems incredibly deliberate. The two co-wrote all 11 songs on their debut Get There, and played nearly all of the instruments as well. While today’s audiences are well versed in acts led or heavily supported by male and female singers harmonizing (see: the xx, Arcade Fire, The Head the Heart), Caws and Hatfield take a different approach with Minor Alps. On nearly every track, they sing together, their voices fusing instead of creating harmonies.

On stage, Hatfield and Caws were comfortable, if a little awkward. Hatfield is tiny and incredibly unassuming, and Caws looks like a slightly cooler version of your dad. Their live show was sparse, Caws on guitar, Hatfield on guitar and synthesizer. No back up band, no lighting, no set or backdrop. There was a little banter between songs, but it reminded me more of unseasoned artists at an open mic trying to figure out what to say while they tuned as opposed to seasoned rock stars. Both are clearly more comfortable while singing than when talking.

The audience filled the venue, but it was definitely a different scene than the backstage of the Black Cat normally sees on a Tuesday night. The crowd was older, with not an insignificant number of people that were probably in their prime in the ’90s, looking to relive their memories of seeing Blake Babies or Nada Surf in their prime. I spotted a few un-ironic mustaches paired with leather jackets, and quite a few pairs of white New Balance sneakers dancing along to the music.

But while the artists are older (and so might be their fans), their voices and talent have thrived over time. Hatfield still sounds a little girlish and naïve, while Caws’s voice retains the fullness and strength that it’s always had. Live, Minor Alps’ best songs are the numbers that highlight the melding of their voices, like the sparse “Maxon.” Toward the beginning of the set, they played a slower, more deliberate version of “If I Wanted Trouble.” Hatfield’s face reflected the feeling of every lyric, as if she was reliving the song’s pain.

Interspersed with songs from their new album were a few Nada Surf numbers or Hatfield’s solo music. On some of these, like “Candy Wrappers,” off of Hatfield’s 2011 album There’s Always Another Girl, the two played the song in the style of a Minor Alps song – singing together, with no indication of who originally wrote or recorded it. On others, she or he took the lead, providing a welcome variance from the consistency of songs on Get There. Hatfield soloed on Blake Babies’s “Out There,” injecting some teenage angst into the more seasoned pop of Minor Alps. As expected, the crowd perked up when Caws started in on Nada Surf’s hit, “Inside of Love” mid-way through the set, with Hatfield and the audience singing along on the chorus.

While there were certainly moments of beauty and moments of welcomed nostalgia, the set left me wanting more. The show would have benefited from a full band – not that it was needed on every track, but the songs that are more complex would have been significantly more listenable with live instruments instead of pre-recorded backing music. Instead, it only underscored the somewhat amateur, coffee house feel of the show – even while the album is thoughtful and mature.

Hatfield and Caws have already talked about needing to go back to their other music projects – we know Minor Alps will never be their full time gig. But with such a strong start, I hope that, on occasion, they will revisit this project and come back around soon, with a live band providing the back up they deserve to their beautiful pop melodies.

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  • ChrisO1

    I agree completely that a live band would have helped greatly.  With 2 people mostly strumming chords thoughout the show, the sound definitely wore thin after a little shile.  Not being a decades-long fan of either member, I couldn’t wait around for something familiar.  The only song I recognized was “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Hands”, which was streaming somewhere, maybe the Black Cat’s site.  That song in particular could have used that live band.


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