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Swordfish Guitars, Mutant Bluegrass, and Major Sideburns

September 8, 2008

The Extraordinaires | Image by City Paper Digi-Cam

Every listing, flier, and poster advertising we’ve found for Wednesday night’s show at the Ottobar only mentioned three bands, sometimes with the addendum “and guests.” So we have no idea who the fourth band was onstage when we entered the club. But it was pretty damn good, reminding us of a less theatrical Shudder to Think, and it’s a shame we can’t praise them by name. The three bands that were announced on the bill, the Extraordinaires, the Art Department, and Microwave Background, however, were nice, too.

Philadelphia’s the Extraordinaires were a visually striking quintet, fronted by a guy with an Eraserhead-style brick of curly hair on top of his head who played a guitar shaped like a swordfish. And the songs were almost as memorable, with loose, rollicking rhythms and big, hollering sea-shanty choruses that kept crashing into abrupt and disorienting song structures. The addition of the unnamed fourth band to the bill meant that the venue was giving some bands the bum’s rush to get their set over with as quickly as possible, and the Extraordinaires appeared annoyed with the compromise, but made the most of their brief stage time.

Somehow, though, the Extraordinaires’ charming affectations were no match for the band that followed, local trio the Art Department. The three musicians huddled together closely toward the drum kit, the guitarist and bassist almost turning their backs to the audience while playing nimble, interlocking patterns. Meanwhile, the drummer played slight variations on the same tightly wound, insistent oom-pah beat for almost every song, while singing in unison with the guitarist, in a very high and a very deep voice, respectively, and never quite harmonizing. Every song seemed to end in under two minutes, with another beginning almost instantly afterward, and the cycle seemed to repeat a couple dozen times during the band’s set. The most accessible tune out of the bunch featured an impenetrable chorus about actor Dennis Quaid. Musically, the closest reference point we can think of is the mutant bluegrass of the Meat Puppets’ earliest records. But even that comparison doesn’t quite do justice to the fact that the Art Department was one of the most inscrutable and idiosyncratic bands we’ve seen in a while.

The headliners didn’t have it easy, following a band as strange and well received as the Art Department. But we probably would’ve been bored by Microwave Background either way. The band appeared to be cobbled together from guys from three different bands: a singer/guitarist with major sideburns and a droning voice, an energetic, curly-haired bassist who kept popping incongruously goofy funk licks between the band’s monotonous songs, and an unnerving drummer who always seemed to be in danger of losing the beat, or even forgetting where his drums were, and throwing his sticks in the wrong direction. But their awkwardness and eccentricity were the unpleasant kind, not the oddly captivating sort that the other bands on the bill achieved earlier that night.

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