PAPA Swims in the Shallow End

As someone who loves to root for the underdog, I’ve always felt that there was an injustice in people showing up late for a show because they had only heard of the headlining band. Sure, opening bands usually suck in comparison to the main event, but do audiences ever stop to wonder if maybe the reason why opening bands suck might be because music listeners are psychics?

I’m actually more serious than I sound, but I need to get off the soapbox and get on with the review.

The scene at The Electric Owl this past Thursday perpetrated the previously described injustice as the curtain drew for openers Wardell. An L.A.-based indie-pop band, Wardell is primarily driven by the sibling songwriting duo of Theo (guitar) and Sasha Spielberg (lead vocals). (By the way, the answer to the question you’re thinking of is, “yes”.) Their style appropriately fit the tone of the night, which was essentially just a fun night out. Their songs – I’m tempted to use the term “ditties” – are fairly well crafted and enjoyable, and the band performed tightly. If anyone had cared to, they would have found some good beats to dance to. What I found lacking was some sense of drama or intensity. A dash of heartfelt emotion, quirky novelty, or intellectual interest would have made the material jump out a little more and grab our attention.

On the other hand, there was an undeniable element of visual drama when it came to Sasha. Here was a woman who wore her sexuality with a confidence which is both engaging and… ehh, I’ll say it: a little bit comical. By judgment, she managed to exert at least enough hip-swaying, shoulder-shaking, chest-touching energy to make up for the static character of the music – not to mention her choice of a khaki jumpsuit as her onstage attire. I’m by no means condemning Wardell; in fact they’ll have my attention next time I hear of them. I just hope they can provoke more thought in me than, “I wonder just how ‘accidental’ her wardrobe malfunctions were.”

By the time PAPA took the stage though, the room had significantly filled out, and it soon became clear why all these people had showed up. Drummer/lead singer Darren Weiss immediately endeared himself to the crowd by running around the room with a string of bells, frothing up the excitement for what was about to go down. The rhythm section was tight, loud, and grooving. Much of the audience had come to dance, and dance they did. While the songs certainly have some melodic interest, the truest value of PAPA’s music is as a rock’n’roll band in the proper sense, making music meant to “drive people crazy out of their heads and into their bodies” (in the words of John Sinclair, a loud-mouthed idiot from the ’60s). They accomplished that goal with passion and polished musicianship.

Yet, again, there were issues which kept me from subjectively getting into the show, even if objectively it was terrific. PAPA’s music is part of a trend in indie culture which values authenticity very highly: unironic, positivist, and aggressively under-analyzed authenticity. Names for this trend include Post-Postmodernism, New Sincerity, and Pseudo-Modernism. Whatever you call it, it’s an attempt to get away from cynicism and pretentiousness. It’s about being real and, as a rule, optimistic. I would be grossly unfair to call it blindly optimistic or anti-intellectual. There is an element which a healthy balance of negative and positive can provide. That all-important element is depth. When a work of art is unbalanced between negativity and positivity, it loses its right to a lasting place in a person’s life. Speaking to hope is pointless without fear. Joy without pain is too easy. And even fun loses its value when there’s no difficulty. The positive needs the negative for it to mean anything.

Maybe we lost a lot of the balance in not hearing the vocals clearly enough to catch the lyrics. Maybe some profoundly masterful poetry exists there, betraying the lightness of the music with a worldly sense of sadness or sardonic humor. Maybe. But as it stands, I have to call the music as I see it: fun, positive, and well-performed, yet ultimately a little shallow. No lives were changed that day.