Silversun Hiccups Get Schooled

School of Seven Bells

I googled “silversun hiccups” just to make sure I wasn’t ripping off another writer, and it turns out, the not-so-affectionate pet name has been used a few times over the years. There’s even a blog called Silversun Hiccups but it hasn’t been updated in five years, so I’m not worried about stepping on any web-toes. So I’m throwing caution to the wind and using it in my title. I’m wild like that.

Context, right. Forgive me.

Malkin Bowl is one of those great or brutal venues to play. If the weather’s on your side, enough people show up (an issue for openers, mainly), and your music works in an open-air setting, you’re all set. Otherwise, it can suck – it rains, you get wet, you get cold, etc. Luckily, the often fickle weather gods of Vancouver smiled upon School of Seven Bells last Tuesday. Despite a seemingly thin crowd (which I honestly think is simply due to the wealth of comfy areas to spread out and lounge) and daylight (which I realize is a weird gripe, but I really think School is best experienced in a dark club), the Brooklyn foursome put on an electric, raw performance that would end up making them the easy winners that of the night.

My first thought when I saw the group on stage was “Huh… they’re a band,” which you wouldn’t think would be a revelation, but listening to Ghostory (released this year, one of my leader-of-the-pack favourite albums for 2012), I always imagined a DJ and a female singer, and that’s it. This, actually, is partly true. School is led by Alejandra Dehaza (vocals, guitar) and Benjamin Curtis (bass, guitar); they’ve added a drummer and keyboardist to fill out the live sound. I never bothered to get stats on who they actually were or where they were from before the show, because I just didn’t care – the music was fantastic, in the truest sense of the word, and that was enough for me.

Somehow this band manages to effectively transmit their layered, synth-heavy, dream/electro-pop to a live setting almost flawlessly. Take “Scavenger” for instance – on the album, this album boasts a slick-and-thick yet crystal clear production that creates an audible, atmospheric space that you can swim in, a space that you think is only possible on your fancy headphones or home stereo. Yet somehow, School pulls this off to a T live. Better yet, it has a new, raw quality when experienced live (as with any well-executed live performance). The lyrics to this dreamy beast of a dance tune really stand out thanks to the palpable, melancholic condemnation in Deheza’s vocal delivery – “You took me like a drug / To make you feel love / To make you feel wanted / To make you feel fine / To make you feel like / I made you feel something / ‘Cause you can feel nothing”. Ouch.

“Low Times” is also reinvented live, as the forceful kick/snare/kick/snare drum and synth beat and cascading chorus are followed by starry interludes then fuzzy, huge, enveloping synth passages that incite a visceral response and make me pine for the dark and sweaty confines of an intimate, low-ceilinged club where the bass is in your gut and your head is in the clouds. The heaviness of this particular song live, with its layers and aggressive volume, borders on something that might be a new spin on noise-rock.

Granted, a lot of the group’s signature sound can be attributed to the synth beats and textures, but in the end, it really only is a piece of the greater whole. Alejandra Deheza’s pretty and care-free, singing-while-doing-housework vocals provide a beautifully mellow yet terribly sexy trail to follow throughout all the songs. She asks someone in “The Night”, “Do you feel the same without me, darling?” in a way that prompts you to ask the same to your own former someone. With a frenzied, high-paced beat supporting it, her words and sweet voice make for catchy, substantial dance-and-sigh music that’s easy to devour. Benjamin Curtis’ switch-hitting on the bass and guitar is nothing to sneeze at either. With the help of his pedals and precise playing, his strings provide another unique, atmospheric facet to their overall sound.

On Tuesday afternoon, before arriving at Malkin Bowl, I’d heard the guys from 99.3 The Fox joking about how they were getting Silversun Pickups’ frontman Brian Aubert drunk on Skyy vodka at Monk’s. I had the mildest of chuckles at the notion.

Well, the boys from the Fox were not lying. Aubert whispered, yelped and stumbled his way through a woeful mess of a set that didn’t provide much in terms of… what’re the words… ah, yes – good music. True, I can’t call myself a fan of his vocal stylings in the first place; I find it affected and… well, it just doesn’t do it for me. But, before arriving at the Bowl, I figured – to each their own. Let’s give this guy a fair shake. Who knows, maybe I’ll like it more live.

So much for that idea. I could talk about the drunken, lazy whispers of the opening “Skin Graph”, or the following “There’s No Secrets This Year” [sic!] and Aubert’s jarring, all-over-the-road volume and style changes, or his demented squeal that could only come from a botched, drooling Billy Corrigan clone. “Hi errbody, we’re Serversern Piggubs…”, said the poet. I could talk about all those things. I have enough material here to make this review a two-parter. But you know what? I won’t bother. Let’s try and wrap this up.

For fans of the band, I don’t know what to tell you… They played “Gunshy Sunshine” for the first time ever; it was awful. The played all the hits… Aubert was more off-key than he was on… What else… Oh! Someone yelled “Slayer!” from behind the fence I was sitting near, that made me laugh quite a bit… The drunk (and plausibly tone-deaf) folks near the front of the stage had the time of their lives, apparently… perhaps they were also at Monk’s earlier in the day… That’s pretty much it. Oh, also – this is one of the worst performances I’ve ever witnessed and I hope to never see them again.

In closing, I offer sincere congratulations to Nikki Monninger and her incoming twins. Her being on stage, playing solid bass and displaying her nice, underused voice, all while tolerating Aubert’s buffoonery and musical butchery are reasons enough for applause. Fin.