Kids and Animals and the Dictates of Harmony

Taking the stage at the Crocodile last night in front of a healthy crowd of friends and curiosity seekers, the members of Kids and Animals appeared something of a mess.

Young and unkempt, wearing mismatching uniforms of carelessness, the Seattle quintet began their set — opening for Skeletons with Flesh on Them — with the muffled recording of a man's voice, perhaps a newscaster of yesteryear, leading into the song "Backyard" from the band's self-released full-length album.

The scratchy recording that led into the song, filled with meditations on the passing of beautiful, carefree days, harkened to a similar archived recording found on the bridge of Death Cab for Cutie's "President of What" from Something About Airplanes. It wasn't surprising; not because the band sounds anything like the Northwest indie rock stalwarts — it doesn't — but because the strength of Kids and Animals is in the influence that the band pulls from some of the most successful Northwest indie rock bands of the last fifteen years. The sonic patterns perfected by bands like Built to Spill and, more clearly, Modest Mouse, propel Kids and Animals' most stirring songs, including the band's standout "Dirty City." It is the strength of that song — also from the band's debut, and currently on regular rotation at KEXP — that piqued my curiosity and led me to the Crocodile last night....

"Dirty City" is a barnburner of a song filled with shifts in pace, emotion and tempo that provoke both adrenaline and nostalgia, a formula for success. But the performance, as heard on record and on the radio, is problematic. The song's apex is an emphatic, clarion chorus of, "God said let the light/ make you beautiful all right/ and god dammit it was so." Delivered with triumphant force, it is an undeniable moment of musical might. But it is a moment with no afterglow, as a series of discordant "oooohs," bereft of any sense of harmony, destroys the illusion of a united front. It is painful, the sort of sore, bloodied thumb in a song that signifies one of two things: that the band leader has a tin ear, or that this is a group of friends that thinks they are running the band as a democracy, but missing the critical voice of true leadership, are not really running it at all.

Delivered with triumphant force, it is an undeniable moment of musical might. But it is a moment with no afterglow, as a series of discordant "oooohs," bereft of any sense of harmony, destroys the illusion of a united front.

On stage at the Crocodile the band put on an energetic, if messy, set, filled with powerful moments of uninhibited performance peppered with the errant notes expected from untested musicians. Throughout melodic instrumentals reminiscent of Built to Spill's Doug Martsch's compositions and impassioned wails recalling Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock, the band shone. The show bordered on infectious. Still, the inability of the band to harmonize continually crippled the songs. If not for the example of "Dirty City," such missteps could be chalked up to sub par sound engineering. For a time, it was possible to entertain that idea.... 

Then, near the end of the set, Leland Corley — who sings lead vocals while playing guitar and sometimes keyboard — introduced "Dirty City." The band lit into it with knowledge of the song's greatness. Like the opening to any musical triumph should, those first measures cleared all memory of what had come before and laid the groundwork for the moment that the song's emphatic chorus would grip the audience. "God said let the light/ make you beautiful all right," sang the young men on the stage, "and god dammit it was so." And then, like clockwork, the discord arrived.

And this is where this review becomes difficult to deliver. I had hoped to discern the problem, to proffer some advice to Kids and Animals, to tell Corley to reign in his crew, ditch democracy and be the type of dictatorial leader — like Brock and Martsch — who controls a band bordering on chaos and pushes it to the next level. I was prepared to identify the seeming culprit with the off-key delivery and demand that his mic be rescinded. I did identify him. It was guitarist Alex Robkin who delivered those cringe-worthy notes. But during my post-show research I discovered something unexpected: Robkin is more than the guitarist; he is the primary songwriter credited with writing "Dirty City." And I am left with a difficult question that Kids and Animals must answer: How do you tell the man who wrote your best song to stop singing it?

My apologies for not reviewing headliners Skeletons with Flesh on Them. Skeletons, I promise to review your next show; just contact me with a time and date at markb (at) cityartsmagazine (dot) com.

Photo by Chona Kasinger