Last Friday night, Castaway’s featured a three band line-up including the eclectic indie-pop stylings of Exit Clov. The D.C.-based band has recently expanded their touring radius with the release of their latest E.P. “Respond, Respond.” With the delicate lead vocals of twins Emily and Susan Hsu, backed by agitated harmonies and a dance-inducing drum and bass beat, the quintet has earned a name for itself in successfully fusing unlikely elements. It’s a shame there was no one in the bar at the time actually excited to see it.
Castaway’s was not an ideal venue for the band that night. The opening band, Smothered in Argyle, and the final band, Customdriver, were mismatched. The line-up was not well thought out and seemed thrown together haphazardly. Wedged clumsily between the other bands, Exit Clov performed for an criminally spare crowd. The largest group of warm bodies was a group of patrons who clung to their drinks at the bar, unresponsive to any form of entertainment. A few migrated towards the stage but chose to keep their distance. Still, the band started their set with the energy and enthusiasm befitting a far more crowded and eager audience.
Exit Clov’s set served as to demonstrate that all of the positive hype the group has received has been deserved. Although it was only about 30 minutes long, the set was solid and well-constructed, with little down time between songs or instrument changes. A catchy synth introduced their first song, “#1 Hits,” a sugar-smothered tune that set the mood for the rest of the show. However upbeat their songs were, Exit Clov is not a band that can be dismissed as frivolous pop. They managed to add legitimacy and significance to their music through their musicianship, their energy, unity and the weighty themes of their lyrics.
One way to add complexity to pop basics is technical skill, and this quintet knows how to play their instruments. The twins’ airy voices formed floating harmonies that were even more impressive live. In addition to singing, they played guitar, keyboard, violin, and cowbell in a demonstration of fluid multi-tasking. Guitarist Aaron
Leeder cycled through effects and distortions, complementing the edgy beats. Between rhythmic whistle solos and the occasional back-up shouting from the guys, the band proved adept at combining the standard instrumental indie-pop music with extra sounds to enhance the overall performance.
Though Exit Clov is clearly talented, the most endearing aspect of their performance was the unity and enthusiasm they displayed on stage. Leeder danced and joked with drummer John Thayer, while bassist Brett Niederman occasionally whispered into his keyboardist’s ear as she smiled and suppressed her laughs in order to sing. The band members seemed comfortable with one another, and lacked that distant nonchalance that some bands possess. For Exit Clov, even a thinly crowded bar in Ithaca, New York was not just another show but an opportunity to perform. They gave the impression that they enjoyed being on stage together and that they were excited to perform and share what they had to say. This is a vital quality in a band because the positive and friendly atmosphere on stage was contagious.
Beneath the sets laughing, upbeat energy was an undercurrent of angst. During the cheerful “#1 Hits,” the twin vocals harmonized “Get ‘em young while they’re dumb/ California to East Coast/You’ll all go down” revealing a socially charged facet of their music. While Exit Clov’s lyrics are sometimes playful, they are often politically loaded. The biting lyrics of “#1 Hits” provide only one example of the band’s politics. A more discreet protest was a sticker on the drum set that read, “A true patriot questions our lying government.” Their set didn’t stop with politics, however. It also featured a critique of popular culture with lines like “Mr. Music Police, is my art O.K?” Their opinion on music criticism and the harsh music culture was apparent.
In today’s volatile political atmosphere it is easy for a band to absorb the powerful emotions of the day and incorporate them into their music. Choosing sides in both political and social issues seems to be a convenient necessity in music. It’s either inherent in the writing process, or inserted in music to make a point. Either way, it often goes wrong. The public usually draws a line for work that is too political or too critical, although some revel in the negativity. Whatever the tally is between bands that succeed in their politics and bands that do not, with their witty and at times coy and playful criticism of politics and popular culture, Exit Clov is heading in the right direction.