March 5, 2014

RAINIS | The Sound and the Flurry: The Music of Ithaca

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People have tons of complaints about Cornell: its remote location, the self-righteous student populace, professors more interested in their research than actually teaching, Denice Cassaro emails and, of course, the weather. But when I overheard the complaint that Cornell’s got no music scene, I was appalled. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Dan Smalls and Cornell Concert Commission, we get big name shows, but, thanks in part to the work of Ithaca Underground and Fanclub Collective, there are some more low-key artists that are making their way around town. Ithaca locals, Ithaca College students and Cornellians alike are making worthwhile music; below, I attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff. Unsurprisingly, there’s lots of wheat.

Yakbak: Cornell’s Yakbak is a cerebral math rock trio that eschew vocals in favor of obtuse time signatures, unhinged finger-tapping exercises and spazzy drum fills. Their songs are clearly labored-over affairs — even the abridged “Kevin! Get Out Of The Cookie Closet!” has segues that must have taken hours to perfect. “Wendy Willi@ms Zombie Apocalypse” has a bit of an eerie, Slint-on-speed post-rock vibe to it before it breaks down into a palm-muted figure that almost tripped me up, much less the drummer. And “Chewbacca Moss” is pure thrash-y joy as guitarist Peter Pillardy ’14 impresses with his versatility, not only switching from dissonant chords to tricky tapping riffs, but dancing upon his pedal settings masterfully. Inventive and at times reckless, Yakbak are a band that offer a lot more than their near-perfect song titles. Catch them at Angry Mom Recordsthis Saturday, and you’ll learn how to count 5/4 measures sooner than you can say “YYZ.”

The Danbees: A quartet that does the ’90s. That may sound like a vague descriptor but makes perfect sense once you listen to them. Songs are titled gruffly and succinctly  (”Satisfied,” “Sober,” “Faded”) or complain directly at you (“Life is Such a Bitch” or “I’m Just Too Young for This”). It’s grungy stuff; one imagines finding a Danbees album lodged in the buzz bin of a mythical ’90s record store. “Life is Such a Bitch” is maudlin and navel-gazing, with a chorus that charitably recalls Matchbox 20 or Third Eye Blind. “San Francisco Nose” fares better, with a shuffle rhythm and an earworm of a riff that finds a middle ground between The Strokes and 311.  The Danbees can undoubtedly get a groove going, but with turgid lyrics (“There was no one there to see me / You know I get a funny feeling / You know she gives me heebie jeebies”) and choruses that thud rather than pop, they’ve yet to hit their stride.

Second Dam: Ithaca College’s own Second Dam, named after that hallowed jumping-off point for fun times during those warm months (remember those?), are an extremely polished product. With intricate string arrangements and powerful lead vocals from IC senior K.C. Weston, they sound like Florence Welch fronting Ra Ra Riot with more judicious instrumentation. The entirety of the 2013 E.P. Swimming is worth a listen: “The SS” stomps along like an assured folk-rock jam ought to, and “Mild, Medium, Hot” has Weston observing that “pleasure gets what pleasure wants,” as her band ebbs and flows between tempered verses, explosive choruses and an intriguing choral coda. Weston is the star, but the band plays to her strengths expertly, never overplaying and adding little hints, like that tremelo-laden organ on “Beat,” that place them in a compact songwriting legacy that goes from the ’60s to The New Pornographers. Keep an eye on Second Dam: you’ll want to be able to say that you saw them before your friends heard of them.

Sammus: Steeped in the mythology of Nintendo heroine Samus Aran, Kanye’s chipmunk soul and the chopped/screwed beats of the Internet’s thriving nerdcore scene, Sammus approaches hip-hop with the intelligence and poise one would expect from a rapper in the midst of pursuing a Ph.D. Her flow on “Nu Black” is relentless, cramming syllables into measures with relative ease; she avoids too much “hashtag” rapping and instead focuses on building momentum. Sammus handles her own production, and its hardly raw talent: from the car-rattling bass of “Free” (which features a pretty excellent “toss my salad” punchline) to the delicate chiptune-meets-Philly Soul of “DL,” she exhibits the crate-digging tendencies and polished taste of a bonafide music obsessive. Some might say Kanye’s influence looms large over her beats, but who hasn’t he influenced? Sammus’ latest, Prime, features a voice prepared for its turn in the spotlight, just waiting for the tides to turn just right.

King Sized Pegasus: King Sized Pegasus don’t need no fancy strings or computers. With nothing more than the sheer will of their vocalist and a ramshackle guitar-drum attack, they make retro-style hardcore that goes best with bloody noses, buzzcuts and very loud exclamations of the phrase “FUCK YOU!” It’s aggressive music that alternates between jumping straight for the jugular and delving into almost self-parodying sarcasm (catch the hilarious, catchy and propulsive “Bad At Math” or the gasoline-as-beverage endorsement of “Orange Juice”). King Sized Pegasus is the sound of sweaty bodies colliding in VFW halls and basements, and I get the feeling that that’s just the way they like it.

Lust: This Cornell-based trio (featuring Sun Cartoonist Santi Slade ’15 on guitar) has fashioned a logo out of a Tide detergent label and dubbed their first E.P. Lust 1, with songs like “Commercial” and “Overstimulate.” If you too were expecting the political art-punk vibes of Wire, you won’t be disappointed: the songs attempt to explore distraction, brand allegiance and “revolution (that) won’t come” with aplomb. The longer songs, including the swaggering “Watching,” play as (admittedly not as hook-packed) tributes to The Pixies. Lust try to cram big ideas into their songs, and while the results vary, it’ll be exciting to see what Lust 2 through 5 have to offer, especially if they start packing more melodic heft into their urgent pleas against the rubbish of modern life.

Chuck Corners: Yeah, this is the guy often seen peddling his wares on the corner outside Collegetown Bagels. I was amped to review Cum Get Sum, Get It All, but it was scratched while buried somewhere in the deep recesses of my backpack. Luckily, he’s got some tracks on the interwebs. Don’t dismiss this dude: he may lack Sammus’ graduate-level wordplay, but on songs like “Drive Slow” and “Hateful World,” his braggadocious flow and beats do an admirable job at replicating radio-ready opulence. Rappers who talk about how hard they grind, as Corners does on “Hateful World,” often set off our skeptic alarms — are you really grinding, good sir? — but seeing someone like Chuck actually pushing their C.D. in-person on an unsuspecting Collegetown populace serves as a potent reminder of hip-hop’s hard-nosed roots. Give Chuck a listen; he might just surprise you.