This is how much I love Brakes, a.k.a, Brakesbrakesbrakes (in accordance with some agreement with a U.S. band of the same name who threatened to sue): I'm willing to head out to one of my most loathed venues just to see their first live appearance in San Francisco. The choice is, of course, entirely mine, but I reserve the right to grouse about it.
Brakesbrakesbrakes, Popscene, May 31, 2007: I can't mention Brakes (much less get my head around that U.S. appellation) without invoking the burning love I carry for Eamon's earlier band, British Sea Power. Back then, Eamon was the percussionist who sat at the back of the stage, often wearing a funny hat. He at first seemed reticent and maybe a little awkward, but he'd upturn your expectations later by bursting into the audience in a drum-banging fervor unmatched by even the Energizer Bunny. Who could guess he was waiting for the chance to unleash his inner singer-songwriter?
Listening to Brakes' two albums, you'd be hard-pressed to find a connection to British Sea Power, aside from the tongue-in-cheek lyrics (sample lines: "You know the girl from Sleater-Kinney/You said you couldn't understand/Why it was that she continues to play/When she was earning only 10 grand PA"). Whereas British Sea Power favors ambitious, arching epics, good luck finding a Brakes song that tops the two-minute mark.
To that end, they've certainly nailed the fast/punk angle, though they can also handle a wider range, turning in some pastoral tunes, a significant debt to classic American country and western, a Jesus and Mary Chain cover, and plain ol' indie pop, topped with a hearty dose of oblique but pointed political criticism. This slapdash mix was established on the first album, but it came to a finer point on their second release, which absolutely, wholeheartedly won me over.
Before the show began, an older gentleman (the tour manager?) ventured onstage with some items: the handwritten setlists and a pineapple. It wasn't the foliage that decorated a British Sea Power setup, but unlike those random fronds and branches, the fresh produce served a real purpose, as we'd later discover.
The band launched into their nearly 20-song set with a bracing, speedy, and loud selection of tunes before easing into the more leisurely (relatively speaking) titles. "Cheney" was so popular--and short--that they did it twice, and the pineapple made an appearance before its namesake song, "Porcupine or Pineapple" (there was no sign of the other title character). After issuing a warning/invitation, Tom (the band's guitarist) threw the pineapple into the crowd, then apologized to the person it may have hit. All through the set, Eamon offered short and not very enlightening explanations for the songs; apparently, many of them were inspired by growing up in the country.
As a frontman, Eamon came through better than I expected; in terms of verbosity, he has his former bandmates beat, at least. His intensity was impossible to discount, and the veins on his neck, visibly raised, were especially jarring to view. The facial hair was more alarming, and it brought to mind Stephen Malkmus's recent repudiation of the razor. Oy.
The rest of the band comprised a incongruous cross-section of musical and stylistic camps: Tom, the guitarist, somewhat louche and dandified; Marc, the bass player in a slacker-style Western shirt; and Alex on drums, looking something like a skater, in his SpongeBob t-shirt. They were nowhere near as apoplectic as Eamon, but they kicked up the intensity as needed. Just as important, they seemed to be having a good time, and they even got in a dig against the U.S. band that happens to share their name.
It's a rarity when I like an album better than the live performance, but as much as I love Brakes' CDs, the band's energy couldn't quite fill out the show. The brief bursts of songs never felt like a coherent set, though I can see why the band would assume those tunes would work best in front of unfamiliar club audiences. More surprisingly, they tackled far too few of the more melodic songs that might have bridged and complemented those two-chord wonders. I wanted very badly for them to wow me. They were certainly entertaining, but they fell short of hooking me forever. With any luck, though, I'll be able to give them another chance.
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