Music Review: 88er @ TJ Leland’s 1/16/16

The stage at TJ Leland’s.

Before 88er took the stage at TJ Leland’s last night, I was discussing genre and influences, about how any given band, no matter how individual or unique-sounding, is the result of the various inspirations that came before and helped shape their musical sensibilities. Anyone who produces art of any kind didn’t come into being out of nothing; they are shaped by, and in turn shape, the environment they spring from.

And that’s one of the best parts about Pittsburg’s music scene today: there are few, if any, “purist” bands who traffic in a single, unadulterated genre. Everybody dabbles in a whole mess of styles, playing off of and sharing with one another, and it has produced a vibrant ecosystem of bands and musicians. It’s impossible to be bored by the variety of genre permutations on display here, a musical Darwinian paradise of sorts.

In that way, the Lawrence-based three-piece 88er fits right in with most everything getting played live around here, though they stand out by openly courting emo, which is not a style being played a great deal in Pittsburg in 2016. They do so mostly through singer and guitarist Jack Kevin Proctor’s singing style and lyrics; he kind-of-talks, kind-of-sings, occasionally yells with emotion. There’s a hint of the sardonic, though he never sneers–there’s too much emotional turmoil for that. Most of their songs are about collapsing relationships or loneliness or social anxiety, and Proctor’s voice, set front and center in the mix, bears the message well.

But as I said, they aren’t purists, so it’s emo tinged with lots of other things–a sort of do-whatever indie spirit; an angular guitar style that recalls, say, early Bloc Party; and a punk tendency to careen into bursts of ferocity. It’s a well-coordinated act, veering back and forth between calm and cacophony, often with hairpin-turn precision. It’s satisfying and jarring and keeps you from getting too comfortable. There are some pleasant moments, too, where they exercise restraint, and even though things sound like they could come unglued at any minute–the guitars are a little fuzzy, the drums skitter on the verge of all-out attack–they resist the urge to totally let loose.

But when they do cut loose–and do they ever, with frequency–it’s all the more enjoyable because of those moments of measured delivery. Alix Sterling’s bass is a nimble propeller that thrums along, surging in intensity as they hit those crescendos. Drummer Russ Jones provides the mechanism for all those gear shifts in tempo and mood within each song, rarely entering into what could be called a “driving” beat, but lending the necessary force with a surprising amount of dexterity–there are these insane kick-drum and cymbal fills that energize the chaos.

They offer some genuine surprises, too, such as the choice to open with a rendition of Ray Parker, Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” theme, and closing with a fuzzed-out surf-rock jam. These only fortify the sense of playful exploration that flouts genre expectations, while creating a wild and cathartic experience for listeners. And it’s exactly that sort of experience that packs a music venue, and which drives people, whatever their inspiration, to make music in the first place.

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