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November 10, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Phantogram and Cymbals Eat Guitars keep Barsuk fest rolling | Concert review

Cymbals Eat Guitars

Cymbals Eat Guitars, pictured, played Saturday as part of Barsuk Records’ 15th anniversary weekend. Photo by Josh Goleman.

Saturday at Neumos, Seattle’s mousy masses huddled for a third and penultimate night celebrating 15 years for Barsuk Records, the little local label that could.

Where the first two shows in the weekend-long series honored Barsuk’s veteran acts, Saturday was about up-and-comers, showcasing six groups who each drew their own fans and left with new ones.

Thursday’s stellar Showbox appearance from homegrown superstars Death Cab for Cutie, while reaffirming the label’s importance, emphasized its need for a new flagship band — and in the buzzed-about Phantogram, it may have one.

The upstate New Yorkers’ set Saturday, however, indicated it’s a bit early to anoint them Death Cab’s successors.

Had Phantogram been active when Barsuk began, critics might’ve called its nocturnal nü-indie “trip-hop.” Yet where that style — Portishead, and the like — thrived off subtlety, this quartet is bombastic.

From a sultry coo to a commanding caterwaul, frontwoman Sarah Barthel sings like she means it — and knows how to work a crowd.

But the group was forcefully loud, cranking synthesizers and preprogrammed beats to 11, obscuring the melodies. It was ostentatious, overusing strobe lights and smoke machines. And late, playing half an hour behind schedule.

Phantogram is a shrewd signing — the festival’s hottest ticket, and perhaps Barsuk’s link to the next generation. They sold out The Showbox three weeks ago, and Neumos followed suit immediately after they were added.

Saturday’s performance just seemed like part of a different show, a jarring shift after hours of the label’s trademark buttoned-up indie-rock.

With five records under its belt, Menomena played elder statesmen. The Portland art-popsters’ moniker may or may not be a Muppets homage — say it fast — but hard-hitting drummer Danny Seim showed Animal instincts, shaking his mane, leaping from his throne and giving the band’s willfully weird songs — and music store’s worth of instruments — a certain recklessness.

Cymbals Eat Guitars provided the evening’s most intriguing set. The suburban New York outfit signed to Barsuk after its critically-heralded 2009 debut “Why There Are Mountains,” only to have its second — better — album, 2011’s “Lenses Alien,” flop.

In test-driving all-new material, singer-guitarist Joseph d’Agostino came off wryly defensive. “Do you think that song could be on the radio?” he asked the audience after a particularly noisy number.

Maybe. The foursome’s shape-shifting riff-rock was as melodic as it was enigmatic, d’Agostino twisting falsetto yelps into full-bodied howls and meditative strums into effects-laden crescendos — like a younger, angstier Doug Martsch, from Built to Spill.

Cymbals is still unpolished, but played like a band with something to prove — Saturday’s sleeper pick, for sure. Barsuk would be wise to keep them on board.

Brooklyn’s Yellow Ostrich was the best of the rest, marrying heavily accented polyrhythms to barbershop-quartet harmonies and agile, jazzy guitars.

Chicago’s Maps & Atlases covered Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” with aplomb, but its originals — part math-rock, part worldbeat — felt restrained.

Dressed Seattle formal in a sportcoat, slacks and tennis shoes, mustachioed local Eric Elbogen’s Say Hi opened with a brief set of shy-guy synth-pop.

Barsuk’s quinceañera winds down Sunday with a pair of Ballard shows. First, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, Rocky Votolato (of Waxwing) and Laura Gibson — plus special guests — play The Tractor, then Ra Ra Riot and Aqueduct soft-rock The Sunset.

Comments | More in Rock/Pop | Topics: Barsuk Records, indie-rock, Neumos


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