While waiting for Acrylics to play at Mercury Lounge, a young woman all New York’d up in tight black leggings and a leather jacket and still cuter than Shirley Temple wrestling Thumper mounts the stage with an acoustic guitar. Two guys in dark clothes and hiking boots, the short one in a ball cap, the tall one sporting a dark raft of greasy hair, set up equipment around her. Christ, I think, stagehands for an unknown band on a Wednesday night at Mercury? And during a recession!
Then one of them says “welcome” and they start into a song. The woman, Molly Shea, has a dusky, unaffected but moving voice and catchy songs. Still, this band template, Star and The Other Dudes, well, we’ve seen it before. The tall guy, Travis Rosenberg, who I’d assume handled the male vocals, knocks out a couple of killer lines on pedal steel but hardly opens his mouth. Then the short guy, Jason Klauber, takes lead vocals on “Lil Ivy,” a number about a young woman vanishing into a series of bad decisions in a voice both larger and older than his person, his voice cracking without having to fish for emotion, completely lost in the song. A-ha.
Acrylics is not the DIY indie collective/freak folk/synth punk ensemble you’re supposed to love for its eclectic esotericism or esoteric eclecticism. At first listen, there’s little astonishing about the band. There’s no ukulele or washtub bass or Theremin orchestra; live, there’s no cult of positivity, no mandatory audience participation dancing and no coordinated costumes. The band is closer to the pop band you might hear on the radio in a rental car and not turn off because you’re in traffic and then wind up thinking, holy shit, this band has some songs that are actually bopping-around-in-your-underwear great.
Acrylics’ official discography is limited to a five-song EP, All of The Fire, that was recorded in Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor’s church studio and released on his label, Terrible Records, but the band has several promising other tracks online which will presumably appear on an upcoming full length. Though the songs are daringly pared down to their essentials at Mercury, with just voices and guitars, recorded, they’re fully realized with live drums, layers of burbling synths and cinematic washes of reverb. The band must be omnivorous listeners with no limiting aesthetic as there is no undisguised hero-worship or narrow genre excursions. It’s a cohesive, unified effort but you can discern the voices of two powerful songwriters with distinct but complimentary visions. And married to their gliding melodies and hooky choruses are some stark, urgent lyrics. They sound like disco Neil Young or maybe a heartbroken ABBA. “Sparrow Song” from the band’s MySpace page seems to astutely lift both its production and arrangement from Chris De Burgh’s classic mid-eighties jam “Lady In Red” and still somehow remain sincere. You could say Acrylics sounds like ‘70s cocaine soft rock icons Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac except that it doesn’t suck at all. It ain’t country—despite his Nashville pedigree, multi-instrumentalist and pedal steel secret weapon Rosenberg isn’t sifting through the dumpster behind the Grand Ole Opry for leftover licks. If it’s dance music, it brings meaning to dancing beyond just moving your body.
When I meet up with the band members, they stomp into a bar bundled against the cold like serious children in earnest preparation for a snow fight. When, their drinks in hand, they settle in to talk about what they were up to, we kept returning to “the song”—they speak about it as if it is the older, beloved and respected bandleader who had just stepped out of the room and they are just the backing band, protecting and supporting the aims of the song. They talk enthusiastically about the Townes Van Zandt documentary Be Here to Love Me and his work, his music and the sacrifices he made. They fess up to being inexperienced when it comes to touring but speak quickly and enthusiastically about hitting the road in the spring for South by Southwest and traveling as much as possible in support of their music. For an unknown band, living on the road means forgoing all earthly comforts in search of transcendence that’s over in three and a half minutes. The writing equivalent of being a touring musician would be driving around with an 80-pound typewriter in your trunk for six, eight, 10 hours in order to type for 45 minutes a night. Was that something that Acrylics is willing to do? Yes.
After Acrylics down farewell shots of whiskey and traipse out into the night, I recall a line from the song “Lil Ivy.” The spunky heroine, despite her determination to live her dreams, still scuttles her future through weakness, finally submitting to anonymity. But Klauber sings ‘I’ll remember who she was for who she might have been,” restores her to her moment of greatest potential, renewing her open destiny.
Acrylics has great voices, hooks to spare and, for now, the fickle stamp of indie approval. The band also appears to have guts and spirit and a specific nave hope about the transformative power of song, all of which will serve it well down the line. Which is great, as it appears to be among the lucky few with the long, good, hard road ahead.
Jan. 23, Knitting Factory, 361 Metropolitan Ave., (at Havemeyer St.), Brookyln, 347-529-6696; 7, $10.