|Written by Dante Murphy|
Making good music, it's like tightrope walking. Probably. What do I know, I'm not in the circus. But one thing's sure, all of the best music I know is well balanced. Sometimes that's a balance between loud and soft, sometimes between fast and slow. In the case of The Nigthcaps, the balance is between post-beat groove and melodic structure, highlighting the soulful and evocative singing of Theresa Hannam and the musicianship of this Seattle-based combo equally.
The Nightcaps started out on the indie rock circuit, recording their first 7-inch single on the Sub-Pop label that brought us grunge gods Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden. And while the differences in the output of these groups is too obvious to mention, the aesthetic that led them to swim against the current was the same. The rockers did it with shabby clothes and deafening volume; The Nightcaps did it with groove.
Following the release of the I Don't Like You single on Sub-Pop, the group started Rendezvous Recordings and released their debut full-length CD, Split. Starting off with the kinetic "Get Up and Leave", the band demonstrates mastery of go-go jazz, racing to a near-apocalyptic ending of wailing sax and railing guitar. Not to worry, though; vocalist Hannam holds tight the reins with strong, serpentine singing that is the enduring impression of this collection.
The strolling rhythm of "The Touch of Evil" is the first hint of how sultry this band can be. Understated conga percussion from John Broeckel is the pulse, the hollow reverb of guitarist Garth Brandenburg the whisper, the beat-era bass of Robert Fucci is the walk...and the wiggle in it at the same time. Drummer Dan Cuneen hides in the shadows, delivering more feel than sound, an appropriate compositional choice.
While the pervasive vibe is loungy cool, Split runs the gamut of moods. "Open Wide" is a toe-tapping lay-back of cozy, mellow, sensuality, while the frenetic "You Lied" squeezes out empowered anger between proto-rock and a jazzy hard place. Few singers can convey any one emotion as well as Hannam does the mixture of hope, regret, and barely-tethered fury.
Wherever I start on this collection, invariably I end up in "Thrillsville". This is the Hope Diamond in a groove-laden treasure chest, full of shiver-me-timbers sultriness, from Hannam's smoky vocals all the way down to Fucci's rubber-band bass. Guest musician Brian Hartman adds a plaintive, softly howling saxophone, somewhere between a purr and a growl.
Get On, the group's swan song, sees a significant change in the tone and character of the lyrics, which are heavily centered in a blues idiom. The instrumentation remains jazzy in tempo, tone, and arrangement, and the juxtaposition is a soulful, balanced collection.
Like Split, the group's sophomore release starts with an uptempo groove, "He Got Me Back", led by the fat-reverb sound of guitarist Brandenburg. The lineup changes slightly, as original member William Herzog is back on bass and Morrie Gold's keyboards replace the saxophone work on their first release.
"Wallflower" borders on psychedelic lounge, mingling a meandering organ with a driving, funky bass. Taking this juxtaposition to a higher plane is the always stellar singing of vocalist Hannam, this time blending melody with power to deliver a truly sublime sound.
Y a-t-il quelque chose plus magnifique qu'une chanson chantée en français? Perhaps, but “50 ¢ Millionaire” makes a strong case for la plus belle. This soulful groove and the inherent sultriness of the French language really sizzle, a magical blend of understated instrumentation and emotionally powerful vocals.
Pianist Morrie Gold really shines on "What Else Can I Say", trilling ably between the gentle tick-tock of Cuneen's drumming and Hannam's mellifluous warble. Other highlights include the very dance-able "Chasin' a Ghost" and the lava-lamp simmer of "Solitaire". All told, this collection leaves the listener wanting "Five Minutes More", especially if those minutes are filled with this in-threes cocktail serenade.
Both albums are spectacular—modern testaments to the power, gift, and beauty of music. Raise a glass to The Nightcaps!