Chastity Belt and the Promising Future of the American Underground

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The Seattle-based rock band Chastity Belt made its second Denver appearance at Dryer Plug Studios over the weekend. (The first was in 2013, when the group played with Pony Time at Rhinoceropolis.) This time, at least half the band members discarded their shoes while performing. The way the they interacted with each other, clearly enjoying the moment, smiling and being caught up in the songs, gave the performance an informal quality. And yet that seemingly carefree attitude also stemmed from an underlying confidence in the music and the connection between the musicians.

There were some familiar references. You might have been reminded of “Marquee Moon” during “Joke” or of Electrelane throughout. A breezy, energetic delicacy informed the simple yet intricate guitar work, and Julia Shapiro's deep, earthy voice articulated personal truths perfectly, with a fascinating combination of melancholy and hopefulness. Gretchen Grimm and Annie Truscott kept what could otherwise be ethereal melodies moving and bouncing, resulting in songs that brimmed with life. Seeing the group work in tandem toward this effect, with Shapiro and Lydia Lund trading off single note leads and rhythm, made the show engulfing. A lot of rock music isn't multi-dimensional by design. Chastity Belt's performance illustrated how its own music has natural depth.

The local openers also displayed unconventional depth of field in sound. The three-piece version of Cop Circles with Luke Leavitt on keytar and vocals, Luke Thinnes on synth and Ben Donehower on bass with Dryer Plug Studios head and sound man Chad Saxton triggering beats made for sounds coming in unexpected ways from unexpected directions. Leavitt's nearly off tune and emotionally amped vocals, combined with his and Thinnes different ranges of synth and Donehower's smooth yet funky and heavy bass lines, were somehow both confrontational and playful. The way Thinnes and Leavitt played off each other was not unlike the way Shapiro and Lund did on guitar.
Male Blonding's angular, atmospheric post-punk was reminiscent of Women, early Strokes, Comsat Angels, Wire and Gang of Four. And Bryce Navin and Noah Simon, as was seen later in Chastity Belt's performance, could link together as guitarists with simple, inspired repetition. This would have been impossible if Andrew Bair and Mike Perkins weren't the perfect counterpoint to make the songs move with an almost mechanical grace. None of the three bands sounded alike, beyond some tenuous mutual connection to early post-punk and no-wave, yet the structural similarities were stiking in a way you don't often see at many shows. Stylistically similar line-ups happen all the time, but this one felt like seeing a glimpse of good things to come in an American underground music. It wasn't all bands in the same subgenre, but they were all creative in their use of layered songwriting.

Critic’s Notebook

Bias: I got to see Electrelane open for Le Tigre in 2005 and was really impressed with the way that band layered its sounds between guitars and Chastity Belt does this extremely well too in an unexpectedly powerful way.

Random Detail: Ran into former Radio 1190 Local Shakedown host Amy Moore-Shipley and Julio Alejandro of Spacesuits For Indians at the show.

By the Way: Three band bills are pretty much the perfect length for a show.

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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