So it was with curiosity on Friday night that we swung by UC San Diego
--we were already in the neighborhood--to see OC trio Pop Noir
open up a mini music festival headlined by Junior Boys
and Delta Spirit
To be clear, Pop Noir is
a band that'd like to make it big. The bio on their MySpace says it all
, placing emphasis on their bona fides as up-and-comers: opening for national buzzcatchers (the Wombats, Doves, Sebastien Tellier), releasing a single through tastemaking online label RCRD LBL, landing their songs onto sundry iPhone apps and movie soundtracks. So you can understand why they'd be psyched to play the UCSD gig, which provided an opportunity to earn some new fans while adding two more big names to the "bands we've opened for" list.
On Friday, they took to the stage in the late-late-afternoon sun around 7:20, facing a small lawn scattered with maybe three dozen students, huddled in clusters, nearly all with hands in hoodie pockets. Curious kids, bored kids, kids who, you imagine, have a couple hours to kill between dining-hall dinner and the start of weekend shenanigans. Towards the middle of the field stood three dudes of identical height, each wearing flannel button-downs of a different color and looking preemptively skeptical of whatever was about to happen on stage. If Pop Noir could entertain them, we thought, then, well, they'd have won the night.
Shaggy haired, black-clad and heroine-chic gaunt, the McGarry twins make for iconic--if not always electrifying--front men. The often come off as Velvet Underground devotees playing house music, two too-cool wallflowers laying down sounds meant to inspire movement. That's not to say they're always static; when the McGarrys do move, it's marionette style--all exaggerated guitar swoops and jerky hip sways. There's a word for this kind of behavior when it comes from rock stars: cool. From up-and-comers looking to charm a crowd, though? Sorta cold.
They managed to pierce the veneers--both the self-imposed one and the one established by the nature of the concert--with 'tween-song banter. "Thank you for braving this chilly evening," singing twin Luke McGarry said towards the beginning of the night, seeming genuinely thankful. Later, they managed to parlay weather-related small talk into a come-on, encouraging the steadily growing but frustratingly spread-out audience to come closer to the stage--for warmth, of course. Smooth. "You're being very polite," guitarist Joe McGarry commented to the applauding students at one point. It was both a compliment and a challenge.
Happily, the kids did get a little rowdier as the night went on. Darkness fell; the crowd contracted to get close to the band; heads bobbed. Pop Noir's songs alternate between guitar-rock rote and gargantuan-sounding new-wave thrum: Unsurprisingly, it's the second mode that connected. The thunderous synth-sample that opened the band's take on New Order's "Temptation" seemed to mark a turning point. Some kid in a baseball hat started serious grooving. Three smirking, leather-jacketed guys--one carrying a flask--wormed their way through the audience and then began sarcastically jumping about. They were being stupid on purpose (and left a minute later), but the sheer kinesthetic energy seemed to liven people up.
Still, there was little of the gyrating en mass that you saw at, say, Pop Noir's Detroit Bar residency
. That's understandable; there's not much you can do about sorority sisters sitting cross-legged in the grass, content to drum on their knees. But in the final moments of the final song--a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black"--another jokester threw his hands up, inspiring the crowd to do the wave. Luke jumped down into the audience, inducing whoos and hopping around him. If only for the last half-minute of their set, Pop Noir had started a party. Even the flannel-wearing dudes from earlier were shaking their legs. Mission accomplished.