Last Night: Ra Ra Riot, Cut Off Your Hands at Detroit

Nick offers a hand to cut off.
Nick offers a hand to cut off.
PR photo

Last Night: Ra Ra Riot, Cut Off Your Hands at Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa. Tuesday, March 3, 2009. Check out pictures from Andrew Youssef here.

Better Than: Listening to either of these bands' recorded output.

Download: "It Doesn't Matter" by Cut Off Your Hands and "Can You Tell" by Ra Ra Riot.

Props to Doug Wallen for unearthing two central truths about Cut Off Your Hands in the latest Weekly. Number one: There's a punk spirit to the New Zealand quartet's decidedly poppy rocking. Number two: Producer Bernard Butler seemed to have tried quite hard -- and luckily failed -- to make the band's debut, You & I, unlistenable.

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Of course, both of those observations spoil any surprise at discovering that Cut Off Your Hands is a lot more of an interesting band live than they are on CD. At Detroit last night, they were louder, rawer, more rambunctious than their loud, shiny, near-cheesy album. The best element of their performance, though, was frontman Nick Johnston -- specifically, the way that he managed to go the entire set with only a few instances of ever opening his eyes to look at the audience.

The four members of the Cut Off Your Hands seem to be different models of the same make, that make being the hipster model: tall and skinny with artfully tussled hair and Converse. But Johnston makes the most of his stick-straight mop with bangs down to his nose; it's a way for him to visually justify rolling his eyes back into his skull and pointing his face to the floor for the most the performance. In some bands, that would be a sign of too-cool dickishness. But it's not that Johnston wasn't engaged or entertaining. Actually, he's a champion spazzer, up there with the likes of feverishly gyrating thin dudes like ex-screamo-gods the Blood Brothers. He jumps, he pogos, he falls to his knees, he gets back up -- but he does it all totally independently of the audience. The entire concert is inside his own head.

It might be a manifestation of his band's own shtick. Cut Off Your Hands' best songs find a sweet spot between youthful insecurities and mature self-regulation, between jitterying punk energy and assured, golden-voiced pop. Johnston is talking himself down for most of the album, talking himself away from perennial fears that he'll fail in his ambitions, that other people won't understand him, that he might end up with a dead-end life. His countermeasure is the mantra of the third song they played last night: "It doesn't matter, I'm sure that I'll be alright." It'll be alright; just close your eyes, work up a sweat, shout your doo-woppy hooks, and trust that your kick-ass band continues kick ass.

Ra Ra Riot, too, was partially mauled by the production on their debut, The Rhumb Line. The album made them sound like a brittle, polite version of the Arcade Fire, seemingly too timid to swell out of the headphones and into the listener's imagination once the music had stopped. But last nights' concert displayed the Syracuse sextet at their most full-bodied, where the band's much-ogled cellist and violinist didn't merely provide classical accents -- they provided the music's primary texture, surging and powerful. Strings are the first cool thing about Ra Ra Riot; the percussion is second. It's the drumming -- originally provided by the now-deceased John Pike -- that gives the bands' songs their nimble, peppy feel. Last night, the disco beats were crisper and ballads like 'Winter 05" were given more percussive weight. Overall, the band provided dancey, multi-layered fun.

The one weak spot in Ra Ra Riot is the guy in the front, Wes Miles. He should get credit for doing what a lot of indie rock singers don't bother to do: actually sing, all the time. But he's got this thin, yelpy voice, nearly identical to that of Vampire Weekend's Erza Koenig. Koenig's a vocalist with personality and quirk -- Miles comes off as a bit too earnest, a bit too preening, a bit too removed, a bit too mannered. With all this powerful, stomping orch-pop behind him, you'd hope he could break out of the wimpy latitudes every once in a while and find some edge. Vital music deserves a vital singer; hopefully, Ra Ra Riot's dude will take a clue from that guy in Cut Off Your Hands.

Critic's notebook

Personal bias: Despite the trashings I delivered above, I have gone on record as liking both You & I and The Rhumb Line. So I can't trash em too much.

Random Detail: Ra Ra Riot's Kate Bush fetish continues unabated; they played "Suspended in Gaffa" and closed their encore with an awesome take on "Hounds of Love."

By The Way: I only caught the end of Telekinesis's opening set, but they sounded pretty good. Too much adorable banter, though.

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