In anticipation of a March to be spent on the road -- including a highly anticipated slot opening for Dengue Fever at the Black Cat, a headlining slot at Iota, a show with Hello Goodbye at the University of Maryland and a visit to SXSW in Austin -- Exit Clov played their first D.C. show of the year at the Rock and Roll Hotel, a night featuring a host of area university alums.
Following the lone foreign band, Pittsburgh's Good Night, States, who played a Wilco fan friendly, warm and mellow roots-influenced rock set, Exit Clov's show seemed to flaunt a lot of newer material. The band, comprised of several GW alums, is well known for its self-promotion, releasing a series of EPs themselves and relentlessly spreading them -- and their name -- around, but they're looking for someone to take 'em to the next level, and there's no doubt they'll play for some suitors on the road.
Adept at both mellow rock and dance party tunes, Exit Clov chose to ease the crowd into the set, opening with a sweet, soft -- though biting -- song, "Strippers and Politicians," featuring the violins of front-twins Emily and Susan Hsu. Abandoning the violins for guitar and keys, they slowly headed toward rock and roll on "The Kindest Creatures," before reaching it on "Killer Starfish." Then, nearing the midpoint of their set, they got heavier still, but also more dynamic on "The Hate," an amazing song on which they demonstrated their skill at breaking free from traditional song structures and patterns without sounding disjointed.
That's what's so engaging about this band, their ability to blend so many eclectic styles without sounding schizophrenic. Throughout the set there was rock, post-rock, jazz, neo-post-punk/nü wave, prog and pop with ethnic touches, but a common thread ran through the music for a unique, pleasant sound. Guitarist Aaron Leeder alternated from subdued jazz strumming to progish experimentation to almost hair metal worthy solos without ever overshadowing the rest of the band, which is what the band as a whole does so well. The instrumentation was always a subtle blend, and the sisters' vocal harmonizing is probably the greatest unifying element -- and it's beautiful. I could listen to them sing all day.
Next the band rolled through some of their dance numbers -- "DIY," MK Ultra" and "Moving Gaza" -- and bodies started moving as drummer John Thayer and bassist Brett Niederman sort of took the lead with their tight post-punk rhythms. One guy in particular must've had a nightclub in his head. He completely let loose, and he did so all over the room -- at the bar, in the back, up toward the stage. It was amazing to see him dance through such a dense crowd -- it was quite packed and pushy -- and amusing to watch people stare and point. Those three titles give you a pretty good idea about the songs' content. Just like you'd expect from a D.C. band, there's always a socio-political message, but they spared us the soapboxing in between songs and let the lyrics share the message. But while there was some heady material there, the sound was fun. While referencing the CIA mind-control project in "MK Ultra," the music was an almost carefree blend of rock, pop and new wave, as playful as the video. "Moving Gaza" had a more haunting bassline and desperate chorus, appropriate for Middle East unrest, but it still moved butts. But overall, the set reflected their chill side, and they exited on a more mellow note, "You Think, We Bleed," closer to where they started the set. If anything seemed missing, it was the presence of the violins and the chamber pop effect they lend to the music. They showed up here and there, but as the band's most unique element, they should be deployed more.
In tune with Exit Clov's dance vibe was The Dance Party, a full-on dance rock band courtesy the University of Maryland. They mocked '80s music while simultaneously embracing it. They took the stage in what looked like their workout clothes and wearing headbands. With their shaggy hair and otherwise scruffy appearance, they looked like they came out of a "Sweatin' to the Oldies" video rather than Olivia Newton-John's "Physical." Their appearance on stage was a perfect match for the music they played. It was an energetic mix of '80s-esque power pop, new wave and post-punk, and it was played perfectly. Even as the lyrics mocked the music and the decade, the tight playing and great execution seemed to say, "It was a stupid decade, and look at how we do it better than anyone."
Headliner Army of Me, featuring another Maryland grad in frontman Vince Scheuerman, plays music more akin to the first band rather than Exit Clov and The Dance Party. They started off with a burst of impressive, heavy energy, but as the song really set in, it regressed back to more familiar territory, a classic rock sound common in many of their songs. Too often, the band sounds like heartthrobby Brit pop wannabes. That isn't necessarily bad, but if they sounded more like they were informed by the bands that informed mid-'90s Brit poppers than those mid-'90s bands themselves, it might be more engaging. Also, a tendency to tug too hard on the listener's emotions, though earnest, often feels awkward. Still, a keen sense of the sentimental and a finger on D.C.'s pulse runs through the music, and at times, it's hard to keep from getting swept up in it.