Extra-cultural reviews by synaesthetes, symbolists, and strangers.
It’s a bit of an odd situation. I’m a musician (I play keyboards and sing for The World/Inferno Friendship Society of Brooklyn, NY & I have my own band down here in Philadelphia which I front and write all the music and lyrics for called The Minor Arcana) but for as long as I can remember I have loved music criticism: record reviews, show reviews, interviews, you name it. As much as Bowie’s Station to Station or Scott Walker’s Tilt, music criticism fundamentally shaped the way I think about music. At the same time I was rocking out to the Clash and Bad Brains, I was relying on Lester Bangs to encourage my budding interest in free jazz, and Simon Reynold’s to suggest obscure post-punk records, and Greil Marcus to draw all those wonderful parallels between Situationism and Dadaism and punk rock—it all shaped me. I never bought that line that “People who cannot do, write” or “Failed musicians become critics.” Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye wrote reviews for Rolling Stone, Richard Hell writes for the NY Times, Jon Landau produced Born to Run. I just love to think about, compare, deconstruct, analyze, and think in philosophical and poetic terms about music. Seeing new-born(ish) Philadelphia-based band Divers this past weekend was one of those moments that reminded me why.
They released their first single—”Eggshells b/w Follow, Follow, Follow”—on Saturday, October 6th at Johnny Brenda’s. The set was free flowing and full of the sort of emotional push and pull that more experienced bands struggle to convey. Guitarist Ross Bellenoit controlled the dynamics masterfully (which was necessary in a band which is mostly a “power” trio with a singer who occasionally chips in on rhythm guitar). Drummer Tom Bendel took the contemporary indie by way of 60’s pop/rock fare in unexpected and original directions due to his “box of toys”, as Emily referred to them in an interview, as well as his fresh approach to beat-keeping. This made fill-in bassist Phil D’Agostino’s playing all the more impressive, as he and Bendel were tight throughout and the band really seemed to thrive off playing off one another.
Emily Zeitlyn’s resonant voice, distinctive lyrics, and lovely melodic sense managed to convey the all-too contemporary mix of pathos and detachment that so many bands dwell in these days. The difference with Divers is that the band’s knack for communicating with one another and Zeitlyn’s understated knack for communicating with the audience within the context of the performance—essentially, they possess an authenticity and directness that so many contemporary indie bands lack.
The single itself (which they were offering on a pay-what-you-will scale) demonstrates this clearly. “Eggshells” is a Pixies meets Aftermath-era Rolling Stones hybrid with lyrics that detail the detachment and lack of communication that marks so many relationships for people of Zeitlyn’s (and my own) generation. It’s a fun, catchy 3-minute-ish power pop gem that will have you simultaneously humming the melody and empathizing with the lyrics which are more than capably rendered by Zeitlyn’s throaty and alternately controlled & emotive alto. Bellenoit’s guitar playing is marvelous as he manages to provide just enough distinctiveness to his tone to make the guitar part stand out, but keep it simple enough so that it doesn’t get in the way. The rhythm section on the recording of Tom Bendel (Buried Beds) and Adam Winokur (Pete Donnelly) remain consistent throughout and Winokur does an admirable job of remaining sensitive to Bendel’s creative rhythmic sensibility. “Follow, Follow, Follow” is a 6-minute plus slow burn that reminds me of some of Lou Reed’s songs in its construction (think “Heroin” or “The Ocean”). Zeitlyn uses repetition in the lyrics and controlled dynamics in order to subtly develop the narrative of this introspective song. The lyrics are decidedly un-Reed like (no mention of heroin or amphetamines, no drag queens or sex shops—no Metallica either, thank g-d); however, her knack for not trying to do too much with her voice and the simple (but certainly not simplistic) lyrics allow the melody and the song to evolve on its own while giving her band the opportunity to flesh out the skeleton and then strip it all away—all of which is very Lou Reed like. Pulling off this sort of balancing act is precisely the sort of thing that makes me excited to see where this band goes from here. Divers ability to capture the sleek elegance of contemporary indie rock and match it with a genuineness or passion which indie’s forbearers so often possess and their progeny dismiss sets them apart amongst their contemporaries.
(Full disclosure, as well: Ross is one of my guitarists in The Minor Arcana. But to be frank, I’m a musician who’s been invited to write about culture, including music, so I imagine you’re not all particularly interested in my objectivity, but rather are relying on me to exercise my own subjective judgement in assessing and reflecting on matters such as this. However, for the sake of appearances—truly friends, were Ross a total stranger to me, I would think just as highly of this band and be just as excited as I am right now to see if/how the band lives up to the potential this first single clearly demonstrates.)
For those of you curious about Divers and songwriter/vocalist Emily Zeitlyn (as you should be), Emily was good enough to answer some questions via email which you can find here on my Tumblr.