Roland Barthes could have a field day with the array of signs and signifiers contained in Brad Petering's look when he fronted TV Girl at Shea Stadium on a sweltering Friday night a couple of weeks ago.
His beach-bleached blond curls sat under a hat featuring the logo of Chinatown, the John Huston classic, hat and hair representing the sun and screen duality of California, where TV Girl is based. Then there was the slightly halfhearted bling, a few gold chains around his neck, referring to the origins of the block-rocking beats that underpin most TV Girl songs. Finally, there was the sharp looking t-shirt for Theoretical Girls, the almost-theoretical no-wave band fronted by Glenn Branca 35 years ago, pointing up the slightly arty side of the TV Girl sound.
Unlike Branca's world, however, there were no guitars on stage at Shea. The four piece band consisted of Petering on vocals and electronics, Wyatt Harmon on keyboards, Jason Wyman on electronics and percussion, and, doubling Peterings vocals on most songs, the charming Novelty Daughter (more about her later). But the energy from the start was full on rock band and didn't let up throughout the set. The hip hop influence became more apparent in concert thanks to Shea's boomin' system, which kept the bodies moving. When they played Birds Don't Sing, their most popular song ("Over a million plays on the internet!" crowed Petering), the crowd exploded into a sweaty heaving mass. I would encourage them all to listen to the rest of French Exit, TV Girl's excellent album from last year.
TV Girl is slightly reminiscent of early St. Etienne, with delightful hints of 60's pop, occasional bits of movie dialogue, clever samples, and seriously catchy melodies. My wife pointed out that it's far less melancholy than St. Etienne, which is true probably because TV Girl doesn't fetishize the past the way that British band does. It's great fun and Petering's wit is also fully present in how he relates to the audience. He's modest and self-deprecating while also possessing unaffected charisma. There's more I could tell you - about Charlene, their mannequin mascot, for example, or the awesome group dance that ended the set. All that combined with the dramatic improvement in songwriting between their earlier work and French Exit has me keeping a close eye on TV Girl and eager for another encounter.
Shea Stadium was nearly empty when we walked into the rough-hewn and un-air conditioned space ("Cool!" said one of my friends, "It's like the old days!"). It turned out everyone was crammed onto the balcony, trying to catch a breeze or a smoke - mainly the latter. Most of them came in when Novelty Daughter took the stage to start the night. Of the three on the bill she was the only one I hadn't had time to check out in advance. Fortunately, she turned out to be a sweet surprise.
Her Twitter handle is Shawn Tootle and her real name is Faith Harding but Novelty Daughter somehow fits her performing persona to a T. She makes her sounds with a laptop and a small keyboard, starting up each gleaming track with the touch of a couple of buttons. Then she pours out her 21st Century art songs with the voice of a jazz chanteuse, a rich contralto over which she has exquisite control. In short, she can really sing!
Novelty Daughter was quite captivating for the entirety of her set. My only hesitation is one I sometimes have with solo performers, where you wonder if having a collaborator would lead to a little more development of some of the songs. That said, it was all new to me and the fact that I was still singing one of the songs - I think it was called I Sing Hallelujah - two days later is a very good sign indeed. I'm looking forward to her first "monetized product" (her words) coming out in January. Until then, download her 2013 EP and get familiar with her unique style.
In between Novelty Daughter and TV Girl we got Jerry Paper, who I found out about through Ad Hoc a while ago. Trying to describe his stuff to my friend, the best I could come up with was "transgressive synth yacht." As that suggests, his sound is quirky, deceptively airy, and uses some of the sounds of pop music even though it isn't that, really. What I couldn't prepare my friends for was Jerry Paper's stagecraft, which consisted of him wearing a kimono and socks and singing through a headset mic while performing a series of highly stylized choreographed routines.
I stuck with it for a while but began to find the dancing repetitive and distracting. After a few songs I sat down on one of Shea's broken down sofas in the back and just listened. It was just as entertaining as when I sit at my desk with it playing, except the sound was better. No big deal if Jerry Paper remains a recorded phenomenon for me. Give his latest album, Carousel, a try if you want to hear something different - I know I'll keep listening.
All in all it was a good night in Bushwick. Don't change the channel on TV Girl - they're most certainly ready for prime time.