Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy March 6, 2006
Everything is dark and cast in shadow and then — just as spotlights drench The Stone Pony in a smoky, blood-red light — sound erupts on stage and courses through the anxious crowd like a bolt of electricity, an explosion of angular guitars driven forward by a pounding backbeat and a slithering bass line.
“Your face holds twice the lines of a story book,” vocalist/guitarist Rob Blake wails as The Vanities work their way through the hooks of “No Vacancy,” a song that would dominate radio airwaves in a perfect world.
“The tales outlive eternity, where you’ll sell the rights / In my entirety, I feel the same / And I think I worship you. What was your name?”
Then comes that moment — a breath of anticipation that holds for less than a second as the snare drum tumbles, rumbles, and rolls the crowd right into the rousing chorus where Blake roars over a choppy succession of power chords, “This vacant body claimed me / No I can’t recall anything / Pacing back and forth through life / Welcome to eventually.”
As Blake’s screams build toward a fever pitch, Cory King slams away on his drum kit with reckless abandon, and guitarist Joe Reilly and bassist Almando Cordero sway and dart around the stage, their bodies giving way to the force of the music.
Every town seems to have its breed of local band, every scene its strangely inviting tribe of aspiring dreamers who take to the stage with hopes of somehow breaking beyond it all. At first blush, The Vanities fit the bill. A group of 20-somethings, the quartet’s come of age in a basement studio and an old factory rehearsal space in New Jersey, their live-wire sets occasionally branching outward toward New York City and Philadelphia.
But, from the second they light up the stage at Asbury Park’s Stone Pony, it’s clear there’s something more going on here. A local band this distinct has rarely, if ever, sounded this good.
The Vanities formed in the suburbs of central New Jersey roughly four years ago, when Blake, Reilly, and former bassist Joe Connell were still in their teens. In an environment where more than a handful of bands aspired to cover or just plain mimic stadium-rock outfits and cater to a thriving Jersey Shore bar scene, the group was clearly an anomaly. Instead of sounding like a carbon copy of whatever top-40 pop-rock act was all the rage at the time, the group made complicated, spirited, and sometimes plain bizarre music that revealed hints of At the Drive-In, inventive Chicago punk outfits like The Jesus Lizard, Mike Patton experiments like the pastiche-minded Mr. Bungle, the friction and dynamics of Don Caballero, even Naked City-era John Zorn and Frank Zappa in his Mothers of Invention days.
But the music also was incredibly catchy, owing as much to experimental-leaning indie rock as it did to chart-topping bands like Nirvana, Faith No More, The Pixies, and Smashing Pumpkins. A self-titled and self-released debut was quickly followed by the aptly titled II, a 12-song demon punctuated with distorted off-kilter rhythms, carnivalesque vocals, and a soaring but carefully orchestrated two-guitar attack.
The band’s third effort, EP for the Lord, was pressed to CD in 2003. The disc, another self-released affair, had the band sharpening and refining its approach, but it also showed it moving decidedly toward the center. The complicated patterns and sometimes stream-of-consciousness lyrics were still there, but the hooks dug deeper and the choruses began packing a punch that The Vanities’ earlier, more experimental work hinted at only in passing.
Now, the group is working on what is arguably its finest and most commercially accessible music to date, and, predictably or not, the artists have no qualms in admitting it.
“I’m just trying, I think, to appeal to a little bit of a larger audience,” explains Reilly when asked about whether his approach to writing guitar lines has changed on the new material. “But it’s not like three chords make up the song.”
“I like all the songs we’ve done, but I think these have more of a structure to them,” Blake later adds. “They’re more accessible.”
If early demos for the forthcoming Coma Kiss are any indication, that material will deliver on even lofty fan expectations and may make much of The Vanities’ back catalog feel like a series of prequels and rough drafts.
Even on a first listen of “Tilt” and “Keeps Me Coming Back,” two songs Blake uses to kick off a demo he’s circulating of tracks from Coma Kiss, it’s apparent that The Vanities have grown immensely as musicians since 2003’s EP for the Lord. The songs have all the quiet-loud dynamics and catchy refrains of Nevermind-era Nirvana, and they dmanage to balance that inviting, studio-savvy big rock sound with the textured-guitar, stop-START/STOP-start-STOP approach of earlier recordings.
“I think, on those CDs, we tried to do too much,” says Blake, smoking a cigarette and nursing a cup of coffee in the Long Branch, N.J. coffeehouse The Inkwell as he compared Coma Kiss to The Vanities’ earlier records. “We’ve realized that sometimes the guitars have to do the same things as each other and not always play something different.”
The fact that the new songs sound like they were recorded in Blake’s 16-track studio with the ears of a more conventional rock listener in mind also is no coincidence, he says.
“The reason the recordings are glossier than the last one?” Pause, the crack of a slight smile. “We went for a more glossy sound because our sound’s weird enough as it is.”
(The record, which should hit streets this spring, was mixed by engineer Joey DeMaio at Shorefire Studios and aided by some work with Pro Tools.)
While an intensely energetic, new recording of the EP for the Lord staple “No Vacancy” is making a strong run to be dubbed one of the best tracks on Coma Kiss, it’s the song that follows it on Blake’s early demos — “Uncle Meat” — that seems most symbolic of the group’s current sound.
It starts with a choppy, borderline-anthemic succession of grungy power chords and lyrics that seem to bridge the familiar alienation of youth with the tragic actions of a few pushed too far into that alienation: “Bouquets of children, wrapped in candy-coated mink / They keep laughing at every thought I think / I see their point / So I crack a smile / It could be my last / So I’ll wear it for a while.”
(Later, Blake again undercuts the inviting qualities of the song’s verses with increasingly scathing and venomous lyrics: “So when you find some room for me / You can keep it, it reeks of sympathy / It seems you’re right / Tell her what she’s won / It’s a lifetime of leaving me alone.”)
But, after a catchy verse or two, the song rips into full meltdown mode, with jagged guitars and pounding drums accompanying a series of raw-throated, primal-scream roars, the type that not only exorcise demons but grab them by the jugular and take them to task for the damage done. After a throbbing bass-and-drums breakdown, Reilly and Blake come right back to the forefront, their barbed-wire guitar lines woven carefully together and driving the entire band forward. The song ends not with a radio-ready reprise but with Blake barking furious and vaguely sexual lyrics over a cacophony of crunching guitars and pummeling bass and drums, “All that’s left are these memories and you can take them, too / The scent of dead meat lingers, as the bones press through.”
When the band plays the song live at The Stone Pony, Blake’s entire body comes alive in the red light and seems to be bursting at the seams with rage as he leans into the microphone and spits out the words, “And you can take them, too!”
It’s near midnight as The Vanities’ motor-vehicle caravan weaves its way through the vacant streets of Asbury Park, from the Stone Pony down to the second-story warehouse of an old guitar factory — all high ceilings, flotsam and jetsam, and curious clutter — where the band rehearses four to five times a week.
“It’s loud. It sounds like a cathedral,” says Reilly, when asked how the band adjusts to the transition from basement studio to cramped rock club to this cavernous factory. “Every once in a while, too, we get noise complaints.”
Sitting near the factory corner where they rehearse, the band members are less taken with lofty discussion about their sound or the direction of the new record than they are in one-upping each other or joking with a group of friends lingering nearby. As Blake talks about King’s adjustment as the newest member of the band (he recently replaced drummer John Sancilio) or the tone of songwriting on Coma Kiss, Cordero occasionally attempts to distract him.
“It was more comfortable (working on this record) than last time,” Blake says. “Because we’ve seen each other all naked,” Cordero adds.
“We’re always writing — usually by the time we finish a new CD, we have a buttload of new stuff,” Blake says. “The exact measurement of a buttload is a little more than a few,” Cordero interjects.
And what does King think of his induction into the band dynamic?
“Insane. It’s a huge change from what I used to do: jazz. Now, it’s all balls to the wall,” King says. “Honestly, it’s a lot more fun playing this music. You get more into it. You’ve got to hit it, hit it loud. (With jazz) I could basically sleep on the drum-set. This music just pushes you.”
How the group defines that music is a different story. While early publicity talked about the “schizophrenic rock ‘n roll and madness” of some of the band’s songs, The Vanities don’t work well with labels or lazy, definition-by-hyphenation terms. Cordero, for one, kind of balks at the suggestion that The Vanities are a rock or post-rock band in the progressive tradition. But don’t all those angular guitar and bass lines and sudden shifts in time signatures speak to something?
“If you don’t play the same guitar sound twice, it’s progressive,” laments Cordero, who was a regular Vanities concert-goer before coming onboard around the time EP for the Lord was released. “I wouldn’t call (The Vanities) prog-rock, but there is no looped effect (to the music). You couldn’t play it over and over with a hip-hop beat.”
But, when you listen to Coma Kiss, you may very well want to play it over and over.
Buzz-worthy young band. Catchy songs. An original sound that blends the experimental with the more “accessible.” Classy name. How long until The Vanities sell out for those big bucks, start covering “Louie, Louie” at your city arena and bathing in top-shelf liquor, or begin playing solely to the top-40 crowd?
Though Coma Kiss will be aided by a little mastering work from someone who’s worked with Avril Lavigne (“Avril Lavigne’s one of our biggest influences,” Reilly mutters, in a perfect deadpan), the band doesn’t think that’s in the cards.
“We wouldn’t make it so it’s pop. We wouldn’t do that,” Blake stresses. “It’s always going to sound like us. It’s never going to get to the point where we sound like everything else on the radio.”
So, maybe it’s not so much about The Vanities shape-shifting to conform with mainstream sensibilities but the mainstream accommodating a group from New Jersey that refuses to sound anything like big-name native sons like Bruce Springsteen or Jon Bon Jovi?
“I don’t know what could really happen to us,” Blake says, lounging in a chair in the band’s rehearsal space, the sweat of his Stone Pony performance still visible on his face. “I hope that we’re accessible enough to the mainstream that they could open their ears a bit. It’s (about) not sounding like everyone else.”
Or, there’s the way Blake later puts it, boiled down but somehow the ideal summary for a band that seems — like only a select few in that breed of local band — on the cusp of breaking through to something beyond it all.
“Tell them we’re coming,” he says, as the band begins to clear out of its Asbury Park rehearsal space, the night air filled with smoke.
“We’re not fucking around anymore.”
Photographs by Justin Vellucci