A Musical Chameleon Named “Athens

Tom Pilcher

As a seasoned music writer – note the sarcasm here – I can usually think of a three- to five-word description of a band’s sound that narrows down what they sound like, however reductive or generalized it might be. As Chicago rock group Athens played last Saturday night in the coffeehouse, however, I could not for the life of me think of any such three- to five-word description. Dark indie rock? No, that makes the band sound like bad emo. Jammy synth rock and roll? Too confusing. After accepting that it would be too hard to pin down the sound with a nice one-liner, I decided to soak in Athens’ genre-bending sounds and try to make heads or tails out of what I heard.
The coffeehouse crowd last weekend appeared much less concerned with describing Athens’ sound than I was, and most of the usually somber crew got up to dance for the last half of their set. A solid, danceable groove unified the majority of Athens’ set, but the groove itself morphed from futuristic synthesizer jams to prog-rock, finally returning to a jarring blues-influenced stomp, sometimes all in the course of one song. “Big Old Fat Old Man,” the lead single from the band’s 2008 album “What Would We Wear Were We Werewolves,” especially shows off Athens’ loud, raucous, blues-influenced rock side.
As Athens opened its set, lead singer Andrew Yearick hinted at the ever-changing, evolving nature of the band’s songs. He said that the group of four would “start it off more quietly and get progressively more rocking.”
Jumping around from glockenspiel and guitars, both acoustic and electric, with multiple effects pedals, to synthesizer, bass, drums and assorted percussion toys, the band had a very specific idea of exactly what sounds the four wanted in their songs, and they did not confine themselves instrumentally.
This “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to songwriting can be effectively used to add a unique flair to a band’s music, but it can also be horribly abused, making the music more confusing than good. Athens generally made good use of the varied instrumentation, but at times the band sounded a little too weird for my personal taste.
Yearick’s vocals and lyrics also emphasized the mercurial, shape-shifting nature of the sound, as he jumped ridiculously high falsettos to comically punk yells mid-song. Perhaps the best way to approach Athens’ lyrics is from a comedic perspective rather than from a perspective of conveying some deep, serious emotion.
This comedic sense comes especially from the main hooks in “Big Old Fat Old Man” and “The Future”: “I got this big fat old man sittin’ on my chest / sittin’ on my chest!” and “We are the future / we wear space boots.”
By placing Athens alongside They Might Be Giants and Flight of the Conchords rather than The Mars Volta, I appreciated the group’s chameleon-like sound much more than I would have otherwise.
Liam O’Brien & Family, the namesake’s new folk outfit, opened the show with a scaled down crew of five due to there being an opera concert. O’Brien’s interesting lyrics and imagery highlighted the set, which featured two acoustic guitars, double bass, banjo, piano, toy piano, harmonica and some audience-led percussion. Though O’Brien and company stuck mainly to acoustic folk music and did not play around with genres to the degree of Athens, their songs worked well as they were and did not need the extra additions.
The coffeehouse committee’s next concert will be May 2 and will feature Tough But Fair, a group of Lawrence grads now living in Chicago, with a brand new campus group opening the show.