During a drunken ride home from a DC gig a coupla year ago, Don Giovanni Records co-owner, Modern Hut Joe Steinhardt told Screaming Females drummer Jarrett Dougherty if he didn't let Don Giovanni release the bands records he would kill himself.
The riddle of Modern Hut is that the passion Joe can bring to signing a band, he didn't show on stage Wednesday night at 285 Kent, the bizarrely popular room on the edge of Williamsburg. With some of the best songs of his career about to be released and with an attentive audience of Waxahatchee fans in attendance, Joe showed no salesmanship whatsoever. And I am not sure why.
During an email exchange a couple of months ago, Steinhardt noted that he didn't really find it necessary to release his songs because for him the song created is the completion of the task. So his musical perfectionism isn't for you and I, it is for him. Perhaps this continues to his live presentation, though I haven't seen him quite so distant from the audience before. Beyond an "hello" he doesn't push himself forward. The last time I saw him at Maxwells he certainly played with the fans. Here he allowed the songs to speak for themselves.
But this are finely formed songs of constructive formalism. They require attention and time to reveal themselves and standing on stage with an acoustic guitar, how do you get the peoples attention if you don't draw them in.
If you check out my grade at the end of review, I give it an "A" because this is my opinion and I love the songs and I love the way they are performed. I don't need selling, I go back years with some of these songs, and the opening "Heart" and the midset "Time" alone deserve nothing but approval. In a live setting the bridge on "Time" is magical, it is born to sung along to. Plus, the perpetual college kid captures a real 20 something sense of time and life passing by, "everybody tells me I should give up and I do". This is as close to a rally call as I've heard since Stickles "Your life is over".
But it doesn't come across that way. Modern Hut is a study in alienation, and without John Slover's singing they are alienation songs sung to alienate. They are the mostly finely crafted melodies (and hooks ahoy, every song Steinhardt has written gets under your skin eventually) but song in a flat warble, slipping in and out of tune. It is a weirdly effective, it's like there is a three way tie for first.
1. The songs are catchy.
2. The arrangements are superb.
3. The singing is aggressively passive.
It is punk rock. It is like punk rock. it is like the 1977 punk rock girls wearing heels and stockings with their hair spiked and black makeup as hideous as you can imagine. Modern Hut's vocals and lyrics say one thing, their songs and arrangements say something else. And I love both things they say, that's why their upcoming album, Generic Treasure, is probably my favorite of the year (Laura Marling might beat him to the finish line) but that doesn't excuse a man who will threaten to kill himself if he can't record not entangle the audience in the songs. It isn't a crime to be listener friendly, to explain the who and the what and the way.
The real difference between For Science and Modern Hut is the one between electric and acoustic song. It is obviously easier to play to a room filled with people who don't know you if you do it loud.Steinhardt's treasure isn't social, not the trappings of a rock, rather he is a punk troubadour, a singer-songwriter. If you listen to an Ira Gershwin you will never mistake it for Irving Berlin, and signer songwriters do the same only from a more subjective viewpoint. Steinhardt's gift is in detailing disaster. He has a keen eye for the metaphor, "Heart" compares a physically ill heart with a cruel heart, "If this guitar could talk, I'd tell it to shut the fuck up" on the first song of the evening. setting the tone nice. So what happens in the songs is you get what you think you get, and then you more and it accumulates to a worldview, A Steinhardt song could only be written by him, there is zero generic. And as for deciphering the lyric? Hmmm, in "History" we get warned explicitly about not taking away the mystery from life so much. Steinhardt might have a point, still: between romantic disappointments, life disappointments and a world that removes the mystery from romance and life, Joe just views it with a very jaundiced eye.
It might not add up to a definition of Modern Hut's music but it certainly seems to explain the manic depressive manner of his music and it is something I have empathized with nearly completely since hearing For Science's Revenge For Hire, an album so shaded, it is the punk rock masterpiece of implied sorrow. Even the happy songs are sad. And Modern Hut are essentially a sad band. Note I said the band, not the man: they aren't the same thing. You can write about sad things without being sad, if you want to till your emotional wasteland in order to share the deepest of feelings with people, the importance isn't the depth of sorrow but the depth of feeling. in the end, there is little difference EMOTIONALLY BUT merely the TYPE OF EMOTION between your daughter being born and your daughter dying -the feeling is as deep either way. When you take the concept, transmogrifying feelings into other mediums (aka art), the reason for the feeling is secondary to the depth of feeling provided. Ergo, Modern Hut.
Which brings me back to Gershwin and formalism: of being a songwriterly songwriter, of learning the truth that perfection is its own reward. Generic Treasure is the kind of album where you get entangled on the guitar break, maybe 10 seconds long, on "America", it is the kind of song that is so well done it leaves no room for anything but the song. On stage, the same thing occurs, but on record I ALONE AM THE AUDIENCE and on stage THEY ARE THE AUDIENCE. And Steinhardt refuses to really get in too deep with the THEM. It preserves the mystery of creation, but at what price? And it is also not true of the man himself. The Steinhardt hat I know is not the man on stage, the man on stage is from a far remove. He is flat, dank, deep. It isn't a complete portrait of the artist as a young man. It isn't true to the guy I know.
And still, I am hard pressed to do anything but deeply admire an 8 song set where I loved everything. 8 songs and I was almost in pain I was so disappointed when it was over. I worry about over selling Modern Hut but I place Joe on a continuum of great young songwriters, songwriters that includes Taylor Swift, Laura Marling, Patrick Stickles and Kanye West. And I know what I'm writing about. I'm not guessing, I am writing the truth.
My perfect Modern Hut would have a full band able to extend the intricate recorded performances, it would last 90 minutes, it would include plenty of For Science, all of Modern Hut, some covers (I wonder how he would handle Iris DeMent's song of faith "The Night I Learned How Not To Pray") and it would include a full band who could move from acoustic to electric. Plus some new songs. Actually, we got a new song, "Belmont Stakes", yet another broken up song ("stakes are high" he warns at the top)and another masterpiece even if he screwed it up. Joe has this terrific 8 minute song he chose not to record on the new album, I hope he adds that to the set as well.
But I will take a 25 minute set at 285 Kent (how can you play when music from Glasslands bleeds in?) and just Steinhardt on acoustic guitar if that's what I'm offered. "Mid Tempo", "Louis Street", "Moving On", the closing out philosophical horror of "History". I am a fan, I don't need selling on these terrific songs. But other people might. Modern Hut might not have to kill themselves to get your attention, just a little bit of self-mutilation will do it.
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