A lot of major labels and the RIAA would have you believe that the internet is literally destroying music. The theory is that, because people can download songs now, music itself will go away. As if, suddenly, when no one can get rich making music (or selling it, which is what record labels do. They sign and sell talent, they do not possess it themselves), no one will make it at all. Of course, the fallacy of this logic is that instruments will still exist and people will still play them, just like they did before there was a music “industry.” To be clear, I think plenty of musicians deserve to make a living playing music – but I think people will find ways to do that even when the major labels have died off like the dinosaurs they are. Smaller labels seem to do okay with the internet – I bought the new Daniel Martin Moore album from Sub Pop earlier this year and I don’t recall the confirmation email saying, “Thank you for helping to destroy music, you sadistic fuck.” Maybe it was in the fine print.
Why are we even talking about this?
Well, there’s this local Los Angeles band that I like called the Alternates. They started, from what his aunt tells me, when Spencer Livingston started writing and recording music in his living room under that name. The band’s current incarnation features Livingston on vocals and guitar; Tristan Esmundo on electric guitar; Kevin Solis on bass; Jake Craven on piano, organ, and trombone; and Erwin Solis and Matt Walker both on drums (that is, the Alternates have two drummers. It’s pretty impressive live, but you can’t always hear it on their recorded stuff). The Alternates have played all over Los Angeles and have built up a pretty loyal following. That following paid dividends last year when they used Kickstarter to fund the recording of their new Spiders and Webs EP, which is coming out via Luxury Wafers (there’s no official release date. According to their website, the album is due out “in the coming months”). The band is kicking off a tour at the House of Blues on Wednesday night and they’ll be hopping up and down the West Coast through early July. They’re a great live band and they tend to play very affordable shows, so you might wanna check ’em out if they blow through your town.
One of the perks of internet fandom, though, is that I have obtained a free promo copy of Spiders and Webs, presumably because I joined the Alternates’ mailing list a while ago. In any case, I have the EP right now. It was sent out to some lucky folks (I think I got the email Sunday night) with the intention of helping the recipients “do your job as a music editor/critic/booker with ease and stealth.” So the band has placed in my hands the power to either shower them in advance praise for their official debut or to pan the thing as hard as Charles Shaar Murray originally panned the Clash (“They are the kind of garage band who should be speedily returned to their garage, preferably with the motor running, which would undoubtedly be more of a loss to their friends and families than to either rock or roll.” According to the lore, it’s this line that prompted the band to write “Garageland.” Murray was eventually won over by the Clash, but that sentence still stands as one of their most notorious reviews).
But it’s probably obvious by now how I feel about the Alternates and it probably won’t surprise anyone to read that I think Spiders and Webs is a pretty great EP that gets better every time I listen to it. Livingston’s voice recalls the better singers of 1990s alternative rock radio (I’ve heard him compared to a young Eddie Vedder, although I hear a lot more of a young Jay Farrar in his voice on Spiders and Webs – if you don’t know who Jay Farrar is, you need to go scoop up No Depression and Still Feel Gone by Uncle Tupelo and the first Son Volt record), and many of the tracks are laden with harmonies worthy of the Band. Long time Bollocks! readers will be aware that I don’t hand out compliments like that lightly.
When I first heard some of the Alternates’ living room recordings, I could immediately pick out that they were splitting the difference between Neil Young-ish classic rock, alternative rock, indie, and alt.country. Over the years, they’ve synthesized that sound into something entirely their own, which is why Spiders and Webs can remind me of Tom Petty and early Son Volt (opener and lead single “The Modern Way” would have been at home on Petty’s Into the Great Wide Open and Son Volt’s Trace, right next to “Tear Stained Eye”) and then head off in jammier directions on longer songs like “Metamorphosis” and “Nature of the Mind” (“jammier” in a Built to Spill or Modest Mouse’s “Whale Song” kind of way) before returning to the raucous brevity of the title track. The Alternates spread their wings pretty far on Spiders and Webs, but every song is rooted in Livingston’s strong melodies and their adorning harmonies.
Lyrically, the songs tend to be about people who are unwilling or unable to face the truth; “The Modern Way” opines that “We must’ve been sleeping/ but everyone’s waking up” and “Everyone here has their heads underground” on “Slow and Steady.” While Livingston’s lyrics (he has the sole writing credit on the EP) tend toward notions of alienation, it’s never in an overwrought, emo manner (like, you know, My Chemical Romance). The narrators of these songs, like a lot of people in the world right now, are seeking stability in a world that’s changing under their feet (I should note that this is just my interpretation of the lyrics – Livingston seems deliberately opaque in his writing, which is something I enjoy). Lazier, ageist writers might say something about how thoughtful Livingston is given his relative youth, but I can’t stand that kind of patronizing shit. Let it suffice to say that Spencer Livingston is a good lyricist who continues to get better and he’s part of a band that does the same.
Having spent some time around the Los Angeles music scene in the last five years, I haven’t found much to like as much as I like the Alternates. For one thing, I have yet to encounter another band that matches their work ethic – they’ve spent years refining a sound and playing wherever they could to get their name out there. They don’t have, to my knowledge, some inside hook-up in the music industry. They asked their fans to fund the recording of Spiders and Webs and were rewarded with a resounding – and much deserved – “yes” from those fans. But more than that, the Alternates are that rarest of L.A. bands that has put more work into their sound than their look and the reward is in the music itself.
Note: As soon as Spiders and Webs becomes available for purchase, I’ll post a note about it here and/or on Twitter so that you can check it out for yourself. Until then, feel free to envy my good luck.