There's nothing quite like heading out to a good concert on a warm summer night, but when the days get short and the weather gets brisk, it can be quite a challenge finding the motivation to leave the confines of your home. On a blustery Thursday evening, even the promise of seeing Hoops, one of my favorite bands in the last two years, seemed a little un-alluring from the protection of my warm bed. It's a good thing I gathered up the motivation to venture out into the cold, though, because Hoops's jangly indie-rock sensibilities were a welcome and much needed dose of sunshine amidst the darkening bleakness of November.
Although Hoops is relatively young, having made their debut two years ago, the band has carved out their own space in the jangly, warm-toned indie rock sphere ruled by the likes of Real Estate and DIIV. Originally conceived as the solo project of lead vocalist Drew Auscherman, Hoops has developed an addictive dream-pop sound that seems much better suited to a Malibu beach house than Bloomington, Indiana, where the band first got its start. This year's release, Routines, is the band's first full-length album and a singularly strong "official" debut. Without sacrificing the deft songwriting that makes them so remarkable, Hoops has cleaned up the sunny guitar melodies and '70s kitsch of their first three tapes with the added benefit of higher production value. (And don't worry, lo-fi fans, Hoops's delightfully crackly tape haze hasn't been sacrificed either.) With a release as strong as Routines, Hoops won't be leaving the indie-rock spotlight anytime soon.
The night opens with local band À Bientôt, a self-labeled "Midwest punk" group (according to their Facebook page). Their set is a veritable grab-bag, and they demonstrate a definite knack for genre-bending: they can leap from folksy Americana to screamed punk to zesty '80s synth-pop within three songs as if it were nothing. The musical gymnastics that it takes to navigate so many disparate sounds are definitely impressive, but the experience is pretty confusing and lacks the cohesion that would've made it memorable.
When the five members Hoops take to the stage, I'm struck by one thing: I've seen my fair share of suburban white guy bands, but in their straight-fit pants, loose T-shirts and dad hats, Hoops strikes me as an exceptional case. (My snarky concert companion agrees, balking at the keyboardist's business-casual leather loafers, dress pants, and turtleneck sweater: "This is the whitest damn thing I've ever seen.") When the opening bass line for "Sun's Out" starts, though, all joking take the backseat. Live, Hoops has a seriously hypnotic effect: perhaps it's the kaleidoscopic guitar melodies that fall perfectly in place like pieces of a puzzle. Perhaps it's the intangible, bittersweet quality of their songwriting, which somehow feels melancholy and sunny at the same time -- "Maybe in the sunlight / Maybe when the moon's right / I can never be the one you want." The warmth of their sound reminds me of the sunny, beachy-sounding sensibilities of TOPS and Tennis. (Once again, my snarky companion echoes my thoughts. "Is this just male TOPS?" he asks me, only half-joking.) As the set progresses, I'm impressed by the sheer level of control that Hoops has over their sound and their balance -- not an easy feat for so young a band. A song like "Rules," which involve some pretty intricate guitar harmonies during the bridge, poses the threat of sounding messy, but their delivery onstage is flawless. "Benjals," the instrumental track from Routines, is an even greater feat: a groovy guitar ditty in six-six time, it's a testament to the undeniable musical prowess of the band -- a rare thing to find in the shoegaze/dream-pop spheres, where generous use of distortion and fuzz often negate the need for technical precision.
I think the most endearing thing about Hoops's set is not their talent, as great as they are: it's seeing the offhand, almost unceremonious way they carry themselves onstage. Auscherman's campy cover of Neil Young's "Lotta Love" is hilariously heartfelt, complete with a groovy two-step: "Can you tell I love doing karaoke?" he asks the audience after the song ends. The spaces in between songs are punctuated with snatches of absent-minded guitar playing, especially the introductory riff in Yes's "Roundabout," which the entire band improvs for about two seconds before moving on. At some point during a transition between songs, there's a burp and "'scuse me" from somewhere onstage. Hoops strikes me as cool in a completely genuine, uncontrived way. The stage doesn't faze them; their music doesn't faze them; their reputation doesn't faze them. They formed this band to make some good tunes, and by god, they're going to do it.