Concert review: Pretty Little Empire conquers the Firebird (and St. Louis), Saturday, November 27
The St. Louis music scene can at times seem anemic, stubbornly hanging onto the past. I used to hate the sheer preponderance of classic rock stations, the mass illusion that all great music was recorded and waxed in the ’70s, and that everything else was pop, rap or worse.
Luckily, Al Gore invented the internets, file sharing broke the stranglehold on music licensing and our generation put Pink Floyd into the nostalgia bucket and began searching for something new. As a result of social networking and community radio like 88.1 KDHX, St. Louis has pried itself away from the amber of classic rock and heartless punk and now has an alternative music scene, and it is good.
One such pillar of this changing scene — a relative newcomer — is Pretty Little Empire. The band’s first album Sweet Sweet Hands seeped into the scene in 2008 through word of mouth spread from friends of the band and patrons of Sasha’s on Demun, where half the band earns a living while chasing the dream. It played heartfelt and real, at times predictable but still engaging, earnest and it established a distinct voice, with direction from a musical core that promised to improve and evolve. That first album mainly bore the imprint of Justin Johnson, a 30-something with a baby face, soulful eyes and a solid vocal range. Between his voice, the rare trumpet accompaniment, fledgling harmonies, the first album worked, but not like this one. On Reasons and Rooms, the band’s second album, Pretty Little Empire sounds deep, varied and on the cusp of something much bigger.
The 4 members of PLE are best when they engage in full harmony. It’s clear that over the past 2 years they’ve played together enough to realize their distinct voices, and the new songs exploit this strength. Though once defaulting to a grungier sound, now with the addition of a cello and banjo and so many voices, there’s nuance where there was once mainly guitars and drums. The banjo didn’t make it into the studio on Reason and Rooms, but it should have. It tempers the chords sneaking in right under the bass, finding a niche, never getting lost. A touch of country emerges in just the right amount.
Another marked departure from earlier arrangements: The Saturday night CD release party at the Firebird was punctuated by a steady rotation of band members, guest players and lead-singing switches, a true musical chairs. These new voices are welcome. Evan O’Neal brings a real folk element and “Islands” was a sweet mid-show release. Another newer element was the catch provided by the keyboards in “Morning’s Been Hard.” The hook started me thinking of the Police but ended up a much newer sound. Will Godfred’s song adds a new dimension as well — a playful side the first album never had. “Cinnamon Toast” is in some ways less complex then the other songs, but the lyrics are tied tightly together and the chorus of “oh hey I don’t know” works because it comes out of nowhere and is full of feeling. Add the cymbals and the song goes places you can’t predict.
Finally, there were solid Justin Johnson trademarks throughout. His lyrical style is easy to pinpoint if you’re familiar with the first album, all love letters and apologies and tortured trips into self-reflection. “Dakota” and “Lets say I Do” have a patterned feel, quilted not mashed, and while the standouts for me were “Perfect Hearts” and “Wasted Days,” the others are solid, evoking a lot of love with a genuflected regret, as if he channels his past mistakes into all his present moments, deep, often sad, but ultimately the better for it.
There are numerous other reasons why a PLE show is worth the night out. The group brings in great acts with them: Art Majors had a real presence and Bo and the Locomotive is a solid rock-fest. A few months ago, the band lobbied and got the Mimicking Birds to open for them, another indication PLE is expanding farther and wider. These guys (and girls — Sarah Ross, Cathie Degler on cello, Mary Timmel, Ellen Herget on banjo) are getting out there. Their reputation as “really nice guys” is earning them currency and respect; their habit of listening for new inspiration and collaborating with new musicians is getting Pretty Little Empire well-deserved attention. A full tour schedule is probably in the works and if it’s not, it should be. The more they travel and play, the better they’ll be when they come back to St. Louis.
I’ll be at the next show, waiting to see how much of the energy from this great performance carries through and hopeful that their current momentum starts a full-fledged evolution. In the meantime, PLE has established as a strong foundation to build on, expanding the St. Louis scene and spreading its influence, one small conquest at a time.