It’s rare these days for a relatively unheralded warm-up act to blow you away, but that’s just the experience I had two months ago at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. I was there to see shoegaze behemoths The Jesus and Mary Chain, now aging and creatively exhausted like most ‘80s post-punk groups, though still apt to put on a great show. As I waited outside the club in the cold to show my ticket, I could hear coming from deep inside a loud, trembling wall of noise, interspersed with a deceptively delicate vocal performance. It was instantly compelling. It sounded like shoegaze, but it sure as hell wasn’t the Mary Chain. “Who’s that?” I asked the bouncer. “That’s the Vandelles,” he said.
I’ve now seen the Vandelles twice, at the Paradise and then a couple of weeks ago at the Deep Heaven Now festival in Somerville. Despite hailing from Brooklyn, they are regular fixtures on the Boston music scene and occupy a fascinating niche in the broad alternative-rock genre. Shoegaze as a genre too often seems to be in its twilight, the gorgeous soundscapes of the Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, and Ride having been superseded by epigones like Slowdive and Chapterhouse. Contemporary indie bands such as The Pains of Being Pure At Heart seem to labor all too dutifully under the burden of maintaining the ‘80s shoegaze legacy—the Williamsburg economy sustains itself mostly on reverb pedals—but the Vandelles are the first group I’ve heard who genuinely seem to be developing the form, pushing the boundaries, and making something new.
“You can go in so many directions,” says Honey Valentine, the band’s drummer, emphasizing the irreverent and at times playful approach the Vandelles take to their work. Valentine is the beating heart of the group’s sound, taking a central, propulsive role. Sometimes her drumbeats seem vaguely militaristic, at other times almost tribal.
The Vandelles as a whole dabble in other styles besides shoegaze. The guitar riffs are firmly rooted in surf rock, and lead singer and guitarist Jason Schwartz also cites psychedelic groups the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Black Angels as key influences. You can hear this in their music: it’s a kind of wispy, ethereal quality that’s hugely pronounced in concert. For example, on “I’m Way Ahead Of You,” airy harmonies float menacingly over a droning guitar, fusing together these disparate sounds to create something impressively distinctive.
The group’s show at P.A.’s Lounge for DHN was especially satisfying, with a more languid, laid-back vibe than that regularly produced by the occasionally sterile patronage at the Paradise. The Vandelles definitely operate best in an intimate setting; despite their shoegaze roots their music is playful rather than aggressive. P.A.’s was an excellent showcase for the group’s strengths: Schwartz’s charismatic vocal performance, a relentless rhythm section led by bassist Lindsey Ann, and a strong propensity for good, old-fashioned noise. This was exemplified in their single “Lovely Weather,” which is built on a delicious old-school riff, Valentine’s aggressive drum attack, and layers upon layers of feedback.
The Vandelles are currently on tour, but they should be back in Boston soon. “We have a lot of friends here,” Schwartz says. When they do, they’ll be well worth catching. Too much alternative rock today operates under the shadow of its illustrious ancestors; it’s refreshing to encounter a band that aspires to carve out its own tradition.
—Staff writer Caleb J.T. Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.