The Submarines return to rock Boston

A review of The Submarines and The Morning Benders at the Middle East Upstairs on February 13, 2009

, Staff Writer

The Submarines, the L.A. via Boston pop-rock duo, returned to their former hometown for a sold out show at the Middle East Upstairs on Friday night. Alongside co-headliners The Morning Benders, the two bands teamed up for a great show that proved both have promising futures.

As the audience waited, singer/glockenspiel player Blake Hazard strolled out on stage, hair in pigtails and a bright smile on her face, placing small bundles of flowers on each of the microphones. Hazard’s bandmate and husband John Dragonetti followed alongside touring member J. Stare "Extraordinare", taking stage at guitar and drums, respectively. Together, they soon launched into "Submarine Symphonika", a light pop tune with very pleasant blips and bloops going on in the background. "Everybody deserves to be adored" was the song’s primary message, an appropriate sentiment on which to start the show, given the impending approach of V-Day. Hazard took to the glockenspiel with deft precision, and the sound was mixed well enough that the chiming ring of the instrument resounded perfectly throughout the small venue. The song set the stage for what would be a very pleasant evening of pop music with a touch of the electronic. "1940", which proved to be one of the highlights of the show, was a bit of a departure from the band’s usual bouncy sound. Taking to a minor key and playing out a bit darker than the others, the tune was a piece very reminiscent of Portishead with Hazard channeling Beth Gibbons pretty notably throughout.

Hazard took a lot of time to engage in banter with the crowd, but avoided coming off as awkward and forced. She was entirely cute and likeable. Before the performance of "Modern Inventions", Hazard commented on her lack of a guitar pick, but was thankfully given one by a member of the audience. Dragonetti took some vocal duties for "Inventions", the pair trading off verses and singing in harmony throughout the piece. He played a pretty cool guitar solo towards the end, too, noisy and powerful, but very enjoyable to hear. As the song concluded, Hazard commented that she had already worn through the entire pick.

Another highlight of the performance was "Swimming Pool", a ridiculously catchy tune that really showcased the band’s simple and heartfelt lyrical style, and allowed Hazard’s vocals to really shine through. It’s clear that The Submarines really love performing the music that they do, moving around and smiling at one another all the while. J. Stare’s drumming was succinct and well-paced to the two others’ playing, and really helped to bolster the performance, his big, silly hair bouncing up and down in beat with the bass drum. The drums on The Submarines’ studio recordings are present, but not nearly as prominent as it was on the live stage, which is a good thing for the live performance.

"We remain optimistic, even with everything looking as bad as it does," said Hazard about our country’s fledgling economy, among our many problems. The comment was a prelude to "Vote", a song that continues my streak of hearing songs about Barack Obama at virtually every concert since the election. It’s been a nice trend, though – it seems as though we are seeing a resurgence of the chipper politically-motivated songs, and there is a palpable return of the spirit of the 60’s in a lot of pop music these days. I suppose that’s the sentiment I could most immediately ascribe to The Submarines: they choose not to get caught up in the doom and gloom of our postmodern world, but take a much more chipper approach to things. It’s refreshing to see bands with a positive outlook, reinforcing the idea that we’re all in this together, and that music is really a great way to keep us all connected on a pretty fundamental level.

Of course, it was basically required of The Submarines to play "You, Me and the Bourgeoisie", which has been used on the new iPhone commercials. Hazard’s vocals add a great layer to the rest of the piece, and the song was really well-performed, lyrically a very apt protest against the forces that have put us in the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into: "We’re not living the good life / Unless we’re fighting the good fight." Of course, the glockenspiel was out in full force for this one.

The band closed with "Xavier", Hazard taking a melodica in-hand for the introduction. It was a very appropriate closer, slow and plodding, but with a definite air of conclusion. J. Stare kept the song moving forward with a deliberate march-like beat, Hazard and Dragonetti’s vocals blending together wonderfully. The entire band was really in-sync for the entirety of their set. As an encore (which the band claimed they "weren’t used to"), they performed "Darkest Things", a bittersweet tune that tugged at the heart-strings while remaining strangely hopeful throughout, and "Clouds", a really mellow song that closed things out perfectly. The momentum shifted towards a much more relaxed, quiet sentiment, departing from the bright pop songs that dictated the rest of the set.

The Submarines have thankfully avoided becoming a one-trick pony, filling the rest of their set with songs just so the audience could hear their one famous song. Their catalogue is deep and impressive, filled with variety and exceptional songwriting. The main duo of Dragonetti and Hazard play really well together, ever so slightly busting each other’s chops in between songs, and generally being compatible. With hope we will be seeing more of The Submarines in the future.& They’ve got the momentum on their side, and surely will be moving up before they’re through with us.

Opening for The Submarines was co-headliner The Morning Benders, a pretty well-lauded and much–traveled band from Berkeley, California. They kicked off their set with "Patient Patient", a cut off their recent album, Talking Through Tin Cans. The band’s sound is pretty firm pop music, but vocalist/guitarist Chris Chu and lead guitarist Julian Harmon would propel the band to greater moments with impressive guitar solos throughout the set. Throwing together something noisy and awesome, the two cranked the amplifier’s, raising the volumes levels substantially and pushing the rest of the ensemble forward with relentless momentum. Their performance of "Damn Banana" got everyone singing along with the refrain and drummer Tim Or played his skins with a maraca (pretty cool, indeed).

"Boarded Doors" (which also has a great music video) was another high point of the set with clangy guitars and flimsy chords chugging along to Or’s steady drumming. In general, the set was filled with some awesome shoegaze-y, noise-filled guitar solos, particularly from Harmon, who also took keyboard duties for several tunes. The set closed with a performance of "Waiting For A War", a really perfectly-paced tune, the refrain of which is rocking and bouncy. It was a great way to close out a successful set.

All in all, the evening was one for great music that all revolved pretty closely around itself, as far as style goes. What’s particularly cool about this tour is how close the two bands are to each other. In fact, on The Submarines and The Morning Benders’s respective MySpaces you can find covers of each covering the other’s songs. It’s cool to hear reinterpretations coming from a friend, so that’s definitely worth a look if you’re into good bands covering other good bands. Back at the Middle Rast on Friday night, both bands were clearly having a great time while playing for a sold-out crowd. They brought their best performance to Cambridge, and for that it is hard not to be thankful.

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