Ok, so right now I am cracking up. “American Idol” is giving me fits.
Anyone who has seen even a shred of “American Idol” knows what a primetime car wreck the first few weeks can be. You can't help but sit there and suffer through every sour note and freakshow gyration just so you can hopefully get through to the “real” talent.
This is not unlike sitting through a lineup of opening bands. It's not that I expect every band to suck or something (or that Simon Cowell needs to sit there and rip on them for our kicks, though at times that would be fun). Everyone has their exciting moments worth sticking around for. But I do like to imagine how a new band I've never seen would fare at a battle of the bands — staring down an assembly full of fickle, restless high school kids who want the Next Best Thing. They’ll let you know if you're not it. If you can't make the kids get down, who will? In my mind, the good ones always do.
Mon Frere is a good one.
I caught them at a recent tsunami benefit show at the wonderful Vera Project here in Seattle, in between the raucus hardcore of Ancille and the reckless electro abandon of local indie darlings Idiot Pilot (who will blow up big fairly soon, you watch).
Now, I like surprises. Pleasant ones are best. And from the moment Mon Frere took the stage, this little trio from Mountlake Terrace, Wash. won my made-up battle of the bands.
Actually, Mon Frere did win a real-life battle of the bands. Only, they didn't have to prove themselves to my imaginary high school auditorium. It was in front of audiences at Seattle's Experience Music Project for the 2004 Sound Off! underage band competition.
Last year, Kyle Swisher, Noela Johnston and David Haasl had only played a handful of house parties and basement gigs as Mon Frere before signing up to do battle with the Pacific Northwest's brightest new talent.
“My grandma always sends me things on local music stuff and sent me an article about the competition,” says guitarist Swisher, who picked up the guitar during his senior year at Mountlake Terrace High School, a strong spitball’s distance from Seattle. “It was right around the time we started Mon Frere and Noela was really pushing to do it. So we recorded a quick three-song demo so we could get in.”
That demo featured three synth-laden dance rock ditties showcasing Swisher's monster guitar with Haasl's confident, jazz-tinged drumming. Atop it all was Johnston's remarkable voice, a towering, smoky wail that rides the crests of her plunky future-punk keyboard melodies. The sonic maturity of songs like “Bullitonboard” and “Leavin’ Town” belied the group’s relative inexperience under the lights. But Mon Frere's catchy sound triumphed, and with their win came free studio time to crank out their debut EP “Real Vampires” on the freshly-minted Smug Life Recordings, started up by friends of the band just to put out their record.
I’m probably not the first to say that Johnston's voice is reminiscent of an early-model Corin Tucker from Sleater-Kinney. But her lush range also isn’t that far off from trip-hop chanteuse Esthero’s world-weary sultriness. These pipes impress.
She saunters into “Orcs Don't Knows It” with her best cabaret slither, and Swisher’s sludgy, detuned guitar stomps around behind her. Her space-age Roland-n’-Rhodes lilt pairs nicely with the gnarly crunch and propulsive double-kick of the EP’s opener “R.V.D.G.S.” (“Real Vampires Don’t Give a S---”) while “Up Circle” adds some sugar to the mix. Probably the standout track off this too short outing is “Bunch of Broccoli,” which pours on an irresistable minor key chorus that just soars.
It amazes me that this kind rock action can emanate from a trio that for the most part isn’t old enough to get into some of the clubs they’re playing these days (Swisher’s just turning 21, Haasl is 20 and Johnston’s 19). But for a band that’s a little more than a year old, Mon Frere oozes with tons of promise and musical deft. They’re hard to resist, and in my Made-Up Battle of the Bands, the kids all agree they could the Next Big Thing.
I'd like to think Simon might even agree with them.
Check out Mon Frere at www.monfrere.net and get their record at or