It’s not exactly Lady Gaga teaming with Tony Bennett, but the brand-new Bell Systems does feature a pretty interesting multi-generational pairing.
Out front on the lead vocals, we have the crystalline-voiced Genevieve Beaudoin, whose Dead Gowns released a debut EP of languid indie rock in 2018. On backing vocals and lots of other stuff, we have Spencer Albee, one of the most veteran pop-rock performers working in Portland – of Rustic Overtones, Space vs. Speed, the Popsicko, As Fast As, Rocktopus, and plenty of solo stuff.
The combination results in a three-song romp, literally “Three Songs To Dance To,” that feels very much like a meeting of multi-generational minds.
It’s not necessarily a “new band,” Beaudoin said over coffee at Tandem, but more a collaboration the two have entered into by taking an approach to songwriting that’s a lot more playful than some of the heavier material they’ve trafficked in previously.
There will still be Dead Gowns. There will still be Spencer. But, “I think Spencer and I in the last few years have both found joy in our relationships,” she said, “and we hadn’t yet explored that joy in our previous projects. We very quickly realized, because play is the genesis, we could explore topics that didn’t feel as heavy, or be as self-conscious about talking about love in a genuine and sincere way.”
“Saint Endo” is almost definitely the only song about endometriosis that’s ever demanded you snap your fingers alongside the snare drum.
And that gets at some of that generational dialog. Where perhaps the rock stars of the early MTV era felt a pressure to be perfect in every way, hale and dashing, the musicians who ply their wares in today’s diffused music marketplace are perfectly comfortable putting their foibles on display.
Genevieve has endometriosis and goes to a therapist. So what? The 25-year-old Phoebe Bridgers has racked up critical acclaim and guest appearances just about everywhere by laying bare her emotional motion sickness and recently tweeted, “honestly can’t tell if my brand is self care or self harm.”
Luckily, this Bell Systems collaboration is much more like Bridgers’ work with Conor Oberst in Better Oblivion Community Center, where the two combine their powers to create a melded middle ground, than her work with Ryan Adams, where the old dude treated her so poorly one fan gifted Bridgers a sword with which to run him through.
Also, Bridgers’ URL is www.PhoebeFuckingBridgers.com , which is basically the best. Bell Systems has some of that same energy.
In the video for “Saint Endo,” we see endometriosis as Beadoin’s constant companion, red and riled up, and given to interpretive dance moves. There’s a Blondie vibe to it, with a wash of Albee keyboards, but made contemporary with a clipped snare like an Other Bones vamp. But its emotional core comes just after a reflective drawback: “I can’t say enough how much it hurts!”
Beaudoin is anguished, but angry, too. And you might find yourself shouting alongside that exclamation for a variety of reasons.
Albee is much more present in “Wicked Feeling,” where he lends a doubling vocal and the “hey!” start to the chorus and cymbal crash sounds like something that could easily have bounced off of Albee’s 2017 solo release, “Relentlessly Yours,” with a squelching bass.
Again, too, there is a confessional feeling in the air: “I work early and I haven’t had my lunch … and everything that happened here is nice, but not extraordinary.”
Beaudoin’s vocals here are the punch — crystalline like Elizabeth Stokes of the Beths, without having to go full falsetto: “Oh, God, what have I done?” It’s hard not to be reminded of the work Hannah Tarkinson did with Isobell, icy but somehow still inviting.
But “Here’s Your Disco Song” is where it all comes together. The warm electric guitar, down low in the register, is a wonderful Albee foundation for Beaudoin’s vocal hook: “I’m trying to write you a love song.” It’s easy and summery, and the “I do, I do, I do” comes off like the culmination of every storybook wedding ceremony.
What will maybe be most interesting is how these two pull this all off, live. Luke Kalloch, Beaudoin’s partner in Dead Gowns, is on board for some guitar, and old As Fast As mate Andrew Hodgkins will be on drums for the debut Bell Systems show at the State Theater on New Year’s Eve, opening for Rustic Overtones and Ghost of Paul Revere. But it’s a lot. And Beaudoin reports that she and Albee will each have their “stations,” which sounds pretty fun.
It’s like a merger of bands, a coming together of sounds and approaches. Let’s hope this is just the beginning.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 weeks, 5 shows
Bell Systems, Rustic Overtones, and Ghost of Paul Revere aren’t the only bands ringing in the New Year. Here’s a quick look at what else is worth celebrating Dec. 31.
Superorder at Sun Tiki Studios in Portland: If you’re looking to get sweaty, this is a great spot for it. This keyboards-live drums duo specialize in uber-danceable electronica, not that far from what Slowing Room were up to a decade ago.
Quannum MCs at Bayside Bowl in Portland: Bayside Bowl is quickly becoming the best spot in town for great hip-hop, and this show is on point. Gift of Gab, Lyrics Born, Lateef the Truthspeaker, and Chief Xcel represent a bounty of lyrical riches.
The Youngerbloods at Frog and Turtle in Westbrook: If you’re looking for more of a cultivated revue, the Youngerbloods do old-school soul rave-ups, with a big sound full of saxophone and Meg Om’s pipes.
Gamma Goochies, Euphemia, and Tarantula Brothers at Geno’s in Portland: Yes, indeed. Both rock and roll. Geno’s hasn’t sounded this good in a while, and these bands can be counted on to get loud and make your ears ring along with the New Year.
Primo Cubano at One Longfellow in Portland: Don’t worry, they’ll clear the chairs out so you can get your salsa on. Warm up with the best Portland has to offer in Latin stylings.
— Sam Pfeifle