The charm levels of Portland’s The Ascetic Junkies are totally off the charts. They were crazily endearing when they opened for Warpaint at Sam Bond’s last fall, and — hurrah! — they’re just as appealing on record.
The group has its roots in Boston, where main singer/songwriters Kali Giaritta and Matt Harmon met in college. After a year in Boston’s music scene, the two moved to Portland, put together a band (adding drums, bass and banjo to Giaritta’s glockenspiel and Harmon’s guitar; both also play keyboards and “other”) and released 2008’s charming — did I mention they’re charming? — One Shoe Over the Cuckooo’s Nest. In 10 songs, the Junkies shift from the rollicking “Dracula” to Ani Di Franco-esque socially aware pop-folk (if you could wear out an MP3, I’d have worn out “Amsterdam”) to the plucky, earnest “(Whoa Oh Oh Oh Oh),” on which Harmon’s youthful, Ben Gibbard-y delivery makes the song sound a little like an unusually rootsy Death Cab for Cutie track.
Harmon and Giaritta are uncommonly well matched, vocally; both have clear, sweet but not childish voices that conjure up an indie aesthetic and put a pop shine on even the most country-dusted, banjo-plucked tunes. But this isn’t a country group, nor a folk act, nor a rock band. Americana doesn’t cover it, either. They’re folksy, they’re sassy, they’re sweet — the first two songs Harmon and Giaritta wrote were about each other, and the two are now engaged — and they do the get-up-and-dance thing as well as they do heartstring-tugging.
The band has a second full-length album coming later in the year, but in the meantime they’re celebrating the release of a four-song EP, Don’t Wait for the Rescue Squad, which you can download online (at theasceticjunkies.bandcamp.com) or at a show (bring a CD-R, thumb drive or iPod). Rescue Squad includes two new songs and remixes of “Dracula” and “Windows Sell the House,” which fellow Portlander Cars & Trains turns into an electronica-tinged wink at the Postal Service. The new tracks are the playful “French Girls” and the coming-of-age, independence-celebrating “Jenny, Don’t Do That!!” which begins with a lovely piano part and peaks as Giaritta, singing over a spare arrangement that grows more complex with each syllable, assures Jenny, “You are your own blanket / be warm.” Like many of the band’s best songs, it picks gleefully from multiple genres, a catchy, delightful combination of talent, sincerity and joy. The Ascetic Junkies play at 8:30 pm Saturday, Jan. 16, at Cozmic Pizza. $5. — Molly Templeton
The guitar was certainly the pop music instrument of the postwar generation, replacing the saxophone as the icon of musical cool. But the modern axe goes back at least half a millennium before Pete Townshend started smashing them, Les Paul began electrifying them and Jimi Hendrix gave new meaning to the term “torch song.” The period instrument movement has brought these beautiful vintage or reconstructed instruments back in the spotlight; even Sting has recently been getting into the old lutes. Portland guitarist Hideki Yamaya has lately been playing the modern guitar’s ancestors in various bands (La Stella, Sprezzatura, Oregon Renaissance Band and more) up and down the West Coast, and he’s proven to be an engaging explainer as well as a splendid, nuanced musician on these gorgeous instruments. He’ll play and talk about Renaissance lute, vihuela and Baroque guitar in his performance Monday. Hideki Yamaya plays at 7 pm Monday, Jan. 18, at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 13th & Pearl. $12 ($9 stu./sr.) sug. don. — Brett Campbell
Make Way For The Underlings
When you advertise for a bassist and drummer influenced by “Television, Minutemen and Ted Nugent,” as guitarist Ed Cole did, the resulting music is bound to be an infectious mixture of ragged rhythms, guitar riffage and punk brevity. But while those respective bands deconstructed jazz, rock and funk and replaced it with white-hot desperation, The Underlings create charming pop gems out of the same material.
With Cole on guitar and vocals and a rhythm section of Dave Peterson (bass, vocals) and Bryant Grace (drums), the Underlings have just released a 7-inch — three songs on beautiful purple marbled vinyl — on Meth Bog Records, out of Eureka, Calif. The release was originally planned for October but, as Cole says, “things always tend to take longer than you think to come together.”
There’s a timeless quality to some of their songs, a stick-with-you-like-glue magic in the combination of melody and vocals, whether it be a track with a raw, straight-ahead garage rawk vibe (“Second Best”) or “Vice Squad,” which Cole says is “a tribute of sorts to the hazy, alcohol-driven days of my late 20s/early 30s.” Cole’s songs have always been inspired by personal experience, so it’s not a surprise that fatherhood informs a song or two. Cole describes “Black and White” as “a song about a T-shirt design as viewed by an infant who has no perception of color.” Musically however, it’s an itchy riff that recalls punk’s earliest days, as do most of their songs, in the best way imaginable. The Underlings, Dan Jones and Yoyodyne play at 10 pm Saturday, Jan. 16, at Luckey’s. 21+. $5. — Vanessa Salvia