There are three words in the English language that, when strung together, seldom fail to chill the hearts of music lovers the world over: “My friend’s band.” (MFB) (Although, “Hey look! Nickelback!” is probably right up there in the pantheon of Three-Word Day Ruiners, too.) You’ve all been there at some point in your life. Maybe it was in high school, when your older brother tried to start a band that was “equal parts Nirvana, Bush, and Naughty By Nature.” Maybe it was the other night at the bar, when some casual acquaintance pigeon-holed you and tried to convince you that his buddy’s all-male Bangles tribute band was the shit. If you identify yourself as someone who enjoys music, eventually you’re going to hear that phrase and know that you’re (most likely) about to be subjected to a truly horrible recommendation. The only thing worse is when you hear the phrase “My band,” which means the aforementioned recommendation will be accompanied by some intensely personal artistic exposition.
If you ever acquiesce and agree to go to see one of these musical titans live (I generally don’t, but you may be a more indulgent friend than I am), you’re most likely in for a poorly executed show in a dimly lit bar that you’ve never been to before. If you’re lucky, the band might not be technically proficient… or even better yet, they may content themselves with playing only cover songs, mercifully sparing you from listening to original work. But ultimately, most of these bands will be mediocre at best, and they’ll eventually fade from view when the drummer has a baby or the guitarist’s landscaping business starts to take off. The sad reality is that a lot of bands last about as long as a case of PBR at a hipster potluck: they break up without ever playing a substantial gig or releasing an EP.
That said, there are exceptions to this rule. The rise of social media and DIY publishing have allowed bands that actually have talent to build fan bases without the traditional trappings of having a record deal or even a record. Which has its own pitfalls. Hipsters that “Liked Things Before They Were Cool” are bad enough, but hipsters that “Knew Bands Before They Were Cool”? Insufferable.
Given these realities, I’ve been reluctant to write about any bands that I know personally, for fear of uttering those three dreaded words and/or jinxing them, but when local Vancouver band Barbara in the Attic offered me a chance to listen to an advance copy of their debut EP, I decided to throw caution to the wind and go for it, A) because they’re really good and B) because it’s not every day that I get to be the first person in the blogosphere to talk about something.
(Brief Disclaimer: as I mentioned in my first post of the year, I briefly held the honorific title of Creative Director for Barbara in the Attic for a few months in 2012 – but aside from giving the band some branding suggestions, I’ve had no hand in the band’s development. I didn’t even know what songs were on the EP until it showed up in my Inbox.)
When I first met the founding members of the band – rhythm guitarist Daniel Brubaker (stage name: Johnny D) and lead singer Barbara Richardson (nom de plume: Barbara Haeven, aka “Miss B. Haeven” – get it?) – in the fall of the 2011, when they had just started a band called Lucky Lincoln (if you wanna see them in action back in that era, click here – you can hear an early rendition of “Garden Song” at the three minute mark). They seemed nice enough, but the minute one of our mutual friends mentioned that they had just started a band, I thought, “Oh shit – another MFB situation” and changed the topic.
When I actually had a chance to hear them play one of their earliest gigs – after adding drummer Chris Kramer – at Fairlight Bakery in north Vancouver (hey, everyone has to start somewhere) a few months later, though, I realised that my initial judgement had been ill-founded. With BA in Theater from Vanguard University and extensive background in voice and theater work, Barbara’s vocals were powerful and attention-grabbing, and paired with Daniel’s background in classical guitar, brought to the table a type of classically-influenced sound that you that you seldom hear in Portland, let alone Vancouver. I was converted.
Shortly thereafter, Lucky Lincoln added violinist Erielle Lamb to the lineup, and started playing at the sort of venues that all bands have to cut their teeth on – places like Mississippi Pizza (not to be confused with the more august Mississippi Studios), Vancouver’s Pop Culture, and the P Club in North Portland. (The latter venue was one of their more notable early shows, as it’s where I met Jenna B of Wait and Scene as well as a fellow who tried to sell us homemade beef jerky out of his van.)
After a brief hiatus while Barbara played the role of Martha in Live on Stage’s production of “Spring Awakening” and spent a summer volunteering at an orphanage in Haiti, a retooled band debuted in the fall with new members – adding bass player Jason Leslie and lead guitarist Mat Sears (stage name: Rusty). They eventually changed their name (after a brief turn as “Brunch,” which nobody likes to talk about) to Barbara in the Attic (frequently abbreviated as BitA, which always makes me think of “Kid A” – hopefully Radiohead’s lawyers don’t feel the same way), alluding to the fact that many of the band’s original songs were written while Barbara was renting a bedroom that was in someone’s partially-renovated attic (making her, quite literally, Barbara in the Attic).
With a full line-up, the band was able to start honing their sound (which is eclectic, to say the least – their Bandcamp profile says they “transcend genre” which is a little pretentious, but accurate) and expanding their repertoire with a strong selection of covers, including Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” (which we featured in our New Year’s post), Of Monsters and Men’s “Little Talks”, Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart It Races” and Elton John’s classic “Bennie and the Jets.” Here’s a recent clip of the aforementioned “Heart It Races” cover:
Shortly before the holidays, Barbara and Johnny D went acoustic and won Thirsty Lion’s annual PDX Singer Songwriter contest, playing several of their Barbara in the Attic tracks. The band also started playing more gigs as they worked up to the release of their first EP, adding local Vancouver venues such as Shanahan’s, Brick House and Tommy O’s to the mix.
Finally, after months of recording and editing, the band dropped their first and eponymously named EP – playing to a packed venue at their release party on March 30. For a band’s first record, it’s an exceptionally solid, four-track affair. Having had a couple of weeks to ruminate on this disc, let me break it down for you.
The Barbara in the Attic EP
The EP starts off with “Anthem” one of the band’s older songs. True to its title, “Anthem’s” vocals have a soaring, anthemic quality and interplay nicely with the violin work as Barbara sings about love, freedom, and unity. This has always been one of the band’s strongest songs and it doesn’t fail to impress on the EP, either.
My late father – who had taught vocal technique in his youth – always used to complain that modern singers were incapable of projecting. Whenever he heard a pop singer on the radio, he’d grouse “without a mic, they couldn’t sing their way out of a paper bag.” He would’ve had no such complaints with Barbara in the Attic, though. With her experience in theater and cabaret, Barbara can belt it out with the best of them. In fact, my only complaint about the track is that the vocals actually sound a little washed out compared to their live performances – so if you like this recording, make a note to check out one of their gigs, where you can hear them turn it up to eleven.
One of their newer tracks, “Heartsick” warns about the perils of falling for a douchey guy – which should be a fairly relatable topic for most Portland-area ladies (or at least the ones who’ve dated me! Zing!). While I’m not normally a huge fan of songs that reference feminine hygiene products, I do like this track musically, as it signals a bit of a shift from the band’s older, more folk-influenced stylings (as seen in “Anthem” and “Garden Song”) towards a more bluesy, funky sound. Combined with Barbara’s chanteuse-like vocals, “Heartsick” has a vibe that’s almost cabaret-rock.
3. Garden Song
“Garden Song” is one of the band’s oldest songs, and its a frequent crowd favorite at BitA’s live shows. “Garden Song” has a nice melody and poetic lyrics, but because I’m writing a review and not a puff piece, I’m going to go on the record and say that this probably my least favorite track on this EP. Maybe it’s my hipster predilection for disagreeing with the masses, but I’ve always preferred “Anthem” to “Garden Song” at their live shows, and this holds true on the EP, as well. As I mentioned earlier, the band was originally a much smaller affair, and as the their membership has grown, they’ve had to adjust their arrangements to accommodate more instruments. While retooled rock version of “Garden Song” is definitely more interesting than their early acoustic renditions, the arrangement can sound cacophonic, at times.
4. Tomorrow in Today
Barbara in the Attic’s debut EP ends on a high note with another of the band’s more recent tracks, “Tomorrow in Today.” With a killer guitar riff and a beat that makes you wanna clap your hands and stomp your feet in time with the music, “Tomorrow in Today” is a much more radio-friendly track, and hopefully marks a point in the band’s sonic evolution where they’ve turned the corner from discovering who they are as a band and start figuring who they want to be.
The band made a wise decision in choosing the tracks that bookend the EP, providing a strong open with “Anthem” (The Old) and strong finish with “Tomorrow in Today” (The New) – but it also illustrates what I think will be one of the band’s biggest challenges. While the band has always boasted strong vocals and strong instrumentation, I think the emphasis has shifted at times, moving from songs that seem to have essentially been built around the vocals (such as “Anthem”) to songs that seem primarily instrumental (such as “Tomorrow in Today”). If the band can synthesize their strong vocals and their strong melodies into their future songs without focusing too heavily on either element, I think the result will be impressive.
The Bottom Line:
Barbara in the Attic has yet to craft the kind of transcendently catchy single that will net them an I Saw Them When show, and they desperately need songs that are under five minutes (the shortest track on their EP clocks in at 4:59) if they want to get radio play, but for a young band, their first EP is exceptionally strong and eminently listenable – and definitely a shade better than those bands your friend is always trying to get you to go to.
On a more personal note, I think everyone has that one band that they’ve followed from the beginning (or if you’re Wait And Scene, maybe it’s twenty bands) – that band that you place your artistic faith in and root for as they attempt to navigate the music industry’s version of Chutes and Ladders. Their successes and failures will be more personal to you, because they were “your band” before anyone else knew who they were. For me, that band is Barbara in the Attic. And it’s not too late to make them yours, too.
Barbara in the Attic (barbaraintheattic.bandcamp.com)
April 20 – Brickhouse Bar & Grill (Vancouver, Washington)
April 21 – Pop Culture (Vancouver, Washington)