Verb the Adjective Noun like crescendos. Listening to their EPs (available for free at the adorably named www.welikeyoualot.com) brought to mind my first time hearing fellow folk-rock screamers Okkervil River. Each song (with the exception of Ampeater A-side “Madeline” which is a born power-pop single if I’ve ever heard one) begins with something nondescript: a few simple strummed chords or a gentle fingerpicking riff. The verse melodies tend to be pleasant but not aggressive. They flow by easily at first, usually taking a detour through a catchy, relaxed instrumental interlude and then somehow, by the end of each track, somersaulting into an absolutely cathartic explosion, carried by the worn out, raw vocals: usually a creaky baritone doubled in octaves by an expressive, quavery second voice (actually at the climaxes Verb the Adjective Noun tend to just f*ckin’ go for it and overdub about 100 vocal tracks, but these two are the most prominent; check out the chorus of “Madeline” for an example). The effect calls to mind another Boston native who specializes in weaving the simplest melodies and harmonies into gold, Tim Howard of Soltero.
You may be wondering why I haven’t identified these vocalists or even songwriters by name. Well, the thing is, the band has such a cheery community persona that you’d probably have to trek out to LA and see them live to even find out who’s singing each song (the singers have seriously distinctive voices but I have no idea which band members they are). When I contacted them to ask about an Ampeater single my extremely friendly, exclamation-happy correspondent neglected to even sign the emails with anything but “Verb”. I guess it’s possible that they answer emails collectively (the image of five dudes clustered around a laptop arguing about whether to close the email with “radical!” or “awesome!” is almost irresistible), but really what this means is that this is a band, not some collection of dudes biding their time before they can launch their own solo projects. This spirit is crucial to any band that has multiple songwriters. There’s always the danger in such situations that the personalities of the frontmen can diverge so violently that it’s like listening to two different bands, but Verb puts up a consistently unified front. If the seams are there, they’ve been spackled over with precision, and the resulting music has that perfect band chemistry that manages to bring out the strengths of each member and keep any indulgences in check.
Verb the Adjective Noun formed in early 2008 as a trio composed of songwriters Shay Spence, Alexander Krispin, and Luc Laurent, and recorded their debut EP Novella in a church in the summer of 2008. They followed it up in December with Reds, from which these two songs are culled, adding Wayne Whittaker and James Bookert to the live band to fill out the incredibly expansive sound of tracks like “Madeline” with its tolling bells and booming drums. The enormity of the drum sound on this track cannot be overstated. It sounds like the drums on The Soft Bulletin, like someone beating on planets with columns of fire.
As I mentioned above, “Madeline” has has all the marks of a song that magically descended from above and poured out of some lucky dude’s guitar perfectly intact, like Athena leaping out of Zeus’s head. You can always tell when you hear these songs. They’re the kind that come into existence effortlessly, and you know that when the songwriter finished them and sat back for a second, he thought “whoa, what just happened?” Like all great pop songs, it has that mysterious whole that is so much more than the sum of its melodic and harmonic parts, which, as per Verb the Adjective Noun’s mission statement, are all “simplicity and raw energy.” The chorus itself is just pure, gooey, pop joy, but the more you listen to the song the more you begin to see how everything else is perfectly placed: the bell sounds during the breaks that just crack the song wide open, the switch of the chorus drum feel right at the word “Madeline”, the breakdown and huge crescendo just when you thought the song was over (an old trick, but there’s a reason it’s still around: it works), the shivery, tense guitar solo that manages to be just totally naturally weird (like, Jeff Tweedy on painkillers weird) without disturbing the essential pop core of the song. Another layer leaps out with every listen.
B-side “Oh! Catastrophe,” despite its trendily placed exclamation point, brings the folk rock origins of the band more to the fore. The lyrics concern what seems to be a nastily failed relationship that culminates in the narrator burning down his apartment (take my everything / leave me smoldering). It hinges on that semi-secret relationship between disaster and freedom, in which a certain joyful liberation comes from losing everything you have in a traumatic and sudden way. The music is slow build set to a loping 6/8, filled out by a shimmering organ and what sounds like a vibraphone, both metallic, light sounds that seem to mirror the lyrical fire. The vocals pull back hard on the time, shivering with emotion at the ends of lines, and building up through an organ led instrumental break and into the big catharsis of the last chorus, where the song leaps to the minor four, always a good move for a climax, and the vocals howl “do your worst to me” over and over with an energy that could be either despair or elation. It’s way too risky to be cool, and there’s something to be said for that.
Verb the Adjective Noun is still a young band, and you can be sure that their sound is still developing, pushing against the energy boundaries of acoustic instruments (the volume difference between the two EPs is dramatic) and perhaps towards the sound laid out in power pop tracks like “Madeline.” Still, no matter what direction they head in, you can be sure that the richly beating hearts behind their dynamic early work will keep simplicity, energy and warm, breathing humanity at the core of their songs.