There's a FIne line between sharp, historically referential pop and derivative, nostalgic riffage. If a band strays too close to the original source material they risk sounding like a photocopy of a K-Tel record with a limited shelf life. But if they allow their influences to simmer completely and season the result with an injection of bright, original voice they get the best of both worlds: proven structure infused with vital, new blood. It's not an easy balance to achieve, which is why Seattle's Slender Means deserve exceptional praise for their sparkling indie pop debut, Neon & Ruin (Mt. Fuji Records).

The genesis for their impressive entrance was a nine-song demo penned, performed, and committed to 12-track tape by frontman Josh Dawson, previously best known for his work with math-minded pop outfit Fields of Mars. Dawson began a dialog with guitarist Sonny Votolato (ex-Bugs in Amber) about starting a tightly structured, Anglo-inflected pop band in 2003. After sharing those nine songs with Votolato (who had also played guitar in Fields of Mars), Dawson connected with bassist Paul Pugliese and drummer Eric Wennberg. They started fleshing out and revising the demos into what would eventually become a collection of mature, polished cuts that reflect the careful craftsmanship of the Smiths and the buoyant whimsy of XTC. The latter trait is driven primarily by the inclusion of David Martin (unquestionably one of Seattle's strongest, most unique-sounding keyboard players) and makes for a nimble, vintage pop sound that practically aches to be manipulated by a producer like Jeff Lynne or Rick Ocasek.

With Slender Means still minor league players, Lynne and Ocasek weren't realistic options for hire, but local pop maestro Martin Feveyear was, and the band entered Jupiter Studios on Election Day 2004. The dark cloud of a second Bush term may have made for depressive ambience, but it certainly didn't come across in the final result. "I don't think it affected the recording, which is amazing, considering how bummed out we all were," recalls Votolato as we chat over shots of whiskey in a Fremont bar. Votolato is the eldest brother in a freakishly talented family of musicians that includes graceful singer-songwriter Rocky Votolato and incendiary guitarist Cody Votolato (Blood Brothers, Waxwing). An obscenely busy father of four and a passionate music fan, Votolato maintains an impressively optimistic viewpoint for a veteran musician who has seen his share of band inceptions and dissolutions. "I feel pretty fortunate, really," he says. "We don't fight at all," affirms Dawson, a declaration that's validated by the way they finish each other's sentences and rib each other with the warmth that only comes with comfortable compatibility.

Support The Stranger

Much like the Divorce, peers they share this week's double bill with, the biggest arrow in Slender Means' quiver is a stellar single that could propel them onto essential playlists and drill them into the minds of Morrissey and Cars fans alike. "Van Gogh" is a perfect signature composition that's ignited by Dawson's fertile melody and direct lyricism ("And I'm waking up to another age/Well, I'll make my mother proud") and levitated by Martin's svelte, vivid keyboards. Tenuously toeing the line between pretentious and pragmatic, Dawson sketches an empathetic portrait of an ambitious musician who feels like his time is now, but knows that no one will give a shit about him until he's six feet under, much like the ear-slicing, titular artist. It's an age-old lament, but the band makes it sound plausibly urgent and justified.

The combination of this infectious parable and the band's precociously commanding live show motivated Mt. Fuji Records owner (and Cops frontman) Mike Jaworski to sign the band. "I heard the [initial] demo that Josh did and I felt like I was hearing an amazing songwriter," recalls Jaworski. "It was something I wanted to be a part of. I only saw them live one time [before I signed them] and they pulled it off magnificently. Then I heard the songs they recorded with Feveyear and that was it. I only hope as a record label that we can do them justice because I know that when people hear it they're going to react."

editor@thestranger.com

Sponsored
Washington Ensemble Theatre presents amber, a sensory installation set in the disco era
In this 30-minute multimedia experience, lights & sounds guide groups as they explore a series of immersive spaces.