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Talkdemonic elevates coffee shop conversation

by Amy Kingsley

I’ve often used the coffee shop setting of the Green Bean to poke gentle fun at the folk bands that cycle in and out of their window-display stage. It might be the hippest coffee shop in Greensboro, but it’s still a coffee shop. And it’s hard not to feel just a wee bit clichéd when you’re sitting there for the umpteenth time listening to some unshaved guitarist ply his earnest folk songs over the whirr of the cappuccino machine.

So in the past I’ve simply tackled the issue head-on, by cleverly (or not so) mocking the whole coffee shop ‘“thing’”. But not today. Nope. This article marks the beginning of a new era, an era marked not by arch observations about the gentrification of downtown Greensboro but by actual evaluation of original music. And I have one band to thank for that ‘— Portland, Ore. duo Talkdemonic.

But before we get to them, I suppose I should devote a few paragraphs to the opening act, Winston-Salem’s Sugar in the Dirt. They are a young-looking quartet of bass, guitar, drums and electric violin. That violin is probably what landed them on the bill with Talkdemonic, but more about that later.

Sugar in the Dirt’s Myspace page classifies the band as both indie and experimental, but I would be more inclined to label them ‘“jam’” or ‘“stoner rock,’” labels freighted with negative connotations in the hipster set. Their songs suffer most acutely from their half-baked construction, which I imagine might be a result of the band members’ half-baked status when they wrote them. Every song adheres to a standard template of repetitive and simplistic phrases, overlaid with off-key vocals, that slowly builds toward a climax. The violin, electrified and run through a number of pedals, bears more sonic resemblance to a synthesizer than a string instrument. The guitar player, bass player and drummer (who moonlights on guitar) seldom play rhythm in favor of two-note chords and disjointed runs.

It’s a musical equation that almost always sounds great when you’re stoned. But it doesn’t work as well without the aid of mind-altering substances. On a few occasions the band finds their groove, usually at the climax of these stumbling stoner soundscapes. There were times when I actually felt compelled to nod my head or stomp my foot. But the shambling and discordant buildup to these moments prevented me from experiencing much payoff.

But for all their faults, Sugar in the Dirt is a young band with an obviously ambitious musical plan. In the moments when they seem nearest to realizing these visions, the band becomes one with potential, but a long way to go before achieving it.

Talkdemonic also features an orchestral string instrument ‘— a viola ‘— but that is where the similarities to Sugar in the Dirt end. Lisa Molinaro is the violist and is accompanied by Kevin O’Connor on the drums.

Unlike their exhaustingly self-indulgent openers, Talkdemonic impress with their absolutely efficient approach to folktronic mood music. Most of the songs on their latest release, Beat Romantic, clock in between one and a half and three minutes. Talkdemonic’s approach is the musical equivalent of a refreshing plunge into the deep end.

Both Molinaro and O’Connor possess estimable musical chops. Molinaro sways and twists while she coaxes epic melodies from her viola. O’Connor is a tight percussionist, and his time-keeping sensibilities are a key to Talkdemonic’s musical formula.

Although they fall into the loose category that is folktronic, Talkdemonic’s sound has few elements of Americana or country music. Several times O’Connor fires samples of banjo or mandolin, but the effect is more Dirty Three or Jim O’Rourke than Bill Monroe.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Talkdemonic is the band’s ability to blow your hair back, rock band style. An instrumental duo of drums and viola certainly sounds like ideal background music, but Talkdemonic engage the audience with both their energy and volume. Molinaro and O’Connor, who have toured relentlessly during the last two years, have honed their live delivery to diminish breaks between songs. And since Molinaro usually leaps into fortissimo passages at the beginning of the songs, their energy rarely flags. Somehow, the pair manages to captivate even when O’Connor leaves his linchpin drum seat to weave through the crowd with a melodica, a combination woodwind and keyboard.

For the past month or so, Talkdemonic has been on tour with cult favorites the Walkmen. For those shows, they played some pretty large clubs. It’s a good thing they stopped in Greensboro in the middle of the tour, because they sure don’t sound like a band that should be playing a free show in a coffee shop. Even if it is the Green Bean.

To comment on this article, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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