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East Coast meets West Coast
Robbers on High Street and Louis XIV
Related Links

Robbers on High Street's official Web site

Louis XIV's official Web site

Itís a rainy, blustery Monday night on Lansdowne Street, and Iím finding it a little hard to believe that in a couple of hours the two shy, visibly hungry 26-year-olds sitting across the table at the sports bar/restaurant Game On will be on stage at Avalon, opening for the revved-up neo-new wave band Hot Hot Heat. Singer-songwriter Ben Trokan and guitarist Steven Mercado are the driving force behind Robbers on High Street, the latest in whatís beginning to seem an endless line of promising indie-oriented young bands emerging out of the once barren New York underground. As they await the arrival of shrimp cocktails and steak tips, it becomes evident that in many quarters theyíve been miscast as the next big NYC neo-new-wave thing when in fact their hearts and their musical ambitions lie far from the attitude-heavy, guitar-driven, post-punk stylings of just about every band featured on the 2003 Atlantic comp Yes New York, whose title is a witty allusion to the scene-setting 1978 "no-wave" comp No New York. Itís not even that easy to find common ground among the Yes New York bands, who range from the Rapture and Interpol to the Walkmen, Strokes, and Radio 4. Trying to fit the piano-rich, orchestrated pop of Robbers on High Street (who play the sold-out Phoenix/WFNX Best Music celebration party this Tuesday at Bank of America Pavilion) under that already tenuous umbrella is a major stretch.

"It always sounds kind of weird when people talk about the ĎNew York soundí because there are so many different bands in New York and they all sound so different," Mercado points out between bites. "The bands weíre friends with arenít very well known," Trokan continues. "So itís not a scene anyone would know about. And thereís no big central bar that everyone plays at in New York so, itís not like Interpol and the Strokes hang out or anything. At least, I donít think they do . . . "

Yet there are reasons Robbers on High Street have found themselves swimming upstream against the current of events that have led some to label them neo-new wave. They saved most of their poppier material, with sophisticated string arrangements and prominent piano chordings, for their debut full-length, the new Tree City (New Line/Scratchie). Their first release, the 2004 EP No Lines (New Line/Scratchie), was more of a raucous, guitar-driven affair. Mercado: "Ben was already writing a lot on piano back then, but we made a conscious decision to put all of our most rocking songs on that EP."

"Yeah," Trokan interjects, "we got the new-wave thing a lot with the EP, with people quoting our influences as bands whom I donít even know. So I donít really hear it or feel it. But thatís what happens when you come out of New York as a new band after something like the Strokes."

To find the No Lines Robbers on High Street on Tree City, you donít have to go any farther than the second track, "Japanese Girls," with its heavy backbeat, serrated guitar riff, no piano, and lyrics that strut like the Strokes: "I know what I want/If I know I can get it/I take what I want/I know itís for sale." Itís just that once youíve met Trokan and Mercado, listened to them gush about the Beatles, and watched them run though a set with bassist Jeremy Phillips and drummer Tomer Danan, any resemblance to the Strokes or the other Yes New York bands dissipates. There are echoes of classic Britpop ó the Kinks in particular ó in a character study like "Amanda Green," with its staccato guitars, brisk beat, and wry lyrics: "Amanda Green/I can be very very mean/So donít get obscene/When I walk away." Thereís sunny Beach Boys/Byrds Southern California pop in the guitar arpeggios, bright piano chords, and massed background vocals harmonies that pepper "Bring on the Terror." And thereís the bandís love of the Beatles ("I still remember having some super super nerdy Beatlesfest in a Toyota Tercel when Stephen and I started the band in the summer of 2001," Trokan recalls), which colors the new albumís chord changes and vocal melodies.

Trokan may have a dark streak that reveals itself in ruminative lyrics on introspective lovelorn tracks like "Killer Bees," a song that has a folk-pop sensibility reminiscent of Freedy Johnston. But like Freedy, he still comes across as a nice guy. Whether that will be an asset or a liability for Robbers on High Street depends, in the short term at least, on how successful the band are in throwing off the mantle of the New York underground.

LOUIS XIV (who also play the BMP Pavilion concert) arenít interested in being nice guys, despite taking their name from Franceís celebrated "Sun King." On stage at Axis a few months ago, in their tight jeans and black leather, they looked and sounded the part of a classic Bowery-bred Noo Yawk band, in the spirit of the Dolls, Johnny Thundersí Heartbreakers, rock-and-roll-animal-era Lou Reed, and, of course, the Ramones. They came on with enough attitude to put the Strokes on notice, plus tongue-in-cheek songs as brashly un-PC as the CD cover photo of a naked young woman with song titles scribbled across her back that graces The Best Little Secrets Are Kept (Atlantic). The CD is a raucous cab ride through the mean streets of proto-glam-punk rife with nasty 1-4-5 garage-rock riffing and fresh little boasts like "I need a fix/I donít need no apology/And all the kids on the street/They think Iím neat neat neat" ("Louis XIV") and "I said sing me sing me a song/And bang me like the girls in Hong Kong/I know I ainít correct/But politics is so much better when thereís sex." Swaggering singer/guitarist Jason Hill even puts a little New York English (as in accent) on his bawling when heís feeling a extra naughty. David Johansen would be proud.

Unfortunately ó or perhaps oddly ó Louis XIV arenít from anywhere near the five boroughs. Theyíre SoCal boys (from San Diego, actually), which means some guy at Atlantic is probably trying to figure out how to position Louis XIV as the next Sunset Stripped Guns Ní Roses or something like that. Good luck to him: when after a short string quartet intro the drums kick in and Hill starts spewing garbage like "Well Iím a master of self-destruction/Got no apologies for a hyper concussion/Iím gonna swipe your identity/Take your love and turn it into obscenity," he sounds more like a petty Brooklyn thief than Hollywood Hills royalty. When he turns the spotlight over to a brief blast of guitar solo by exclaiming, "Whoís your daddy?", the joke is on anyone elitist enough to believe novelty isnít artful.

Iíll admit I was a little let down when, after hearing that string-quartet intro and reviewing what I knew about the historical Louis XIV, the band didnít hit the stage in full period costume. I guess Bostonís Upper Crust nailed that particular affect long before Louis XIV found their rock-and-roll footing. But surely thereís room in the world for more than one hard-rock glam band with powdered wigs. In fact, if Louis XIV have an Achillesí heel at this point, itís that theyíre not over-the-top enough. A song title like "God Killed the Queen" is designed to offend, as are lyrics like "If you want to take my body tonight/Then you gotta be somebody tonight/Use me just to make your body feel right." Not sure what someone shouting "God killed the queen" in the background has to do with a sleazy pick-up ploy, but it sure sounds good. And it doesnít end there: the garage-rocking groove of "God Killed the Queen" gives way to a bloozy acoustic-slide-guitar workout that serves as an outro. Itís just totally out of context. Maybe thatís the real lesson here: context may be king, but when you have a San Diego band outĖNew Yawking honest-to-goodness NYC artists like Robbers on High Street while nay-sayers accuse the relatively sunny Robbers of stealing the Strokes shtick, well, Iím not sure what the kingís up to, but last time I checked, the emperor still wasnít wearing any clothes.

Robbers on High Street and Louis XIV play the sold-out Phoenix/WFNX Best Music Poll celebration with the Killers and Interpol this Tuesday, June 7, at Bank of America Pavilion on Northern Avenue in Boston.

Issue Date: June 3 - 9, 2005
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