In the last year or so, something shifted within Gentleman Auction House. The change was so subtle that only those who had followed the septet since its June 2005 inception probably even noticed.
Gentleman Auction House found its groove.
And we're not just talking songwriting stride — although we'll get to that later. We're talking groove as in during its live gigs, the band's orchestral indie rock suddenly became less twinkly and wintry, and instead became dominated by beats and rhythms.
Frequent set opener "ABCDEFGraveyard" features the group stomping and yelling in lockstep unison, before breaking into bubblegum-soul textures that conjure the Jackson 5. A slinky bass line, snaky guitar and new-wave keyboards combine on "I Sleep in a Bed of Scissor Arms" to echo Rick James' "Super Freak." Red-hot trumpet tangos through the propulsive "You and Me, Madly..." while a loping reggae backdrop drives "New Moon." And frequent set closer "If I'm the First to Go," in a neat bookend-type scenario, finishes with each group member madly banging on drums, percussion and whatever else is in reach, creating a chaotic beat freakout.
Amazingly enough, Gentleman Auction House sounds completely comfortable incorporating these disparate influences — which makes perfect sense after talking to songwriter/lyricist/vocalist/guitarist Eric Enger. For starters, the 26-year-old is a big fan of beat-heavy pop from artists such as Rihanna. (The band even covered her song "Breakin' Dishes" on its spring tour.) He also calls drums "my favorite thing to play, hands down" — a love stemming from high school, when he used to arrive at band practice early and sneak time behind their drummer's kit.
"To me, drums and vocals are instant focal points when I listen to music," Enger says. "Steady, intentional drumming is important, not just, like, people fucking around. Unless you're a crazy rock band who thrives on drum fills, for the most part I can do without that type of drumming. I hate when drums get in the way of the song, but I love when they fuel the song."
Naturally, Enger tends to write his songs on drums first and builds the rest of the music upon that rhythmic base. This methodology wasn't immediately obvious on the band's 2006 debut EP, The Rules Were Handed Down. The six-song release sounded almost too mannered and precise, even as its dreamy, breathy pop favorably brought comparisons to folks like Belle and Sebastian and the Arcade Fire.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the self-proclaimed fan of "beat-oriented, R&B-influenced drum stuff" soon began to grow tired of the "guitar-based stuff" he kept hearing on the road, where Gentleman Auction House had started spending quite a bit of time after Down's release.
"Tons of the songs that we played for the first year and a half of our band we still haven't recorded and don't even play anymore," Enger says. "The whole orchestral indie-folky stuff, anything that's in that realm, I was just like, beyond over." He laughs. "[Even] as we were playing some things that I guess technically could be called that.
"Sometimes you go in a direction and it's good for awhile, but you kind of want to keep moving."
To record its debut full-length, the septet chose to head to Silver Sonya in Washington, D.C., last fall, largely because the trio of pros there — Chad Clark, Devin O'Campo and T.J. Lipple — was also interested in helping the band improve and grow beyond the narrow indie-pop niche. More specifically, Enger says Gentleman Auction House wanted to make a record that captured its polished, well-rehearsed side — without losing the spontaneity and energy of its live act.
"Mike [Tomko] had dropped a copy of [Down] off to Chad at some point and just said, 'We're interested in doing a new one that wouldn't be anything like this, would you be interested?'" Enger says. "Chad sent back this really long e-mail — basically he had gone through the record and said, 'I really want to do this record with you guys, it would be a good fit, I think we could capitalize on these certain things, make these other things better.'
"It was good to hear direct enthusiasm, that wasn't afraid to smack you around a little bit at the same time. If I told you that I thought our first EP was great, I'd be lying. It was nice to have somebody else be like, 'You could do better.' We'd been thinking that for a long time and just hoping we could do better."
The result of these sessions, Alphabet Graveyard (which will be released on the Columbia, Missouri, label Emergency Umbrella), does an admirable job of showing Gentleman Auction House circa 2008. At the same time, Graveyard features several songs that stand out because of their subtlety. The Bright Eyes-like "Good Behavior" relies on stately piano and Enger's conspiratorial, intimate vocals ("Come to bed, you perfect stranger/Make bad decisions with me") for impact, while the romantic "24th" is equally lovely, with its feathery harmonies and ethereal soundscapes. Both songs feel like more mature, inviting versions of Down's gorgeous pop — a testament to Gentleman Auction House's musical growth.
Graveyard didn't emerge without the band suffering its fair share of mishaps, though. First, it underestimated recording and mixing time, delaying a projected release date of February. Enger, guitarist/xylophonist/percussionst Tomko, keyboardist/vocalist/trumpeter Steve Kozel and bassist Eric Herbst were also mugged at gunpoint in D.C. during the recording session. Later, when Enger flew back to the studio to oversee mixing, Clark developed heart problems during the process. Enger says, "We had a couple of moments where I was like, Oh my God. He was telling me to write down directions to the hospital just in case.
"The only way [the record] got done was patience and people believing in the same thing and trying to achieve the same goal together," Enger continues. "That doesn't mean we weren't frustrated, but it had more to do with strange circumstances than it had to do with actual people for the most part. It was just kind of like trying to keep the eyes on the prize."
And the hard work is starting to pay off. Although Gentleman Auction House had van and trailer troubles on a recent East Coast jaunt — think tow trucks — the group has had plenty of positive feedback as well. The influential Web site Daytrotter aired a video of one of its concerts, and the band will be playing the music festival DFest in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in late July.
Thankfully, through these ups and downs, the camaraderie between the seven of them keeps things steady.
"We're all friends, but we're definitely a family in the sense that we love each other and fight," Enger says. "We have great times but we also get cranky. It'd be a lie to say we didn't, and it'd be impossible not to. [But] I'm a pretty big believer in communication. That's not always easy with seven people, but the more you try to communicate, the better off you'll be."
9 p.m. Saturday, July 5. The Bluebird, 2706 Olive Street. $8. No phone. www.bluebirdstl.com