The Life and Times' first out-of-town show took place in April 2003 in St. Louis. In between that Rocket Bar gig and now, the trio has performed at SXSW, under balconies in Spain and in crowded cities in Japan. But when you see these three men — guitarist Allen Epley, bassist/ex-Ring, Cicada member Eric Abert and drummer Chris Metcalf — get on the stage and play, and when you hear the music and see the images it brings back from the road, you begin to understand why the band wouldn't have it any other way.
And when the show begins, there's no doubt about where the band is.
First, there are the lights. Four waist-high bulbs blaze inward, shining on the glistening, eyeless-looking faces and sweat-matted hair, and on the steam — just a little wisp — rising off Metcalf's shoulders as he bashes out a harried 4/4 time. The band has used these lights since day one, a theatrical device that allows the Life and Times to set its own visual stage no matter where it plays.
Then there is the sound. "Blissed out," the band calls it, centered and spurred onward by Metcalf's iron-steady, and at times furiously complex, drumming. Abert's bright, chunky bass rides alongside, laying a tonal foundation for Epley's melodic, effects-laden guitar and effervescent vocals.
It's a loud, textured sound that has evolved from the Midwestern rock tradition of the '90s, from a scene that was sonically bordered by the sparse, ragged noise-rock of the Jesus Lizard in Chicago and the fizzy, psychedelic guitar orchestrations of the Flaming Lips in Oklahoma. Somewhere in there, of course, was Epley's former band, Shiner.
With their second album, Tragic Boogie, however, Epley, Metcalf and Abert have broken away from the past and forged something new. Though the Life and Times' 2005 debut, Suburban Hymns, was lush and sometimes beautiful, it felt weighed down by a pervasive somberness, a minor-key mood that grasped upward but couldn't quite reach the light. Tragic Boogie is different from the beginning. "Que Sera Sera" begins with the striking of a major chord that echoes rapidly and repeats, building up life-giving momentum. A drum roll sounds the call, and soon all instruments are engaged in a melody that is undeniably joyous.
Coated with effects, Epley's voice breaks through as if it's on a crackly radio station cranked up all the way. "So fare thee well," he sings. "They've come to take me home."
"It's hard for Kansas City rockers to get out of this mode where everything's like Slint or the Jesus Lizard, and everything's dark," Epley says. "We wanted some positivity."
That's not to say the Life and Times has gone soft. On track two, "Fall of the Angry Clowns," a bright, minimal, harmonized guitar riff is juxtaposed by sharp, thudding bass and reverberating drums. To keep things out of the mire, stacked vocals on the chorus deliver one of the album's catchiest hooks. The album is a study in the parley between spacious noise and focused melody. The climaxes of songs such as "Dull Knives" and "Tragic Boogie" evoke the intensity, range and swooning beauty in the best parts of Radiohead's OK Computer. Even the instrumentals on Boogie — "Pain Don't Hurt" and "Lil' 4 Notes" — are shapely and memorable.
Chances are, neither its constant touring nor the release of Boogie, for all its rock awesomeness, will bring these Midwesterners closer to fame. But that's not the point.
"Life is short," Epley says.
And the road is long.