Buke and Gass is a curious band.
Sure, a two-piece act from Brooklyn is not so unusual lately – but wait, the story gets better. Buke and Gass’ Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez are a couple of serious multitaskers. Dyer plays ‘the buke’ – a homemade electrified six-string baritone ukulele, stomps out rhythms with sleigh bells wrapped around her ankle and some other percussive contraption strapped to her boot, and sings. Sanchez plays another homemade instrument, ‘the gass’ – a guitar/bass hybrid, while pumping a bass drum outfitted with two tambourines and providing some vocal accompaniment from time to time. They exude creativity, whether performing on stage or just standing by the merch table having a chat. Those two beautiful blonde wood amplifiers they use on stage? They made them. The sunburst design on the buke that appears to be inlaid? Dyer used a straight-edge and sandpaper to transform the “cheap” ukulele body. They hand-made each of the cardboard CD sleeves and paper inner sleeves for their first seven-song EP, +/-, using a custom rubber stamp and linoleum cut. And their names? That’s just a coincidence. Arone changed the spelling of her name in school, years before she met Aron.
One of the many impressive aspects of their sound is not just that it’s bigger than you might expect from two musicians with a relatively modest amount of gear. What’s more impressive is the depth of the sound, the richness of the tones. Each element – the buke, the gass, the jerry-rigged percussion, and Dyer’s dynamic vocals – also seems to be multitasking. Each element by itself is more than the sum of its parts. Put those elements together, and what emerges defies easy description. It’s a head-scratcher, seeing them compared to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (QRO album review) and the White Stripes (QRO live review). Okay, yes, in one or two songs – “Outt!” in particular, Dyer’s vocals might be hitting on something a little like a Karen O sound, but-to my ears-the overall effect is different. In a song like “Naked Cities,” the quality of her vocals reminds more of Liz Phair. As for the White Stripes? Well, it’s a guy and a girl… and both the White Stripes and Buke and Gass can make a pretty powerful racket. But Buke and Gass have more in common, at least in spirit, with an act like tUnE-yArDs (QRO photos). Their sounds are different, but their inventiveness, their energy, and the obvious pleasure they get out of making their music, seem to come from a similar place.
Thursday, December 2nd’s show at TT the Bear’s Place was Buke and Gass’ first in Boston and the first of a short jaunt through parts of the Northeast, Midwest, and Canada. Initially it seemed the crowd would be sparse – perhaps even the most clued-in of Boston has yet to discover Buke and Gass. The first opener of the night, the local act Royal Blood, brought their own enthusiastic little crew of friends and fans and made their way through 12-15 short little rock songs-nothing too clever (though they did do an “expanded” version of a Guided By Voices song), but both band and audience seemed to enjoy it. At the start of Talk Normal’s anxious, noisy set, the crowd dispersed a little, which was really too bad. Andrya Ambro’s athletic drumming over Sarah Register’s dark distorted guitar combined with their alternately moaning and wailing vocals to create a sometimes aggressive, sometimes paranoid, usually creepy sound. If for no other reason than how chummy they seem to be with Sonic Youth (QRO live review) – they played shows with Sonic Youth earlier this year (QRO photos) and Kim Gordon designed their new t-shirts, it’s a little surprising there wasn’t more interest in their set.
When Buke and Gass took the stage to do a quick double check on the sound, a few music nerd types in the audience appeared seemingly out of nowhere to get a look at the exotic gear. It really is a beautiful sight. Dyer strapped on her jingle bells and other percussion contraption, and they launched into “Sleep Gets Your Ghost”. Mid-way through the song, the room had filled in a bit. Those who know Buke and Gass seem to love them – all in the audience were soaking in every strum and thump. The duo gets a surprisingly strong drum sound, especially considering the make-up of their… er… rhythm section. It’s easy to stomp along with them. Both Sanchez and Dyer visibly love to play. Sanchez appears focused while Dyer breaks out into a beaming smile, looking not unlike Cate Blanchett in Oscar and Lucinda. For all their clever artifice and gadgetry, everything seems kind of natural – almost simple, though it sounds anything but. They have an easiness with each other and with the audience. They play without a set list (though something that looks like a set list – not the one they played – was taped to the bass drum), deciding what to play as they go, and if one starts into a song with no introduction, the other just jumps right in. Seeing them play is a little like watching Max Reinhardt’s 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The effects are all mechanical, all ingenious, and all exceptional. Can’t say with authority whether or how often Buke and Gass may use effects pedals, but their whole aesthetic is very DIY, very hands-on.
Next up they played album-opener “Medulla Oblongata,” with Dyer demanding “When will you get better so I can sew our lips together?” (Their lyrics are suitably evocative, are worth reading, singing, and absorbing, and are included with their full-length CD, Riposte.) A furious – an intentional and appropriate word choice (if you don’t get it, go listen to the song) – version of “Page Break” led into crowd favorite “Bundletuck”, a fine example of how their unique sounds and sometimes unexpected melodies add up to songs that are – perhaps surprisingly – relatively accessible and often downright infectious. Like “Bundletuck”, the next song they played, “Medicina”, is catchy and tuneful, and like “Bundletuck” it makes excellent use of dynamics, shifting from light to dark to light and back again. They played a new song – always good to hear, followed by a personal favorite and possibly one of their most accessible and catchiest tunes of all, “Naked Cities”. Dyer started the least annoying clap-along ever as the lead-in to “Revel in Contempt”, and they finished up with “Red Hood Came Home”.
After their set, Dyer and Sanchez headed over to the merch table, where they were met by quite a few people who were eager to say hello, and to talk about what it is these two artists do. Don’t know how many people in the audience were discovering Buke and Gass for the first time, but they’ll get some new listeners out of shows like this one – anyone who was there is going to want to tell people about it.