Review: Bottled Up’s Grand Bizarre Impressed at Empty Bottle
Guest review by Aviv Hart.
Grand Bizarre, the new record from Washington DC’s Bottled Up, appropriately fulfills the promise of its title as the appreciative crowd at Empty Bottle witnessed Monday night. The record personifies both meanings of the delightfully simple pun, as the six-piece experimental pop-rock group guides the listener through a diverse marketplace (bazaar) of musical influences. Few bands can sincerely say that they are equally influenced by the kitschy proto-punk of DEVO and the hyper-modern pop electronics of PC Music producers A.G. Cook and SOPHIE; Bottled Up are one of those few artists.
This is exemplified immediately on the record’s opening track “Levitate.” The bold album opener begins as a piece of dark synth-pop not unlike a poppier Depeche Mode, and ends as an ethereal sonic soup of sweeping electronics, sporadic sequenced drums, and gorgeous vocal harmonies moving artfully between the background and foreground, evoking 2010’s electronic groundbreaker Clams Casino. This greatly contrasts with the record’s lead single “Italo Love,” which marks the band’s most direct step into straightforward pop-rock. The sunny, dancing guitar chords and laid-back live drums blend perfectly with a viciously catchy and pointed synth riff that would be right at home on an early Kero Kero Bonito track.
One aspect of Bottled Up’s sound that makes them immediately recognizable is the voice of lead singer Nikhil Rao, whose vocal performances contain both the deadpan drama of new wave as well as the coy flirtation of indie rock heroes like Pavement (often at the same time). Rao’s vocals find additional life in their interplay with the vocals of keyboard player Clo, whose airy singing acts as an ideal foil for the heaviness of Rao’s vocal tonality.
At this juncture, you likely have noticed that I’ve gone out of my way to compare Bottled Up to a wide array of artists; an array so wide in fact, that if you were to put all the artists mentioned above on a playlist together, it wouldn’t make much sense. But this highlights the thing that makes Bottled Up truly special, their ability to synthesize a broad sea of influences into fun, accessible, and neatly composed tracks. Grand Bizarre is a puzzle made of pieces hand-cut from other puzzles and the picture it creates rewards the viewer with more small, beautiful details the harder one looks. On Monday, they brought these puzzle pieces out live, and put them together in front of an enamored Empty Bottle crowd.
Empty Bottle’s Free Monday is one of the best ways to catch under-the-radar, up-and-coming artists for no charge, and is a must-attend at least once for anyone who values being an early fan of great musicians. Bottled Up’s support acts were appropriately opposite, accurately representing the duality of the band itself. George Arthur Calendar provided a reveling, fun opening set, followed immediately by the gentle and melancholic bedroom pop of Market (on tour from Brooklyn). Market was without his band, so the audience was treated to an intimate solo performance aided by only a guitar and a drum machine. This low-key, intentionally soft-spoken performance made Bottled Up’s high energy set that followed all the more exhilarating.
The set began with “Do You Remember My Name,” which opens with a devilishly sticky guitar riff that instantly got the crowd swaying (even the people sitting at the bar could be seen bobbing their heads), before transitioning into one of the band’s most powerful choruses, both lyrically and melodically (“How do you remember my name? Oh is this what they call fame?”). This was followed by the dreamy indie rock cut “Heart and Soul” and the infectiously funky and jazzy “Livid Moods” (fans of James Ferraro’s vaporwave classic Farside Virtual will love this one). “Something Smooth” came next, and the sharp, glimmering synths employed at the beginning of the track sounded excellent live, certainly a highlight. The set ended with “Simple Things” and “Punish,” putting a nice bow on a satisfying and visually impressive set.
I say visually impressive because Bottled Up only had three of their six members playing on this tour (Nikhil Rao-vocals, guitar, synth/Rohit Rao-drums/Chloe M-keys, synth, vocals). This meant front man Nikhil Rao was handling not only vocals and lead guitar duties, but synth as well, which is a tall task in a live setting but was pulled off well. Unfortunately, due to only half the band being available, album standouts “Levitate” and “Italo Love” were nowhere to be found on the setlist. I spoke briefly with Nikhil Rao after the show, and he mentioned that while they had performed “Italo Love” twice as a three-piece, the results were mixed, and they opted for a tighter, cleaner setlist. Even considering the omission of two of my personal favorite tracks from Grand Bizarre, there was absolutely nothing to be disappointed about; a well-rounded set from a well-rounded band on a well-rounded bill. As closing performer Magic Ian took the stage, the inebriated masses danced the night away and went home smiling.
This review was written by guest author Aviv Hart. Aviv Hart is a Chicago music and culture writer, you can find his other work online at dxcegame.com and in print in the DXCEGAME magazine.