When a headlining band plays at 25-minute set — as the Vertical Scratchers did at DC9 Sunday night — there are bound to be a few audience members who leave with the feeling, to paraphrase a famous rock-and-roll singer, that they’d been cheated.
But the Scratchers’ rough, rushed and ramshackle performance couldn’t possibly have left any of the 20 or so people watching them wanting more, because it was so remarkably underwhelming.
The L.A. duo, consisting of guitarist John Schmersal and drummer Christian Beaulieu, released “Daughter of Everything,” a charming mediation on classic indie rock, last month on the esteemed Merge Records label. The record is a tumbling tangle of drums and guitars that grabs you by the collar and drags you straight back to 1992.
Schmersal — a key figure in the mid-’90s Ohio eccentrics Brainiac who went on to found the underappreciated Enon — knows very well the territory he’s working. With Beaulieu — who played with West Coast experimentalists Triclops! and Anywhere — whipping his drum kit in every direction, they stitch together lo-fi momentum, swooping melodies, left turns, abrupt endings and even call in seminal indie-rock talisman Robert Pollard to take a vocal.
It would have been fascinating to hear a band of two guitars, bass and drums expand the songs on stage, fleshing and spreading them out, exploring possibilities.
Instead, Sunday’s set was two men trying to make as much clatter as possible. It sounded like a band playing its demo tape. It was the songs stripped back to their essence, which revealed a lack of essence.
So the Scratchers clamored through some of the album’s high points, including the spindly and spacey “These Plains,” the scruffy “Way Out” and “Memory Shards” as well as “Run Around” and “Pretend U Are Free,” whose mid-tempo structures suffered mightily with just guitar and drums carrying them.
And while Beaulieu bashed away with manic frenzy (and played a lot of ride cymbal), the songs continually cried out in neglect.
Sure, the best indie rock is often about the magic of building the songs in a studio — or a basement with a four-track cassette recorder. But when their creators played them live — ask anyone who saw the original incarnation of Pavement — it was often a disaster. But usually a disaster in the name of finding out what the songs really where, to re-create and expand on them.
So maybe the Scratchers really did cheat the handful of fans who turned up. Not through lack of talent or vision or songwriting acumen. But through lack of ambition, which may, in fact, be worse.
Foster is a freelance writer.