Travis Atria of Morningbell reminds me a bit of Jonathan Richman, the sweet-faced suburban-Boston pop-punk whose oeuvre includes the classic two-chord driving song “Roadrunner” as well as the ditty-like “Abominable Snowman in the Market.” Richman was always the coolest punk on the block even as he was also the cleanest and most cherubic one; you had the feeling that if Richman hadn’t been a musician he’d have been a celebrated cult poet in a Mr. Rogers cardigan, writing sly couplets that seemed anti-intellectual, childish, and outright silly but which were the echt deal for punk in parvo.
The reason that Travis Atria reminds me of Jonathan Richman is that Atria is on to something in the way Richman was on to something back in the early 1970s, and he’s doing it in the same way Richman did, rocketing lyric onto vernacular on the way to a new musical planet. Atria has it in his power to become a cultural avatar the way that Richman (and Lady Gaga) is; it will be interesting to see how and if he straps himself into that particular ship.
I have spent the last year singing the chorus of “Marching Off to War,” Morningbell’s intergalactic guerilla-cry, after seeing the band play last summer. It was this song that first called Richman to mind (along with other things, like the 1972 Sears catalogue that Atria seems to have mined for his white patent loafers and Richman apparently shopped for his polos). There were other influences as well; these in turn recalled Richman’s own stealth attacks on a variety of styles.
I am referring to Morningbell’s latest shape-shifting practices, which contain multivalent musical voodoo recently powered by the very muscular drumming of Chris Hillman. Hillman is the ballast to Atria’s zeppelin falsetto and he has shifted the Morningbell perspective from the dreamy to the visceral. Morningbell is something to see live; there is nothing like them at least on this regional planet and I am tempted to hand them some sort of imperium and leave it at that. It’s in the way Travis Atria stands, his arms spread before the musically ravening masses–dark faceless shapes to his white-on-white, spotlit Messiah. And it’s in the mad-scientist expression of brother Eric Atria as he charms the antennas of his theremin. Stacie Atria, keyboardist and occasional percussionist, is the band’s firewall, and perhaps in her quiet beauty holder of their secret code.
That code is that Morningbell is like no other. They are like many things and like nothing at all. They are a band with greatest authority live, where they become cosmic collaborators in urging you to defy gravity: If you are standing still and not shooting off into the universe at a Morningbell concert then you are dead and buried face down.
I doubt anything can capture Morningbell’s live performance, not words, not images, not video. There are many modes of identity at play, yet the various influences do not separate but conjoin. They are pop, psychedelic, punk (with a drummer who clearly could smash his way through heaviest metal), lounge, alternative, unloaders of illusion. If their latest recorded effort, Sincerely, Severely, chases from influence to influence, the live show brings it all together as a collective. The band is sweet, satirical (and sometimes sweetly satirical while also being, let’s face it, severe) and are adroit distorters of the theory that singers must always sing tunefully or that they must always attire themselves within the confines of the present fashion zeitgeist. Morningbell is kicking the shit out of a number of traditions with their mix of back-combed soul, power-funk, psychedelic pop, art-rock and retrograde punk. They’re probably too cool for most of us, and I revel in the fact that people might not get them at first reckoning. I sort of want to keep them here while at the same time believing they would take off on the West Coast starship and only be heard from again on another distant planet, where gravity is nothing and everything exists in an abstract universe, complete with your choice of patent leather footwear.
Morningbell played the concert of the season at Bo Diddley Plaza on Friday night. There is probably some sort of cosmic penalty for having missed it, but you can listen to whole albums–yes, whole albums–on the Morningbell Web site.
Travis Atria, Chris Hillman on drums
Travis and Eric Atria