On a foggy Friday March night in Chicago, Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks treated a tightly packed crowd to a rocking set at Bottom Lounge. The uninitiated might see them as an “overnight success,” but despite being on the road to promote their sophomore album, In The Pit Of The Stomach, they’ve been around for almost nine years. The foursome formed in Edinburgh in 2003 and their first gig was a promising start; they won their school’s battle of the bands competition.
At the Bottom Lounge they opened with “Hard To Remember” from the latest record, which started out like glorious sludge but picked up to a galloping tempo toward the end. But when guitarist Michael Palmer played the opening chords of “Quiet Little Voices,” one of the singles from their 2009 debut, These Four Walls, it was met with cheers from the crowd, and they were engaged throughout the set. Lead singer and lyricist Adam Thompson’s forceful tenor barked and soared, and the push-pull Joy Division-like rhythm recalled Oxford England’s Foals. But unlike Foals and fellow Scotsmen Franz Ferdinand, WWPJ don’t embrace the sounds and rhythms of the dance floor, preferring to dwell in the traditional land of guitar-guitar-bass-drums.
Palmer in particular brought passion to the lead guitar, at times resembling “Fringe’s” Joshua Jackson having a sexual seizure. Thompson’s nuanced vocals, although readily apparent on record, were at times lost in the sizable black cave that is The Bottom Lounge. However, he compensated well by providing shout-along choruses and quiet moments by moving back from his mic and letting the crowd strain their ears to hear him, before bringing his band into a passionate squall of rock.
At the end of “Picture Of Health,” they stopped on the proverbial dime, and the pronounced backbeat of “Medicine” both provided ample evidence of how tight the group was, with a capable bottom end provided by bassist Sean Smith and drummer Darren Lackie.
On “Medicine,” they brought to mind labelmates Frightened Rabbit, but whereas those fellow Scots embrace arch wistfulness, these young lads utilize a more muscular sonic backbone. On this number in particular, guitarist Palmer flailed so violently about on his guitar the crowd could see the gum literally rocket from his mouth, and the sprawling riffs brought to mind an early U2 or The Killers circa “Mr. Brightside.”
Just as on their recorded work, We Were Promised Jetpacks let their lengthy compositions breathe and thoroughly embraced their loud-soft-loud dynamic arrangements. But, the schtick got a little old at a certain point, and after almost a dozen songs, the band’s sound did seem a bit samey from song to song.
Even though they only have two albums to draw from, one would hope for a nuanced sonic tapestry and some more significant differentiation between compositions.
In addition, Thompson’s delicate way with words got lost in the sonic onslaught of the live performance; having given their records a few spins, it would be revealing to see them with an acoustic line-up in a smaller setting like Schubas, wherein he wouldn’t have to shout and bark so much. Just the same, with their broad appeal and they way they held the audience rapt with attention, it’s clear that the band might just be the next best thing, and possibly the Scottish U2. Now if they could just get those jetpacks…
Cincinnati-based duo Bad Veins, with whom WWPJ had played on their first US tour in 2009-2010, preceded the headliners by producing something that sounded like ELO via Japandroids, with preprogrammed bass and keyboards and interesting vocal effects from an animated lead singer. The live guitar and live drummer with all the other parts prerecorded certainly seems to be a trend of late. The net effect was reminiscent of Owl City, but not as syrupy sweet and lowest common denominator. A nice bonus was the clever lyrics, including “I am the harbor and your ship has sailed” and “some people say you should sleep when you’re dead/But I kind of like what lives in my head,” the melody of which borrowed the groove from one-hit wonder Kim Carnes’s single “Bette Davis Eyes.”
UK quintet New Cassettes kicked the evening off with a rigorous set of power pop that was kind of like a version of fellow Brits Arctic Monkeys, although the frontman’s vocals seemed more Hot Hot Heat, and the two part harmonies reinforced a passing resemblance to power poppers The Futureheads. Despite some guitar issues, their driving rhythm and likewise animated leader demonstrated why there seems to be a lot of buzz around this nascent ensemble.
We Were Promised Jetpacks Setlist:
- “Hard to Remember”
- “Quiet Little Voices”
- “Ships With Holes Will Sink”
- “Picture of Health”
- “Roll Up Your Sleeves”
- “Keeping Warm”
- “Sore Thumb”
- “Boy in the Backseat”
- “Pear Tree”
- “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning”