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An Intimate Evening with Scout

It was weird watching Scout frontwoman Ashen Keilyn sing without her guitar – before her low-key acoustic gig Monday at the Rockwood, did she ever do a show without it? In a lot of ways, that old brown Gibson defines her, the way she’ll casually jangle through a verse before kicking in hard on the chorus, sometimes letting just the hint of a rasp into her voice. But on Monday she didn’t need the axe: watching her get torchy and nuanced, swaying confidently behind the mic, was a quietly potent reminder of what an unselfconsciously excellent, subtle singer she is.

It was just as incongruous watching Hurricane Bells’ Steve Schiltz, one of this city’s masters of artsy guitar texture and shade, playing unadorned, simple chords and broken chords on an acoustic, occasionally in tandem with the simple beat looping out from inside Keilyn’s Omnichord. But it worked perfectly: the simplicity of what the two were doing made the hooks in Keilyn’s songwriting seem stronger than ever. The set was a mix of old goodies and new treats. Scout’s selling point throughout their career, irrespective of whoever might have been in the band at a particular time, has always been a relentless unease, juxtaposing unresolved indie angst against purist pop or garage rock hookiness. The opening track was a perfect example, an older song that followed the band’s early, Nirvanaesque formula of mellow verse/explosive chorus. “Now I know my ways always cause harm,” Keilyn fretted against Schiltz’s spiky picking.

The second song plaintively set the scene at some lame party, “My heart stuck in a splint, so close to calling it quits,” Keilyn sang, hinting at but never reaching a fullscale wail. Please Excuse Me, from Scout’s recently released Pi ep, was reinvented as a tense shuffle; they followed that with Always Waiting,the most wistful number of the night. “I wonder what’s become of us, what’s become of me,” Keilyn brooded.

Even a false start couldn’t stop the two’s energetically pissed-off cover of Guided by Voices’ Game of Pricks, which contrasted mightily with the plaintive, imploring vibe of First in Line. They closed with a big, anthemic concert favorite from the old days, Won’t Ask Why (from the band’s classic 2000 It Seemed Like a Good Idea At the Time album), and then an apprehensively steady, stripped-down version of Under Attack, the standout original on the new ep. For a band that depends as much on guitar as Scout always has, you wouldn’t think that this would been such a great show, but it was. And as the early afterwork crowd filtered in, people were openly hoping for a later set time the next time the band does something like this.

The New Scout: Back with a Vengeance

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than ten years since Scout put out It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time back in 2000. Mixing rain-drenched, pensive, midtempo janglerock with short, punchy, crescendoing indie songs, it’s their definitive album, a classic of New York indie rock. After that, the band went through a whirlwind of lineup changes, put out a couple more solid albums that moved toward a harder-hitting garage rock sound, and got a lot of media buzz (fans of the Sopranos will remember the Scout sticker on Meadow Soprano’s bedroom wall). But with all the turnover in the band, it seemed more and more that frontwoman/guitarist Ashen Keilyn was Scout – and when she made it official and went off to pursue a solo career, it looked like the band was finished. Happily, a new version of Scout (featuring a relatively constant presence from the old days, guitarist Steve Schiltz, also of Hurricane Bells) has been playing the occasional gig around town, with a very rare acoustic show coming up on Dec 13 at 6 at the Rockwood.

They’ve also got their first album out since 2003, a ep titled Pi (as in 3.1416), with a new full-length album, All These Relays, due early next year. Could this be a hint that Keilyn has come full circle, back to her old Lower East Side haunts? The first track, Please Excuse Me blends layers of percussion, snappy bass and the swirly, atmospheric guitars that Schiltz does so well in his own projects, before Keilyn’s vocals kick in. And she’s evolved as a singer – she’s more polished, but she’s still got the same unselfconscious, restless edge that struck so many nerves the band’s first time around: by the song’s second line, she’s telling someone that “This town isn’t big enough for the both of us.” The second cut, Under Attack is the most heavily produced song Scout has ever done – with Schiltz’s echoey 80s chorus-box riffs, it’s a dead ringer for Siouxsie & the Banshees around, say, A Kiss in the Dreamhouse, Keilyn’s brooding voice asking “Isn’t anything ever what it seems: does it ever live up to your dreams?” And in a second she’s wishing she could be anywhere else but here.

Songs to Strangers is one of the best songs from the old days, Schiltz playing chilly goth slide guitar against Keilyn’s apprehensive, terse broken chords. It’s part accusation, part lament: “Take-it-backs are in danger when you sing songs to strangers,” she muses. The last song on the ep is a rich, guitar-fueled cover of the Guided by Voices gem Game of Pricks. With Keilyn’s matter-of-fact, insistent “I never asked for the truth but you owe that to me,” it’s never sounded better (Scout has always been great with covers, from their deadpan version of that insipid Journey song to their ferocious take on the Replacements’ Answering Machine). . Nice to see a band that always seemed thisclose to world domination – or something like that – get a second wind.

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