Dynamic, Lushly Tuneful Art-Rock and a National Sawdust Show from Founders

by delarue

While Founders have found themselves a place in the majestic corridors of art-rock bands like Pink Floyd and ELO, they don’t seem to draw on those vintage groups at all. Their influences are both more current – Radiohead, for one – and antique. Violinist Ben Russell, violist Nathan Schram, cellist Hamilton Berry, bassist Andrew Roitstein and trumpeter/pianist Brandon Ridenour all share a classical and indie classical background. Their excellent debut album, You & Who, is unlike anything else out there right now. Much as it looks forward, it also harks back to the elegantly paradigm-shifting avant garde pop that Phil Ochs explored on albums like Pleasures of the Harbor and the second side of Tape from California. The tracks are streaming at Spotify, with a handful at the band’s music page if you don’t want to deal with the hassle of killing the volume every time an ad pops up. Consistent with the band’s classical background, they’re playing an interesting show tonight at National Sawdust at 9:30 PM as part of that venue’s Winterreise-themed month of shows, They’re set to play originals plus Radiohead covers and a new number utilizing lyrics by poet Wilhelm Muller, whose work Franz Schubert set to music in his Winterreise suite – a political broadside about escaping a tyrannical dictatorship disguised as a lovelorn song cycle. Cover is $15, which is cheap for this swanky concert hall.

The album opens with the title track, shifting shape and tempos dizzyingly yet expertly between jaunty ragtime and blistering cello-metal. It’s a defiant challenge: ”Come on if you think you can take us on, you and what army?” is the punchline. Ridenour plays the elegantly moody instrumental Blooming solo on piano, a more warmly melodic take on Radiohead. The Hunt, with its soaringly intermingled string arrangement and Russell’s operatically-inspired vocals, immediately brings to mind middle-period Phil Ochs as it rises to an achingly catchy chorus, swirls and rages from there to a sizzling violin outro.

“So bummed out outside my window, the sky is disappearing,” Russell intones on I’ll Fly Away, a spare, steady chamber pop update on the old Appalachian folk standard. It segues into Jane, an instrumental that shifts from a steady, emphatic waltz to more pensive, distantly ominous terrain and then back, Ridenour’s terse upper-register cadences over a tense bed of strings. He switches to trumpet on Never, a dancing baroque pop vignette.

Winter, another pensive waltz, opens with strummy strings mimicking a folk-rock guitar intro, then pulsing with echoes of Philip Glass and an unexpected trumpet fanfare from Ridenour. The drony Oh My Love blends echoes of Appalachia and classical Indian music, followed by a morose, minimalist, dirgey cover of Radiohead’s Motion. The album closes with Solace, which pretty much sums up what this band’s all about: clustering neo-baroque piano riffage, plaintive strings, unexpected dynamic shifts and an unassailable sense of melody.

One way this band actually does resemble its stadium-sized predecessors is that it could use a singer as strong and colorful as the music. With the exception of the Strawbs, who were fronted by none other than Sandy Denny in their earliest days, none of the art-rock bands of the 70s had particularly strong vocals. Imagine someone with the charisma and power of, say, Hannah Fairchild out in front of this band. That could be scary.