Shouldering my way through the crowd at a recent Buke and Gase show, I ran into a friend who was unfamiliar with the band. “They’re kind of like two one-man bands playing at the same time," I told him. "And they're the closest thing to Fugazi since...Fugazi. Except not at all a ripoff.”
“I don’t like Fugazi,” my friend said, and then he left. It was then that I knew I would someday make my fortune as a music publicist.
Buke and Gase's set (which was incredible, by the way; ignore my elevator pitch and check out their new EP, Function Falls) reminded me of the power of good two-piece bands — the way they can draw you in at once with their minimalism and with the creative ways they fill out their sound. And given the way we're wired, seeing two perspiring humans onstage, singing songs that often feature the word "love," tends to activate the imagination too.
Here, then, is a wildly speculative look at the dynamics, both musical and personal, of five rock duos. (I’m leaving out the most obvious one, even though they managed to present themselves as brother/sister and husband/wife.)
Lineup: Hank (bass) and Cupcakes (vox, stand-up drums)
Relationship: Couple (or at least extremely intimate friends)
At a show last year, both members walked onstage topless, and Cupcakes announced, in her unplaceable accent, “We aah Hank and Cupckakes; these aah my breasts,” before kicking off one of their pounding, lusty songs. If that’s not the world’s best opening banter, then “world’s best opening banter” has no meaning.
Lineup: Jenn Wasner (vox, guitar) and Andy Stack (drums, tech)
The sober yin to Hank and Cupcakes' throbbing wang. I mean yang! Stack spends most of their shows playing drums with one hand and manning various machines with the other. Across the stage, Wasner belts over her effects-drenched guitar (cf. this post by my fellow blogger Jake). Their subtle chemistry can blanket whole dance halls in warm, innocent vibes.
Lineup: Alice Costelloe (vox, guitar) and Kacey Underwood (same)
Relationship: WOULDN’T YOU LIKE TO KNOW
The British press got all out of breath weighing the avowedly platonic relationship between Big Deal’s two members against their lyrics, e.g. “Only want me for the songs I write about you / About how I like you.” Big Deal’s trick is letting that room for imagination extend to their music: with two guitars unsupported by bass or drums, you’re free to fill in those sonic spaces mentally while taking in the almost uncomfortable intimacy of the songs.
Lineup: Sam Coomes (vox, guitar, shrill vintage organ) and Janet Weiss (drums, vox; lineup now includes a bassist)
One of the most consistently underappreciated bands of the last two decades. I think they’ve been divorced most of that time, but their pop instincts — Weiss plays drums like a juiced-up Ringo Starr, and Coomes is masterful at pairing extreme cynicism with dazzling melody — are a match made in Heaven. If you’re new to Quasi, try Featuring “Birds” and Field Studies, both of them way up there with the early albums of their friend (and occasional bandmate) Elliott Smith.
Lineup: Kori Gardner (vox, large toy-like organ) and Jason Hammel (vox, drums; recently they’ve added two side-players)
Relationship: Married with children
I sometimes picture an equilateral triangle with a different graphic at each point: a heart, a dollar sign, and some kind of Greek harp representing labors of love. Most of us exist along one of those lines — doing what we love but making no money, making good money at a soul-sucking job, etc. Gardner and Hammel have always struck me as a couple that exists right in the center of that triangle: doing what they love, together, for a living. Just Mates of State and Mr. and Mrs. Eames, god bless them.
Images: Grant Cornett (Buke and Gase), Tom Sands (Hank & Cupcakes), wyeoakmusic.com, Jon Baker (Big Deal), John Clark (Quasi), Glynis Selina Arban (Mates of State)