Remember those guys in high school? The ones who never sat in the cool back corner, but always in the neutral zone a few rows in and halfway up? There was the shy, unassuming doorknob guy, only recognizable because he hung out with the other two: the frantic klutz whose adorableness made his geekiness incomprehensible, and the nerd oh-so-aware and unconcerned about his nerdiness that he played into it. They went unnoticed for years. Then at the senior talent show this trio took the stage and it was a minute into their rendition of “Baba O’Riley” before anyone realized who they were. But as recognition dawned across the auditorium the room was filled with and odd surge of excitement because, hey, these guys were actually good. They were fucking cool. They were fucking rock stars! Who knew these nobodies had lives outside of honors freshman bio?
The feeling of this show was a little like that. Keith Murray (guitar/vocals), Chris Cain (bass/moustache), and Michael Tapper (drums) weren’t those guys in high school, they’re those guys right now. Every club they enter turns into a finally-legal birthday basement bash, and they’re the quirky fellows rockin’ out in the corner by the water heater. But their quirkiness really only goes as far as Cain’s goggles, and then it’s all cute, passionate power pop.
The Subterranean isn’t a basement but it possesses a similar charm with the claustrophobia-inducing layout and the spiral staircase that leads from the “backstage” area down to the main stage. The crowd, two-parts rapturous and one-part curious, packed into this room, waiting for their enthusiasm to be vindicated or their skepticism to be confirmed/denied. After teasing us with dangling feet, the Scientists emerged from their secret lair and, once Cain’s protective eyewear was in place, jumped into “This Scene is Dead” with the gusto of quiz bowl champs outwitting an oblivious student council president. From there they went off running through the entirety of With Love and Squalor, plus a few other tunes to get the heads bobbin’, including a perfectly sweet rendition of The Ronnette’s “Be My Baby.”
Murray knew how to find that perfect point between pretentious rock star and delightfully geeky artist that makes for enticing stage presence. On rockers like “Can’t Lose” and “Callbacks” he held onto the mike for dear life, screaming with a seductive hip shake and loose guitar stroke. This suave seduction only held up because it wasn’t impenetrable. His zealous jaunts around the stage caused a few stumbles, and his trek down the spiral stairs for the encore nearly ended with a nosedive into and amp. More than a few times his solid vocals were spiced with giggles that could be interpreted as nerves or excitement, and sometimes he seemed utterly shocked that people actually recognized the songs he was singing, or that anyone was there to hear him sing at all. One of the best moments of the night came during “Textbook,” on which Murray’s voice was endearingly crackling and a touch off-key, when he took his first look up at the balcony and made the slightest flinch and laugh, apparently surprised by the captivated faces he saw there.
But we were all there, even us who admittedly aren’t completely sold on With Love and Squalor. As that freshman bio teacher used to say, we are all scientists, and I’m not sure there was one person in that crowd who wasn’t observing with keen attention and inquisitive lust every move these fellows made. While an animated Murray rocked around the stage, Tapper created a solid focal point as one of the most calm (but by no means listless) pop rock drummers I’ve ever seen, concentrating his passion into every hit. Cain, despite (because of?) his moustache and goggles, was a more subdued, romantic counterpart. When he wasn’t bantering with Murray and the crowd he was eyeing his bass lovingly and singing his harmonies with a debonair enthusiasm to rival any Errol Flynn climax.
We Are Scientists are a conundrum. Their music is sprightly emo appealing to the sixteen-year-old in all of us, yet their live show harnesses this youthful energy to create passion only an older (like, twenty-sixish) crowd could appreciate. If I had seen them when I was sixteen I would have just fallen in love with Keith Murray and that would have been the end of it. I wouldn’t have appreciated the tight sound, the controlled energy exploding like a post-teen yearning anxiously for more time. We Are Scientists have high school hearts in the bodies and minds of college grads, and you aging hipsters can dismiss all you want that their sound is just the next buzz wave of power pop, but when they hit the stage your head’s going to swirl in an addictive giddiness where reminiscence and carpe diem collide, and you’ll wonder why you ever lost faith in the miraculous powers of simple pop rock fun.