Spread across numerous venues in the dead of winter, Tomorrow Never Knows hardly feels like a festival. Which is what makes the annual January event so refreshing. The folks from Schubas do a smashing job of getting a jump on the summer monster concerts, bringing this year’s models into cozy spaces. There are a few too-trendy acts, like Gauntlet Hair, an Animal Collective clone big on repetition and echo. The Denver duo loops and layers its hollering and harmonizing into a tribal soup. What its 2011 self-titled debut lacks in elucidation, it makes up for in energy and shameless love for the Cocteau Twins.
Class Actress, another ripped-from-the-blogrolls darling, holds the sounds of the ’80s as a romantic ideal like so many millennials. Singer Elizabeth Harper studied drama, and with her breathy vocals infuses more than enough heartbreak and pillow-biting into Mark Richardson’s throbbing keyboards. How Willis Earl Beal exactly fits on that bill is unclear, but the about-to-blow-up local doesn’t fit in anywhere. The eccentric soul singer drew notice by posting fliers around town that announced his fondness for Norah Jones, oatmeal and a “nice pretty girl.” Recently, Beal signed with XL Recordings, home of Adele and Radiohead, which will first release his homemade, often eerie Acousmatic Sorcery, which brings to mind Cat Power, psychedelic folk, Raphael Saadiq and dusty Smithsonian blues tapes.
The TNK Saturday slate is loaded. The inimitable and dapper Walkmen take time out from finishing their upcoming seventh album, which seems to be buttoning up a more upbeat and doo-woppy suit. “Radio City” and “Heartbreaker” have a bounce and Buddy Holly beat, and already sound like a new high-water mark for one of America’s best bands that just keeps getting better. This gig also serves as a tenth anniversary bash for the band, which will dig into its decade-old and still-fresh Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone. The Merge debut of Hospitality is officially the first record of 2012 that has us completely smitten. The trio’s Anglophilic and utterly adorable sweets are in love with old sounds, old films, old books. Amber Papini splashes in the puddles of what should be melancholic retro-pop, wrapped in a hand-knit scarf of horns and violins. But her rush of knotty lyrics and her giddy vim add an injection of B vitamins into Belle & Sebastian’s bookish charm.
On “Murderous Joy” and “Gauze of Song,” Carter Tanton twists acoustic guitar lines into the kudzu tangle of early R.E.M. Elsewhere, the Lower Dens member lazes in more wide-open spaces. Tanton sings in stretched, sorrowful notes, dreaming of some alternate America where cowboys strap synths to their saddlebags. “Pasture Sound” even dabbles in what we’ll call Great Plains reggae.