Tight as a Group and Entrenched in Their Community, Can’t Kids Grow Their Quirky Pop

Saturday at New Brookland Tavern
By Jordan Lawrence
Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Can’t Kids | photo by David Baker

Music videos rarely sum up a band’s character quite so well as the clip for “The Twist,” a standout from Can’t Kids’ newly released Ennui Go. The song, like all of the Columbia quartet’s best offerings, balances whimsical twee mischief with a twisted and sardonic indie rock edge, centering its logic on an assertion (“If you can snap your kid sister’s neck with a twist / You can think your way out of this”) that’s both horrifying and uplifting.

The video — shot with shaky camera work that nods nostalgically to goofy middle school film projects — is filled with their friends and fellow local musicians stumbling into ridiculous and terrible situations. Coma Cinema’s Mat Cothran is wrestled to the ground by two burly assailants. The laidback bros from Say Brother accidentally hit one of their own with a car. It’s dark, but also adorable, nailing the essential tension that makes Can’t Kids tick. Just as important, it finds them interacting with the members of their tight-knit community.

What: Can’t Kids
When: Saturday, May 10, 8:30 p.m.
Where: New Brookland Tavern, 122 State St.
With: MyBrother MySister, Bath Salts, Those Lavender Whales
Price: $6 ($9 under 21)
More Info: newbrooklandtavern.com

“We used just about a different person for every aspect of [Ennui Go],” laughs bassist Henry Thomas. In addition to the video, directed by Columbia videographer Katherine McCollough, they’re working with two local labels — Fork & Spoon Records on vinyl and CD; Space Idea Tapes on cassette — and Five Points screenprinting hub The Half and Half, which created the artwork. Music is a communal endeavor, and Can’t Kids want to incorporate as many of their fellow artists as possible.

“When it all really comes together, it’s the best feeling,” Thomas continues. “It’s a feeling you share with your community. That’s a good thing. It’s hard for your community to share good feelings a lot. It’s usually the bad s#!t that’s being focused on.”

As he speaks, he relaxes on his back deck alongside Adam Cullum, the band’s songwriter and leader, and Amy Cuthbertson, the group’s cellist. Both he and Cullum live in this cozy one-story home, known to many as Shredquarters, a house show hotspot to which Thomas attracts a surprisingly strong array of local favorites and touring upstarts. It’s also the same residence that Cullum and drummer Jessica Oliver moved into in 2010 as they were starting Dawn Shredder, the two-piece pop outfit that grew into Can’t Kids. [online copy corrected]

Just as expanding their collective reach into the community has made their pursuits more meaningful, Cullum opening his songs up to a tight group of players has made them richer and more relatable. 2012’s Brushes, Touches, Tongues, recorded mere months after Thomas and Cuthbertson joined the band, is fetching but insular — its inside jokes and bipolar moods limiting the effectiveness of Can’t Kids’ charming melodies and Cullum and Oliver’s infectious vocal chemistry.

Ennui Go was written and recorded during what Thomas describes as a doldrum period, a span of months during which each member questioned the project’s validity. Coming together instead of splitting apart, Can’t Kids spin this angst into their most potent songs yet. “The Twist” writhes with prickly guitars made approachable by warming cello fills, making bleak but redeeming jokes about the way life just gets away from you. “Face it,” Cullum and Oliver shout, his rasping bleat softened by her impish warble, “Nicholas Cage and your dad are the same age / But who’s counting?”

The album’s serious moments are equally effective. “You Don’t Plan” wafts along despondently with elegiac cello and minimal guitar, slowly whipping itself into a fuzzy frenzy as Cullum delivers an eloquent kiss-off — “If you were going to do it / You would have just gone and done it / You don’t plan” — his aching disappointment accented by the band’s patient crescendo.

“The thing that’s most important thing to me in lyric writing is to let every statement that you make have as many meanings as possible,” Cullum explains. “I can find a way to interpret [each] song to where anybody listening would think it’s about them.”

These are personal tunes, but Cullum insists that they also be inclusive, an ethos that extends to the way Can’t Kids carry themselves away from the music. On Saturday, when they celebrate the new release at New Brookland Tavern, Those Lavender Whales will open the show. The group, which features Fork & Spoon co-founders Chris Gardner and Aaron Graves, performs with Graves forging ahead in his battle with brain cancer. It’s sure to be a special moment — both for Can’t Kids and their community.

“I don’t really know if having them open our release show is helping them in some way,” Oliver says, “but it’s definitely wonderful for them to be a part of this and for Aaron to be willing to play this show with us even though he knows he’s going to be going through treatment and probably not feeling 100 percent.”

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