“Bury your hatchet in me!
What else can a bygone be?”
Inactivists, “Why (Aren’t You (In Love (With Me)))”
As we round that corner of the year leading up to the sickening sweetness of another Hallmark-sponsored Valentine’s Day, I’ve been introduced to the perfect collection of songs to commemorate the “holiday,” complete with the appropriate level of irony, humor and lovelorn misgivings in The Inactivists‘ “Love Songs & Other Songs About Love,” released last year. So much more than merely a pile of rosy, soap opera schmaltz, this record, through The Inactivists’ sharp wit and sense of humor, represents probably the most honest revelation of love from the eyes of a constantly unrequited nerd (and let’s face it, all of us have been that, at one time or another), played by a band of Muppets that landed a daily gig in a bar inside David Lynch’s cranium.
The five piece plays an eclectic style of pop that defies any one genre, and deifies many. Sometimes it’s funk from Sly & the Family Stone – albeit often with an overwhelming flavor of Morris Day & The Time – and sometimes it’s arty rock from bands like King Crimson, or sick and flirty forays into psychedelia that rival Butthole Surfers’ wildest. And it’s all played with tongues planted firmly in cheek and wrapped up in a grown-up’s version of They Might Be Giants meets Captain Beefheart (many of the songs are not safe for office play, at least not without headphones – which, of course, makes them even more hilarious). Not bad for a band with a heavy metal ukelele and constant theremin as the root for their sound, not bad at all.
The Inactivists’ sense of humor altogether, represents probably the most honest revelation of love from the eyes of a constantly unrequited nerd . . . played by a band of Muppets that landed a daily gig in a bar inside David Lynch’s cranium.
The lineup, after some 6 years that included some inevitable personnel changes, includes Scot Livingston on ukelele, guitars and vocals, Pattie Melt on tenor sax, accordion, flute and clarinet, Kelly Prestridge on drums and vocals, Victoria Lundy on theremin and vocals and Matt Sumner on bass and vocals, a combination that proves more than solid. As I visited their “practice lair” in Westminster (Prestridge’s home) recently, I was impressed with the deep, easy camaraderie the group exudes. Like old friends, all with loads of talent and similar tastes in humor and nothing to prove, each of their personalities bounces easily off another’s, which results in a practice time that seems more like a welcome break to the mundane.
“We actually look forward to this night weekly together,” said Prestridge. “Many of us play in other bands, but this is the one we enjoy the most, probably.”
You can feel it in their performance, also. Where some bands may bend under some of their own weightiness, or seem to thrive on some internal competition (at least for a while, before they self-destruct) The Inactivists show little, if any, internal strife, and their happiness only adds to their successful formula of weirdness, dry humor and art-rock. When Livingston laments that “ . . . you say that I should be myself, because I might be someone else” in “What I Want Wants,” the opening tune from “Love Songs,” it never comes across as disingenuous, or, say, overdramatic (he’s about as far from Morrissey as you’re likely to find – and that’s a damned good thing). It does reek of the sad reality of many, many relationships, though, even if the band means it all as a joke.
Other highlights on the record include a smoky, tiki-styled torch song in “Tell Me So,” about the internal meanderings of your average paranoid boyfriend, wallowing in the deepest basement of his own self esteem, and “Lock Jah,” a spikey death-jab to reggae about contracting lock jaw in the process of losing weight from fear of a constantly imminent breakup. A clear standout for me is “You Love Me Too,” which features Livingston singing through a voice synth that makes him sound like the Smurf version of Gibby Haynes as he screams vindication against an ex lover – or an imagined one, perhaps. The song has a creepy sort of stalker flavor that makes it that much more attractive.
Make no mistake – as much fun as The Inactivists are always having, they do take themselves pretty seriously – at least musically. Prestridge’s drumming leans more towards the Peart variety than the average drummer, and matches Sumner’s eclectic and skillfull bass perfectly. And the combination of Lundy’s omnipresent, eerie and sensual theremin with Melt’s sax – sometimes reminiscent of Romeo Void, others more like Morphine – and accordion couldn’t be more spot on with Livingston’s ukelele and guitar constructions. And the vocals, shared by all behind Livingston’s lead, and changing drastically with song subject and feel, add the right amount of maladroit clumsiness to give the humor extra bite.
The Inactivists have largely been more of a suburban item in the past, as far as live shows, but they’re starting a campaign this year to both boost their presence in downtown Denver’s scene, and to add more touring to their plate. They have a show this upcoming Saturday, January 30th, at The Walnut Room, followed by another show (venue TBA) on February 6th, and an appearance at Bender’s Tavern on February 13th (Valentine’s Day Eve, to add just a little more to the nature of the latest record), and a few shows supporting Little Fyodor up in Wyoming in the coming months. They’ve acquired a new publicist in Prestridge’s wife, Heather (also one of the members of Ground Above Zero), who plans to make sure The Inactivists see their fair share of Denver, and that Denver gets the privilege of seeing this band live.
If you go to see one show this year with the intent to be entertained, and to potentially shoot your cocktail through your nose in abject laughter, or to ease a broken heart by commiserating with the fellow love-crushed, make a point of making it to wither The Walnut Room show (THIS SATURDAY – JANUARY 30th! – Buy Tickets!) or to the Valentine’s Eve show on February 13th at Bender’s. Nothing soothes a soar love muscle like some great music, and laughter can only help, too.
Here’s a hilarious sample of The Inactivists’ version of Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” live from late 2008: