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Threepenny Broadway

“Can we have some bread?”

“You children don’t have anyone in the world, do you?”

“No . . . 1-2-3-4!”

The dialogue comes from Charles Laughton’s sole directorial credit, 1954’s James Agee–penned Night of the Hunter. (You know, the one with Robert Mitchum’s knuckles.) But it also shows up in Young People’s song of the same name, which closes War Prayers (Dim Mak), their second full-length. Katie Eastburn reads Lillian Gish’s big line less than empathetically, as if holding the begging moppets — on the record, two of the singer’s former dance students — at arm’s length. Then the kids’ count-off kick-starts a frat-house rave-up, complete with sax and the disc’s meatiest backbeat, courtesy of guests Jonathan Silberman and Joe Plummer.

“We were listening to ’70s Elvis records for the arrangement, but we used what we had available,” says Eastburn. It hardly matters that the result sounds nothing like the King. What the track lacks in polish it makes up for in imagination. Guitarist Jeff Rosenberg: “A lot of this record was inspired by fat Elvis and fat Jim Morrison, and Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and musicals. The way we dress isn’t Broadway, and the shows we put on aren’t Broadway, but sometimes it’s Broadway in our minds.”

We’re talking at Spaceland, before the originally L.A.-based trio’s first hometown show since moving to New York a year ago. They’ve even managed to conjure up a Broadway-style opening-night crisis: During sound check, Jarett Silberman’s tour-battered guitar suddenly “stopped making noise.” Now he’s doing emergency surgery while the other members settle around a Ms. Pac-Man console to discuss the current disc’s progression from their 2001 debut.

“We recorded the first one over one weekend in our basement, and another weekend in [engineer] Rod Cervera’s former residence in downtown L.A.,” explains Eastburn. “We mixed it in two days. The new one took a whole week. We rented a tape machine in Seattle and flew Rod up to a farmhouse in Olympia, so it was total immersion.” “We didn’t have the budget to make a huge record,” says Rosenberg, “but we thought the idea of us ‘going big’ was hilarious, because we’re so inherently minimal.”

That’s an understatement: Even at its most expansive, War Prayers draws on a strictly limited palette. “The Valley” sets Eastburn’s contralto against skeletal percussion, rhythmically unmoored from the hymnlike melody, and nothing else. Elsewhere, she tops Silberman’s spacious, tom-heavy drum parts with a nautical-sounding gong or an atonal violin scratch, while Rosenberg’s guitar moves from single-note slide passages to abrasive skeins of feedback, often in the same song. It’s a curiously full and compelling sound, implying more than it ever states directly.

 

Eastburn’s collaged lyrics are nearly as elusive. “I use hymnals, old traditionals, phrases of movies, snatches of language from anywhere. Parts of ‘The Valley’ came from a book of early American songs in the Brooklyn Library. But if something doesn’t fit, I’ll change it. It’s never a straight translation.” While the folky strain is strong, other sources on War Prayers range from John Ford (Stagecoach) and John Fante (Ask the Dust) to ex-televangelist Tammy Faye Messner’s recent stage act. The result is a patchwork flag, sewn together from several centuries of cultural detritus, flapping in the chilly wind of Eastburn’s full-throated but emotionally unreadable vocals.

Back at Spaceland, the surprise hit of the band’s set is another secondhand rose. Recorded for a BBC session on a recent European tour but as yet unreleased, “The Man That Got Away” is another kind of American traditional — the torch song tailored by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin for Judy Garland’s comeback in A Star Is Born. Live, Rosenberg and Silberman approximate big-band orchestration with two reverb-drenched slide guitars, while Eastburn, behind the drums, whomps and belts her way to a big finish — “Ever since the world began/There ain’t too much sadder than . . .” — that’s equal parts Mo Tucker and Ethel Merman. Though Rosenberg admits, “We rewrote everything underneath the vocal line,” the song somehow emerges in one piece. Even so, Young People aren’t likely to show up on your local standards station alongside Toni Tennille and Michael Buble — but that’s show biz.

Young People play the Troubadour on Thursday and Friday, April 1 and 2.