On the back cover of Moving Units‘ promo CD, there’s a curious illustration — six hands gripping a prostrate child — that illuminates the band‘s approach to jaded L.A. audiences. The diagram, taken from How To Deal With Your Brain-Damaged Child, shows how three caregivers can teach an infant to crawl by stimulating the right muscle groups with forceful repetitions of simple, recognizable patterns. Judging from the potent but decidedly retro tones on the disc, it’s a lesson the Silver Lake trio has taken to heart. “Everything rings a little too familiar these days,” admits Units guitarist and lead singer Blake Miller. But rather than shun the well-worn grooves of bygone eras, Miller and his bandmates, bassist Johan Boegli and drummerbacking vocalist Chris Hathwell, have consciously made them their own. “We pride ourselves on an art form based on facsimile,” says Miller.
The brash, trebly assault of Miller‘s guitar atop Boegli’s punchy, melodic bass lines and Hathwell‘s sassy high hat and on-the-beat kick drum does immediately invite comparisons to Gang of Four, Television, and The Cure’s early work, but Moving Units‘ similitude to these forerunners of alt-rock doesn’t tell the whole story. Though they share the back-to-basics approach of their new-wave progenitors as well as the punk ethic that sincerity and passion outweigh musical sophistication, they reproduce the elements in novel ways.
Anything but chord-rock, Miller‘s guitar lines turn on authorial rhythmic phrases that never encroach on his singing. Hathwell’s ever-changing patterns sound like Keith Moon snuck behind the drum kit at a Blondie gig. And while Boegli holds down the flow more than the other two, his bass playing gives the listener a continuously bumpy ride. But it‘s the way these ingredients are integrated that makes Moving Units so appealing. The solo guitar inaugurating “Between Us & Them” sounds like standard fare on its own — so too the vocal cheerleading at the beginning of “I-N-F-O” — but when the rhythm section crashes down on the offbeat, turning the accent upside down, the song explodes into life. The arrangements almost suggest that each band member composed his part in isolation, a schizophrenia that gives the three-piece a surprisingly full sound. Yet they don’t introduce unnecessary complications: The two-note, one-chord guitar solo in “Unpersuaded” underscores the goal — to please the ear, not impress the eye.
Miller paints lyrical portraits that rely on his mournful rattles, shrieks and moans as much as his words, which, though rather abstract, permit a cyclical saga of failed relationships and vain reconciliations to emerge from the impressionistic gloom. In Moving Units‘ opener, “Between Us & Them,” Miller dances around infidelity with characteristically obtuse lyrics until finally confessing, “What a disaster . . . we couldn’t go wrong any faster.” In the second track, he bemoans the thoughtless nature of sexual relations against Hathwell‘s biting refrain, “It’s just human nature.” He‘s determined to regain his sense of self by the third track, “I Am,” but succumbs to Hathwell’s magpie chorus of “Surrender,” following the siren‘s call back “into the disco” in the final cut, “Melodrama.” Though you might enter “soft as a feather,” he warbles, “you come out just like leather.”
Moving Units is, of course, a visual disaster. Miller and Hathwell are orphan-skinny, more like Oliver begging for another bowl of gruel than Iggy Pop heroin chic. Miller’s cathartic performances leave his stringy shag plastered to his forehead, two deep-set eyes staring out over sunken cheeks. Hathwell flogs his drums like a hunchbacked ogre, grinning through a set of teeth that would make Keith Richards wince. Only Boegli looks even slightly healthy, playing the bass with Entwistle stoicism, dressed dandily in a V-neck sweater and collared shirt.
But Moving Units‘ real appeal is best gauged by audience reactions. The detached hipsters at their recent Spaceland show surround the stage the moment the band goes on and, momentarily abandoning their shoe-gazer malaise, dance enthusiastically throughout the set. The slightly tougher crowd at a Troubadour gig mixes mod and rocker so well that a friendly mosh pit spontaneously erupts from the listeners’ rhythmic convulsions. Unable to restrain himself in the midst of such frenzy, Hathwell leaps off the drum stool midsong to give Miller a hug, clap his hands and make a little love to the audience.
After the show, one young fan who already follows the fledgling band from town to town proudly displays his Moving Units T-shirt. Asked about it, he says, “Oh, you should see the other ones I made — they‘re even cooler.” With a little genuine affection, it seems, the baby can do more than just crawl.
Moving Units play at Spaceland Saturday, February 8.