Can a cute but combative couple find love, peace and happiness on the long and winding -- and sometimes lonely -- road?
Such is the mixed metaphorical conundrum facing The Submarines, a pretty fair pair of performers who combine techno techniques with doses of cosmic karma to deliver a sophisticated, intelligent form of pop rock. If the Ting Tings dare to reinvent themselves as an Aimee Mann/Michael Penn redux, they'll make The Submarines stand up and sneer. Like that'll ever happen.
The husband-and-wife team of John Dragonetti and Blake Hazard, this East Coast/West Coast walking/talking/singing/stinging contradiction, corner the market among dueling indie duos. While other prototypical collaborators may stay together for the almighty dollar, the Submarines seemingly are doing it for love or fun or both. They released their third album -- the 10-track Love Notes/Letter Bombs (Nettwerk Records) -- in early April, then immediately embarked on a monthlong tour that ends at The Troubadour in Los Angeles on May 7. They'll follow that up by supporting Brett Dennen for several dates in June.
A stop at the Larimer Lounge in Denver on April 16 would have tested anyone's marital bliss mettle. Granted, the club has been -- for the past decade -- a bona fide musical institution located north of downtown and only six blocks north of the baseball hallowed ground known as Coors Field. But what do you do when the doors open at 8 o'clock and there's nobody there to walk through them?
The Submarines seemed unfazed, though, and put on happy faces while nice-guy Lounge lizards Dan Craig and Nik Freitas gave casual performances that failed to lure the assembled few from the back, where draws of Blue Moon and rounds of Pac-Man were more enticing.
In fact, Hazard, wearing a dark coat while viewing the proceedings from afar with her hubby as the chill of an early spring night hanging in the air kept everyone else conscious, held her own impromptu meet-and-greet before stepping up to the mic. She signed T-shirts and vinyl copies of Love Notes/Letter Bombs near the souvenir stand, a kindred spirit from Burlington, Vermont feeling a kinship with her new Colorado companions.
Hazard (right) brought that cheery disposition to the intimate affair, a vision of loveliness in a white dress with flowered sleeves and a starry, starry night xylophone that brightened an otherwise dimly lit stage.
Admitting the band had been "experimenting with high altitude alcohol drinking," she wished everyone a "Happy Record Store Day," a ritual they chose to celebrate hours earlier during an acoustic in-store at Independent Records. This whimsical whirlybird even dedicated the No Doubt-like "Submarine Symphonika" (from 2008's Honeysuckle Weeks) to "the girl in the bathroom who told me it's her favorite."
Despite the light turnout (the audience total basically matched the number of minutes in the hourlong, 13-song set) while competing that night against the Rockies, Rise Against, Bad Religion and The Greyboy Allstars, The Submarines played to their strengths. It's a Dating Game/Family Feud mixtape brought to life.
Appropriately enough, they opened with "Peace and Hate," from their debut album, 2006's Declare A New State, a testimonial to love outlasting life's darkest moments.
A duet that starts softly and builds toward a powerful conclusion -- "Yell and shout and kick me out / Then forget what we fought about / But don't give up / This storm is passing" -- kicked off a steady stream of love me/hate me consciousness that kept the sparse but enthusiastic crowd drinking and thinking.
Hazard, who contemplates the sun, moon and stars through her youthful, delicate voice and the eyes of a creatively lyrical dreamer, is the mellow complement to Dragonetti's edgy, driving guitar bursts, computerized sound bites and assertive vocals. His Big Audio Dynamite blasts of energy effectively counter her Tift Merritt-Miranda Lee Richards soothing sweetness.
From left, John Dragonetti, drummer J Stare and Blake Hazard of The Submarines perform at the Larimer Lounge in Denver.
Somehow this sweet-and-sour combination works, and the band that included touring members J Stare (drums) and Scott Barber (bass) gave most of the eight songs performed from Love Notes/Letter Bombs a fulfilling vibrancy that matches the album's potent punch. (Two bonus tracks, including a cover of The Jesus & Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey," are available on the iTunes deluxe release.)
Versions of the trippy "Birds," with Beatlesque backward guitar effects, "Fire" (electronic bagpipes?) and "Where You Are," with its sonic blips and burps, get special treatment in the studio, achieving the desired results with efficient enhancing. But sentimental journeys through the age-of-innocence "Ivaloo" (kicked off so delightfully by a ukulele) and "Anymore" (one of three encore numbers that night) are also well worth taking.
In introducing "Ivaloo" to the Mile High City midway through the set, Hazard, grabbing an acoustic guitar, said the title was taken from a street in Somerville, Massachusetts, where the couple first met before moving to Los Angeles. Friends also named their baby "Ivaloo," saying it sounded a little like "I love you." Perhaps thinking this all sugar/no spice was a bit much, Hazard added, "We imagined Ivaloo growing up to be a young heartbreaker involved in dysfunctional relationships."
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Dragonetti (left) and Hazard freely admit their contentious connection has had its share of pro-and-conflict, and references to Wes Anderson films and War of the Roses have been made to sum up their primal instincts. They manage to put the "diss" and "fun" into dysfunctional.
Some of their songs became pop culture bits and pieces, identifiable in iPhone ads ("Submarine Symphonika," "You, Me and the Bourgeoisie") film soundtracks (the show-closing "Xavia" landed on Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) and TV doc-dramas such as Grey's Anatomy ("Brightest Hour" illuminates Season 4/Episode 14; "Plans" from Love Notes/Letter Bombs appears on Season 7/Episode 16).
Essentially, though, The Submarines are earnest adults making music for grown-ups, downtowners and anyone in need of a double shot of love on the rocks. Hazard, the great-granddaughter of F. Scott Fitzgerald, obviously realizes truth is no stranger than friction.
The undeniably peppy "You, Me and the Bourgeoisie," offering an optimistic glimpse ("We're not living the good life / Unless we're fighting the good fight"), capped a stirring four-song, tough-to-top denouement that should have served as the hard-core encore.
It began with the infectious album-opening "Shoelaces," its bass booming and acid dripping from Dragonetti's first line -- "I've had better days than this." Also in the mix was "The Thorny Thicket," with tambourine, handclaps, raging bullish electric guitar runs and a "We choose love / we choose light" refrain that intensifies with each passing verse, including:
I had a ring of thorns /
around my heart
but you made your way in /
yes you broke it apart
Apparently finding comfort by addressing their ongoing paradoxical ways (they even have dueling blogs), Dragonetti and Hazard seem made for each other.
As long as they can keep it together, let the lyrics continue to fuel their fabulous and ferocious fire.
For a limited time, get a free download of "Birds" from The Submarines' Love Notes/Letter Bombs:
Hear The Submarines' bonus track of The Jesus & Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey":
Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more concert photos at flickr.com<.b>.
See a slideshow from the Denver show: