Bright sonic warmth

Three acts take the stage at Alma Mater to bring joy and inspire movement

By Rev. Adam McKinney on August 9, 2018

In the Okkervil River song, "Pop Lie," lead singer Will Sheff calls out an unseen superstar who's the "liar who lied in his pop song," and admonishes the audience that "you're lying if you sing along." While Sheff's target and intentions aren't quite clear, I think it's safe to say that he's not turning up his nose at all pop music, and those that enjoy it. At their best, songs that find a catchy groove, a compelling hook, and get in and out in three minutes or less, I believe, are some of the purest expressions of music's potential that you can find. Can your mind be blown by a 20-minute technical opus? Sure. Is expanding your horizons ever really a bad thing? Musically, it probably isn't. But I'm never as happy as I am when I'm listening to someone blending the visceral and the emotional into something that implores me to tap my toe and utterly lose myself.

This Friday, a show at Alma Mater features three acts that -- in their own, unique ways -- all manage to tap into this vibrant, immersive energy of pop music. Now, this isn't to say that these are surface-level musicians, opportunistically selling out by delivering bargain bin music for the masses, which is an unfortunate association made with pop. Rather, these artists are mining their lives and their passions for music that can effortlessly reach the ears of those in need of a bit of brightness and sonic warmth in their days.

In the first of three bands led by singer-songwriters, we have Timothy Robert Graham, who recently released SPEAK, an album that took two years to finish. Graham's a pro in the Seattle scene, but has mostly been relegated to the background, performing in bands like Motopony, but never taking much of the spotlight. SPEAK is Graham's biggest volley into frontman status to date, and the album sparkles with a ‘60s pop aesthetic by way of ‘90s Britpop. Lead single "Scaring the Children" is a punchy, Spoon-esque cut of indie R&B, clocking in at just under two minutes. Joined by Nicolas Lee, Mike Uhlenkott, Brian Bassboy, and Gabriel "The Reverend" Molinaro, Graham and his band craft tightly executed indie pop-rock that doesn't overstay its welcome.

Ruler, led by Matt Batey, is a group that creates wily indie rock with an ear toward early ‘00s power pop. Layered harmonies and raucous guitars make up the most bold colors on Ruler's palette, with tracks like "Winning Star Champion," off the recently released album of the same name, balancing self-loathing and anthemic defiance in order to get every outcast pumping their fists in the air. The ghost of the Replacements lurks in the background of Ruler's songs, though those rough edges have been shaved off a bit, leaving a more concise and less shaggy sound.

Erin Austin's OK Sweetheart project has been a Pacific Northwest favorite for some time, buoyed by her sweet melodies and open-hearted compositions. Her recently released Far Away EP confirms that her bouncy vibe and ‘60s-indebted pop mind are still intact, and her voice remains as tender and expressive as ever. OK Sweetheart radiates a grace and ebullience that's decorated with flourishes of synth beds and bright guitars. Even with lyrics that verge on the melancholy, it's hard not to listen to OK Sweetheart with a smile on your face, even if it's a smile born of commiseration.

These three acts all aim to do something different than each other, but they share the commonality of desiring their music to bring people joy. Not an ounce of combativeness makes up the DNA of their art; rather, unity and celebration provides their steadfast backbone.

OK SWEETHEART, RULER, TIMOTHY ROBERT GRAHAM, 7 p.m., Friday, Aug. 10, Alma Mater, 1322 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma, $15-$20,