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Slacking Towards Tacoma

Five bands converge on Real Art with a taste for guitars and a lack of polish

Big Buddy is one of a few bands coming to Real Art that play on the spectrum of slacker rock. Photo credit: Seth Halleran

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Genres in popular music can be a finicky thing, having spent the past few decades splintering into increasingly specific subcategories. Music nerds can sometimes carry strong opinions about how certain bands are labeled, with some eschewing granular distinctions entirely -- like my dad, who insisted that anything outside of the box was to simply be called progressive rock -- while others obsess over correct classifications (try mislabeling a metal band and watch the pedants come out of the woodwork). 

When it comes to nebulous subgenres, one that's been growing in popularity over the past few years is slacker rock, which itself was birthed out of the similarly hazy field of college rock. Like a lot of other types of music, the defining features for a band's inclusion in the club are a little loose, but you know it when you hear it: shaggy instrumentals, usually on the guitar-heavy side, a general ambivalence to polished sounds, and an uncanny ease with catchy hooks. The totem for any discussion about slacker rock is Pavement, who concretized the template in the early ‘90s, on the back of ramshackle classics like Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. More recently, people like Mac DeMarco, Kurt Vile, and Courtney Barnett have brought renewed interest to the style.

On Sunday, Real Art will be hosting a show with five bands that, in various ways, embody the spirit of slacker rock. Do they all fit the slacker rock definition to a tee? Who cares, man? Quit being so uptight.

Seattle quartet Big Buddy released their debut EP, Strange Splendor, back in March. The charming four-song set is marked by a relaxed energy that sometimes erupts into frantic refrains. There's a loud-quiet-loud vibe at play, with sleepy vocals and casually strummed guitars suddenly being jolted to attention at unexpected moments. In some ways, Big Buddy feels like a band that's full of ideas, but restless when it comes to getting those ideas out; the hard cut on "Melt," where crashing guitars abruptly disappear, dropping us back into a mellow shuffle, seems like both a canny stylistic choice and an impatience with traditional song structure. Moves like that keep you on your toes while listening to Big Buddy.

Bobby Baritone is a solo project of Matthew Fildey's, guitarist for Big Buddy, and it leans even more heavily into that tossed-off energy. Scum Rock, Bobby Baritone's debut EP, puts a finer point on where the musician is coming from, though there's a refinement that belies that self-deprecating label. Fuzzy guitars share space with indie pop sensibilities, giving even the scuzziest of songs a sense of lightness. 

Originally formed in Los Angeles, Yoy is a trio that leans further into garage pop territory, incorporating surfy rhythms and a detached attitude. While the three-piece released an album under a different name in 2016, their sole output as Yoy is a two-song demo from earlier this year, which shows a lot of promise. "Battle Royale" is a jittery bit of noise rock, skipping stones from one mode to another, whether that be raved-up punk, ‘90s-indebted alt-rock, or sludgy riffs.

Tacoma's own Etchings embraces an element of slacker rock that has only recently become a prevalent factor: math-rock influences, embracing complexity and a reverence for structure. It may seem antithetical to the ethos of slacker rock, but I don't make the rules (and I'm not entirely sure who does). As for the final band, we've got Dream Ring, also from Tacoma. And you know what? They've got nothing to do with slacker rock. Their heavy riffs and alt-metal tendencies remove them from the pool, but they do rock like hell. Best not to take notes, I guess, and just see this kick-ass show.

DREAM RING, w/ Yoy, Big Buddy, Bobby Baritone, Etchings, all ages, 7 p.m., Sunday, June 24, Real Art Tacoma, 5412 S. Tacoma Way, Tacoma, $10,

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