Lesson one: Don't judge a book by its cover, or a band by its name. I learned that about six weeks ago while listening to a song on local radio station WNCW.
The tune caught my attention immediately, even though I was driving home from the Lake Eden Arts Festival and thought my mind had reached saturation after a weekend's worth of good music. This song, though, was a clean, spare take on Americana with plenty of Neil Young-inspired expansiveness, a Tom Petty-like driving rock beat, gorgeous three-part harmonies and no affected twang. I listened well after the song finished to find out the name of the band. Turned out to be Asheville's Sophisticated Chimps.
Sure, I'd heard of them before. And assumed, based on the name, that they played Tom Jones covers in a hotel bar near the airport. Not that the group is doing much to generate the buzz they deserve: Their MySpace page (www.myspace.com/sophisticatedchimps) is as spare as their self-described "acoustically fueled dark pop rock," their bio barely a calling card ("The guitar arrangements are provided by Tom Bennett and Miles Swartz. Drew Gregory provides the upright and electric bass work with local drumming staple James Owen crushing the drum set."), and their few-and-far-between show dates are mostly comprised of opening slots for (in my opinion) lesser-skilled bands.
Then again, if the Sophisticated Chimps remain a secret, that means better seats for those of us who know about their tightly crafted songs and unfussy delivery.
Case in point: their recent show at Stella's (the basement of Stella Blue). To a crowd of about a dozen, the quartet played a decidedly electric set (Gregory had an acoustic standup bass, but ended up switching out for an electric when it appeared the sound man couldn't figure out how to mic the standup). The mix muddied the acoustics (unfortunate for such crisply conative songs) and buried the vocals a bit, but even in the cavernous murk of Stella's, the merits of the Sophisticated Chimps rose to the surface. Original songs were bolstered by rhythmic grooves and pointed references to '70s California country rock, less obvious nods to '90s alt-pop (think Jane's Addiction), refreshingly short guitar solos and clean finishes.
On songs like "Sing it from the Pontiac" and the slow-burning "Wind up the Radios," the Sophisticated Chimps reach their stride, flirting with the tension between the single voice and the emotive, soaring harmony (employed most successfully on the choruses). "Pontiac" is a fully realized amalgamation of the best of folk rock fused with modern music. There's a tenderness underscored by muscular, unapologetic rock; skillful musicianship displayed with unpretentious nonchalance; and, if I haven't said it enough, those ravishing harmonies heard all too rarely in today's music.
While the Sophisticated Chimps may not be excavating new ground here, they are polishing a musical form deserving of continued attention. Check it out for yourself on the band's recently released. self-titled debut, available at their shows.