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Arms and The Pianos
158 Ludlow St, New York
January 9, 2008

Written by John Hashop
Photographed by Amy Davidson

Opposite Photo: Todd Goldstein of Arms

Abbott and Costello had nothing on the conversation that took place when I was told I would be heading down to Pianos to review...The Pianos. I know– the hilarity is just leaping off the page. (“Third base!”) Anyway, I found myself on Ludlow last Wednesday night gearing up to formulate an opinion on two bands about whom I knew absolutely nothing. It’s part of the excitement.

As part of a spottily-enforced New Year’s resolution, beer has become beverage-non-grata on my outings, and, after half-heartedly explaining to my photographer that a Stoli and soda has 150 less calories than a Guinness, we armed ourselves with cocktails and headed to the stage to hear the opening act.

Todd Goldstein of Arms

Opening up for The Pianos was Arms, consisting of guitarist Todd Goldstein (who also plays guitar for The Harlem Shakes), frontman Todd Goldstein (who also plays guitar for The Harlem Shakes), and also Todd Goldstein. Okay, you get the point – Arms is just Todd Goldstein. Goldstein plays with a comfortable stage presence and satisfying chops, and when he opens his mouth, it’s as if you’re listening to a bizarre cross between John Flansburgh and a young Willie Nelson. This will not be the only TMBG reference in this review. Goldstein sings with an almost lazy grace, swooping and sliding from note to note. While this is a genuinely smile-inducing style on the ballads, I found myself wanting him to be more decisive with his vocal attack on the up-tempo numbers. He is at his strongest when he is changing things up rhythmically with his strumming, and when he forces himself to sing over his playing it really makes a huge difference. Goldstein’s lyrics seem almost like a sneak peek into his journal, flipping from the deeply personal questions (“Hold me closer / Won’t you sever every tie / And sing a lullaby?”) to the downright weird ones (“Oh, isn’t it strange that people have eyes / That rest in sockets of bone, so peaceful and quiet?”). Overall, Goldstein delivers a solid performance marred by only a few minor quibbles. That could be just me, though – after all, the line that stood out most from the set was “I’m always feeling off this time of year.”
Drinks were ordered as The Pianos were setting up. According to my advanced calculations, by the end of the night I had saved 600 calories by ordering vodka-sodas instead of beers, which is equivalent to forty-five minutes on the elliptical. I’m never going to the gym again.

Jordan Goldstein of The Pianos

Headlining the night’s event were five students from the music conservatory powerhouse and hotbed of liberalism that is Oberlin College. It’s always fun when you see big Marks-a-lot X’s on the back of the band’s hands. With Alex Morris on drums, Matt Orenstein on bass, Matt Davis on trombone, Jordan Goldstein (Arms’ brother) on sax and Julian Chen on accordion, The Pianos have just a ridiculous amount of fun performing their high-energy, unconventional, self-styled “instrumental pop.” They have been playing together for less than a year, but already they have a tight sound that is equally at home on the blazing numbers with which they opened the set and the downbeat, stair-stepping songs that gave the audience time to breathe.

The Pianos

Alex Morris shows just how much a skilled drummer can do with a minimal kit, pushing along some brain-jarring time signatures. If he’s not careful, Zildjian might prosecute him for cymbal abuse if they catch him bashing away (in perfect time, no less) during the frenetically-paced “Bees and Lizards.” With Chen on accordion, the They Might Be Giants comparisons are inevitable sound-wise, but in a band with no lead guitar, he often fools you into thinking he’s playing an overdriven Gibson. Matt Orenstein throws down a strong and heavy bass line that doesn’t allow him to be swallowed up by the other instruments, and Goldstein and Davis absolutely shine – and thankfully not just on their solos.

Matt Davis of The Pianos

The band as a whole shows good communication and it’s refreshing to see bandmates actually listening to each other. The songs themselves don’t stand out nearly as much as their performance, though, with a tendency to occasionally drift into hook-less doodling. When they do find a good, poppy hook, such as on the standout “Wall Static,” you realize how much you’ve been missing them, and it saves The Pianos from winding up on that all-too-populated list of bands filled with talented musicians and limited musical sensibility. Very much recommended.

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