Voices raised, Afternoons set out into an uncertain ’09


[First of two posts on L.A. Bands to Watch, 2009]


Los Angeles septet Afternoons make you feel as if you have “The Music Man” blaring in one ear, “Rigoletto” ringing in the other and “Tommy” rocking deep in your chest. Their music is euphoric and grandiose, as intoxicating as one of the generous pours the bartenders are liable to give you in the Eastside clubs the band calls home, and has rightfully earned them a spot on any aficionado’s short list of best live bands in L.A.

They’re a good bet to release one of the finest albums of 2009 … even if the business side of making music these days is as fraught with as much drama as one of the band’s anthems.

“We’re being cautious,” says singer-guitarist Brian Canning, one of four members of the star-crossed indie pop band Irving who play in Afternoons. “We’re a lot wiser than we used to be. When we were 21, 22, we made a lot of decisions for the wrong reasons. We wanted to be something we weren’t.”

Hard to believe if you were caught up in Afternoons’ buzz in 2008, but the band has properly released only one single, “Saturday Morning (After the Funeral),” which appeared in a December episode of “Gossip Girl” — and that song isn’t even in the band’s plans for the album. To that end, Afternoons have 15 songs recorded; the four that have been available at shows aren’t even quite the finished versions.

The band has been talking to management and record labels, but no firm plans have emerged.

Canning’s prudence is understandable, considering the players’ backstory.

afternoons1Afternoons began as an Irving side project whose development accelerated when singer-bassist Alex Brown Church departed the quintet to pursue his own music as Sea Wolf. (He’s currently busy writing the sophomore Sea Wolf album.) Canning and Afternoons’ other principal songwriter, Steven Scott, “had a lot of long dramatic songs that Alex wasn’t into so much,” so after producer Tom Biller joined as bassist, they began working on the music, Canning says. “It was gonna be an electronic folk music project.”

Neighbors intervened. “We got word that Eleni Mandell and Claire McKeown and some other women were rehearsing as a choir down the street, so we thought ‘Why not incorporate that into some of the songs?'” Canning says. “It was more of an art project.”

The choir appears on five of the Afternoons’ recordings, and McKeown, a classically trained opera singer, joined permanently, her theremin-like vocals putting a cinematic sheen on the band’s rambunctious stew of guitars, horns, keyboards, percussion, pristine harmonies and choruses that knock you into the next time zone.

The septet’s music first emerged after Solon Bixler of Great Northern slipped Indie 103.1 a copy of “Love Is a Western Word,” and that station, as well as KCRW-FM, gave it airplay. Then last spring artist Shepard Fairey gave the band a boost by creating a poster for “Say Yes,” a memorable anthem that cast Afternoons as a merry band of optimists.

But Canning eschews the notion that Afternoons’ songs are happy faces set to melody. “On the outside, they’re optimistic, but there’s a lot of ambiguity,” he says. “All the songs are based on the same sad story.”

In fact, the in-the-works album is a narrative itself — a pop opera. “It has characters and a storyline,” Canning says. “There’s definitely a screenplay behind it.”

His immersion in the Afternoons project hasn’t necessarily mitigated Canning’s disappointment over Irving’s fate. The band’s sophomore album, “Death in the Garden, Blood in the Flowers” (2006), for all its merit, sold only a few thousand copies.

“Irving feels like a distant memory to me now. I was super-depressed when it started to collapse, because it was our lives for so long,” he says. “We had much higher expectations for ‘Death in the Garden’ than what really happened … and it’s funny, when the album was out nobody seemed to give a s—. But once we disbanded, people will come up to me and tell me how much they liked it.”

Bittersweet, at a time Canning, Scott, Biller, McKeown and bandmates Brent Turner, Aaron Burrows and Sam Johnson only want to look forward.

“Right now,” Canning says, “our goal is to be this band that’s doing music that’s dramatic and puts on a show that’s a spectacle.”

||| Live: Afternoons perform tonight and Saturday at Spaceland.

Band photo by Sterling Andrews; Canning photo by Bronson