Frowns upside down

Negative Reverse generates nostalgic music with a twist

Negative Reverse performs as Positive Forward.

Negative Reverse performs as Positive Forward.

Photo by David Robert

Negative Reverse plays, 8 p.m. Sunday nights at Java Jungle; 8 p.m. April 11 at Walden’s Coffeehouse.

On Sunday nights, some people hunker down in side-street cafés and let life ball up in their stomachs, anchoring them to their chairs. They sit in half-empty rooms and drink thick, dark coffee, while rain adds the finishing touches of gray to a dreary evening.

If the Sunday night brooder isn’t careful, though, he’ll end up at Java Jungle on First Street, where four kids might just set up their mics, amps and instruments. Maybe the band will even be Negative Reverse.

The group seems common enough at first: four by-products of the 1970s who broke into their parents’ stashes … of records. But a closer listen will reveal an eerie strand of isolation—an otherworldly lift that sets the sound apart.

Their music is based in folk, swing and soft rock. Jacob Morrow, guitarist and vocalist, offers happy, jazzy guitar licks. Maria Hart-McArthur sings in a voice that is sugar sweet, while Amber Rubarth sings in a lower pitch that captures the contemplative soul of a perplexed but optimistic post-teenager. Kent Miura is the band’s percussionist, performing on a djembe, or African hand drum. All their songs are original.

The term “negative reverse” refers to a desperate, Hail Mary sales technique used when almost all hope of making a deal is lost. For example, a customer examining a new car may eventually tell the salesman, “Not today.” The salesman will then use the “negative reverse” scheme and say, “What I hear you saying is ‘Not today.’ That doesn’t mean, ‘No.’ Is that really what you mean?”

“You make them think about it,” says Morrow, with his wry smile, long face and poofy hair.

The band’s namesake also reflects the quirky and ironic ambitions of its members—tempering people’s dispositions through music without blatantly letting them know what you’re up to. So, even when grizzled and bitter patrons hear the folksy musings of the four 20-somethings, it’s not long before they fall prey to the group’s charm. Negative Reverse’s cheery temperament becomes contagious.

They play together, solo, or in other combinations. Hart-McArthur and Morrow occasionally break into swing dance in front of the mic stands, while Rubarth and Miura hold down a tune.

In addition to the Java Jungle gig, Negative Reverse occasionally plays Friday nights at Walden’s Coffeehouse, and they are the darlings of several weekly open mic nights around town. They only play free shows, but they take tips, which go to a plant fund.

“Everyone who helps us, we buy them gifts,” Morrow says, explaining that if a friend of theirs is down, they’ll buy them a spider plant with the tip money.

“They’re the most positive people I’ve met in my entire life,” says Sean Spurling, a local musician.

There are moments, though—like when Rubarth’s low voice dips into a little funk and a little sauce in a song called “Sometimes"—that one has the desire to see the band get a little more, well, disobedient. Wicked. Bad. Blues, jazz, Billie Holiday, self-destruction. But that can be found elsewhere in town.

Negative Reverse teases us with that wayward side of music, but they never quite touch it; their music has a function. It inspires a lingering nostalgia for times most of us have only heard our grandparents talk about, times when swing was the bad dance.