Corps of exquisite surprises
Local songwriter Bryan Valenzuela’s new band of seasoned musicians wows
A long-haired drunk guy toting what most certainly is a pint wrapped in a brown paper bag stumbles down Nevada City’s main drag on a chilly Friday evening. His greasy long hair and white shirt with palm leaves on it are more Stinson Beach than gold rush. But, thing is, I’m lost—can’t find the venue for tonight’s show featuring Sacramento chamber-rock troupe Exquisite Corps—so this post-hippie is my only hope, an inebriated Gandalf the White for those lost in the night.
Luckily enough, the wanderer somehow finds the way and we soon hear loud, rock-god-like explosions emanating from what looks like a giant barn. Called Miners Foundry, the venue was once a 19th-century machine shop but since has been converted into the town’s cultural center. Inside, the “barn” is actually a nearly 2,500-square-foot hall with lofty ceilings that allow for glorious, bass-y booms and rich highs. There’s really no place like it here in Sacramento—and it’s worth the hourlong journey just to catch a gig.
Especially if the band is Exquisite Corps.
At first blush you might fancy the local sextet as some kind of Arcade Fire knockoff: two violinists, Reylynn Goessling and Kristin Arnold, plus cellist Krystyna Taylor, and a rhythm section consisting of Nathan Webb on bass and Robby Dean on drums. And then there’s lead singer Bryan Valenzuela: plain-front slacks; button-up collared shirt with suit vest and tie; and dark, chin-length black hair. He hoists a six-string up high on his chest and thanks the crowd before settling in to the first song.
I’m expecting a Montreal jam band. But after just a few notes, you quickly realize that Valenzuela’s new group belies any Win Butler and Co. comparisons, what with that Grammy-winning group’s noxious, post-Funeral pretentiousness and Exquisite Corps’ fine, artfully crafted tunes that aren’t afraid to occasionally bring the tough, forceful rock, such as with the band’s intense, staccatoed bridges or vibrant outro jams.
The first three songs reveal that Valenzuela, who writes the group’s music and even the violinists’ notation, has a penchant for dark, dissonant melodies that crescendo unexpectedly into epic, Explosions in the Sky-like outbursts, where all six members take pleasure in ripping into their respective instruments. It’s exciting, such as on “Tiger’s Wine”—a favorite of Valenzuela’s girlfriend, who shares with me tidbits and details about the band in between songs during the 45-minute set.
There’s also a softer, Jeff Buckley-inspired side, although Valenzuela’s locked into baritone range, unlike Buckley’s unparalleled and boundless alto. The 33-year-old singer-songwriter elevates onto his tiptoes while letting out both soft undertones and gnarly, full-bodied roars that contradict his slender frame and appear to exhaust every last breath from his being.
It’s impressive. And the crowd here tonight in Nevada City feels it, gathering underneath the colored lights and mirror ball and never piling out the door early.
Valenzuela and Taylor are Exquisite Corps’ foremost songwriters. The duo met some years ago when his former band, rock trio Call Me Ishmael, had an album-release show and he wanted someone to play strings on a few songs. “We totally vibed,” says Valenzuela, who dabbled in violin during his youth in addition to studying music theory and composition in college, “and I wanted to start a project with her ever since.”
The two formed Exquisite Corps last spring and played their first show at Valenzuela’s downtown home in May 2010. He writes the songs, Taylor does her own parts and he inks the violin lines accordingly.
Drummer Dean, who Valenzuela’s known since junior high, joined the group but a few weeks back but has already melded, bringing a strong sense of both dynamics and crafty percussion energy to the group’s sonic lullabies. Bassist Webb also was in Call Me Ishmael and his low end complements the violinists’ lofty melodies.
The band will join local producer Scott McChane, who recorded Sister Crayon’s debut, at The Hangar studios in May to record its first full-length. “The biggest reason that I wanted to work with them is because they want to do better,” says McChane, who praises Valenzuela’s songwriting and the bandmates’ instrumentation. “They want to make a real record. And that’s hard to find right now.”
Songwriting is deep-rooted in Valenzuela. Like many, he grew up listening to Beatles and Elvis with his parents. But over the years, the songwriter—who’s also an artist with a degree from Sacramento State and a show this week at Beatnik Studios—gravitated toward opera; jazz; and even David Bowie, Nick Cave and David Byrne.
In his old band, he used to exclusively play an electric ax. Nowadays, it’s the more seasoned acoustic guitar only. “There’s a stripped-down essence to the acoustic that lends itself to what I’m coming up with these days,” he says. “I’d probably play a really nice Gretsch hollow-body electric if I had the money. But times is tough.”
Yet there are other riches, such as at the conclusion of Exquisite Corps’ Friday-night set: After generous applause from the 200-strong crowd, chants of “encore” seemingly catch Valenzuela and Co. off guard. Shyly, he ambles back up to the mic and, with Taylor, settles into a duet to close out the evening, his soothing croon and her gentle strings spinning off the angled walls and easing into my mind, good company for the long drive back home.