Nice work from Nice Monster

Nice Monster: garage folk?

Nice Monster: garage folk?

Sometimes the possibility of horror is worse than the thing itself. There are two men onstage with Martin acoustic guitars, and there’s a pretty blonde slightly upstage on a barstool. They are essentially clean-cut and good-looking, young and scrubbed. The possibility of horror is manifest in the presentation: It is Friday night at Luna’s Café, and the audience wonders if it’s going to suffer an onslaught of Christian folk ballads or cheesy Dave Matthews Band covers. In a world where both Matthews and Christianity have seemingly infiltrated every open mic in the country, it is a fear that seems very, very real.

But from the first note, it is clear that Nice Monster manages to avoid these stereotypes, by reinventing local acoustic music while simultaneously staying close to its roots: a subtle melding of Rob Crow’s Pinback, Thingy and Heavy Vegetable with the quiet, shifting harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” and a dash of acoustic math rock (think June of ’44 or the changing time signatures of Yes or Emerson Lake & Palmer).

This isn’t to suggest the band is perfect. Indeed, Nice Monster is essentially a new group, having only performed live in Sacramento since March, and, as such, there are some performance problems to work out. J. Matthew Gerken, the group’s principal singer and songwriter, has crafted some spectacular songs, not the least of which is “Recipe,” a track that is a showcase for Gerken’s songwriting approach: something like free jazz and vocal-harmony folk music combined. However, not all of the band’s material is so interesting. In the 75-minute set at Luna’s, the band proved to have about 40 minutes of truly stunning material, after which the material began to be get more ordinary and hence more redundant. (That 40 minutes, though, was some of the most beautiful and interesting material this reviewer has heard in a long while.)

The other big issue for Nice Monster—and for many local bands, for that matter—is stage presence. Heather Gerken’s vocals were a terrific, breathy match for her husband Matthew’s, but when not singing, she sometimes looked bored or out of place, and Jason Roberts stunning lead-guitar work was perhaps lessened by his head-down-in-the-guitar performance style.

Certain local performers clearly have mastered stage presence. Elena Powell’s wide, searching eyes locking with each member of the audience in turn is one example. The manic Mick Jagger-meets-Johnny Rotten antics of the Pretty Girls’ lead singer, Mike Diaz, is another. These people are master performers who know how to keep the audience’s attention fixed on the stage at all times. Even if one doesn’t like the music, it is impossible to look away.

But these issues should work themselves out with experience. When they do, Nice Monster will prove a formidable presence in the Sacramento scene. Check out the band’s page on the SN&R Web site to hear MP3 samples (including the beautiful “Recipe”): Click Music and then Bands, and you’re in.