The drums-and-guitar two-piece Fat History Month is easy to root for. The two make an art form of mopey slackerism with everything from their shrugged-off name to the moody tempos to the song titles, which they reuse like two-day old socks (“Free as a Cat” here, “Free as a Cat on a Leash” there, with “Cat in a Box” popping up later).
But underneath the scruff, there’s also a restless Little Engine That Could. The duo’s combustion of tidal wave guitars and gutsy song structures makes them perfect heroes for a scene of DIY underdogs. It’s a mutant mix of confessional folk and ear-piercing garage fuzz that shifts a bit with every show.
“We lost our practice space in Allston a couple years ago,” says singer/guitarist Jeff Meff, talking over a spotty cellphone connection from a tour stop in Idaho. “Since then, I’ve pretty much had to write everything on acoustic, so that’s led to maybe a different approach.”
Fat History Month, who have just released their third full-length album — “Bad History Month” (on which you’ll also find the song “Bald History Month”) — have grown into one of the city’s most beloved bands because of their willingness to adapt. The duo have been officially putting out records since 2009, developing a unique mind-meld style of performance in the years since. While constant rehearsing can often lead to thrillingly regimented live workouts, Fat History Month uses their chops more like a compass — their shows are a bit like improvised road trips.
“When we end up playing the songs the same over and over — like the way the new album is so composed — things get a little boring after a while,” says drummer Bob Hobby (the two prefer stage names). “So at shows, I try and keep messing up until it all sounds like it’s on purpose.”
This MacGyver approach can go haywire, but it often ends up in a beautifully averted train wreck. “It is basically like throwing some rubber bands and gum at the drums and seeing if that fixes things. Sometimes if you’re really feeling it, you can go off the handle.”
And going off the handle is central to their sound, which mixes spurts of thorny prog-rock riffing and Deerfhoof style berzerker drums with a heavy dose of Gen-X dejection. The guitar is a bramble of strange chording that’s likely a result of Meff’s teaching himself how to play it from scratch as the band evolved. “Bad History Month” wouldn’t feel out of place with muddy old Sebadoh and Modest Mouse tapes and tempos.
Meff’s singing is cathartic like the last tired throes of a temper tantrum. In the aforementioned “Cat in a Box,” he strings together a shut-in housecat’s diary entries in rhythms of depressive dead-of-the-night phone calls. “If you let me out and let me roam beyond the back yard/ I could make friends with everyone/ Because it’s not that [expletive] hard/ To be happy when you finally leave home.” It’s not a mystery why they’ve struck a chord with a college-fueled underground scene.
A rowdy crowd at the Middle East recently testified as much, holding onto the edge of the stage like sailors waiting for their sea legs under the band’s oddball churning rhythms. It was a tour send-off show for this current trip, which has them on the West Coast this weekend. It’s not often that the band plays in town through a full-on sound system capable of blasting vocals loud and clear — they’ve built their Boston following in scrappy house and basement shows through blown-out PA systems — and it’s great to every warped detail of the lyrics (“This is an ode to all the old lady smokers/ I wish you could wear your sticky black lungs as a bra” goes one nugget from “Old Lady Smokers”).
Even with only half-discernible vocals, though, the moody tug of the music can seem like an odd fit for house parties — and they’re all right with that. Meff says they’ve made attempts at “party jams” that rocked power chords in the past.
“We’d be playing all these depressing songs in the middle of parties all the time and felt like we needed something a little peppier,” says Meff, pointing to a handful of songs on their last album that genuinely blast off. That approach didn’t exactly carry over to the new album.
“Some of these songs are so sad!” he says, almost in disbelief, and already trying to get a self-deprecating look down the road. “Hopefully I can get around to writing some more before Bob starts to get sick of them.”
The Rock ’n’ Roll Rumble busts the whole scene out of its winter slumber once again this spring, celebrating 34 years since the first version of this hometown battle of the bands went down at the long-gone Rathskeller in Kenmore Square. This year’s installment is hosted all month long at T.T. The Bear’s Place, beginning this Sunday. The full lineup (stylistically all over the place, just the way we like it) includes Blackbutton, Camden, Cancer Killing Gemini, Coyote Kolb, the Daily Pravda, the Deep North, Eddie Japan, Endation, the Field Effect, Glenn Yoder and the Western States, Herra Terra, Jack Burton vs. David Lo Pan, Lifestyle, Mount Peru, the New Highway Hymnal, the Okay Win, Parks, Ruby Rose Fox, the Suicide Dolls, Supermachine, Twin Berlin, Velah, Whitcomb, and White Dynomite. . . . Across the river, the Museum of Fine Arts has gathered its own collection of Boston music luminaries for a night of live film soundtrack performances for “Soul Mates” on April 12. On deck is the experimental rock trio Devil Music (performing to the 1929 Man Ray short “Les Mystères du Château de Dé”), the pensive and ethereal Gem Club (performing to self-made films), and the Boston String Players (performing to 1904’s “The Great Train Robbery” and Buster Keaton’s 1923 classic “Our Hospitality”).
Matt Parish can be reached at email@example.com.