On one chilly February night in a loft show in Somerville, the lights went out on Mount Peru. The eclectic band — part driving alt-rock, part backyard country — forged ahead in that dark room of locals, summoning campfire courage and makeshift charm for what ended up being one of its best sets ever. Frontman Thom Valicenti says it was a stripping down that ended up leading them to a new comfort zone. “I feel like we got to be super-relaxed that way,” he says. “It seemed like we were really in our element.”
Mount Peru has been through a lot of changes over its five-year existence, during which the group has released an album and a couple of EPs. The band’s approach has been full of deliberate musical switchbacks, going from barroom rock ’n’ roll to trumpet-led indie-rock and back again, plowing through lineup changes in the process. The band has been nominated for local Americana awards and experimented with ’80s synths in the studio. But with their easygoing new EP, “Is This Thing On?” (the release of which they’re set to celebrate next Thursday at T.T. the Bear’s in Cambridge), it sounds as if the band is finally settling in.
In its earlier days, Valicenti says, the band had trouble fitting in. “A lot of people would book us with straight-up blues bands,” he says. “I mean we were playing with pretty hardcore blues musicians at places like Sally O’Brien’s and Johnny D’s. Which is fine, but I think we were thinking of ourselves as something like the Elephant 6 collective or even the weirder Byrds stuff.”
Valicenti has been in Boston bands for almost 20 years now, going back to the mid-’90s band Sumac. Singer and tambourine player Mary Flatley moved here in 2004 after formative years singing in a Chicago screamo band before dipping into alt-country. “When I finally saw the Craigslist ad for what Thom was looking for, it was the weirdest assortment of bands in one list of influences,” she says. “But they were all awesome. It was like I was looking at my record collection.”
There was a little Wilco, a little David Bowie, a little Wire. And at the helm were Valicenti and Matt Bowker, a trumpet player who Flatley says slowly revealed himself to have no frame of reference for almost anything they were talking about. “He doesn’t like anything we like,” she says. “But he comes up with the greatest out-of-left-field arrangements to songs.”
The band trucked ahead, assembling disparate pieces into something like a countrified Rube Goldberg machine that yielded its 2010 full-length, “My Sweetheart the Destroyer,” a wide-open epic of ghostly reverb and cinematic orchestration. On a scale of Tarantino soundtrack stars, if they’d started as the Statler Brothers, they ended up as Ennio Morricone. This unmoored sense of style can weigh heavily on a band that shoots for a democratic creative process. Members ran away. They say drummers in particular have proven difficult, unapproving, and downright uncooperative.
A chance meeting with old friend and drummer Tim Nylander, whose main gig for years has been the experimental JP trio Devil Music, led to a renewed momentum that’s carried the band to this current album. “We ran into him at the Market Basket in Union Square and he asked how the band was doing,” says Valicenti. “I said, ‘Funny you should ask — it’s imploding!’ ”
The songs on the new EP, then, are of a rescued band that finally made it back from the brink of meltdown. “All You Get” opens the record with coy, breezy pop-rock that locks down an Elvis Costello melody with unhurried guitar noodling. “Wallflower Power” pulls in ’70s jazz-folk chords, all hazy horns and lazy Sunday harmonies. In fact, it’s the creaky Americana that finally betrays a sense of drama. “I just can’t get any rest tonight / With the way I shiver and shake,” sing Valicenti and Flatley in the stoic “Old Mountain Home” over a tumbling 6/8 beat, roiling organ, and a divebombing distorted lap steel. It’s a thunderous breakup song, countered by the deserted Nashville dance-floor sway of “No Sweetheart Blues” that closes the album. It’s no surprise that these two bits are the most touching moments on the record.
Valicenti looks at the transformation cautiously. He says longtime admirers have already noted the absence of some of the band’s more adventurous songs from recent set lists. “We’re still a weird band,” he says. “I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. We’ll always have that eclectic vibe in the mix.”
But for the first time in years, the whole band feels on board, contributing, writing, and ready to go. Valicenti even can even count the rhythm section in. “It’s the first time in five years that our drummer has actually liked the band!”
Friday adds a couple more album releases to this year’s already dizzying stack of local material. In Cambridge, the Middle East Upstairs hosts the party for Ghost Box Orchestra’s new record, celebrating their far-flung psych sounds with a lineup that reaches in all directions with Animal Hospital, Royal Wedding, and the Ocular Audio Experiment. . . . Down the street at Somerville’s Radio, Thalia Zedek joins You People and Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darling to help kick off the new record from Z*L, which is the blitzed-out punk-rawk brainchild of longtime Boston troublemaker Ian Adams (from Rock City Crimewave and 8-Ball Shifter), Isabel Riley (Vera Go Go), and Jack “Knife” Guilderson (The Ghost of Tony Gold). This is grimy stuff, folks, harking back to Cramps-style greaser grooves and anthemic Pixies wailing. . . . On May 15, a whole crew of weirdos descends on Great Scott in support of the JP-based Krill, who are prepping for an album release this summer and have so far previewed it with the first excellent, strange single, “Never a Joke.” Krill wanders through wheezy, discordant melodies and pokey bass lines like an inebriated walk in the park, and friends Marble Lion (Montreal), Kid Mountain (Providence), and Cuddle Formation (Boston) will be along for the ride.