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Weightless complexity

The small-scale epics of Julia Massey and the Five Finger Discount

The weightlessness and joy of Julia Massey. Photo credit: Gary Lappier

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For people who came of age in the ‘90s, the phrase, "five-finger discount," is instantly recognizable. Still, I doubt that people who are familiar with this idiom actually did much shoplifting. Most of us likely came to know the saying from an iconic episode of The Simpsons' first season, "The Telltale Head." When Bart catches the school bullies stealing from the Kwik-E-Mart, the bullies inform him that they had the five-finger discount. This introduction into more upper-level mischief than Bart was used to leads him to decapitate the statue of Springfield's founder, which even the bullies find distasteful.

This episode occurred at a time when The Simpsons could not only be the most dense joke machine and world-building show on television, but could also get somber and really explore consequences and feelings in a manner unusual to cartoons. The combination of pathos and bright silliness is something that The Simpsons would develop and nurture over time, though it would eventually peak and settle into the bland stasis that it exists in today.

I have no idea if Julia Massey had The Simpsons in mind when she named her backing band the Five Finger Discount, but I don't think the comparison is too absurd. Like that beloved TV show, Julia Massey and the Five Finger Discount strike a delicate balance between frivolity and feeling. A cursory look at the track listing for Massey's latest LP, A.L.I.T.E., reveals titles like "Die Before You Die, Pt. 1," "Nuclear Disarmament," and "The Story of the Earth, So Far," but the enormity of these concepts is delivered with a light touch the belies the heaviness you might infer.

In fact, Julia Massey and the Five Finger Discount are positively weightless. Though they don't list him as one of their influences, the first artist that came to mind as I listened to A.L.I.T.E. was Andrew Bird ("Paralleloplan(E)s" could easily be the title of an Andrew Bird song). Something about the abundance of texture and the spry way that they deliver their music brought to mind the way that Andrew Bird worships structure and complexity without ever really pushing the issue. It can be overwhelming to the listener if a band's ambitions stack up like a mid-game Jenga tower. There's pressure and shakiness that can form in an ornate arrangement of sounds that Massey and company nimbly avoid.

While Massey's effortless vocals are certainly part of the draw, her bandmates Dominic Cortese and Matt Deason pull more than their own weight. As a group, they describe themselves interchangeably as cosmic folk rock and children's music for grown-ups - both of which function as nifty shorthand for a band that doesn't easily cotton to being restricted. When the band finds themselves so firmly planted in the pocket, as they do on the tense, driving "Montana Capri," they have the ability to sound like one of those Important Bands that music blogs love to lose their minds over; on other tracks, like "Paralleloplan(E)s," they can sound playful and small, creating joyous little earworms for the hell of it.

Julia Massey and the Five Finger Discount have been kicking around the Seattle music scene for a while, lending them a feeling of being utterly relaxed and comfortable in their own skin. Even as their music surprises, they never sound like they're trying to catch you off-guard so much as they want to delight you with the details. This is a band that's handy with the small-scale epics, a band that can sprint by with a weightlessness that masks the complexity of what they create so easily. This isn't about melting brains so much as it is about tickling them.

Julia Massey and the Five Finger Discount, w/ Trees and Timber, Kye Alfred Hillig, Saturday, Sept.12, 9 p.m., All Ages, $5, 733, 733 Commerce St., Tacoma, 253.344.3104

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