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Cerebral intimacy

Moon Dial's indie rock collides with jazz to create uniquely emotional music

Moon Dial’s jazz-laden rock strikes a balance between detachment and connection. Photo credit: Facebook

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In rock music, passion and verve have traditionally led the way for lead vocalists to express themselves. Nothing played so effectively as an open heart, inviting listeners to empathize with the music, enabling them to put themselves in the shoes of the people singing about love, loss, indignation, sorrow, and joy. When Roy Orbison felt love at first sight, he didn't take half measures in emoting this feeling to the audience; nor did Orbison mince words when his heart had been raked over the coals. Just about every contemporary took the same tack, knowing that high drama and a heart on your sleeve is the quickest way to connecting with strangers.

Soon, though, ironic detachment took a stronghold in rock, with groups like the Velvet Underground leading the way. Perhaps predictably, the next step was the creation of cerebral rock and roll, which may have been talking about the same subject matter as Orbison, but did so at arm's length, with a deadpan vocal to accompany it. Many may first think of David Byrne, in his capacity as the Talking Heads' frontman, when thinking about removed emotion in rock, though he helped lead the charge to find a perfect balance: as Byrne grew as an artist, he became more capable of mixing a deadpan delivery with palpable feeling. The platonic ideal of this is likely "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," which describes new love in offbeat, sometimes clinical terms, and yet has grown to be one of the most purely romantic songs of all time.

I find myself consistently drawn to this balance. Bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the Silver Jews, the Magnetic Fields, Lambchop, Ought, Phosphorescent, and countless others have utilized the push-and-pull dynamic of distance and intimacy to create uniquely involving music. Another band I'd be happy to throw on this fire is Seattle quartet Moon Dial. With lyrics and frontman duties taken by Jon Atkins, Moon Dial is an odd amalgam of indie rock and jazzy tendencies. There's a diverting sensibility at play, with Moon Dial, bouncing around from invigorating terseness to soothing tones. Band members Garret Coxon, Jeff Anderson and Eric Kegley enable this diverse musicality, and Atkins' voice proves a worthy counterpoint, frequently playing like a man giving a sermon over top of the songs, rather than the hopeless romantic vibe of other frontmen. Though he lacks the operatic chops, he possesses the same steely reserve of the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon.

Over the course of Moon Dial's 2016 album, Nice Day Pretty Colors, the band displays a proclivity to subvert expectations -- with leaning towards jazz being maybe the most daring of them all. These days, it's become daring to sidetrack an airtight pop song to venture off into the "there be monsters" territory of soft jazz and semi-indulgent noodling. To be clear, this is no prog-rock bombast, no torturing of instruments, no mathematically confrontational tempo shifts. Moon Dial, if anything, follow the lead of Atkins' words, which are largely twisty and expressive. The songs on Nice Day Pretty Colors play more like short stories than the typical confessionals of other bands, filled with acutely observed details, and the band seems to delight in tracking these little excursions.

While Moon Dial may not immediately draw you into their world, listening closely will pay off in dividends. This is a band whose depths don't make themselves known in short order, but rather require your attention. What may initially come off as songs of stifling intellect will soon reveal themselves as stories that touch your heart, and will only grow with repeated experience.

MOON DIAL, w/ Cloud Person, Sporty Lee, 9 p.m., Friday, March 30, cover TBA, The Valley, 1206 Puyallup Ave., Tacoma, 253.248.4265,

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