Contemporary dance music has a way of intimidating would-be enthusiasts: "I can't dance." "I'm uncomfortable." "I don't understand it." Peak your head beneath the beats, and you'll hear all these things.
It's an understandable reaction, especially as the current cross-pollination of dance and indie scenes—thanks to acts from Cut Copy and !!! to Justice and Matthew Dear—continues and keeps ideas and expectations clashing. Maybe you dig the sound, but it can be difficult to crawl inside an unfamiliar culture. Most pop bands worth their salt expect or have in mind remixes of their electronic songs, though, and it goes the other way, too, with electronic artists leaning into the sweet accessibility of pop and rock. The blending continues. Same as it ever was, right, Mr. Byrne?
The North Carolina expatriates of Ear Pwr put a wide-eyed happy face on the glum mugs of a rock club. They add the innocent fun of indie-rock and twee to their frolicking tunes and bubbling rhythms. Ear Pwr also roots down in indie pop's manic overload joy but smears it through layers of synthesizer squawks and megaphone-blasted anthems. They're a day-glo-uniformed version of that long-standing cheerleader skit on Saturday Night Live: "You know what this humdrum rock club calls for, don't you? The perfect cheer."
It would have been difficult to imagine Ear Pwr's path when the band started four years ago in Winston-Salem: Devin Booze and Sarah Reynolds met and started making songs alongside Booze's other band, Hide and Seek, while dating. A few school switches later, the pair ended up in Asheville. The mountain town became a strong influence on Ear Pwr's sound, as Booze trained in music technology at the University of North Carolina-Asheville program founded by synthesizer inventor Robert Moog. He's still working on his degree.
Ear Pwr focused, and its gigs blossomed: After Booze tinkered with the analog gear in his big suitcase (a very effective prop, mind you), he became the group's own hype man, setting off sirens and beats and launching himself toward the crowd. It was never a spectator sport. Reynolds, meanwhile, paraded through a crowd like a ringmaster. Bespectacled in oversized shades and geared-out in wild colors, she chirped out a string of lyrics that became chants, repeated declarations of some weird thing that happened or a funny animal adventure. Every repetition grew louder and punchier until some big payoff—the cheer, completed.
In North Carolina, Ear Pwr released a couple of artifatcs, including a 2007 record on FrequeNC, the Chapel Hill vinyl label. Recently, though, they shifted labels and locations again, moving to Baltimore and releasing a new CD on Carpark Records, home to indie pop duo Beach House and electronic scatterbrains like Dan Deacon. That album, Super Animal Brothers III, is a sprawling sea of high-energy pump-ups and cartoonish zap. It's so exhilarating, it's actually exhausting.
Labelmate Deacon's big on showy noises and a visage of mad scientist glee live, toiling around in an octopus' tentacles of wires that look as if they'll take him under any second. Ear Pwr likes to push that envelope, too, but they pull back into the warmth and starry wisdom of giddy pop. "Isn't this all so crazy," they appear to say, starry-eyed and sweaty.
"I liked them because they were so much fun, and I think it's important for people to see that as a vital part of music like this," FrequeNC leader Charlie Hearon recently said. "So it makes me really happy to see them doing this."
Those cheerleaders at the pep rally may not be everybody's favorite, but—damn—they can make some of us move, even if we don't know how.
Ear Pwr plays with Alexis Gideon and Shelley Short at Nightlight Wednesday, May 13. The show starts at 10 p.m. and costs $5.