The city of Dallas, Texas, has bestowed three mysteries upon the world. The first was filmed by Abraham Zapruder. The second was directed by Aaron Spelling. Both concerned the identities of mystery assassins. The third - admittedly, at least treble the already gaping distance behind number two ("Who shot JR?") that number two is behind number one ("Who shot JFK?") - is released on 679 Recordings.
Secret Machines are, within the less earth-shattering context of indie rock, a puzzle wrapped inside an enigma. From their 2003 mini-album, September 000, through their debut album proper, 2004's Now Here Is Nowhere, through to tonight's teasing tasters of their imminent second album, Ten Silver Drops (due in April), it's never been clear to the listener exactly what kind of band this trio wants to be.
To Secret Machines, commendably, it's never been clear exactly why they ought to choose. Alternating schizophrenically between hook-driven power pop and shoe- gazing space rock, this is a band who not only can't decide whether they're Cheap Trick or Pink Floyd, but won't.
One minute they'll be playing what sounds like a rocked-up version of Heaven 17's "Let Me Go" ("The Road Leads Where It's Led"), the next it's an epic in the vein of Floyd's "Welcome To the Machine", but with vocals from the thespian school of Peter Murphy (courtesy of keyboardist Benjamin Curtis, who is evidently something of a Bauhaus fan). When Benjamin's brother, singer-guitarist Brandon, takes to the mic (on the somewhat T Rexy "Sad and Lonely", for example), Secret Machines seem to become a far more straightforward proposition.
With his flicky red hair, unbuttoned shirt and black suit jacket, and centrally- positioned mic stand, Brandon Curtis ought, by rock'n'roll logic, to be the front man. But, bathed in backlit vortices of violet and amber and emerald - no facial spotlights - it's clear that whoever is singing at any given moment, no single member of Secret Machines wishes to be the star. (In this respect, and several others, they remind me of Air on an indie budget.)
In fact, the unsung (and un-singing) star of this band isn't either of the brothers. It's the drummer, Josh Garza, the power behind the whole machine. Be honest: when was the last time you even noticed a drummer at a rock gig, in either a positive or a negative way? But, at the back of The Garage, all the chatter, in hushed, reverential whispers, is of Garza's greatness. He can play heavy-heavy rock, he can play funk. He can do Bonham, he can do Stubblefield. In 1989, he'd have been a legend. He's phenomenal. Give it a couple of years and he'll be the new rock aristocracy's jet-setting session man of choice, this decade's Phil Collins (if you can envisage such a thing without gagging). He's phenomenal.
Secret Machines' easy, effortless eclecticism is the key to their popularity, both actual and potential. After all, it takes a special kind of band to span the constituencies of both Oasis and David Bowie, but Secret Machines have done it. Last summer, the trio supported the Gallaghers, somewhat incongruously, on their stadium tour. Looking around me, they don't seem to have picked up many lad-rockers. Bowie fans, however, are abundant.
At the start of 2005, you see, the Great Dame, on his official website, tipped two bands to look out for in the year ahead: The Arcade Fire (with whom he went on to perform live), and Secret Machines.
The Texans' ascendancy hasn't been quite as spectacular as that of their Canadian counterparts, but it's definitely picking up, and tonight's show in this low-ceilinged sweatbox on Highbury Corner is a knowingly "intimate" setting for them (with tickets in hot demand, and many disappointed fans locked outside). Just as The Strokes recently played a low-key show at ULU (when they could have played Alexandra Palace), so Secret Machines are playing The Garage (when they could have played ULU). That - for now - is their location in the indie-rock food chain. As Ogden Nash observed, "Big fleas have little fleas upon their back to bite 'em, and little fleas have lesser fleas and so, ad infinitum."Reuse content