Nobody puts Tiger in a Box
Setting fire to your friends (and other social gaffes)
Sonia Sturino fronts the Box Tiger like she wants to grab you by the lapels and give you a good shake. Her Toronto brand of indie rock is more than welcome here in Portland, what with native and bandmate/guitarist Jordan Stowell (who fronts In the Audience) along for the ride. Well, that and her kinship with the slew of excellent and assertive gal vocalists who’ve established themselves in the last half decade in differing versions of the genre – from Lady Lamb to Hannah Tarkinson to Loretta Allen.
Sturino demands attention with big vocals and big presence.
For the video to the band’s most-recent single, the wickedly snide “Set Fire to Your Friends,” she imagines herself as serial killer of the khaki crowd, and it isn’t hard to believe her capable of taking a shovel to the back of your head. You know. In a good way. The song has the bass (also played by Stowell for the recording) and guitar taking runs like Spouse songs, bouncy and teasing: “Tell me again, I forget.” Sturino isn’t a yeller, but she’s certainly insistent and breathless, sometimes gasping on intake or cramming words into little spaces and swallowing syllables.
That might leave ambiguity in some lyrics, but you’ll forgive all when she stomps out of the opening “Bleeding Hart” on the band’s debut full-length, Set Fire. With bravado, she describes “all these kids just hanging out (hanging out),” and it’s definitely the music of youth, with passion and immediacy helped by Ron Harrity’s tight mix, Marcus Cipparrone’s drums often set up high so he can drive the pace. His tom fills here roll us into the chorus and support Sturino’s extended delivery.
He rattles into “Julian” to completely change its complexion after a western and moody opening and single-note guitar. These accelerations serve to grab your attention, but there’s some chance the band overuse that trope of starting songs simply and building as you go.
“Hospital Choir” is a good respite from the impact of the initial three-song set, with an acoustic strum and doubling vocal tracks, then building with the bass drum into a full-band arrangement that’s dialed back in pace. The real change-up here, though, comes with a Sturino vocal solo, touching on the falsetto, that same kind of chill-inducing turn as the Head and the Heart’s Charity Rose Thielen doing that part in “Rivers and Roads” that makes you sit bolt upright.
Sturino nearly spits the verse to “Taller than Trees,” supported by bass, woodblocks, and a shaker. With a pinging melody easing its way in later: “But how are you supposed to know? / How are you supposed to know?”
Likely because you’re hanging on her every word, that’s how. There are echoes of Metric in “The Hollows,” alongside that classic pinging back and forth between notes that helps define indie rock. “Knives” is squirming and restless until the fittingly sharp repetition in the chorus. The nine-note base of “Maker,” a rapping on the door like there’s someone chasing them, hangs on a central complaint that “no one’s sticking up for me,” which seems hardly possible.
Maybe there’s a tendency for the songs to run together, but that’s mostly cohesiveness and consistent emotional investment. The Box Tiger haven’t made an album to relax poolside with, that’s for sure. Even the slower paced tunes here have a forward lean to them.
By the late-album “See-Through Hole,” they’e just about done away with artifice. While it might be their version of playful, Cipparrone is as straightforward as you can get, pounding the snare on the quarter notes as Sturino purrs: “I can’t wait to be you.”
Truly, though, this doesn’t seem like a band with identity issues. Sturino knows where she’d like to go, and the rest would be fools not to follow.
Photo Credit: Dylan Verner