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There's mystery in the music of Alt-J: The band's songs are wrapped in enigmatic textures, with swift shifts in arrangements inside every song and an oddness to the drums. Mere glimpses of lyrics are discernible, even after listening over and over — and if you can decipher the words, the meanings don't necessarily follow immediately. Still, those words reside at the core of Alt-J, and they're cinematic and stunning and sometimes brutal.
Seeing Alt-J live in concert — or here at the Tiny Desk — reveals a few of those mysteries, making a band that can be difficult on first listen a bit easier to digest. For one, seeing Joe Newman sing makes his words less oblique; for another, that curious rhythm at the foundation of the songs reveals not a hint of cymbals. And, though the drums are stripped down more than ever at the Tiny Desk, they still provide the essence of an original sound. Thom Green plays mostly with a mounted tambourine and cowbell for the sorts of things a hi-hat would accomplish — that tick tick sound, with the snap of the sound coming from a small-bodied 10" snare called a popcorn snare. The sparseness that happens in the absence of crashing cymbals leaves a lot of space in the music.
Alt-J is from Leeds, England — home to another of my favorite art-rock bands, Gang of Four. Both play angular, poetic music that takes unexpected turns, shifting gears when you least expect it. Alt-J made my favorite album of 2012, An Awesome Wave, and if you're new to the group, the understated sound may get lost on you at first. But listen to the words and study how the songs evolve: No one else is making music like this. This is an original, innovative band with a brilliant present and a brighter future.
Producer: Bob Boilen; Editor: Denise DeBelius; Audio Engineers: Kevin Wait, Suraya Mohamed; Videographers: Denise DeBelius, Christopher Parks, Ryan Smith; photo by Lauren Rock/NPR