Gem Club: Playing on Prefix

Written by
by Jared Graves

Playing on Prefix is a feature on KCRW’s Music Blog in which writers from the eclectic music site Prefix hip you to what’s coming out of their computer speakers each week.

Space and silence are important elements in music that, in the land of the Loudness War, are often eschewed in favor of lush orchestrations or walls of sound or just plain fear. On his self-titled debut this year, James Blake reopened the door for major indie releases that explored the beautifully cavernous spaces that can be found in the space between notes. Back in June of last year, Massachusetts duo (now a trio) Gem Club, were exploring something similar. The songs of Gem Club‘s six-song 2010 EP Acid and Everything used piano, cello and vocals, but more than that they used space. Christopher Barnes and Kristen Drymala spread their elements across the stereo field, allowing their solemn piano chords and the cello’s plaintive counterpinings to echo across some limitless space. As a result, Acid and Everything‘s songs come off like a melancholy dream.

Music like this– minor key pianos and aching strings– is designed to pull at your heartstrings. But it doesn’t always work. Too often it can come off as overwrought, pretentious, or worst of all ingenuine. But Gem Club don’t fall into the pitfalls associated with these emotions. There are no unnecessary flourishes, no overdone vocal performances. Instead, everything is given the chance to breathe, and because of that, you can drop your own emotions into songs like the bone-deep hurt of Acid and Everything closer “Spine.”

Reknown indie label Hardly Art took notice, and late last month they signed Gem Club, who have now added vocalist Leva Berberian. On September 27, the trio will be releasing their debut full-length Breakers.

In advance of that, the group released the title track on their Bandcamp page, where Acid and Everything is also available for streaming. On “Breakers,” the group adds sleigh bells as a percussive element and a distant bell melody. They’re small touches, but they help to reshape and expand the space that made Acid and Everything so evocative. It takes guts to allow silence to define your music; if too much emphasis is placed, it diminishes the music’s impact, and if your sound is too full, it can become too dense to unpack.

Gem Club make the balance seem easy, and heartbreaking.

— Chris Bosman