WASHINGTON, December 23, 2013 – Before they formed Minor Alps, both Juliana Hatfield and Matthew Caws had achieved considerable musical success at various times during their development.
Matthew Caws is the front man for indie rock outfit Nada Surf, a band that’s been one of the more consistently high-quality indie rock bands for a number of years after they survived mainstream one hit wonder status in the ‘90s. Juliana Hatfield, in turn, has been one of the most recognizable indie rock solo artists since the early ‘90s.
As the story goes, Hatfield and Caws had been friends since the early ‘90s, running in similar circles. So the idea for Minor Alps is one that’s likely been building steam in the background for some time.
Finally, late this past year, they were finally able to make their association into a tangible collaboration. The resulting combo not only bore fruit on their first full length album “Get There.” They were also able to show off their newly released songs recently in a live setting, such as Washington, where they recently performed Backstage at the Black Cat.
Theirs is not necessarily a project that fans were clamoring for. In fact, in a way, it felt almost like a vanity side project for the two performers. Instead of crafting songs or a sound or an album that that a growing cadre of fans had been demanding, the duo put together selections that feel personal between the two of them.
This is the kind of project that may not be seen or heard by the masses – reflected somewhat here given their appearance at the more intimate Backstage at the Black Cat. Yet for those people who came to see them perform, the passion Hatfield and Caws put into their songs was undeniable.
The other reason Minor Alps feels like personal project between Hatfield and Caws has to do with the way their sound is actually arranged and performed. Neither partner is necessarily stepping out of individual comfort zones as songwriters. But there are enough interesting things happening within their performance that heading off in new and unique directions isn’t that important.
In keeping with this notion, Minor Alps’ debut album isn’t filled with production flourishes. The sound doesn’t really extend outside of anything Hatfield and Caws can do on their own. But it feels as if they’re avoiding a lo-fi sound and instead, going for a fuller sound experience.
Their live performance at the Black Cat was even more stripped down. Both mainly stuck with dual acoustic guitars save for those songs where Hatfield chose to break out some minimalist keyboard playing while sacrificing any kind of percussion. Sonically, that made this set a pretty restrained and low key performance for Minor Alps, as they focused specifically on their songwriting as a duo, something that they’ve made the conscious effort to do together. Which is part of the fun for the audience
There have been plenty of duos over the years that have collaborated. But when it comes to actual live performances, it’s difficult to point out any tangible evidence of these collaborations on any level. That’s never a problem when listening to Minor Alps.
To label what Hatfield and Caws do when performing as Minor Alps a duet would be a bit of misnomer. It would imply that the two of them were simply trading off verses. What they do instead is harmonize on nearly every song. They pull this off so effortlessly, it’s easy to overlook just how difficult this is to do for an entire set. But the way Hatfield and Caws are so in sync throughout is what gives Minor Alps’ entire set an overarching, haunting feel.
For that reason, Minor Alps never feels like a side project that is trying grasp at anything Hatfield and Caws have achieved in their past. Instead, it’s something different. Something more personal. In performance live at the Black Cat and outside a recording studio, this puts their musical passion front and center in such a way that it’s hard to imagine two performers who compliment each other better.
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