A few years back, the Brooklyn-based quartet The Forms were playing to a small but appreciative crowd at The Mr. Roboto Project. Wrapping up its set of complex math-rock grooves, the band unexpectedly ripped into a cover of Nirvana's "All Apologies." A few noses wrinkled in distaste, or at least, confusion -- it seemed so out-of-step with the band's odd time signatures and interlocking guitars. Was this supposed to be a tribute? An ironic send-up of rock 'n' roll anthems? If nothing else, it seemed a bit soon to cover what had been one of the most popular songs on the planet.
Fast-forward a few years, and it seems the vaguely gauche coda was in earnest. "We recently have reincorporated it back into our set with some different twists and things, like harmonies," notes Alex Tween, The Forms' singer and guitarist. "I think it's a lot better now." While to some, cover songs may reek of good-timey bar bands, Tween sees them as a creative exercise.
"A really good test of a person's creativity is what they do with a cover, if they do it totally straightforward or if they just totally re-envision it," Tween says. "It also appeals to my inherent laziness!" The Forms recently recorded a cover of "Ignoreland" for an Automatic for the People tribute album being put out by music Web site Stereogum.
It's also worth noting that cover songs first brought The Forms together. High school pals Tween and drummer Matt Walsh played in a band; the twin Kenny brothers, Brendan (guitar) and Jackson (bass), played in another high-school group. "We all played a battle of the bands, and their band played a Shudder to Think song called "Red House" and our band covered a Shudder to Think song called "X-French Tee Shirt,'" recalls Tween. "We were like, 'Oh, we're probably the only people on earth that would ever do this.' So we became friends after that." (Tween notes that, upon hearing this story, Shudder to Think's Craig Wedren commented, "God, you must've went to a really weird school!")
If any doubt remains that The Forms' once-and-future Nirvana cover is in earnest, look no further than the band's decision to record both 2003's Icarus and the current self-titled album with In Utero ur-producer Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio studio.
Despite Albini's reputation for being a bit acidic, Tween says, "It's so relaxing with Steve in a way, because he has so much experience, you never have to worry about anything getting screwed up, or anything he does not coming out right. It's the whole package, really -- him being really smart and knowing sound at a really deep level, and also having taste, having been an artist in his own right, and just the personality where he'll not try to dominate, and will let the artist do what the artist wants."
It's a relationship that's working well for The Forms. Pitchfork gave Icarus an 8.5, among favorable press from other major outlets, and the band has been opening for groups like The National, The Hold Steady, Minus the Bear and others. And with more concise songs and a brighter tonal palette, the new self-titled disc seems even more likely to capture an audience for the band, which still essentially self-releases its music under its Threespheres label.
Opening with "Knowledge in Hand," the record successfully welds a math-rock mentality to pop tendencies, in a manner similar to Minus the Bear's recent epic, Planet of Ice. Complex 5/4 and 7/4 rhythms underpin Tween's anthemic, soaring vocals; interlocking guitar parts coexist peacefully with more atmospheric textures reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine, especially on the sweeping album closers, "White Dot" and "Getting It Back."
According to Tween, key to making these disparate ingredients gel into something genuinely musical and pleasurable is keeping it natural. "At this point, when I hear something that's in 5/4 or 7/4 that feels normal to me, and when I play something that's in 4/4 that feels wrong," he says. "If we do it straightforwardly, that's what feels awkward to us." In fact, the only song that's in a conventionally straightforward rhythm is "Oberlin," a song that dates back to Tween and Walsh's high school days, when Tween was applying to Oberlin College's music conservatory. "I got in, but I didn't end up going," Tween laughs.
If there's one thing that's important to take away from The Forms, it's that, whether they're covering Nirvana or playing a battle of the bands or devising a rhythm that you kinda want to figure out on graph paper, it comes from an open musical impulse. "We do care about something being expressive and human and having some kind of emotion to it."
The Forms with Johnny 23 and Life in Bed. 10 p.m. Thu., Nov. 1. Lava Lounge, 2204 E. Carson St., South Side. $4. 412-431-5282