You'd have to strap on some serious spelunking gear to dig deep enough into the Showcase files to find another semi-final night whose winner was decided by such a tight margin.
The night's lineup — of lounge, jam, garage and synth-y alt-rock — was as tight and creative as it was diverse. Heck, if The Smittle Band, Echo Canyon, The Yipps and Year of the Tiger faced off in the finals, I'd chalk it up as a successful year. But in the end, Year of the Tiger eked out the other high scores with a photo finish win. And for good reason. From the second it opened with a sine wave-dusted vocal sample to the end of its abbreviated, 25-minute set, the band ripped through a mutated mix of electronic post-punk and hard, loud Nation of Ulysses-esque rock, all punctuated by scatterbeats and brash, ambient interludes. It's the sound (and the quality) you'd expect from the band, led by Mike Mullins of Underclaire, arguably the best alt-rock songwriter in town, and Jeremy Brasher of, well, just about every other killer local band of the last 12 years. He's the designated post-punk torchbearer of Little Rock. And rounded out by Josh Tate's punching drums and fuzzed-out bass from Rob Brackett (who judge Andy Warr called "very well the best bass player under the age of 30 in town").
If this, the band's second show ever, is any indicator, start bracing yourself for a lot to come from this new band of old veterans. We sure as hell are.
On the other end of the spectrum, The Smittle Band minted a sterling reputation for itself as a regular fixture at jazz bars around town and didn't disappoint Thursday night. Ever melodic and harmonic, the band brought its reliably tight sound, even with keyboardist Jim McGehee playing through a banged-up arm after getting t-boned at a stop light the night before. The keywords for the group's set: tasteful and cohesive. Like most lounge music, it's enjoyable in the background. But with a closer listen, it's shocking how strong their hooks are. And it's smart and classy how they don't call attention to them.
Echo Canyon surfed and sliced through four elongated jams that were simultaneously spacey and gritty. A friend insisted it "sounds like bong rips." Think Herbie Hancock headhunting with Black Sabbath. Although a technical difficulty kept the saxophonist (whose nimble honking provides the ipso facto lead vocals for the group) out of earshot for the first song, it may have been a happy accident. By the time the kink was ironed out, it took the fantastic groove of the first song and elevated it to another level: a hedonistic, winding exploration of scales and tones that juked the crowd at every turn.
The night ended with a chunking set of guitar rock from The Yipps. These guys have such a huge spectrum of influences that they refuse to define themselves in one (or two or 10) specific sub-genres. All at once you can hear Keith Moon-inspired drumming behind Mike Watt bass fills, Byrds by way of Don Caballero guitar interplay and harmonies inspired by the Beach Boys' acid potlucks. They're hard to pin down but easy to like.
Round three, 8:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 10, Stickyz.
Brethren. Surely one of the best blues bands in the state, this Hot Springs outfit has spent years providing a versatile, driving backing force for CeDell Davis, the roots legend and a proto-punk if the Blues ever had one. From Clarksville to Minnesota and everywhere in between, the band's brought the bumping, grinding sound of the Delta to a reeling list of blues festivals the nation over.
Think: Party music. No: party music for real parties.
The Pink Drapes. "Shoegaze" pops to mind immediately, but behind the blankets of reverb and billows of distortion, The Pink Drapes offer an '80s pop melodicism not found in the bulk of fellow My Bloody Valentine-loving fuzz-fiends. Regulars in the Little Rock and Fayetteville underground house show circuits, Thursday will mark one of the first club dates for the trio.
Think: Textures, colors, movement and warmth with a twist of high school crush.
Michael Leonard Witham. Fingerpicking his way through the sounds of the Dust Bowl, Laurel Canyon, Omaha and Joshua Tree, Calif., Michael Leonard Witham and his harmonica rasp and bend their way through minor-key melancholy with a contagious sense of humor and colorful eye for characters in song.
Think: All those hokey Midwestern folkies with worn guitars, except really, really good.
This Holy House. It's Indie, capitalized, italicized and bolded. Raised in Greenbrier and uprooted to Conway, brothers David and James Velek and frontman Elliott Cotton offer a certain musical whimsy beside their sonic sincerity. Treading the same ground as Band of Horses or Pedro the Lion, This Holy House had the chops to make the cut and the ambition to do well for themselves Thursday night.
Think: The band your college's Ersophic Society and Bible study group can agree on.