I imagine that relatively few people decide to go to a rock concert twenty minutes before it starts. But, see, my wife and I were spending the week in Boston, and we had a Friday night with nothing on the docket. There was talk of a movie; there was talk of dinner, but ultimately, we wanted to do something unique, something singular. Take in a play, or some jazz, or climb a mountain (which, to be fair, is kind of what walking in certain parts of the city is like). Dunno. Something cool.

See, we’d been doing a lot of music shopping – a perfectly natural thing, I think, for rabid music fanatics to do when faced with the opportunity to spend time in a city that boasts more options than a couple of scattered Best Buys – but there was one band that eluded us. That Handsome Devil came to us in a rather unique manner, really. See, there was this song on “Rock Band 2” – yeah, we play with plastic instruments sometimes, wanna fight about it? – that was, quite simply, really cool, and we’d hoped to investigate them further. Imagine my surprise, frantically scouring area live entertainment listings for something even mildly neat, when I saw that there was a concert nearby featuring a few local favorites. Guess who was on the bill?

Believe me when I say this, friends, as I wouldn’t lead you astray: a That Handsome Devil live performance is something you have to witness. They’re an extremely tight band who pull off the optical illusion of looking thrillingly slapdash. They’re talented musicians who play intricate and complicated things without resorting to showy rock-god stage moves to attract attention. And, best of all, they’re fronted by three ridiculously different vocalists, creating a sort of measured chaos that pulls off their delicate balance perfectly. There’s Deflon, who serves as a hype man of sorts, echoing and doubling frontman Godforbid’s twitchy melodies with an enthusiastic, effortlessly assured stage presence. There’s Naoko Takamoto, a fiesty frontlady who offers up vocal harmonies and mischievous go-go moves. And then, of course, there’s Godforbid himself, a consummate frontman if I’ve ever seen one; I don’t know the last time I’ve seen a dude this suited for the stage, an unpredictable flurry of spastic dancing and expert vocal timing. He’s self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating in the same breath; he’s nimble and engaging to watch, navigating the cramped stage space expertly; he delivers between-song banter in a winking deadpan, trademark brew in hand, jokingly critical of an audience he so clearly adores. He has to; he wouldn’t dive headfirst into the business of keeping us so entertained otherwise.

Needless to say, we finally got our That Handsome Devil record, right at their merch table. (Okay, all of the albums, and maybe a t-shirt. What can I say? We were under the music’s spell.)

So, what do they sound like? The answer, friends, is not so simple. There’s psychobilly, hip-hop, reggae, metal, swing, and metal all simmering in this stew. Any given record sounds like a demented late-night jam session between Nick Cave, James Brown, Serj Tankian, Andre 3000, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The drummer is on loan from the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies; Brian Setzer’s on guitar and using his distortion pedal more than usual; Ray Manzarek’s on keys; Tom Waits and James Hetfield are trading lead vocals. Any given song sounds like a Halloween party with a startlingly eclectic guest list. Where That Handsome Devil excels, then, is in their (astonishing, really) ability to distill all of these sounds into something that sounds so essentially That Handsome Devil. It’s unique without being pretentious or abstract; it’s a genre stew without being pastiche or homage. And it’s absolutely enthralling.

That Handsome Devil’s latest album, The Heart Goes to Heaven, the Head Goes to Hell, is available to order on their website, and it’s worth a listen for a lot of reasons. While their raucous live show is pure entertainment of the highest order, That Handsome Devil’s albums offer the listener the option of actually listening to the songs. The instrument work on hand here shines without being nudged out of the spotlight by the visual spectacle that is Godforbid; these musicians infuse each song with a unique sound that never sounds out of step with the band’s musical manifesto. It’s a tricky balancing act to sound chaotic and consistent in equal measures, particularly in the setting of an album, and these guys pull it off well. Jeremy Page’s echoing, ominous guitar on opener “Adapt” is textured and colorful; Evan Sanders’ keyboard lines throughout an essential part of the THD sound, a cheesy 60’s lounge organ here, an ominous, expansive-sounding pump organ here.

And these songs are remarkably solid. Godforbid reveals his hip-hop roots here – he doesn’t rap, but he has a way of riding a beat with a unique, off-kilter cadence, and he writes lyrics with intricate internal rhymes and turns of phrase like a seasoned emcee. “Get love and hate confused; can’t separate the two,” he moans on the deceptively jaunty “Twist the Knife”, “oh, my love, how I’ve hated you.” The track sounds like a potential pop single with a niche retro market, until you give the agreeably twisted lyrics a once-over. Meanwhile, THD detail an uproariously sterile afterlife on “Charlie’s Inferno”, meticulously offering up the tale of a man absolutely positive that his mundane suburban exist couldn’t possibly have warranted a trip to Hell. “Excuse me, sir, there must be someone you’ve confused me for; if I could see someone who knew me or someone in uniform,” Charlie protests, to no avail. “I really don’t belong here; I know you’ve heard the tune before.” Bouncy lounge-pop underscores the existential despair; it’s all quite brilliant, even after the dizzying, pitch-black satire of “The U & I in Suicide”, a live showstopper that translates quite well to record.

That Handsome Devil find beauty in the dark cracks in pop music; they exist on the fringes of popular music, distilling their vast pool of influences into something endlessly entertaining, surprisingly accessible, and, most importantly, thrillingly individual. Music this vital is rarely allowed to creep into the national consciousness – after all, homogeneity has even snuck into the realm of indie music these days – which makes That Handsome Devil a must-listen. I’m a recent convert, yes; and, with any justice, more of you will join our ranks. Preferably sooner rather than later. These guys need to be able to keep doing what they do.

Grade: A

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