Pop Pupils: Atomic Mama and Youth Lagoon 

Synthesizing a new sound in Boise

Trevor Powers: a big fish in a small lagoon.

photo by Matthew Wordell

Trevor Powers: a big fish in a small lagoon.

Trevor Powers stands at his keyboard, a pile of dark hair barely contained by a ball cap, a red flannel shirt hanging out over a pair of skinny jeans. Singing emotively in his high-pitched, boyish falsetto, he performs "Cannons" for a visibly--and audibly--excited crush of people pressed against the stage at Reef. About 40 minutes later, Daniel Kerr, tall, cheeks pink, his shock of auburn hair wild, plays a Moog Prodigy synthesizer and performs "The Orb," slowed way down and punched way up. That same crowd sings along.

In the next phase of what appears to be an evolution from the powerful rock of Built to Spill to the peculiar pop of Finn Riggins, a youthful hybrid has begun to take hold. Both Kerr and Powers have pushed their layered, orchestral synth-pop out of the bedroom and onto the forefront of Boise's indie music scene. Kerr, who records under the moniker of Brother Dan (but performs live as Talk Math to Me and Atomic Mama) and Powers, who records and performs as Youth Lagoon, are heralding in a new sound.

Kerr, a 22-year-old engineering student at Boise State, quietly self-released The Orb a few months. Recorded entirely in his rehearsal space at the Boise Bomb Shelter, the album is all Kerr, who wrote and played most notes (minus a contribution here or there) on the complicated album. Kerr has been playing music since grade school, and The Orb is a culmination of 10 years of listening and learning. It's also a jumping off point.

"I recorded a couple of songs without the idea of an album," Kerr said. "The 'Long Slow Hunt' and 'Dying Bed' were recorded right off the bat. I wanted to see how well I could put together my ideas and get them down. It turned out that I liked them as much as I thought I would and did as good as I thought I could, so I was like, 'Why not try to finish something?'"

What Kerr came out of the shelter with is an 11-track, layered joint that learned from blues, rock and pop with gangly guitars, synthesized percussion, gospelly keys and Kerr's vocals, both harmonious and purely instrumental. The album's rich, heavy tracks are bookended by quieter ballad-esque tunes; strummy Latin guitar, caressing rattles and thumps; hesitant falsettos buried under far-away screams; time signatures changing like spring weather in Idaho; lyrics sometimes simple, sometimes as obtuse as 18th century poetry. The album, like its maker, is interesting, faceted and not very much like something else. Except that it kind of is.

While Trevor Powers may sound like the name of a cape-wearing comic superhero, he is instead a 22-year-old Boise State English major. His debut album will be out in June on Juno Records, and in the last couple of weeks, Youth Lagoon's music has sailed across the blogosphere, landing on everything from Hype Machine to Los Angeles-based Rollo & Grady to NPR to Pitchfork. With only three songs available on the Web, he's proof that word-of-mouth is still the best kind of marketing.

Powers also started playing young, taking piano lessons at age 6. After a pop-punk band in high school, he found that his own musical tastes were changing drastically and began retreating to his room.

"I started falling in love with just playing piano by myself in my bedroom--something really intimate in a way," Powers said.

So about a year ago, he started writing by himself. He also began listening to stuff that would greatly influence where Youth Lagoon is now.

"By that time, I was listening to all sorts of other music, like Cocteau Twins," Powers said. "I started getting really fascinated with unique recording methods and capturing songs in their truest sense rather than just adding unnecessary polish. And falling in love with reverb."

"Cannons," one of the songs that has garnered Youth Lagoon so much attention, is Casio-driven sunshiney dream-pop but with other elements hiding in the shade of an oversized umbrella. The reverb-drenched vocals that Powers is fond of tend to pull his songs' lyrics out to a distant horizon line. They're still there, but beautifully blurred and mysterious, requiring repeated plays to glean their meaning.

Because so much goes on in both Kerr's and Powers' songs, it would be impossible to perform live alone. Kerr enlists longtime collaborator Jake Warnock, and as Atomic Mama, the two elevate Kerr's solo stuff into a raucous electronic, howling dance party.

Powers' friend Erik Eastman does all of the live guitar work, leaving Powers to push pedals and keys and sing in his emotive voice about difficult times, with a controlled angst mature beyond his years.

Neither performance at Reef was technically perfect. Powers' saturated vocals were more natural and tended to be slightly pitchy. Kerr experimented with time signatures and instrumentation to the detriment of a couple of tracks that listeners had become familiar with from the album. But that didn't detract from either performance. Instead, it was like being let in on the early stages of something teetering on the edge of greatness.

The garage-rocking Teens, the funky-electro Mozam Beaks and the heavenly electronic Shades are other acts to keep an eye on, as bedrooms empty and clubs fill up with a new Boise sound.

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