To listen to Rainbow Kitten Surprise is to take part in a reverie; their songs are hazy, yet honest impressions that depict the whirlwind of singer Sam Melo’s cluttered past – laced with brutal emotion, comprised of cocaine and lost love.
But their latest release How To: Friend, Love, Freefall is a bold step forward and their most difficult record to date, doubling as a diary that is in a constant conversation with itself, unraveling a mental landscape that teems with interpersonal suffering and a deeply felt uncertainty.
Brooklyn Steel is an ideal venue for Rainbow Kitten Surprise to perform their sonic gymnastics. It’s spacious, comfortable, dramatic, and moody, an apt reflection of their multifaceted sound. What is so impressive about Rainbow Kitten Surprise is that their live performance so closely mirrors the record-listening experience – they are a formidable five-piece outfit (singer Sam Melo, rhythm guitarist and backup vocalist Darrick “Bozzy” Keller, bassist Charlie Holt, drummer Jess Haney, and lead guitarist Ethan Goodpaster) that can bang it out just as well onstage as they can in the studio. While some artists might have slow-starting tendencies, their sets gradually building into sprints, Rainbow Kitten Surprise galvanizes at the starting line. While some singers might feel more at home double parked at the mic, Sam Melo performs best when he is half-naked, doused in sweat, leaping nimbly from stage left to right, twisting his body in dramatic angles that rival Steven Tyler and Freddie Mercury’s frontman antics.
As they took to the stage, draped in a soft red light, the crowd erupted in deafening cheers – a crucial primer to any half-way decent concert. Sitting in the pit, my eyes combed through the floor. The band had attracted a prismatic audience: old dudes with peppered ponytails, ogling fan-girls crying out sweet nothings, iced-out hipsters that could fit nicely into a Young Thug music video. There is clearly a demand for their sound, and it extends into many different breeds of listeners.
Opening up with their new lead single “Fever Pitch,” an energetic indie rock-rap hybrid, Melo electrified the audience into a steady romp with his prophetic gestures, arms outstretched, beckoning to the crowd to cheer louder, dance harder. It feels reminiscent of the major tempo changes and operatic songs of Queen, but it takes it a step further, changing genre constantly, yet somehow remains cohesive. It binds together into a steady whole, and it is kind of brilliant. Following this strong start were fan-favorites like “Seven,” “American Shoes,” and “Goodnight Chicago,” kicking the buzzed swaying of the crowd into double-time. On a granular level, no Rainbow Kitten Surprise song sounds alike. In any moment, they dip in and out of familiar pools of genre with ease, blurring the lines well between Americana, folk revival, and alternative rock. Compared to their past two releases which rode heavily on the coattails of The Lumineers, Fleet Foxes, and early Modest Mouse, How To: Friend, Love, Freefall makes for a savvy, appealing brew of pop-rock magic that is quite promising, approaching originality. The decisions here seem forceful and deliberate, resulting in a third album that is indicative of a band making all the right moves, coming into their own.
Behind their bright and dreamy melodies, especially in tracks like “Hide” and “Lady Lie,” was a throbbing pain that ebbed and flowed – loose, free-form verses summoned, or rather gave way, to swelling choruses that invited listeners to let it all go on the dancefloor. Their sound felt like an exercise in catharsis – buzzing guitars and rollicking drums on “When It Lands” and “Moody Orange” loosened the knots of everyday anxieties. “Cocaine Jesus,” one of their biggest hits, swung hard, jump-starting the legions of fans once more into a raucous frenzy. Much of the audience were losing their minds, which rendered this moment particularly special. It took the form of a spectacle – Melo the prophet was delivering his sermon and his disciples were hanging off every word, enraptured, kneeling at the pew before the holy power of Rainbow Kitten Surprise. After “Painkillers,” the band exited the stage, only to return for a four-song encore (including “Possum Queen,” “Polite Company,” “Recktify”) that was nothing short of epic. “Turn the fuck up!” Melo shouted hoarsely into the mic, ripping off his shirt, ushering in their final song “Run,” a ballistic missile of rock-and-roll badassery. It was perfect end to a near-perfect set.
It might have been the second-hand high, but Melo seemed to be floating even when he was still. While the smoky cadence of Melo’s voice – possessed, seething with angst – pulled the audience deeper into a marijuana-assisted trance, his presence expanded upward, temporarily leaving earth. His natural charisma is of industrial-strength, occupying all space. His performance was something of a fantasy; his voice unfurled in mesmerizing ways, and to take your eyes off of Sam Melo was to look away from Jesus on the cross. In fact, Melo looks and feels like son of God with his big, bushy beard and anthemic preaching lyricism, peppered with biblical allusions. Unlike the calculated maneuvers of Kanye West, the savior-complex of Melo feels like a natural extension of their ethos. I’m skeptical about most bands I haven’t seen live, particularly in an age where mix and mastering can elevate mediocrity into gold. But I was converted that night. The music felt like a revelation, and god damn, it feels good to surrender to such a talent.
Usually artists that lean into pop sensibilities produce watered-down melodies and trite lyricism. But Rainbow Kitten Surprise manages to swerve past such compulsory decisions. Growing up in the buttoned-down, conservative pocket of Boone, North Carolina, it’s fitting that Rainbow Kitten Surprise’s sound is so whimsically imaginative. If music is an endless wasteland dotted with perennial genre grid-boxes, then they aspire to walk beyond that horizon. They fall short of this quest in much of their earlier, more one-dimensional material like “Devil Like Me” and “Cold Love,” but as long as they continue on this trajectory of dominating festival circuits and producing well-rounded, highly accessible LPs, I wouldn’t be surprised if they slipped into the Top 40 in the near future.
Photos: via author