Brooklyn’s Antlers started out in the same modest way many aspiring young bands do these days – in a home studio where lead singer/guitarist Peter Silberman wrote his first songs, influenced by other low-fi artists such as The Microphones (whose song “Antlers” inspired their name), adding multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci and percussionist Michael Lerner after a couple of solo releases under the band name.
A small following in the Brooklyn area grew quickly into a larger, international one upon the release of Hospice in 2009, a harrowing song cycle about an emotionally abusive relationship set in a cancer ward. Initially a self-release, it quickly sold out its initial run, then was re-mastered and re-released on the French Kiss label.
That’s the official story in a nutshell, and a fairly typical one. But nothing about the Antlers or their rise is typical, and it’s unlikely that Silberman or his band mates thought that collection of songs, written when Silberman was barely out of his teens, would lead to selling out consecutive nights at the world famous Troubadour last July 12th and 13th or that the west coast alternative crowd would respond as positively to them and the rather dark songs from Hospice as those in their hometown.
As surreal an experience as it was that July night, seeing a room full of hipsters paying rapt attention and cheering as loudly for its songs as if they were commercial music fans responding to danceable pop hits, Hospice is still, years later, their defining achievement. It and their new one, Familiars, were the source of the overwhelming majority of the songs performed live, with only a song or two from 2011’s Bursting Apart. Silberman even referenced the inherent irony of the situation by darkly-humorously introducing one of Hospice’s numbers as “this is a very old song” and another as “this is a very old song- but it’s not that old.” Such was the dry sense of humor he displayed as the kind of shy-but-compelling front man whose most successful record comes from an emotional place that most people probably wouldn’t care to revisit.
Familiars, released on Anti records a couple of weeks before the Troubadour show, may help exorcise some of those ghosts. While it has many similarities to Hospice – Cicci’s atmospheric keyboards and trumpet playing and Lerner’s agile and delicate drumming to name two (the trio was joined live by a second multi-instrumentalist), it’s also warm and reassuring where Hospice is stark and unsparing.
While both are concerned with the nature of guilt and redemption- Hospice portrays caretaker as victim and patient as abuser – Familiars is as much about how we treat ourselves as how we treat each other. While despair and loneliness are still examined in full- the second song, “Doppelganger,” wonders “Can you hear me when I’m trapped behind the mirror?” -there is also suggestion that it it’s possible to find both conflict and release from it by gazing inward. “Surrender” contemplates mercy as “a boundary we’ll surrender/when love is a safer place we both remember” and expresses, perhaps referring to Hospice’s emotional minefield, a desire to “make our history less commanding.” Musically too, it’s more forgiving, with the clinical coldness of Hospice replaced by a jazzier, almost torch-song lightness. Silberman displays more vocal character and variety of tone as well, his falsetto voice (appropriately compared to the likes of Jeff Buckley) used much less dominantly. The philosophical approach does more than validate the tone of Hospice. It declares its emotional hardness as intentional, something to be outgrown rather than abandoned.
For the Troubadour audience’s part- the average age seemed to be in about the same late 20s range as that of the band – they showed their appreciation by doing something unusual for such a young audience – actually listening. Uniquely among recent shows I’ve attended, I saw very few cell phones or cameras- the audience seemed more interested in experiencing the show rather than documenting it.
That is the kind of audience that the Antlers inspire, and the fact that their fans appear to respond to the actual songs rather than their image or back story is what makes them something special. As a one-off, Hospice would have been an interesting curio of a moment in time from a deep-thinking teenager. Now a fully-fledged adult, it’s what Silberman and his bandmates do with it now that will dictate their future, which, musically at least, is full of promise.