My favorite album in a while is inc.’s no world, and I’ve seen it inspire similarly giddy fandom in plenty of other people. But for those who don’t like the duo, apparently, it’s very important they make their disgust known. For example, the only time Pitchfork covered the young Aged brothers’ previous incarnation, Teen Inc., in a single-paragraph live review from CMJ 2010, the first thing Larry Fitzmaurice did was call their haircuts “bad.” The music the “nerds” and “goofballs” played was “disjointed, emotionless” and unfavorably comparable to Mars Volta and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, leading the author to his condescending closer: “Why and how on earth do people actually like this stuff?” (No surprise, then, that the rechristened inc. grumpily objected on Twitter to an unflattering review of no world.) Last night, the band played an album release show at Le Poisson Rouge, backed by two drummers and a keyboardist, and bookended by LA club bonafides Total Freedom and Kelela, who opened the night, and closer UK DJ Zomby, a figure who is himself alternatingly fascinating and infuriating (on Twitter, or when he doesn’t show up for a gig). The bill’s focus on dance music might be the reason there were some people who saw inc. but maybe didn’t need to, like the obnoxious Zomby fan who stood beside while the band performed, and who on more than one occasion, standing eight feet from the stage, loudly told her friends, “These guys fuckin’ suck!” Someone else whose music taste I trust tweeted, afterward, “for the record inc. sux.”
I’m not exactly sure why inc. is so divisive, but I have a few ideas. In that Pitchfork live review, Fitzmaurice went straight for the hair. The brothers’ unusual appearances do merit teasing out, if only because they viscerally evoke the most ruthlessly teased period for today’s twenty-somethings—junior high in the late ’90s. At Le Poisson Rouge, Andrew Aged, inc.’s guitarist and lead singer, wore his long and greasy bangs in a middle part, a steel beaded necklace with a severed baby doll head for a charm, a quilted black sweatshirt and another black shirt tied around his waist. His brother Daniel, the bassist and backup vocalist, had a shaved head, shifty crowd-searching eyes, silver rings on four fingers and tan suspenders dangling from his waist toward black military boots. The brothers’ look is of the unhappy, quietly snarly, metal-obsessed junior high pyromaniac. Whether that sounds to you like the young bully or the bullied, the aesthetic automatically evokes someone who’s getting schoolyard taunts leveled their way. I’m probably over-exaggerating an already weak outcast stereotype, but I think there’s something there. When Andrew sings, his light, breathy voice comes through like a pained wince, like he can’t project without uncomfortable effort, like the fact he’s singing out loud is what hurts, not the striving to hit a high note. It’s incredibly vulnerable, more so because it’s coming from someone who looks like they would pick on you (or you’d pick on—because aren’t those fights always back-and-forth). In that sense, it makes sense some people like to poke at inc.
More important than the brothers’ provocative visual aesthetic, I think their music may be misunderstood. While the album evokes Prince, inc. have perhaps unfairly been shoehorned into the past few years’ alt-R&B obsession. Live, and as their outfits-circa-1999 suggest, they’re more like a straight-up rock band, ripping into extended guitar solos and power chord breakdowns. When they covered, surprisingly, Cat Stevens’ “The Wind,” they covered it with distortion. Daniel is a compelling bassist, snapping and jerking his head like he’s got water in his ear, and Andrew turns his back to the audience more than once, presumably in order to concentrate, but also to give us a cold shoulder, and show off his grungy, waist-tied sweatshirt. These guys perform like they’re on Alternative Nation. All of which is to say, if you go to see inc. expecting How to Dress Well in concert—as the slightly more amenable friend to the obnoxious “fuckin’ suck” girl suggested when he replied, “And I usually like R&B stuff”—you will be disappointed. Because inc. has a peculiar brand of inverted showmanship, seemingly based in the same angsty tradition as their look.
In fact, inc. performs almost like a ghost of the band. The first time I listened to no world was in LA, inc.’s home city, when I was reporting on Miguel for his FADER feature last fall. Maybe working on that story had something to do with my first, enduring impression, but I instantly imagined someone like the proper R&B star singing over inc.’s note-perfect instrumentation, as though that’d be the fullest realization of a project to which they’d only so far laid the groundwork. Live, inc. give off the same not-quite-finished vibe. Andrew’s quiet voice is a little too caught in the wind—both brothers sing like they’re doing backup—and their five-person stage layout puts the two brothers in front but with a big space between them, leaving a void that just begs to be filled by a big-voiced showman.
This might owe to the brothers background as session musicians. When Daniel anxiously scans the crowd, you sense he’d recede more if he thought he could get away with it, but this is their band not someone else’s, and they’re putting themselves out front for once, even if that’s not in their training. To me, inc.’s vulnerability onstage only makes them more spellbinding, capturing the feeling of damaged, irreparable incompleteness we get from songs like “Angel” and “Black Wings,” with their hollow drums and lost boy lyrics. Plenty of artists making music that is sonically similar to inc.’s seem to exaggerate their own weakness onstage, but inc.’s look, sound and playing style do not seem artificial; theirs is a shyness that never, ever betrays a hidden store of confidence. When the set was over, Andrew spoke for a minute into the microphone, almost totally inaudibly, ramblingly thanking everyone for coming. It’s a funny thing, but I think I trusted that these words of gratitude were sincere, precisely because I couldn’t quite hear them.