By Raymond Simon
According to Herbie Shellenberger, one of the guys behind England Belongs to Twee, Philadelphia’s oldest established permanent floating disco devoted to Oi, British punk, and indie pop, the March night when he’d booked Standard Fare to play at The Ox was not promising.
A torrential downpour lasting hours greeted the Sheffield trio. The band, consisting of Emma Kupa on bass and vocals, Andy Bez on drums, and Danny How on guitar and vocals, had flown stateside to play at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, but were making a pit stop in Philadelphia for this gig at the DIY concert venue and art space in Kensington.
More problematic than the soaking rain was the fan who’d imbibed too much alcohol. “There was a good crowd, dancing along and being very energetic,” Herbie recounts in an email. “In fact, I think there was a drunk kid in the front being a little too energetic. I think he freaked out the band a bit.”
He needn’t have worried. It’s unlikely that the members of Standard Fare were put off: despite being in their early twenties, their stripped-down music and thoughtful lyrics display a surprisingly wise and welcoming attitude towards life, accepting of people’s foibles but resolved to do better next time.
Take the song “Dancing,” for instance, a track on Standard Fare’s latest release, The Noyelle Beat. It’s about those awkward moments when friends or lovers make mistakes and disappoint one another. As Emma talk-sings in the second verse: “I know you got drunk/Tried to kiss someone/And I remember how shocked I felt/I think you shocked yourself/But I didn’t leave you like that, though it took all the strength I had.” In other words, it was tailor-made for our drunken dancer, because in some situations there’s no rational explanation, no satisfactory answer, so you might as well just go dancing. In the end, it all worked out for the best. The kid didn’t hurt anyone and, according to Herbie, the band played a great set that was well received. Afterwards, everyone stuck around to dance while he spun records.
Overall, the band had a good experience travelling and playing in the United States. In an email sent shortly after returning home, Emma writes, “The trip was a real adventure for us. With the extreme weather and the driving, it was pretty crazy. We loved playing and meeting so many nice people and travelling. It was our first time touring the States, although we’re coming back in August hopefully.”
Until the band returns, fans of brisk, literate indie-pop will have to bide their time listening to its new record, which was released by Hoboken’s Bar/None Records in mid-March. On the album’s thirteen tracks, Danny’s guitar playing is clear and ringing; Andy’s drumming is crisp; and Emma provides awkward but sweet vocals.
In an interview posted on YouTube, Andy lists the band’s influences: Emma likes Fleetwood Mac and Belle and Sebastian; Danny prefers punk; and the self-effacing drummer claims Britpop and the Kinks for himself. Those influences are certainly present, but Standard Fare is best appreciated on its own terms. The lyrics deal with awkward situations but treat people gently. They’re also funny, but not mean-spirited.
On “Night with a Friend,” a song about two friends considering sleeping together, Danny and Emma trade off vocals, alternating each line. In just over three minutes, the friends circle each other warily, halfheartedly trying to seduce one another but also not quite sure that sex is what they really want. “Would it be wrong if I didn’t go along with it?” Danny wonders towards the end of the song. And “Philadelphia” may just be the only pop song to mix global warming and pining for an absent friend. In her best pout, Emma begins the song, “Global warming is getting me down/It’s making the sea between us wider and deeper,” but she amps up her vocals to match the crunching guitar on the chorus.
Listeners don’t need to search far for the sources of these songs. Emma frankly admits that she and her mates draw on their lives for material. “The songs I sing are written from experience generally,” she claims, “and both mine and Dan’s are based on our experiences or those of our friends. I generally write songs as a way of saying things to people I never got to say at the time or trying to articulate an experience.”
Music lovers are certainly taking notice of Standard Fare. On April 8, New York Times critic Jon Pareles published a review of the band’s new record, writing, “The songs are tightly wound, packing more riffs than you’d expect into their three minutes each, and the attitude is scrappy and resilient.” That’s high praise coming from the paper of record. One can only hope that Standard Fare swings through Philadelphia again, before the band gets too big to play at DIY shows like the ones put on by Herbie and his compatriots at England Belongs to Twee.