- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

Performing in front of several thousand people is a nerve-racking ordeal. Palms sweat, fingers cramp, and mouths fumble around once-familiar lyrics. For the four Colorado natives in the Fray, however, such performances represent the calm before the storm.

“We’ve been doing some shows at our favorite little clubs,” drummer Ben Wysocki explains during a recent stop in Toronto. “The tour is only going to last for two weeks or so, but we really like playing these rooms. Coincidentally, we also seem to be hitting the coldest places in the country.”

The Fray will release its self-titled sophomore album Feb. 3. Filled with panoramic pop songs, it’s the sort of restless record that demands a wide, stadium-sized audience. The band mates plan to meet those audiences later this year, when an international tour will take them throughout Europe, Australia and America. For now, though, the boys are happy to introduce their new songs in more intimate venues.

“The interaction with smaller crowds is so different,” Mr. Wysocki says. “When you’re in a room of 1,000 people, the energy is very contained and everybody’s reaction is very honest and evident. We’re playing songs that people are hearing for the first time. They don’t have any preconceived notions; they’re just reacting to the music.”

Past reactions to the Fray’s music have been overwhelmingly positive. Led by Isaac Slade’s vocals and nimble piano skills, the band debuted in 2005 with “How to Save a Life,” a poignant album that sold more than 2 million copies in the United States alone. The Fray’s songs resonated with a young, technology-savvy audience whose support helped make “How to Save a Life” the top-selling digital album of all time. Such popularity also translated overseas, where the group amassed enthusiastic audiences from Ireland to Israel.

Mr. Wysocki, who recently turned 24, remains stunned by the response. He’s also prepared to start the cycle again.

“During the last three years,” he explains, “every day was full of firsts. We were always encountering something we’d never done before, people we’d never met before, questions we’d never had to answer before. That doesn’t mean we’ve become experts. What it does mean is when we get ready to dive back in, we at least know the temperature of the water.”

To bolster the album with familiar energy, the Fray assembled the same production team that created “How to Save a Life.” Mr. Wysocki is proud of the decision, which enabled the band to work alongside old friends.

“We felt like that would help propel our songs. We wanted to hold off on changing the production team until we had a better understanding of how to make records. With our first album, we honestly had no idea what we were doing. It was beautifully accidental.”

Conversely, “The Fray” is a purposeful record peppered with more extremes than its predecessor. The rock songs are louder, emphasizing vocal harmonies and bursts of guitar, while the ballads are performed with soft, measured steps. “Everything is more intentional,” the drummer summarizes, “and we plan to carry that attitude into our touring.”

The Fray will give a rare performance at the 9:30 Club tonight. Doors to the sold-out show open at 8 p.m.

New York state of mind

Longwave initially emerged in 1999 as part of New York City’s indie-rock boom.

The band’s dreamy sound and lush arrangements helped secure a major-label contract with RCA Records, and Longwave happily served as ambassadors of the Big Apple while touring the country.

Years later, the swaggering sounds that erupted from Lower Manhattan have given way to a different movement. Younger bands such as Vampire Weekend take an increasingly scholarly approach to their craft, eschewing loud guitars in favor of erudite lyrics and worldly influences. Gotham may have changed slightly, but Longwave remains entrenched in the city’s musical makeup.

“Secrets Are Sinister,” the band’s first album since it split from RCA, captures the grime and glamour of America’s most populous city. There’s an emphasis on dirty guitar anthems and sonic uplift, but the album also makes room for the wistful flourishes that helped Longwave differentiate itself from other New York bands.

Although satisfied with the end product, frontman Steve Schiltz concedes that making the album was challenging occasionally. “We didn’t have much money,” the songwriter says, “and we weren’t on any timeline but our own. Before, we were part of RCA Records, and there were people asking for the record because they’d given us money and wanted to know when they were going to make it back.”

Working without a label may have tightened the band’s budget, but it also gave Longwave enough autonomy to create a sonically diverse work. Several months after its completion, the group found a new home with Original Signal Recordings. “Secrets Are Sinister” subsequently was released in November 2008, and the band returned to the road soon after.

When asked to compare New York’s current trends with those of 2000, Mr. Schiltz seems unfazed by any shifting tastes. “We’re still friends with bands like the Strokes, the National and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs,” he says. “We’re just older now. I like living here, and I’m happier now than I was back then.”

Catch Longwave in action this Sunday at DC9. Tickets to the 8 p.m. performance are $10, and the show features music from three bands, with Longwave headlining the bill.

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