It’s impossible to ignore the 1970s while watching Washington, D.C.’s Canyon perform or listening to their new album, “Empty Rooms” (Gern Blandsten Records). Guitarist Joe Winkle, especially, sounds like a product of Pink Floyd and looks like a Humble Pie dropout, a cigarette dangling precariously from the thin lips masked by his unkempt, shaggy hair. Coupled with singer Brandon Butler’s “Harvest”-era Neil Young fixation and Derry de Borja’s ever-present Rhodes keyboard roil, you’d think this band was making music in the wrong decade.
But underneath the ’70s sound is a group of much more modern cult influences. Some of the bands’ songs are filled with the melodic twang of Uncle Tupelo’s country-rock, while others reflect the soupy, atmospheric mood of Mazzy Star. The most relevant modern influence, though, is that of R.E.M.’s underappreciated “New Adventures in Hi-Fi.” Like that 1996 album, many of Canyon’s songs reflect America in dark, focused acoustic rock that doesn’t really rock, music that prefers the idea of intensity to distortion-driven bluntness.
Since Butler was in punk band Boy’s Life before forming Canyon, that’s something of a surprise. Though it’s clear he’s left behind the rowdy sounds of his past, it’s also apparent he hasn’t forgotten punk’s greatest strengths: His songs are honest but indirect and open to interpretation, giving this show’s small audience ample reason to lean in and listen.