London-based electropop lady Imogen Heap does a pretty good job disguising her hardware. Onstage, inside Avalon’s tawdry chrome-and-cement temple, she’d buried a bank of keyboards beneath garlands of flowers and strings of Christmas lights, and a sparkly butterfly clung to one of her microphone stands—as though nature (or elves) had beaten back mankind’s technological advance once and for all. On her two solo albums and the CD she made with producer Guy Sigsworth as Frou Frou, this is how Heap’s voice works: Meticulously multitracked into a gooey earth-mother chorus, her singing turns fussy laptop bleepscapes into mushy teen-soap fodder in which even her technical know-how signifies emotion, not information. Why else are Boards of Canada still awaiting their appearance on The OC, when Heap’s “O Superman” update “Hide and Seek”—the key cut on last year’s Speak for Yourself—scored the show’s second-season finale?
At Avalon, Heap’s voice wasn’t the lustrous mini-marvel it is on record; until the last few numbers, her singing was thin and unsteady, as if unaccustomed to the harsh air outside her cozy home studio. That was most evident in the handful of tunes she unwisely elected to play on grand piano, including “Let Go” (the dazzling Frou Frou track from the Garden State soundtrack), which, stripped of swirling atmospherics, sounded like bad Sarah McLachlan. The music improved when Heap, dressed like the Olsen twins’ dotty aunt, single-handedly (wo)manned her idyllic keyb station. Or maybe it was just the show that improved, since beyond a delicate thumb-pianoed “Clear the Area,” the songs still felt diminished from their studio incarnations, even if watching her push buttons and twist dials was way more fun.
On this first night of her American tour, Heap might’ve agreed: She apologized constantly, explaining that she’d never before performed some of the material live. She practically threw away “Hide and Seek,” stopping three times to futz with her uncooperative vocoder. Yet perhaps Heap sensed that humanity is what we wanted. It’s certainly what we got.