March 8, 2006
Kelley Polar’s pretty-fucking-great Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens exists in some weird, previously unexplored netherworld between shy-bashful-romantic Postal Service laptop-emo bedroom-pop and sleek Kompakt ping-swoosh minimal techno: nostalgically warm half-whispered whiteboy vocals cooing sad little hooks while icy string-stabs and aquatic synth-pulses burble underneath. It’s something like what might’ve happened if mid-80s New Order had time-traveled to 2006, gained access to brand-new state-of-the-art production gadgets, and for some reason decided to write songs that were even more clipped and introverted than the ones they’d already been writing. Or maybe it’s what would’ve happened if electroclash hadn’t been anointed the next big thing the minute some idiot thought the term up, if it had been allowed to mature into a genre capable of supporting actual songwriting instead of falling victim to hype-cycle embarrassment within a few months.
The album is a lot of things, then, but none of them quite screams out to be played live in a noisy bar. So it makes sense that Polar had never played a live show before last night. And, judging by his half-sung mutter, Polar doesn’t sound willing to let his natural charisma carry him through a stage show. So he overcompensated. He hired an entirely black-clad seven-piece string section, so large that it could barely fit along the back wall of the Knitting Factory stage. He brought Morgan Geist (I think it was Morgan Geist) to handle laptop duties and play an electronic drum-pad and wear what looked like a Batman mask. Polar and a female singer walked onstage in pastel druid robes; as soon as the beat kicked in on the first song, they flung the robes off, revealing that the girl was wearing an immaculate white disco-queen dress and Polar was rocking a He-Man breastplate tricked out with blinking neon lights. Halfway into the set, a woman in a crop-top and a motorcycle helmet came onstage to hand Polar a violin; she returned on the last song to dance with a guy who I think had a sleeping bag over his head. Oh, and everyone wore laurel wreaths on some Rome shit. For about ten minutes, this was great, a guy finally willing to bring ridiculous middle-school stagecraft to the club instead of guitars and drums. But it didn’t stay dazzling for long; pretty soon, everyone was just onstage playing the songs and looking vaguely ridiculous. Fortunately, though, Polar doesn’t really need all the window dressing; his songs are pretty and strong enough to resonate by themselves. Polar himself wasn’t exactly a model of confidence, singing so quietly that he was barely audible, but the other singer made up for him, singing along in a glassy “Heart of Glass” croon and supplying all the necessary charisma. And the music was a breezy glide, the sort of thing that makes you feel cooler than you actually are.
Unfortunately for Polar, though, the scene on the floor of the Knit was straight-up yuppie’s-night-out, people in casual-Friday clothes chattering loud enough to sometimes drown out the music. Since Polar’s stuff is all frail and skeletal, he wasn’t playing loudly, and he was particularly vulnerable to shitheads like these. Shows aren’t libraries, and I don’t think everyone needs to be whispering to each other, but it would’ve been nice if more of the people there had showed even a slight interest in what they’d paid to see. This was something of an event, after all, and it hopefully won’t scare Polar away from ever playing live again.
Stream: Love Songs of the Hanging Garden