Washed Out, Grimes, Blood Orange
The Bowery Ballroom
Monday, July 11
Better than: Trillwave?
To any musician with an audience, it’s been clear for ages—probably dating back to when Dylan went electric—that to change your entire instrumental vocabulary is one of the biggest risks you can take. While Bob (and, in time, his fans) could ably handle the added amplification, modern modes of music-making have provided the opportunity for some pretty precipitous drops. Most recently, James Blake took the plunge by trading in the heft of his glitchy samplers and software for some fancy keyboards and more traditional singer-songwriting, as has the equally young and talented Shlohmo, whose lovely Bad Vibes EP signals a shift from 8-bit dubstep to a Warp Records take on instrumental soul.
The next producer up to test his pluck is Washed Out, the formerly one-man operation of Ernest Greene—Georgia’s biggest export to still shack at his parents’ crib. A while back, Greene became the poster boy of chillwave, a fading production fad focused around slowed samples, reverb filters, and simple melodies rendered through a heady haze not so much the product of herb but a too-long nap on the beach. Despite playing a key role in creating and popularizing the sound, Greene seems to be taking a cue from his contemporary Toro Y Moi by following up his early works with a non-sequitur album (in this case, his debut effort on Sub Pop) and a live band to play it. Considering last night at the Bowery Ballroom made for the eve of that record’s release and Washed Out’s first big NYC show to support it, there was an undercurrent of anticipation atypical for a crowd used to knowing the exact kind of woozy pleasure their $15 would bring them.
Greene’s affect throughout the night suggested he was feeling some anxiety, too, about his departmental move from vibe architect to de facto frontman. Much of the quintet’s trim set was spent on Jagger-like crowd stoking, full of “you gotta help me out on this one,” “so glad to be here tonight,” and “c’mon guys, you sing it”—which proved unnecessary, as the crowd was just as ready to clap along as when Greene wasn’t showing them how to do it. As ever, he’s got a gregarious stage presence that’s instantly endearing, but it’ll probably take another week or two on the road before he settles into his new stage shoes.
What will take more work, unfortunately, is the music. As if to jab back at Times critic Jon Pareles’ yesteryear assertion that chillwave is “recession-era music,” Greene has shown up in 2011 with four backing musicians (including his wife Blaire on keys) and a trove of gear that suggests a serious investment: three top-of-the-line keyboards (Nord Wave, Nord Electro, and a Prophet ’08), live drums and at least one electronic beat pad, mixers, a laptop, an iPad, a few pedals, and enough percussive doodads to permit two tambourine polyrhythms (over layered beats acoustic and digital) at a time. But all this felt like garnish for a solid base that—despite the ample use of pre-recorded loops courtesy the Apple logos onstage—just wasn’t there.
Washed Out’s new album, Within and Without, is the kind of persistently unobtrusive summer soundtrack that remains pleasantly unmemorable even after the fifth spin, and likewise, the band’s performance stayed within the marginal confines of some live/looped netherzone. Performances of new material like “Echoes” and Without highlight “Eyes Be Closed” relied too heavily on backing tracks and mix-muddled atmospherics to feel kinetic, whereas the more familiar stuff from Greene’s old EPs lost their magic in translation to live performance. Most telling was Life of Leisure‘s blog classic “Feel It All Around,” its crucial Gary Low drank beat subbed out for a weak simulacrum that featured an almost self-parodic degree of sax soloing. Despite their high production value and sweat equity, Washed Out sounded more like a kitsch cover band than the genuine article, and considering they were scarcely onstage for fifty minutes by the time the encore wrapped, it was one that hadn’t made enough time for rehearsal.
The openers did little to salvage the evening: Montreal solo gal Grimes started off her set apologizing in advance for her lack of preparation, and it soon showed in the way her backing tracks somehow managed to fall out of meter. A drummer on loan from Chicago did mostly superfluous (and sloppy) time-keeping, whether it was on the two-piece tom and snare or by way of bobbing his head from the side of the stage, while the music itself was a dilute potion of keyboard demo beats, Legend of Zelda synth-harp, and a CocoRosie voice too wispy to pick up on the microphone. Thankfully, show-starter Devonté Hynes—better known as Lightspeed Champion, and a collaborator with Florence and the Machine, Solange Knowles, and the Chemical Brothers—turned in a respectable solo set as Blood Orange, though his mix of throwback synth beats, Princely vocals, and rock-guitar heroics weren’t anything too far beyond the ordinary. Still, as he washed the stage in feedback and lacerated a couple of his laptop tracks with some serious neckburners, Hynes and his guitar at times managed more of an impact than what Greene could wring from all that new gear of his.
Critical bias: I completely sat out the first tide of chillwave, but still find Washed Out’s new direction a good bit less convincing than what he was doing in ’09.
Random notebook dump: Grimes’ hand motions a mix between conducting (a pre-recorded beat) and conjuring a spell; sings like a child with a hairbrush in the mirror. First time I’ve thought of Sparkle Motion since ninth grade.
Far Away [with sax]
Feel It All Around [with sax]
You’ll See It
Eyes Be Closed