The Crystal Ark w/Avan Lava
Music Hall of Williamsburg
Wednesday, May 30
Better than: The record, in one case.
Last summer, Jonathan Galkin described his work as DFA Records’ head of A&R for me in an interview. “I literally have a stack at home of 40 CDs I picked out that’s, like, ’88 to ’92,” he said. “I got them out for Gavin [Russom]. He’s working on a Crystal Ark album. We had this whole discussion of that whole era of major labels putting out dance albums. I did a similar thing with Hercules [and Love Affair]. I almost get into character, A&R’ing this record, I have a very good dialogue with a lot of the artists. Like Andy Butler or with Gavin, we’ll start talking about, “Have you ever listened to To the Batmobile, Let’s Go, the Todd Terry album? Or Masters at Work: The Album?” Both of which came out in ’91.”
So when the opportunity to see the Crystal Ark presented itself I figured I’d see how much fruit that statement bore. It turns out a good amount, though that was hardly due to the Crystal Ark alone. The crowd, heavily gay, was there to party, and the night’s DJ, Sean B, served up lots of records that split the difference between the ’90s-cusp house (lots of big piano grooves) and more modern bass-molt. And the dress did largely call to mind the days when Mossimo and Stussy and Cross Colours ran things.
That was on full display during Avan Lava’s opening set, though their sound has more to do with early-’80s Prince. I’d liked their recent EP Flex Fantasy a lot, growing briefly fixated with “It’s Never Over,” but for some reason I’d never been drawn to seeing them live—a mistake. The Fischerspooner offshoot is the work of music men Le Chev and Ian Pai, who coaxed bright, forthright electro-pop from stand-up keyboard banks like you saw on Top of the Pops ‘twixt the times of Rick Astley and the KLF. Yep—that retro. Everybody wore white, the better for the opulent colors of a superb light show to take effect. The lasers were working it, too. Confetti was fired into the crowd at the set’s beginning and end (twice then).
Boisterous singer Tom Hennes plays nicely off of backing singers Drew Citron (blonde, boisterous) and Jo Lampert (brunette, petite), who at one point mimed a near-kiss that turned into shoving one another away—like the background action in a hair-metal video set in a strip club, but played for fun and subtext. “Like DC’s sweatpants?” Hennes said at one point. “Total K-Mart style.”
A fixation with “It’s Never Over” is justified, by the way—it closed the set with a major flourish, though early on I didn’t like the way some of its vocals were processed into a stab at big-room EDM (we can just start using this as an epithet now, right?). But Flex Fantasy‘s other songs hit harder in person: When the dead-serious R&B slow jam “Slow Motion” or “Tear It Down” came up, I’d hear the first half of the chorus and be singing along with the rest. Can’t wait to do it again.
The Crystal Ark had a lot of color projected onto them as well, via psychedelic film snippets. Their ’60s-alien gold-and-silver inverted-triangle tops and white pants called to mind another entity obsessed with arks, Sun Ra’s Arkestra, with two dancers in dark lamé outfits (including, at times, giant floppy hats that evoked both high-chic circa 1973 and Egyptian pharaohs) that glistened red thanks to the gels of gigantic spotlights about two feet away from each.
The Crystal Ark is Gavin Russom, noted DFA synth maniac, who happily announced that their first album for the label is finished and will be out later in the year. I like the Crystal Ark’s 12-inches pretty consistently, but they’re long and meandering—not unlike Russom’s music with his old partner Delia Gonzalez, but with a more amped-up disco feel. Live, however, the Crystal Ark seemed unsure of their collective footing. The parts were in place, the band sounded good, but the set’s pacing considerably slackened the taut atmosphere the DJ and Avan Lava had conjured.
Call it more rock, maybe—the new material is as expansive as usual with Russom, and anthemic in a way that reminded me of Lindstrom’s Six Cups of Rebel. But the transitions between songs rambled (at one point, Russom talked about wanting to feel the room, in some cosmic way—it was heartfelt, but sounded an odd note), and so did the songs themselves. At one point late, the music broke down to an analog synth line that whipped around the room unaccompanied while the group left the stage for a little while. This indicated that they were finished—they could have been; they’d played enough for a full set. Instead, they marched back out, one by one, and brought the music back to full roar, then dove back into playing as if nothing had happened. Even as the amped the beats with the next number, that gesture sank the room’s energy.
Critical bias: Liking Prince goes a long way with me.
Overheard: [On the subject of Avan Lava’s lights show] “Everything should come with lasers. Laser soup…”
Random notebook dump: [when Hennes jumped into audience] “Crowd surfing! You saw that in 1990, but not to this music.”