The setting of tonight’s sold out show is a Los Angeles venue with management more worried about what you’ll do with the gum in your purse than with the alcohol coursing through your veins: the El Rey is the Singapore of music venues. Tonight’s guest lists likely comprise more than half of the 770-ish capacity venue…there are many long, long lists being checked at the door. The audience is largely, as Snoop Dogg vocalizes on his upcoming Pharrell-produced record, “so many pros,” and their chatty networking fills the room.
Zella Day is up first. The youthful chanteuse sings label-loved and synch-ready pop songs. She plays up her freshness, using it to create a moment, “Raise your hands for me. I’ve never sang for this many people before.” The songs are well-crafted, professionally-produced “indie” pop gemstones that sparkle while often sounding distinctly like other artists, ones who may have (successfully) pushed the envelope on their own. Think Lana Del Rey. Think Wild Belle. Think Tori Amos if she gave up creative control in a bid for mainstream acceptance, but as interpreted by Lana Del Rey. (Did I mention Lana Del Rey?) Her vocals are powerful at times and somewhat thin at times (tracking?), but always evocative, tuneful, and candied. Her band is comprised of well-practiced professionals, and her future is full of potential, in terms of the business of music if not its art.
Milo Greene‘s music starts before the curtain parts, their cinematic soundscape washing over the room…but only 4/5 of the band is on stage as the curtain disappears. After an instrumental introduction, Marlana Sheetz emerges to cheers, now a brunette sleekly clad in black and silver rather than a casually attired blonde in a vintage track suit. It’s a smart evolution, one that shows an understanding of where the audience’s attention tends to focus within a band that’s truly a group effort.
In some of their new songs, it appears that some of their harmonized vocals are being piped in or at least triggered as samples. Which raises the question, “Why?” It’s not as if the band lacks the ability to deliver vocals live. (Then again, if Goldenvoice and AXS spent half the effort worrying about the room’s substandard sound system as they do about gum, it would likely go unnoticed).
Some — not all — of the new songs seem less thematically focused and even purposefully divergent from what works best in their art…the builds, the subtleties, the emotive, sun-kissed waves that sparkle timelessly. These tracks are less contemplative and sometimes feel insistent and rushed, forsaking folksy underpinnings for the visceral pleasures of “plugging-in.” That contrast is highlighted when they reach back and offer up the warm embrace of “1957.” As they harmonize, singing “Takes me away, takes me away, takes me away,” the track does just that, transporting us all to a communal campfire and sing-a-long bliss. It’s probably their best track, and its performance is a moment of pure, pop genius. To be fair, when you reach such heights early in your career, that standard is tough to revisit.
So, Newport it is. “Parents House” is a new track that connects with the audience. It employs minimalism amidst epic orchestration before adding a dollop of discordance. There’s a largely latent aggression lurking beneath harmony and beauty, surfacing in the moment of truth but never stepping outside the boundaries of the composition. It leans towards Foals in that sense, retaining the band’s “us” ethos while pushing forward into new territory.
That communal nature is exemplified on the sublime beauty of “Perfectly Aligned.” It doesn’t take much prodding for the audience to engage in a sing-a-long, “Oh oh ohhh whoooaah ohhh ohhhh ohhhh.” It’s a spectacular, spiritual moment.
“Not Enough” also connects, slowly turning breathlessness into cacophony like late 80s crooner pop. Think: George Michael. Maybe even Jon Secada.
Which, provides a good segue into a pretty sick Phil Collins song, 1985’s “Take Me Home.” The cover highlights their deep bench of vocalists; each stepping forward and wowing with electrifying elocution and fulsome emotive range.
“Lie to Me” also gets the crowd going as much as the older tracks, and the wispiness of “What’s the Matter?” floats and enchants as it rises and recedes. They recede from the stage, rising again for an encore to go “mellow as #@&%” with the plaintive “Autumn Tree.”
Ambient beauty “lingers on” even as angst punctuates the bliss. They turn to “Lonely Eyes,” which Marlana denotes as her favorite song. And, finally, having referenced her innate desire to get shaking all night, she gets to dance. It’s authentic and joyful and cathartic and uplifting, and, to paraphrase Eliza Doolittle, we could have watched her dance all night.