Washed Out’s 2011 release, Within and Without, made my list of the 20 best albums of the year. It’s a well conceived and executed album, and one that I suspect pays homage to the U2 song, “With or Without You,” because like 1987’s famous U2 song, it ebbs and flows, flows and ebbs, and does its best to ride a kiddie roller coaster of emotion without ever giving the listener the cathartic moment that pop usually grants unabashedly. This has become an increasingly popular stratagem in indie music over the past few years, with songs like The XX’s “Infinity” offering up sounds that lap up on shore non-threateningly and with the sort of existential ennui that not only doesn’t seek to reach the summit, it can no longer envision the summit’s existence. Yep, that’s right…that was a mixed metaphor employing both the mountains and the sea. Think Hawaii…it’s peaceful as a graveyard and with a similarly concurrent understanding that something bad had to happen for it to exist in the first place.
The two aforementioned songs, in particular, are amongst my favorites employing this structure. And, I have always found this approach endearing. It was with that understanding that I ventured into Washington, D.C.’s Black Cat alongside a sold out audience filled with high expectations and eager anticipation. And maybe that wasn’t fair.
It was definitely crowded. Crowded with wannabe hipster jackasses who got on my nerves from the get go with incessant chatter that has become all too common at shows of this nature. By that I mean, shows where a tangible buzz around a band attracts the sort for whom this is an affectation (like their vintage cardigan, their 80s 10-speed bicycle, etc.) designed to boost their implied hipness. They may be in the midst of internalizing the indie rock show ethos for all I know, but they are definitely still within the allegorical cave. Clearly, though, they are not hip enough to not engage in totally unrelated conversations throughout the performance. In the words of Stephanie Tanner, “How Rude!!!”
And that’s the surrounding scene as the band emerged with a muted sound that was akin to listening through a thin wall. Or on a cheap tape recorder. You could even say the sound was…washed out. For the first three songs, the band delivered inaudible vocals and the crowd delivered Queen’s Guard-like stasis all while chatting away like it was a break between periods on the first day of ninth grade. That is, until the fourth song, when whatever was responsible for the inaudibility of the vocals was temporarily fixed, drawing a (very much audible) cheer from those noticeably vexed by the sound issues. Ernest Greene’s ensuing invocation to sing along yielded little response from the audience, yet it was still more vocalization than was heard from his vocals the first few songs.
And then there was the lighting, which was inherently distracting, often creating a klieg light environment for concertgoers where sunglasses would have been welcomed. Let’s just stipulate that if you’re gonna go low-fi and attempt to create an atmospheric vibe, use muted reds and blues. Throw a little smoke into the mix and obscure things properly so that we can’t tell if that’s a drummer or Ichabod Crane haunting the early morning fog. Please don’t force-feed me ultra-bright LEDs that jump from color to color and make it difficult to focus with eyes wide open, conjuring up a certain nightmarish scene in A Clockwork Orange. Shoegazing shouldn’t be foisted upon the audience by excessive lumens. Lighting should match the energy onstage, not overwhelm it.
Look…I understand quite well that a “chillwave” show is not supposed to be a rip roarin’ rock and roll experience; it has no pretension of being an AC/DC show. I realize that the vocals were often supposed to be subsumed into the atmospherics. I agree that it’s a rather cool effect to have the drum kit sound like it is either being synthesized or being played in another room. And, writ large, I like it as a genre…a lot. But, the atmosphere can’t be considered well-conceived when it sounds like a hybrid of 80s soft rock and second tier new wave, with the requisite ennui but without the sense that it is occurring in the traumatic vacuum of passionate disappointment.
Ultimately, the fact that only select pockets of the audience were attentive was perhaps the ultimate indictment of this show’s travails. A couple of songs sounded like a poor man’s version of The Rosebuds’ dancier tunes (which isn’t a bad thing except that it wasn’t delivered with the level of engagement seen from…The Rosebuds). And then there was “Feel It All Around,” made known to many due to its role in the title sequence of the show Portlandia. Again, the levels were way off ,but at least the bass was audible in a song where it assumes a primary role.
Finally, they pulled out one of their “hits” and delivered some crescendo. What the hell took so long? Chillwave shouldn’t mean one monotonous tonality and volume level for an entire show, after all. And, what do you know, pockets of the crowd responded and moved briefly before that brought a 45 minute set to a close. A noticeable portion of the crowd quickly departed and the band quickly returned to the stage before it became awkward. They responded with a one song dance party that unfortunately didn’t retain its BPM, which made me realize how much better M83 (a band with similarly quality material and also a kissing cousin, genre-wise ) had been on this same stage. Finally, though, the kids zoned back in during “Eyes Be Closed,” the latter half of the two song encore, and started gently swaying around and almost at full attention.
Lesson learned? The album is great, but sound and lighting matter. So does the composition of a crowd. And, rock and roll is dead. Long live rock and roll.