Momentum is a fickle mistress: chase her too ardently and she’ll recoil at your wanton advance, ignore her for a heartbeat, though, and she disappears into thin air. And this, basically, is the conundrum facing contemporary musicians as they route their career path.
How does an artist stay relevant amidst an onslaught of media? Does the album still matter as a format or should artists release music more frequently in smaller doses to remain on the front burner? It’s unsettled and increasingly difficult as the industry tries to cling to an old but proven paradigm even as artists themselves have splintered in fifty different directions. Music on iTunes/Spotify. Music not on iTunes/Spotify. Pandora. Giving music away. Allowing fans to pay what they want. Charging less. Charging more. Engaging on social media in personal ways. Etc., etc., etc. — the lack of order and predictability in the industry is a total mess.
Clearly, though, while it’s easier to achieve the 15 minutes that Andy Warhol foretold, it’s now even tougher to stay at the forefront of the zeitgeist. Absence — even in small doses — has come to signify cultural irrelevance. The ADD generation(s) buying music today demand that their fires be constantly stoked, after all, because there are way more entertainment options than time.
And so, disappearing from the spotlight seems to invite displacement, rather than making the heart grow stronger. Today features thin and largely disposable relationships between a band and their marginal fans, that relationship increasingly transitory in nature. This isn’t to diminish the fact that die-hard fans remain, just that the core audience is perhaps smaller while those fans who determine the difference between a profitable tour and one bleeding funds may instead lie with those who only care about what’s new, what’s current, what’s fresh.
It’s not a full house when the Shout Out Louds take the stage promptly at 9:30pm at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club, a change for for the Swedish five-piece, who packed the room to the gills their last visit. They offer a somewhat unique stage setup, with drums off to stage right and keyboards set back even further on stage left. They start with their new material, catchy indie pop with more than a passing vocal reference to The Cure‘s frontman, Robert Smith.
The blonde bombshell on keys — Bebban Stenborg — is the lone performer who doesn’t immediately bring the energy, her icy aloofness both off-putting and alluring. Why is she withholding? Even her stage positioning seems to hint at her unavailability. Kind of like the band’s recent history…unavailable. But then a tuning issue three songs in makes everyone laugh…it’s opening night of the tour, after all, and mistakes are inevitable. And if you fall hard / I’ll fall harder. Energetic drum fills transition to the next phrase, the presence Lars Skoglund itself a transition of sorts; he’s serving as the band’s new drummer, lead singer Adam Olenius informs us, while “Eric (Edman) is home making babies.”
Shout Out Louds offer up songs that understand the benefits of emotional build. And at times they build that vibe instrument-by-instrument, creating a fully-fleshed out sound that bounces as it moves the audience to dance through a fantastically well-executed crescendo. They do this on “Impossible,” from 2007’s Our Ill Wills. It’s one of those songs that is particularly well-suited for performance, but one with which this current crowd isn’t sufficiently familiar to attempt the sing-a-long Olenius attempts to get going…it’s perhaps a learning experience for the band. It’s been a while since they were around, after all.
But not so long that the more prominent items in their catalog have been forgotten. There are widespread shrieks of recognition for “The Comeback,” an eternally catchy tune with shades of The Cars / The Rentals. It’s earnest. It’s hopeful. It’s bouncy. It’s an earworm of blue-medal quality.
They’re not above having fun with synthesized sounds of the Caribbean…marimba…steel drum…sounds that inflect “Chasing the Sinking Sun” and provide a unique take on the now omnipresent synth. And then they treat the audience with a little jangly pop goodness. “Please Please Please” is a romp, a toe-tapping, head-bobbing crowd- pleasing ditty that evokes Johnny Marr, the guitar legend who occupied this same stage a week earlier.
It’s a new album they’re supporting, and a couple of its tracks have trouble maintaining momentum for a crowd that doesn’t yet know them. “Blue Rain” is one such song. Ballads in particular are difficult to insert into rock shows, let alone ones when the crowd isn’t blessed by familiarity. Which isn’t to say there weren’t pockets of movement — the diehard fans are fully engaged.
Something unique is offered up during “Hard Rain,” with Olenius standing on top of the drum kit as the band was taking it down low. So low, in fact, that many in the audience thought the song was over. When a singer climbs atop the drums, it usually signifies a well-worn rock and roll moment where the song is about to end with a flourish, a jump and a syncopated final chord that ends when contact with the stage resumes. But not here. Here, it goes as low as possible before the band brings it back up to a roar. An interesting inversion of the usual and the expected, to be sure.
As far as the new album goes, perhaps “14th of July” plays best. It wreaks havoc from its first note, disco drumming and Arcade Fire-ish bass thumping as screeching guitar and Olenius’ vocals complete the tension-laden mix. This is probably the best track on the latest album. They don’t have a single bad song, actually, but it seems that this comes closest to channeling the inspiration that drove some of the truly fantastic songs in their earlier catalog.
The set ends with “Very Loud,” arguably one of the best pop songs of the last decade. Tonight’s version incorporates an accordion as well as an interlude cover of The Clash‘s “Train in Vain.” Everyone is jumping and smiling and for this moment, at least it captures the energy of the incredible set they threw down the last time they came to town. This time around, it was a solid 75 minute set: fun, for sure, but not particularly transcendent.
They can read the crowd, and don’t wait long before starting the encore. They start with a new track — “Destroy” — then move onto what may be the best in their live arsenal — “Walls”. Olenius bounds into the crowd for the dance party, an increasingly popular device for “connecting” with fans and further tearing down the, ahem, walls between band and their fanbase. And, it’s almost always effective, this time no exception. The crowd surges towards him, bobbing up and down. Bob Boilen and his fedora are boogeying down in a way that is as awkward as it is awesome.