Depending on which blog or webzine you’re clicking, Black Kids are either one of the year’s most beloved new acts or one of its most hated. To the band’s credit, this divisiveness has less to do with their tunes per se than with the manner of their entry into the musical marketplace. After a breakout performance at the Athens, Georgia, Popfest last year, and some excessively rave reviews of their “free digital EP” (otherwise known as four self-recorded mp3s uploaded to a MySpace page), Black Kids went from unassuming nobodies to CMJ phenoms—not to mention favorite case-in-points for hype-cycle-haters—in the space of a few months. Their debut album, while birthing a few radio hits at home, has been a smash in the United Kingdom, earning Black Kids the enthusiastic accreditation of NME and its ilk (the kudos of the notoriously fickle British press, however, is hardly something upon which to build a career). So these days the band stands on shaky ground, laughing off the critical blowback while at the same time reveling in the momentary popular obsession.
Were someone unaware of the band’s ascent to come across Partie Traumatic, their debut album released this summer, or be introduced to them as live performers, the news that Black Kids have caused so much hot air, both angry and inspired, might seem stupefying. Because Black Kids’ synthy, Cure-indebted songs, as put on display to a sold-out crowd at Washington, DC’s Black Cat, should be less likely to cause hyperbolic sermonizing as they are to set feet a-dancing. Black Kids satisfyingly offer up the sum of their parts, nothing more: Sugary melodrama, Eighties-checking rhythms, and tons of style. Like Gossip Girl for your ears: The ideas may be hollow, but the charm is relentless.
Live, Black Kids brought a blitz of earnest energy to this performance. Lead singer Reggie Youngblood swung and straddled his guitar in a not-too-shabby Prince impersonation, while backup vocalists/keyboardists Dawn Watley and Ali Youngblood (Reggie’s sister—the pair constitute the only members of the band that live up to its name) affected a Siamese version of a young Christine McVie. Songs off Partie Traumatic like “Hit the Heartbrakes” and “Listen to Your Body”, with their gleaming riffs and dopey lyrics, translated fluidly and without much grit. The band remained professionally on-script and to-the-point, as if the show was a TV taping, and the crowd giddily ate it up, reacting as if they were also on TV. Stepping outside their album, a cover of the Magnetic Fields’ “Strange Powers”, played characteristically by Black Kids with heaving synth-lines and bouncy drum patterns, was surprisingly convincing.
“I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You” and “Hurricane Jane” were saved for the end of the set. The former was especially well-received; the song seemed to have the power to suspend gravity, given the manic jumping of the audience and band members alike. Since indie rock has always been such an album-oriented scene, the novelty of a hearing a true “hit single” was a little inspiring. At the same time, watching Black Kids exult in the chirpy fame-maker one was reminded of the first half of That Thing You Do, when the Wonders are still thrilled to be playing their hit single to adoring crowds and not yet stumbling over their own naïveté and limited abilities and being kicked out onto the cruel L.A. streets by Tom Hanks.
And while their performance was filled with giddy euphoria, it felt more like witnessing the peak of a passing fad than it did the start of something great. Exactly a week after Black Kids, Fleet Foxes took the same stage, and though both bands have risen rapidly from being veritably anonymous to being veritably huge, it’s not hard to guess which sold-out show will be more memorable a decade down the road, or which band is more poised to move from promise to perfection. At least Black Kids are making the most of their moment; it’s likely the only one they’ll ever have.