ust one day after I saw the Ladytron concert, I experienced its antithesis. A jaunt upstate to visit a friend found me sitting in a well-lit coffee shop listening to some local poets, who were backed by a five-piece band playing world-inspired jazz. The entire group—from the 50-something drummer to the velvet-drenched ex-Goth whose spoken word couplets were most frequently performed that night—defied demographics. Several members of the group also, knowingly or not, defied fashion. But fashion, as well as being an emblem for a particular lifestyle, was not the point of their performance. Nor was the point to vie for a Pushcart or await stardom. The point was poetry, and emotion, and therapy, and expression. It was humble creativity, plain and simple, without a modicum of pretense or an ounce of expectation.
21 Feb 2003: Bowery Ballroom New York
I wondered, sitting there in my uncomfortable plastic seat at a rickety formica table, listening to love poems that were somewhat predictable but nonetheless earnest, what the kids from Ladytron would have done in such a setting. Brought down off the perch which comfortably separated them from the crowd at Bowery, confronted with the utter humanity of their fans (and their fans, in turn, confronted by them)—would the entire Ladytron enterprise have self-destructed? Would there have been more smiles and warmth from the four fashionistas who, as if robbed by the kinetics of the lights and the cinematic displays in the stage’s background, had been as motionless and cold as molecules at absolute zero?
Don’t get me wrong—I understand and appreciate the expert execution of an image. There’s something both beautiful and artistic about a neat, clean package, where form and content are stitched together so tightly that it seems one was rendered for the other, and the other only. And these days, the music business aspires toward and practically demands such unity. In this way, Ladytron are God’s gift. Their musical style—robotic, inorganic, and razor sharp—becomes all the more acute when embodied by four good-looking Brits who are the very avatars of cooler-than-thou. Sporting outfits that resembled the uniform of the factory-less working class—as if Carhartt started making wear for the runway—Ladytron seemed prepped to program the crowd into their Linux code, or else replicate themselves again and again until we were nothing more than throngs of their artificially produced offspring. But since the audience were not clones, it was Ladytron themselves who ended up seeming lifeless, rather than vitalizing. The irony was that the musical exactness that makes Ladytron’s 604 and Light & Magic so goddamn danceable was the quality that rendered their show flatter than a day-old, open soda.
Ladytron opened with “True Mathematics”, the first track off their most recent release, Light & Magic. Behind a hefty wall of Korg synthesizers and other devices that challenged traditional definitions of “musical instruments”, Ladytron dug in immediately, flashing serious, sexy, and almost sinister glances toward the front of the stage. Mira Aroyo, who tends to sing background vocals on Ladytron’s material, took the mic here, spitting out (what I think was) German in a manner made only more severe by her icy countenance and angular hairdo. More than being serious about their show—and believe me, they were damn serious—the Ladytron kids also appeared anxious, riding that fine line between control and chaos. In music as mechanistic as theirs, a live show can almost be a hazard—there’s less room for error than there would be in a wash of feedbacky guitars and wildly crooned vocals. (That is, unless you allow there to be . . . more on this point to come.)
“Playgirl”, song two, was also performed with an aspiration toward organization. Recorded, the song burns with an icy heat, in part because the drum machine claps and synthesizer drone have a driving, yet playful banter. Helen Marnie, the primary vocalist, sings with a sweet sharpness, like a little girl wielding a knife. In the face of this combination, grooving is an absolute requirement. And yet, here—even after being warmed up by the hells-bells antics of Simian—the crowd did nothing; the band did even less. Marnie didn’t even bust a hip shimmy. Wait—I thought this music was supposed to be fun?
What made this even more uneven was the fact that Ladytron were touring with a live drummer and bassist. The bassist—hanging back and keeping low-key, as bassists are wont to do—fit in almost unnoticeably, but the drummer had too much verve and too little stilo to not stick out like a sore thumb. Later on in the show, cymbals crashing through a sped-up version of “He Took Her To A Movie” gave the entire thing an energy it did not want to have, like a nuclear reactor overheating. It came off as . . . untidy. And if there’s anything that’s death to this brand of electroclash, it’s untidiness.
But it didn’t have to go down like this. Brewing just beneath the surface, making occasional appearances that grew more frequent as the show went along, was jubilance. About halfway through their set, Marnie smiled demurely which, given the context, was about as scandalous as her unzipping her jacket to reveal a pair of sparkly, tasseled pasties. She experimented with the vocals on “Blue Jean”, and busted a full-on move during “Evil”. Obviously, there were living, breathing performers up there. And, I contend, their immaculate presentation would not be undone if we saw them.
Was it simply nerves that kept the bulk of them (with the exception of a warmed-up Marnie) stiff and uncommunicative? Did they think appearing to be having fun would cramp their style—or ours? Whether these speculations are on the mark or miss it totally, one thing is clear: the operative word in the phrase “live performance” is not performance. It’s live. That means delivering the music we adore and doing it with a joie de vivre. If all I wanted was to hear Ladytron’s music while marveling at their unabashed stylie-ness, I could have stayed home, cranked up 604, and downloaded JPGs of them off the Web.