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Scissor Sisters

(27 Jul 2004: Troubadour — West Hollywood, California)

There were few places more appropriate than West Hollywood club the Troubadour for emerging pop act Scissor Sisters to celebrate the official release of its debut album. Here was a group of mostly gay musicians—and a female singer who might as well be a transvestite—bringing sophisticated pop to a community known for its loyalty toward diva house (i.e., remixed Britney, Beyoncé, Kylie, etc.) despite its proximity to the rock-celebrated Sunset Strip. Additionally, this was a band that, within seconds of its first performed song—current radio single “Take Your Mama”—essentially paid homage to another gay artist, Elton John, who himself broke out in the early ‘70s on the same exact stage.

There were several other things worth pondering throughout the performance of “Take Your Mama”, but the Scissor Sisters weren’t having it. During the entire 70-minute show on July 27 at the Troubadour, the quintet (and an additional keyboardist) owned the room thanks to an inimitable spirit and charisma. This, to say nothing of their songs’ undervalued tunefulness, or the propulsive beats that had the Southern California hipsters—an otherwise stubbornly immobile concert-going constituency—dancing up a storm.

Scissor Sisters are the happy medium for pop bands. They’re irreverent but not silly. They’re soulful but not earnest. They write catchy songs without pandering. They hearken back to the ‘70s without sounding overly nostalgic. And, they write their own songs, with lyrics that present unique perspectives on real-life scenarios—like, say, coming out to your mother. All of these attributes are showcased on their self-titled debut, which the day of their L.A. show finally saw the shelves of North American record stores, some six months after its U.K. release (where it has already gone number one).

Admittedly, the album isn’t without its faults. It’s quite an aural minefield for those turned off by piano ballads, disco-flavored rave-ups, Maurice Gibb-esque falsettos and rolling funk. Those very familiar elements also contribute to the general derivativeness of the production. And the second half of the album doesn’t hold up as well as the first. However, what really sells the band, and makes many of these criticisms worth overlooking, is the consistent melodicism of its music, and the variety of tempos, structures, tones and moods on the album as a whole.

And then there’s the live show. There isn’t a moment—except for the ballads—where the band’s energy dwindles. Drummer Paddy Boom fuels most of it with a steady 4/4 beat, and Babydaddy sexes it up with his buoyant basslines. But most of the exuberance radiates from lead singer Jake Shears, a frontman whose natural choreography is at once restless, sensual, instinctive and fluid. A former go-go dancer, he has no trouble keeping up with the band’s spry rhythms. He is a near-perfect physical embodiment of the music being performed, hips jettisoning at every bass punctuation and arms flailing at a song’s celebratory peaks.

At the Troubadour, there was more to Shears than his showman shuffle. While the dancing kept the crowd moving, and his scruffy sex appeal ensured that all eyes were on him—especially when he doffed the Sacagawea vest—it was his pipes that proved most alluring. The modern pop climate does not encourage much effort or talent from male singers—the exception being the R&B-flavored boy groups—but Shears takes his vocals seriously, avoiding histrionics without reverting to camp evocation, and distinguishing between the moments that require a piercing falsetto and the ones that ask for a more throaty, pure treatment. He doesn’t use the same delivery for any two songs, and that diversity in tone and evocation is welcome.

Between songs, Shears offered banter and attempted a few jokes, but this was the one area where he was outshone. No one was going to one-up co-singer Ana (pronounced aw-na) Matronic in shtick appeal, and she let the barbs fly. Subjects abounded: L.A. versus N.Y., the Brady Bunch, chest hair, trannies (“Bend that gender, motherfuckers!”). When introducing “Laura”, Shears told the audience it was about nothing at all. “It’s about your mom,” added Matronic. Her former San Francisco drag queen co-performers—and Blink-182, perhaps—would’ve been proud, and not just in the comedy bits. Homegirl carried “Tits on the Radio” when audience reaction wasn’t drowning out the band.

With one album and a handful of B-sides, there were no surprises in the Sisters’ set list, unless you count opening with “Mama”, the big single. However, such a move only proved the band’s confidence in its small discography, and its ability to keep momentum going long after the familiar song had been played—which it did. “The Skins”, a bonus track on the import version of the album, was executed with the resonance of a hit single, especially with guitarist Del Marquis’ repeated rapid-jangle homage to Johnny Marr. “Laura”, a current hit single in England, stomped with so much vigor that it threatened to overwhelm the small venue. “Filthy/Gorgeous” was hyperactive disco at its best; at this point, not a still body remained. And then there was “Comfortably Numb”, the Pink Floyd cover that brought the Sisters their first success overseas, received by the WeHo crowd like it was the night’s “Where the Streets Have No Name”—and nearly performed with the same pounding urgency, tempered only by its inadvertent-or-not irreverence.

The subversion was thinning toward the end of the concert, as Boom dedicated “Return to Oz” to his deceased father, soon followed by a genuine guitar solo by Marquis. However, it returned during the encore and closing number, “Music is the Victim,” as Shears, following his own lyrics, namechecked nearby city Pasadena and subsequently linked it with queens high on “Tina”, or crystal meth. Had a cheer arisen at that point, it would’ve been tough to ascertain if the crowd was saluting Pasadena or the meth. I mean, why would West Hollywood be cheering for anything outside its area code? Surely, that wouldn’t have been missed on Shears, a onetime SoCal resident. Perhaps the real irony lies in how often the performance of he and his group-mates would inspire similar observation. Thankfully, by the time anyone in the crowd had realized it, both they and the band had returned to their breathless revelry.

Tagged as: scissor sisters
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