[6 August 2009]
After Au Revoir Simone had simply, silently taken the stage and aligned themselves behind their synthesizers and drum machine, band member Annie Hart made a pretense of apologizing but joked: “Sorry we were late, we forgot we were playing a show.” Similarly charming, but ultimately irrelevant chatter continued to permeate the band’s performance at Bowery Ballroom, the final show in a month long American tour. The Brooklyn natives said they were delighted to be home, and back at Bowery, where some of their own favorite bands had played. Their onstage demeanor served as a predictable complement to their music, which in its more subdued moments could be lullabies or background music, but ultimately sticks out thanks to its eager, poppy energy, enigmatic feminine allure, and diligent drumbeats.
The tour, with opening act Findlay Brown, was to promote their new album, Still Night, Still Light, which was released in May. The concert served as a viable showcase for some of the greater variety and innovation on this third full-length album. Songs contained a fair share of slow, unassuming harmonies, but often unfolded into emphatic crescendos and instrumental complexity. The band seemed comfortable to rest on their trademark, nymph-like vocals while exploring musical deviations.
They incorporated rich, varied and textured sounds for a more compelling performance, in particular infusing songs with crescendos and measures of earnest quiet. The semi-dissonant harmonies stuck out more live than on the album, when the electric pop quality of the music tends to outweigh emotion subtly and evidence of musical dexterity. Au Revoir Simone has been known for combining serene and melancholy instrumentals with the airy quality of peppy, girlish vocals, but on stage the band is more focused and sparer, with greater ambiguity between sadness and silliness.
The band’s performance and music is perhaps best embodied in “Sad Song”, from The Bird of Music, a speedy, twangy, musical spiral superimposed with lyrics and vocals that are remorseful, realistic, and at times, grim. The song, like band, emotes a sentiment of laissez-fairism, recounting a tale of inevitable loss with some uncanny measure of cheer. At the end of the day, to uphold their image, Au Revoir Simone has to stay adorable and nonchalant, but they are able to interject some disappointment, ambiguity, and honesty if they sneak it in and act largely unbothered.
In short, they are the antithesis of a rock band, which might be the biggest strike against the band in selling a live show. But the fact that they are just three girls playing electronic instruments turns out to be their greatest asset as well. They have a style they know how to capitalize on: The self-conscious yet seductive formula they have mastered creates an effect of voyeurism. It’s hard to see why a concert would be any different that a studio session, and that’s what makes it interesting.
Part of this effect is created because the band also plays the synthesizers as though they were playing in a rock and roll band. Sometimes hunched intently over their machines, shoving their heads and hands into minor chords, and at other times releasing into dramatic, flamboyant dancing and hair tossing. It was never clear whether they were consciously putting on a show, or forgetting that there was an audience and simply being three girls having fun in a basement.
No matter what emotion is being expressed, the overall tone of the band is one of playfulness. They can color songs with quiet, melodic classical interludes, but even when delving in ghostly and ostensibly sad measures, they never lose their teasing, girlish, and flirtatious intent. To them, it’s all in good fun, and that attitude enables the audience to have fun as well, despite the fact that the band doesn’t readily come across as concert-worthy. In a sense, seeing Au Revoir Simone live is a bit like going over to their house for a play date. And if things are going well, you can play the tambourine on one of the few occasions when an acoustic instrument surfaces. (One song does incorporate the use of a bass guitar.)
It is not that the band isn’t serious, but the things they seem most serious about is fun, even if fun means delving into the dark side. At the end of the day, the girls were just giddy and glad to be making music. For the final encore, they invited the entire touring entourage onstage for a Michael Jackson tribute in the form of “Man in the Mirror”. The celebratory aura of the performance served both to uplift the crowd, and remind us that this band is not even in the Michael Jackson category of pop. Unlike Jackson, though, Au Revoir Simone seems perfectly pleased with its own reflection.