[16 May 2014]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Artists feed off their fans. Fans feed off the artists. A good live performance leaves the spirit relieved of its hunger. Hear that, Chvrches?
I was barely 17 years old when, in 2001, I blindly picked up a copy of Jill Scott‘s Experience: Jill Scott 826+ at a K-Mart. All that I knew was that a year earlier, she released Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1, a seemingly rock-solid neo-R&B debut that received a great deal of acclaim in contemporary rhythm and blues circles near and far. I had heard some of it prior to purchasing Experience: Jill Scott 826+, and truth be told, I wasn’t completely taken with the understated production and simplistic musicality that accompanied such a rich, powerful voice. To me, the “soul” in the “soul music” classification was compromised, in this case due, to a very prevalent and very obvious lack of live instrumentation at times.
But then I popped the first of Experience‘s two discs into my CD player and holy cow, shit got real. Rarely have I ever felt more love for a set of musical performances in my life. Drummer Erik Tribbett’s opening fills that unforgivingly smooth groove in “A Long Walk”, and brought the track’s otherwise subdued vibe to life. “He Loves Me (Lyzel In E Flat)” eventually erupted into a celebration of passion, both through the singer and her backing players.
I immediately began worshipping at the altar of Scott and haven’t looked back. Each time she tours, I’m happy to travel far and spend more money than I typically would on a concert ticket in order to see what she and her always-reliable (yet ever-changing) band are bringing to the masses.
More than anything, I find her concerts inspiring. Recordings that may lack in girth on record tend to bulk up during live performance, and in a manner that could make The Incredible Hulk blush. Songs that otherwise showcase a slightly rigid feel transform into a type of effortless movement that keeps the body swaying and the toes tapping. Tempos are ticked up to just the right amount, adding a sense of urgency and hunger to each run-through. All of these things combine to make the Scott live experience singular and unique, they combine to make fans feel as though they can’t miss a tour stop whenever she comes around.
In short, she epitomizes the notion that it’s nearly impossible to understand the full idea of The Artist unless (or until) you see The Artist perform.
This is a maxim in which I believe wholeheartedly. Concerts, at their most fundamental level, are meant to bring performers and fans together into a single room to celebrate the art created by the performer. It should be a communal experience for everyone involved. Artists feed off their fans. Fans feed off the artists. When done correctly, the exercise should be all-encompassing. It should leave the spirit feeling relieved of its hunger.
These things were running through my mind a couple weeks ago as I walked into the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., to see Scottish electro-pop trio Chvrches perform during the second of two nights they spent at the mildly iconic East Coast venue. I felt that The Bones of What You Believe was the best album of 2013, despite the fact that their buzz had already almost come and gone by the time the proper LP came out.
“The Mother We Share” was the kind of single that made me feel excited about music again, its ambiguity and insistence making it utterly unforgettable after the first or 50th listen. The vocal sample. The synths. The well-placed cuss word. As far as 2013 goes, there was nary a better pop song this side of “Royals”.
In fact, I thought the record was so good that in a rare act of overly anticipatory excitement, I raced online several months ago when it was announced that the group would be adding a second date to their D.C. stay. So, while everyone else was still nursing their elongated New Year’s Eve hangovers, I was counting down the minutes to when I might be able to electronically plop $40 bucks down on the table to ensure my entrance into the event.
Imagine my conflicting emotions, then, when I decided to spout off this tweet while walking out of the venue after the house lights turned on, marking the end of the night:
“1. Surprisingly thin and slow at times. 2. Haven’t lived until you clap those mother we share and recover intros with a sold out crowd.”
Thin and slow. Those were the two words I couldn’t get out of my head. It was ironic, I thought, because if you’re walking into a concert featuring little more than a singer and two dudes twiddling with buttons and the occasional guitar, the two things that shouldn’t be lacking are weight and tempo. The computerized element to the production should all but promise a giant sound and, if anything, a subtle increase in pace. There was no bass guitar that might be buried in the mix. There was no drummer to mistakenly fall into a speed that detrimentally drags.
These were the type of things that I thought were assuredly locked up, Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty all throwing away their respective keys with no intention of even remotely opening the door to deficiency. All right, so we might not get some improvised, extended guitar-solo on “You Caught the Light”, and yeah, an additional percussive bridge for “Tether” to match the insane synth break the song features probably wasn’t going to be in the cards, I know. But a weirdly hollow groove for my favorite The Bones of What You Believe song, “Lungs”? Or a sluggish take on the album’s most upbeat track, “We Sink”, to begin the entire performance? Those issues weren’t even worth considering before stepping foot in the venue that night, were they?
And as it turned out, I wasn’t entirely alone in thinking that way. In an otherwise (obnoxiously) glowing review from one of the group’s shows later that week at Terminal 5 in New York City, CMJ’s Robert Altman offered his only criticism: “Both a criticism and potential compliment is the excellent recreation of the album’s sound. Synths don’t lend themselves to the same improvisation as guitar-based bands, but the potential is there. Making their live show sound even more live may be something to aim for during the band’s the next tour.” (“Chvrches @ Terminal 5: May 2, 2014”, by Robert Altman, CMJ, 5 May 2014)
May be? Yeah. And it may be a good idea to take a shower once every now and then, too.
See, there’s no “may be” about this. For as hard as I tried to lose myself in the moment or latch on to the countless intricacies that make The Bones of What You Believe so damn perfect, I soon realized that there would be no way I could fully invest in the performances at hand. They were fine enough, sure, but they weren’t anywhere near what I expected. I wanted the choruses to “Recover” to feel inspired. I wanted the angst in “Gun” to peal through the speakers and into my sweat. I wanted the aggression in “Lies” to incite a special type of liberation within my musical soul.
Instead, I winced through that apathetic take on “We Sink” and a muddled performance of “Lungs”, making Altman’s assertion that the band offered an “excellent recreation of the album’s sound” not just naive, but, at least in my mind, a bit inaccurate. Sure, I had read the criticisms of the trio’s live shows beforehand (Mayberry doesn’t move much and seems uninterested in playing the role of a leader; they have only one full-length album from which to draw; etc.), so I was prepared to accept a general nonchalance emoting from the stage anyway. And don’t get me wrong: Never did I expect to see an actual drum kit appear for the parts that make up “Night Sky” and “Gun” on the album, nor was I anticipating the presence of any added musicians for the sake of touring.
But after having a look at the band’s performance of “Recover” on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night talk show a few days later, I have since become convinced that the D.C. show wasn’t just a product of a bad night or an inadequate venue. Why? Because the same problems I had with the performance a few days prior persisted during the television appearance. And as far as the 9:30 Club goes… well, that place is widely regarded as one of the premiere rooms for live music in North America. At the end of the day, as far as I was concerned, there was no real excuse for why things were the way they were.
Thus, I took a step back and thought: What makes contemporary pop music work so well in a live setting? From Michael Jackson to Britney Spears to Katy Perry to Justin Timberlake to Beyonce, why have these mega-tours featuring mega-stars historically been so successful? I narrowed it down to two options.
A) Because they hop out on stage backed by a karaoke version of their biggest hits and a dozen barely dressed dancers?
Or B) Because they actually have a musical director to lead an actual band through expansive, imaginative arrangements that quite literally reinvent songs already universally embedded in the casual music fan’s consciousness?
Yeah, the answer isn’t A.
Live instrumentation can completely redefine the way we digest a song. Even if the performance is a fairly straight-laced interpretation of said song, the human element involved with the performance provides a very singular and very unique touch. It’s the way the guitarist plays that C-minor. It’s the way the drummer carries a groove. It’s the way the pianist glides through a forrest of black and white keys. It’s the way the trumpet player breathes alongside a saxophonist. What it combines for is a snapshot of time, a snapshot of art.
That’s lost when everything is mostly dictated by technology. For better or worse, the human aspect of musical performance creates an inherent excitement and unpredictability impossible to reproduce through machines and devices, even if those machines and devices are being controlled by human hands. There’s a very specific and very tangible amount of soul that bleeds from the speakers when traditional instruments are in play. Maybe it’s the passion with which the instrument is being played. Or maybe it’s the ever-abundant presence of intuition. Or maybe it’s just the weird personal relationship any musician has with his or her weapon of choice.
Or then again, maybe it’s actually all of those things that combine to make live instrumentation a far more fulfilling exhibition of musical talent than a plethora of pre-programmed samples, overly enthusiastic button-pushing, and an array of sounds so exhausting and overwhelming that the specifics are drowned out, at once both ruining and cheapening the exercise at hand. It’s a crucial, imperative element to the concert equation.
With it, everything feels complete and whole. Without it, everything lacks a form of authenticity. It lacks realism. It lacks slight spontaneity. It lacks the perception of maximum effort. And, probably most importantly, it lacks soul.
It’s a kind of soul that made me, at different times in my life, fall head over heels in love with JScott and and fall head over heels out of love with Chvrches. Does that take anything away from all that was accomplished with The Bones of What You Believe and “The Mother We Share”? Of course not. But does it mean I’ll be rushing to the nearest K-Mart for a possible Live from Glasgow set that the Scottish trio might someday release as a nod toward their most recent, victory-lap-like tour?
Well, to paraphrase Mayberry herself as she notes on her band’s fantastically vindictive “Gun” ... I think I’ve learned my lesson.