She’s something special. Now, if someone would just sort out that wardrobe…
The week of the Bat for Lashes show in Los Angeles, music blogs were abuzz with news that David Lynch has written his first rock album. Unfortunately, Natasha Khan (aka Bat for Lashes) has already beaten him to it. The British singer’s second album, Two Suns, is so Lynchian that you’d hesitate to play it backwards lest a dancing dwarf magically materialize from the vinyl grooves.
It’s a concept album of sorts. The song cycle follows Kahn’s transatlantic move from Brighton to Brooklyn to be close to her lover. Regrettably, the relationship deteriorates even as she immerses herself in the city’s seamy subculture. Before long, Khan’s dislocation manifests itself as an identity crisis; she develops a libertine alter ego who wears a Playboy-blonde wig and carnal-red lipstick. (In the movie version Naomi Watts or Laura Dern would play her.) The record is about a duel of duals, a schizophrenic schism of the heart.
Two Suns even boasts surreal-dream imagery. Its songs include lyrical references to knights in crystal armor, disappearing magicians, and even the line, “Where’s my bear to lick me clean?” (Put it this way: Freud would be flummoxed.)
Tonight, the El Ray theater unwittingly enhances the Lynch effect by swathing the stage in red curtains. The sold-out crowd, comprised of the Los Angeles hiperatti, is aware of the fabulist’s fabulous fantasies. Kahn heralded her stellar debut, 2006’s Fur and Gold with a typically avant-garde music video for the lead single, “What’s a Girl to Do?” In the promo, the singer rides a bicycle down a country lane at night while rabbit-suited BMX bikers follow her. It’s like an outtake from Donnie Darko. The follow up single, “Prescilla”, sees the Bat for Lashes singer dive under a bedroom duvet cover only to emerge, like Dorothy or Alice before her, in an alternate world -- this one seemingly populated by the last remnants of Adam Ant’s fan club.
Khan’s oeuvre isn’t without precedent. Two of Bat for Lashes’ biggest influences, Kate Bush and Björk, revel in eccentricity. Bush once portrayed a fetus in a womb in a music video; Björk laid a swan’s egg on an Academy Awards red carpet. But there are deeper, less facile similarities between Bat for Lashes and her two predecessors. Like Bush and Björk, Khan is blessed with an exquisite, singularly unique voice capable of both heavenly otherworldliness and earthy emotion. Like the other two musical explorers before her, Bat for Lashes is also an art-rock climber who favors soundscapes that blend organic and synthetic instrumentation.
Commercially speaking, there’s a gap in the market for this sort of thing. Kate Bush currently ranks as perhaps the world’s least prolific artist, with just one release in the 1990s and one album this decade. Björk’s output has also slowed and her past two albums have fallen well short of her 2001 masterpiece, Vespertine. Moreover, Khan’s arrival is impeccably timed. The wheel of musical fashion has rotated away from guitar-centered bands to embrace experimental, collage-of-sound bands such as Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and Dirty Projectors. Two Suns fits snugly into this niche and even boasts contributions by key members of Yeasayer.
No wonder, then, that tonight’s concert is sold out. The band takes to the stage late into the evening, having already played the Jimmy Kimmel show earlier. The opener, “Glass”, with its ethereal a cappella intro, instantly transports one to the fanciful world of Bat for Lashes as her voice effortlessly spires toward celestial realms.
Kahn’s upright piano, draped with a tapestry of wolves in a moonlit forest, is bathed in the light of a red lamp. But the primary decorative motif is glitter. The quite literally dazzling stage design ranges from a tinsel backdrop to silvery garlands that vine around the microphone, drum kit, and keyboards. Guitarist Charlotte Hatherley even sports a form-fitting sparkle dress.
Khan, a striking girl, opts for a sequined leotard and black-mesh gloves. Her visual presentation typically relies on a wardrobe that ranges from bohemian-gypsy to Halloween skeleton-suits, and she’s been known to wear a feathered headdress for good measure. Khan also never goes out in public unless her cheeks are blushed with small galaxies of glitter. The singer would be the number one candidate for an ambush by TLC’s What Not to Wear if Lady Gaga’s fondness for Grace Jones castoffs wasn’t a more pressing concern.
With her bangs curtaining her eyes, Khan moves with ballet dancer grace from one side of the stage to the other, sharply pivoting on her heel each time. During “Sleep Alone” she drops to her knees at one point and, later, when it comes time for her to plumb the bottom-end of her range, the vocalist dramatically doubles over before snapping back up to full spine.
Many of the songs are better live. “Sleep Alone”, one of the new songs, benefits from a sharper guitar figure than the studio version. Hatherley, formerly a member of the Irish rock band Ash and now a successful solo artist in her own right, creates small tremors of echo with her Explorer’s whammy bar. Ben Christophers, standing at the back of the stage, multitasks between banks of keyboards and various medieval stringed instruments such as a marxophone.
But it’s drummer Sarah Jones who commands the most attention. She’s surrounded by the sort of percussion array -- ranging from electronic pads to kettle drums -- that even Neil Peart might envy. Frankly, it’s a wonder that Jones doesn’t have to be airlifted out of the circular configuration at the end of the set. Jones’ contribution to the band’s live sound is apparent right from “Glass”, in which the fusillade of her percussive arsenal sounds like the frontlines of war. During “Horse and I”, one of the older songs, Jones deploys dramatic clatters of percussion at certain intervals. In drummer parlance, Jones boasts remarkable facility.
Up next: A “lo-fi” version of current single “Daniel”. This subdued version, all clapperboard beats and harmonium-like keys, lacks the urgent pulse of the original. Far more successful is a reworked “Siren Song”, which starts hesitantly due to isolated chatter in the crowd. “Shut up, seriously!” someone yells and the crowd cheers their appreciation at this act of courage. “Thanks,” says Khan, grinning. It’s one of few times she addresses the audience. “Siren Song” is a great example of how Kahn can summon uncommonly sincere intimacy. The rapt crowd is as hushed as a church.
Over the next few selections, the band demonstrates its versatility through a game of musical chairs. Behind the piano, a regal Hatherley loses herself in the spell of “The Wizard”, tossing her red hair as she gazes skyward. One song later, Hatherley lays down a heavy bass line reminiscent of that on The Raconteurs’s “Steady As She Goes” for “Sarah”. And on “Peace of Mind”, Khan straps on a sunburst Telecaster and strums chords while her bandmate plucks out lead lines behind her. Alas, the song’s spooky power is diminished by the absence of ghostly male backing vocals on the original. The hush of “Tahiti”, a gorgeous slow dance of autoharp and piano, gives way to the heady rush of “What’s a Girl To Do?“ as the band races to the finish line of the encore break. The main set concludes with “Pearl’s Dream”. Adorably, Khan leaps up and down as if she’s in a bouncing castle.
When the singer returns alone for a stripped-down “Prescilla”, her fingers weaving in and out of the strings of her autoharp, one is struck by the simplicity of the lyric about a lonely girl who’s “Been thinking about having a couple of kids / Comb a brush around their heads in the morning / To be needed…” She’d do well to emulate such straightforward storytelling on further releases.
The full band returns to the stage for one of the evening’s highlights: “Good Love”. It floats on a chiming guitar figure that sounds like something U2’s the Edge might play. Here, as on the next song, “Moon and Moon” (a track named after her ex-boyfriend’s band), Khan sounds utterly forlorn, yet manages to do so without coming across as self-pitying. In pop music, that’s a rarity.
For the penultimate song, “Two Planets”, Charlotte Hatherley pounds a portable drum so hard that the drum stick flies out of her hand. Khan, meanwhile, lunges forward and retreats from the front of the stage and screams “Yeah!” in a moment of abandon. The climax is so powerful that audience members assume the show must be over.
Fortunately, the band returns just in time to coax the early runners back from the exits. To finish, Bat for Lashes launches into a thrilling version of “Daniel”. It’s one of the great singles of the year and, with its primitive keyboards, is perfect for a musical zeitgeist currently in thrall to ladies with 1980’s synths: La Roux, Little Boots, Lady Gaga, and Ladyhawke. (All brought to you by the letter “L.”) But the Bat for Lashes song towers above them all thanks to the depth of feeling in Khan’s voice.
Ah, that voice. It’s all anyone can talk about as they leave the theater. She’s something special. Now, if someone would just sort out that wardrobe…