Live: Chairlift at Independent, San Francisco
"If you see me on the street, you'd better run... I'm going to hunt you down."
Chairlift's Caroline Polachek slinked onto the stage at San Francisco's Independent on Tuesday, sporting castanets and a level of self-possession usually reserved for bullfighters. Polachek and Patrick Wemberly are on tour supporting their most recent album, Something. The record, in one respect, paints with an authentic eighties palate that leans heavily on gated reverb and FM synths. Tears for Fears, and perhaps later Cars may have had a hand informing the sonic goals of Something. Upon a first listen, audiences might find themselves at a point between the power sugar pop of Paul Young, and the post-disco cycles of the Pet Shop Boys.
Similar to their colleagues Yeasayer and MGMT, the band does a splendid job of using the aesthetics of 80s post-modern with modern digital recording technology, brightly delivering details that analog never could. There are flashes of weirder influences as well; the Brian Eno/David Byrne record My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, comes to mind. But not wanting to be seen as exclusively esoteric, the band sneaked a Modern English track into one of their own songs for brief a homage. Indeed, digital recordings impart a coldness that pro-audio originalists abhor, but tracks like "Ghost Tonight" show that the band embraces the best of the old texture with the best of the new technology. This dichotomy of cutting-edge technology smoothed into context of familiar form also appears in Chairlift's choose-your-own-adventure video for "Met Before."
Although many synth revivalists embrace that recombination, few are able to use the two disparate sensibilities as an element of tension and release as well as Chairlift do. Nonetheless, one could not be slightly apprehensive of how effective the band would be in bringing a heavily produced album to a live audience. Especially true of late, a slick recording does not necessarily make for an engaging live show, and furthermore, as music fans, we are right to be suspicious. Computers, although empowering musicians and producers with a full quiver of innovative techniques and tools, seem better suited (and more often used) to cover a musician's mistakes rather than expand the sonic walls. Jack White, among others, famously forsakes digital recording for this very reason.
Elatedly, I discovered that Chairlift did not play with the band using a metronome track in their headphones. Many artists use that crutch when on the road. There were no prerecorded backing tracks - the musicians accompanying Chairlift furnished everything live. The players on stage actually listened to each other (imagine that!) and the resulting dynamics were very real. Autotune had no place on stage as Polachek confidently sang across a wide range, at points jumping more than full octave with perfect control. Although the aesthetics of the music seemed ascetic enough to demand computer-assisted perfection, her performance was evocative and honest. As she sang "The look in your eye says that you don't love me anymore," her vibrato was measured and her was pain patent. The polish of the studio couldn't have been replicated, but talented musicians' immediacy on stage can rarely be reproduced even on some of the most well regarded live albums.
The ensemble's abilities shined so brightly, that some of the songwriting's weakness was exposed on stage. All of a sudden, there was a naked predictability in their cadences and the formal elements of too many songs stagnated. Perhaps a band that sees renown arrive at their doorstep via an iPod ad would naturally put the recorded artifact on a higher pedestal than the live set, but their live prowess shook this easy generalization.
Although "Sidewalk Safari" and "Amanaemanesia" capture a unique and charmingly weird hybrid of retro and modern, the entire set was not consistently as strong. Nonetheless, in a live setting, Chairlift greatly outperform their musical peers. I was so genuinely happy with their excellence on stage, the shortcomings only demonstrated that the band hasn't finished developing and still has plenty to say.
Chairlift's logo is derived from the Ouroboros - though instead of the snake swallowing his own tail, he appears polycephalous (in this case with four heads). Whereas the original graven image might be appropriate for a band that reuses its inspirations ad infinitum, Chairlift as a post-indie-hydra is more appropriate; while training focus on multiple targets, they deliver a sonic attack on all fronts. Although they still need time to grow before they can produce consistent material, their live set shows great potential.
By Sam Welles
Photos by Jon Walsh-Wilson