October 9th, 2011 – Doug Fir Lounge, Portland OR
When EMA and her backing band took the stage at the Doug Fir lounge Sunday night, the first thing I noticed was the word “TRUE” emblazoned across the front of the eponymous singer/guitarist’s shirt. Her outfit–black nylon leggings, black jacket (didn’t last long), white t-shirt—wasn’t any different from something that you might see any given girl wearing on any given day in any given city in the first world.
That word, “TRUE,” wouldn’t have been all that interesting to me if it weren’t for the reactions that this particular girl’s music had elicited. Going through the Metacritic page for her debuum, Past Life Martyred Saints, adjectives like “raw” and “painful” are commonplace. Some critics go so far as to deem it difficult to listen to, lest it draw you into its aural abyss. I won’t go that far, but it certainly is a soul-baring album with some painful things to say — ao I was a little taken aback when she came strolling out in an outfit that could maybe be one layer shy of a North Face jacket, and generally looking altogether much sunnier than most of the folks inhabiting the basement of Doug Fir that night (though maybe not smiling, Nike-clad me), “TRUE” across her chest like a mocking reminder of what had been made of her craft in the past.
It turned out to be pleasingly apropos, though, as the band tore into “Marked,” an anthemic little number that compares the “bloodless, skinless” not-particularly-fleshy flesh to plastic and glass and features EMA promising not to hurt “a pretty thing” and wishing that “every time he touched me he left a mark.” Her songs emphasize the disparity between experience and appearance, but, that said, she seems aware that as troubling as it can be when people can’t tell what you’ve been through, the alternative can be so much worse. “I wish that every time he touched me, he left a mark” seems super-romantic for about a microsecond before conjuring horrific images of abuse. As she sings, EMA seems to use her hair as a sort of visual bellwether of the state of mind she wants to inhabit, out of her face at moments of relative clarity, completely obscuring her eyes at less tranquil times. It’s simple but effective, and adds a vulnerability to an act that is otherwise extremely energetic and sexually aggressive.
A set otherwise comprised of songs from Past Life Martyred Saints was broken up by a raucous, awesomely theatrical cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up.” She commanded the crowd to, “Fuckin’ sing along, bitch,” at the song’s onset, and, once it had ended, informed us that, “Europe doesn’t know dick about Violent Femmes.” I do know dick about Violent Femmes, and I wish they had more songs like “Add It Up.” “Butterfly Knife” and “California” came towards the end of the set. “Butterfly Knife” tells of a high school goth who owns pet rabbits named after the leads in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (a movie that uses a variety of fun pop culture aesthetics to tell a morbid tale of murder and obsession), and who chooses to take out their frustration on their flesh, “twenty kisses from a butterfly knife.” The bass on “California” shook the venue, and though the aesthetic was a bit different from the other songs played, much remained the same; “Fuck California, you made me boring/ I bled all my blood out, but these red pants they don’t show that.” It was a vicious, emotionally charged set that brought to life a great album.
About halfway into the Wild Beasts set, lead singer Holden Thorpe shed some light on what might seem like an odd pairing of the Beasts and EMA. He said–and I’m paraphrasing from alcohol-encumbered memory here (in vino veritas, right?)–that the group was envious of some aspects of EMA’s music, and that when one found oneself in that position, it was better to have the object of envy as a friend than the alternative. Though it makes more sense than solidarity between artists who have their names explained in every article about them (until now), the sentiment didn’t really manifest itself in the performance; though the rhythm section acquitted itself well in driving home the funk aspect of Wild Beasts’ music, and the finished product was certainly propulsive and danceable, they just lacked the drive to rock out that EMA has. They didn’t strike me, seeing them one after the other on Sunday, as artists even remotely striving for the same thing. Where EMA seems to be constantly straining to push her songs to the next level in performance, the Wild Beasts seem pretty staid. However, there’s no doubt that these are solid, often very pretty songs; if you’re going to coast, these are good songs to coast on.
Their show was heavy on new material from their recent release, Smother (current single “Bed of Nails” showed up early on, and “End Come Soon” closed the set), but the other two albums were in rotation as well; Thorpe was sure to point out early on that debut LP Limbo, Panto was present in the set, since the band never got to tour on that album in North America.
Interestingly, given their tendency to change from album to album, their material seems very uniform when performed live. Nearly the entire set featured a driving, dance-rock beat, chiming guitars, and Thorpe’s almost ethereal voice floating over everything else. Thorpe’s voice has been compared to that of Antony Hegarty, but hearing it floating over the chiming, pleasant guitars in song after song, it brought to mind for me no one so much as Bono. Tom Fleming’s decidedly Edge-esque skullcap might be responsible for that perception.
In the end, it was a perfectly serviceable set, and I was entertained; it just lacked a certain immediacy. These songs’ best days are behind them, it seemed to say.