Turn down the lights, turn up the drama

Xiu Xiu + tUnE-yArDs + Zola Jesus + Twin Sister – Bowery Ballroom – April 9

The Bowery Ballroom was fairly crowded surprisingly early in the evening for Friday night’s sold-out show. It looks like people heeded Brooklyn Vegan’s tip to arrive early enough to see Twin Sister and Zola Jesus, and it’s smart that they did. The four acts complimented each other well.

Twin Sister

The New York quintet Twin Sister may have just released their debut album in 2008, but they have already garnered a fair amount of press in the blogosphere. They make dreamy, atmospheric pop music that sounds something akin to a more hypnotic and restrained version of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Lead vocalist Andrea Estella has a mesmerizing deep voice that sounds fantastic recorded, but it did not quite translate as well in a live setting – at least not last night. Though Andrea’s voice may have been a bit flat, Twin Sister’s short set established a pleasant mood for the evening.

Twin Sister have a few shows coming up in the New York area (including opening night of Rooftop Films in May). To get a feel for their sound, head over here and download some free MP3s. *For a few more days, you can also download their new EP, Color Your Life, for free via their website. *

Nika Roza Danilova (aka Zola Jesus)

If Andrea Estella’s voice left a bit to be desired, Zola Jesus front woman Nika Roza Danilova’s voice was on the opposite end of the spectrum. As a formally trained opera singer, Nika possesses (and I mean possesses) a rich, husky voice that boomed through the amps and powerfully resonated in the space.

From the opening seconds of the Zola Jesus set, the mood of the room quickly changed. The room was dark, and beams of light were sent pulsing over the crowd and stage. The drama was high. Nika wore a black cloak of sorts, and silver makeup was applied liberally around her eyes. After frantically pacing back and forth on the stage like a caged animal, Nika suddenly climbed up on an amp during the song “Sea Talk.” She also rushed the crowd at one point to sing from the pit. It was quite a theatrical – if not affected – performance.

By the time Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs took the stage, the room was absolutely packed. There are two kinds of people: those who have heard tUnE-yArDs and those who have yet to experience the magic. In the time leading up to the show, the former was excitedly attempting to explain the impending spectacle to the latter.

Merrill Garbus (aka tUnE-yArDs)

As I’ve stated before, Merrill Garbus makes colorful music that is energy-packed, raw, and almost animal-like. Like Nika, she is theatrical and dramatic, but in a completely different way. The pictures I chose of the two artists effectively conveys the difference in their styles. Zola Jesus is dark and moody in its theatricality. tUnE-yArDs is bright, colorful, and whimsical. Though she was clearly full of nervous energy, she owned the stage. The addition of Nate Brenner on bass bolstered the show, but Brenner’s presence was definitely overshadowed by Garbus’.

Unlike many other artists who rely on pre-recorded loops and samples, tUnE-yArDs carefully builds all of the layers on stage and assembles all of the parts like an experienced watchmaker. The songs may start with a single beat or backing vocal, but soon they become highly texturized and complex.

Words can only go so far when it comes to tUnE-yArDs. Check out this fantastic video from 4AD to get a small taste of her music. Seriously. Watch it. Now.

(Her official music video of the same song, “Real Live Flesh,” is also worth checking out.)

tUnE-yArDs concluded the rousing set with “Do You Want to Live?.” Merrill belted out the line of the song title with increasingly ferocity, and each time, her question was met by a resounding “YEAH!” from the enrapt and uncharacteristically responsive audience.

Interestingly, a number of people left following tUnE-yArDs’ performance and did not bother to stick around to hear even the first song from Xiu Xiu despite the fact that they were the headliners of the evening.  tUnE-yArDs also stole the show from the Dirty Projectors last fall. Who will be next?

The progression of events on Friday night was fantastic. Rarely do the opening artists compliment the headliner so well. The evening was mesmerizing from the start and got progressively dramatic and zany as time passed.

Xiu Xiu

Xiu Xiu was the culmination of the characteristics embodied by the opening bands. They’re weird, moody, atmospheric, dramatic, cathartic, and at times chaotic. Their airy synth-drenched sound is quiet and gentle one moment, only to be punctuated by sudden discordant bursts when either Jamie Stewart or new Xiu Xiu member Angela Seo would strike the odd tower of percussion instruments that separated them.

Xiu Xiu’s sound was noticeably darker than that of its predecessors of the evening. (After all, their latest album is titled Dear God, I Hate Myself). Jamie dripped sweat as he delivered his moody – and borderline emo – lyrics in his characteristic ghoulish voice. Dear God, I Hate Myself may have a reputation for being less odd than Xiu Xiu’s earlier music, but it’s still a freak show on stage. I left shortly after Xiu Xiu performed  “Guantanamo Canto,” which features especially somber lyrics (“and your son grows to kill us all / we say thank you complicity”) and an ambulance siren. Enough drama for one night.


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"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."

- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being


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