Sunday night, I hit up the Mercury Lounge for an intimate show featuring Washed Out, Small Black, and Pictureplane opening.
Although I was definitely curious about the openers, my main reason for going was Washed Out, whose Life of Leisure EP I’ve been thoroughly enjoying ever since I checked out a few tracks on The Hype Machine this past fall and decided to make the purchase. If you’re unfamiliar with Washed Out, it’s basically one young dude (Ernest Greene) from a random town in Georgia who has caught the attention of the Hype Machine crowd with a unique blend of dreamy synth-pop that some are giving the unfortunate label “chill wave.”
Washed Out has managed to cull some of the most perfect synth tones from the 80s and update them with a more contemporary rhythmic and atmospheric framework. That’s all topped off with heavily-processed and “hazy” vocals that makes for a mesmerizing sound that’s familiar and nostalgic but totally fresh. I’d definitely recommend checking out his EP or getting a taste from the blogs or his MySpace page.
But before Washed Out came on, I also got to check out sets by Small Black and Pictureplane.
Like Washed Out, Pictureplane was a one-man show, complete with a bunch of beat sequencers, samplers and effects pedals (i.e. toys). He got the party moving with an interesting mashup of house-oriented dance tracks overlaid with high-pitched, moody vocals. What the guy lacked in technical agility with his various contraptions, he definitely made up for with lots of energy and a silly, fun vibe. He could use a little work on delivery, especially in the transitions and endings (more on that later), but it was a fun way to kick off the night.
Next up was Small Black, the only real “band” of the evening. Although much of the night’s music was characterized by synths mixed with dreary/moody vocals — and these guys played into that trend — Small Black provided much more of a rock-oriented groove that really made them stand out from the rest of the lineup. The presence of a full drum kit, bass, keys, and multiple singers made all the difference and created a key distinction from the other acts performing that night.
It took Small Black a few tunes to get things rolling, but towards the end of their set, they tore into some truly memorable melodies and tight grooves. Their standout track “Despicable Dogs” is totally hypnotic and has basically been stuck in my head since I left the venue. I’m not yet all that familiar with their other tunes, but I thoroughly enjoyed their blend of melodic, moody synth-based rock, and I definitely think that they’re set was the most cohesive of the night. I’ll be looking out for more music from these guys in the near future.
After a short break and a quick sound check, Washed Out started into his set, playing to a thoroughly enthusiastic crowd that clearly was familiar with his material. Now, one of the things I wondered about Washed Out was whether or not he could truly translate the perfection of his studio tracks to the live stage. On the one hand, I really admire a guy who rolls completely solo with just a mic and his contraptions. But, given how much I love his EP, I just felt like the sound didn’t work all that well in the live setting. The vocals were a little too distorted and, dare I say, “washed out” to really catch your ear. More importantly, I’d say the set suffered a similar lack of cohesion and flow like the opener Pictureplane, especially in the song transitions and endings. They were a bit abrupt and unnatural as compared to the gradual studio fades that characterize the tracks on his EP. Now it’s important to note that this guy has barely played more than a few live shows since breaking out last year, so I’m sure his live set will continue to improve. Besides, the crowd basically seemed to eat up every single track he played, so perhaps I’m being too critical.
I think what struck me was really the distinction between watching a full band locking into a groove versus watching one guy singing while tapping some buttons and twisting a few knobs. Without a few instruments or even all that much movement, the one-man band approach sort of felt flat to me. And, as if to emphasize this perception even further, about halfway through his set, Washed Out was joined by the guys from Small Black for a full-band take on some of his signature tunes. The change provided a vibe and energy that that instantly kicked things up a notch and finished out the show with a bang.
Unfortunately, this show was a pain in the ass to shoot because of the lighting. But unlike a bunch of other douchebag photogs who were flashing away throughout the entire show, I wasn’t willing go against the standard common courtesy of not using a flash for shooting concerts. Despite the lighting challenges, I think I still nabbed a few decent a shots; my full photo set is available on Flickr.
One a brief side note, I mentioned Small Black’s signature tune “Despicable Dogs” above. As it turns out, Washed Out recently did a remix of that tune, and it has subsequently been playing in my head non-stop since I discovered it. Naturally, you can check it out on the Hype Machine, but beware of its infectiousness.