Friday, July 12, 2019

Charly Bliss, Chvrches

If you follow this blog at all, you see that most of the live music shows I attend these days tend to be by older artists. I see a lot of '70s artists (usually by myself), and a lot of '80s artists (mostly with Denise). Occasionally, though, I feel the need to go out and catch some younger bands (bands who started in the current decade), just to remind myself I'm alive. It's nice to go to a show where all of the heads in the crowd aren't as gray as mine, and where the audience feels free to dance a little without the fear of breaking a hip.

Both Denise and I have been fans of the Chvrches, a young electro-pop band from Scotland, for awhile now. (Most people spell their name as CHVRCHES, but you know how I feel about that all-caps stuff.) I liked them when they first came out, and last year, with their Love Is Dead  LP, I felt that they really fully realized their potential. (Mind you, I might be in the minority opinion there. The album didn't sell quite as well as their two previous efforts.) In fact, when I did my Best Of lists for 2018, I named Love Is Dead as my favorite album of the year.

Denise saw them do a mini-set last December at The Barclay Center, as part of the Alt 92.3 Not So Silent Night show, along with five other bands, and she enjoyed them a lot. I missed that show with great regret, as there were a number of bands I'd like to have seen that night, chief among them Chvrches and Foster the People. So when Denise saw that Chvrches was playing at Radio City Music Hall this summer, I swallowed my usual reluctance to deal with Manhattan and asked her to get tickets.

Then one of those happy coincidences happened. I recently picked up the new album by the Brooklyn-based band Charly Bliss, and I've been loving it. (In fact, Young Enough will be a serious contender for my favorite album of this year.) And then, a few weeks ago, I learned that Charly Bliss would be opening for Chvrches at the Radio City show. For me this is like winning the lottery -- buying tickets for a band you want to see, and learning after the fact that another band you want to see will also be playing the show.

Now in fairness, I should say that I know Denise well enough to know she'd be less enthused about Charly Bliss than I am. I tend to love female lead vocals in general, and some of the alternative bands that I like feature female lead singers with quirky and unusual voices. A couple of these include Mariel Loveland of Best Ex (formerly Candy Hearts), and Jessica Knight of Looming. I find myself drawn to unique female voices. Denise, not so much. She's very picky about her vocalists, and I can usually tell when one will turn her off. She wasn't even all that crazy about Hayley Williams of Paramore in the beginning, although I think Williams grew on Denise eventually. (And if they have some kind of a minor speech impediment, forget it! I can't even listen to The Sounds anymore without hearing Maja Ivarsson's lisp, thanks to Denise pointing it out to me. Although interestingly enough, Cyndi Lauper doesn't seem to bother her, in spite of "Twue Cowors." But I digress.)

Charly Bliss's frontperson is a young woman named Eva Hendricks. She's a charismatic, passionate singer. However, she also has voice kind of like a kewpie doll. A tough kewpie doll, but a kewpie doll nonetheless. I like her, because she's not a mean kewpie doll, or a psychotic one, or even a hard one. Just a tough one. Like she wouldn't bother you just walking around the streets, but if you tried to steal her purse, she'd put up a pretty good fight. I also like the band, because they have real talent for crafting well-written pop rock songs, songs that take unexpected turns, but still sound melodic. But I knew that Denise would be less enthused about this band than I am.

In any event, I met Denise at her Mom's house, and we headed into the city together. Our trip reminded me of why I'm not so fond of Manhattan these days, and especially of why I'll never drive there again. (Denise drove.) It was the usual trip uptown, with cars, cabs and bikers darting in and out in front of us, and the occasional pedestrian popping up from out of nowhere to casually walk in front of moving cars, heedless of the fact that human bodies are soft and squishy while cars are hard and very heavy. And as you're trying to avoid all of these fun-filled fellow New Yorkers, you're trying to do the mental math in your head to navigate all of the one-way streets in such a way as to be able to make it onto the block where your pre-paid parking garage is situated. It's a laugh a minute.

We actually timed it pretty well this time, and made it to our rather comfortable aisle seats about ten minutes before show time. We were in the orchestra, maybe ten rows from the stage -- very nice, especially for the opening band's set, while people were still seated.

Charly Bliss took the stage. Now mind you, this is a New York band playing at Radio City Music Hall for the first time. Do you think they were fired up? Oh hell yeah! These guys were psyched out of their gourds. They burst into sound, and from the get-go, they were firing on all cylinders. The room was maybe half full, but remember, this is Radio City Music Hall -- half full is still a lot of people. (At one point between songs, Hendricks admitted that they were so happy to be playing this show, they had cried during the sound check).

Hendricks came out in some of a tutu-like skirt, which I had seen her wear before in a YouTube video of a live performance. I'm pretty sure she wears it because she likes the way it bounces. Because she was bouncing up and down like the Tasmanian Devil on a trampoline. The band played a full set that included all of my favorite songs from the new album -- "Hard to Believe," "Camera," "Young Enough," "Chat Room," "Under You," and "Blown to Bits."

There were also a lot of little things going on that I liked. The band plays as a four-piece, and while they don't have a regular keyboard player, three of the four band members took turns playing the keyboard on the stage (including the drummer, who I think is Hendrick's brother.) Also, each of the three men in the band provided Hendricks with some vocal harmonies, sometimes separately, sometimes combined. (They weren't complicated, but they were nice.) And near the end of the set, Hendricks had her own drum at the front of the stage, which she banged for emphasis when needed -- it turns out, she's a trained drummer herself.

In any event, I enjoyed their set a lot. Their enthusiasm was infectious -- they were so obviously filled with joy about playing this gig that you couldn't help but be happy for them. (I think it was even more of a special occasion for them because it's not like they've been out on tour with Chvrches -- this show was a one-off them. It's just about the end of their own headlining tour, where they've been promoting the new album, but at smaller venues. In fact, they're playing the Bowery Ballroom tonight). Overall, I'd say they went over pretty well with the rest of the crowd as well. They didn't fully win over Denise, but she did admit they had a dynamic stage presence, and that they write really good songs (she liked the lyrics, too). I'm thinking that's about the best I'm going to get out her.

What followed was a very long break between bands. And whoever programmed the canned music playlist was deranged. It alternated between eighties artists like Cyndi Lauper and 'Til Tuesday, and some of the most god-awful female-voiced hip-hop you've ever heard, complete with very liberal use of the n-word, mixed with a copious amount of "mf-ers!" And at various points, the sound would move from one of the huge overhead speakers to the other and back again, as if there was a bored 9-year-old at the sound board, chewing gum and absentmindedly moving the switch back and forth while they gaped around the room.

As Chvrches later made clear, the reason for the over-long break between sets was that the venue was having trouble with the PA system. Apparently, the band was waiting nervously in the wings, feeling guilty about going on late. This might have been the reason for ... well, we'll get to that in a moment.

Now some of what I'm going to say will make it sound as if I didn't enjoy Chvrches' set, and I want to make it clear from the outset that that isn't so. I liked their set, and I was glad to have caught them live. But I did have some critiques.

First off, though, I'll give you something I was concerned about beforehand that I was pleased about. From a couple of things I've seen, I know that Chvrches sees themselves as a politically progressive band, and I was hoping they weren't going to be pushing that at the show in an obnoxious way.

They recently got themselves into a controversy with, of all people, the hip-hop singer Chris Brown due to this "progressivism." As it happens, they recently cut a song with someone who calls himself "Marshmello", a DJ/electronic artist. I'm not familiar with the song, but apparently all went well with this collaboration. Shortly thereafter, Marshmello decided to record with both Chris Brown and Tyga, each of whom has been accused of physically abusing women. For whatever reason, Chvches decided that it would be a great idea to issue a public statement expressing their "disappointment" with Marshmellow's decision to work with "predators and abusers." (Marshmellow probably didn't realize that by recording with them, it meant that he would need to submit all of his potential future collaborations to them for their approval.)

What happened next (somewhat predictably, if you've followed Brown's career), was that Brown replied by saying that he hoped they walked in front of a speeding bus filled with mental patients. His fan base then upped the ante by issuing death threats against the band, and rape threats against lead singer Lauren Mayberry, forcing Chvrches to lay out for a lot of extra security to protect themselves. Now I obviously don't endorse this kind of behavior by Brown's fans, but it makes me want to ask this band in a gentle, fatherly fashion, "What the HELL were you dumbasses thinking?" It would be one thing if he'd attacked them first. But I guarantee that this man didn't even know they existed until they decided that their sense of social justice necessitated their publicly scolding him. If they were a sports team, this would be called an "unforced error."

In any event, maybe they've learned not to go out of their way looking for a fight, because they were very pleasant and well-behaved throughout the concert. Their between-song patter was uncontroversial and actually quite amusing. They did what I hoped they would do -- just played their music.

There were two negatives to their set, though. Over the years, I've discovered that sometimes, seeing a band live can bring songs that you might not have previously been impressed with to life. This happened to me a number of times with Aimee Mann, and songs such as "King of the Jailhouse" and "Little Tornado." It even happened seeing The Good Rats do the live version of "Geno." In this case, though, I almost felt as though Chvrches' songs shrunk a little while hearing them in person. They were still nice, but I liked them live more than I loved them.

There were two possible reasons for this. The first is that as much as I appreciate Love Is Dead, I noted when I reviewed it that the album consisted almost entirely of slow-to-mid-tempo songs. Having one or two slower sings sprinkled throughout a concert can spice it up. Having a full set of slower songs can sap the energy out of a crowd.

The second possible reason for this phenomenon at the show has to do with my second negative. For some reason, the sound for Chvrches was muddy throughout the night. This might well have been because of the problems with the PA. However, the sound for Charly Bliss was pretty crisp. So maybe it was because some sound guys have trouble doing sound for bands that use multiple synthesizers.

Denise had another explanation, though, and as usual, she's probably right. It might be just that they were turned up too damned loud. The music for much of the set was what I'd describe as a "wall of sound." It was distorting all over the place. It might be that if they'd turned down just a little, the sound would have been much clearer.

This was a shame, because many other aspects of the show were excellent. They played all of the songs that I'd hoped they would play. And Mayberry was in excellent voice throughout the night. I've seen video clips of her where her voice was a little uncontrolled. Last night, her singing was both powerful and accurate.

Again, don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the show, and the crowd obviously did too -- they stood up when the band took the stage, and they never sat down again. Denise really couldn't see the show at all, because she was sitting behind taller people. I mostly sat (as usual), but for most of the show, I could see Mayberry through a spot under the elbow of the guy in front of me. (Denise said that the venue actually had video screens, but they weren't turned on. Go figure.)

In any event, Denise said that because of the volume, she thought Chvrches had actually sounded better during the brief set she saw them do last December. But she still enjoyed last night's show, and was glad we'd gone. I actually might have enjoyed Charly Bliss a little more than Chvrches, but I found Chvrches entertaining as well.

In closing off, here are two contrasts I noted between the two bands.
1. While both Eva Hendricks and Lauren Mayberry are energetic front women, they're a contrast in styles. Hendricks likes to jump up and down even more than my blood sugar. Mayberry, on the other hand, likes to glide across the stage and spin -- I don't know how she doesn't make herself dizzy. She reminds me a little of Shirley Manson of Garbage in that respect, another famed Scottish singer (and maybe Mayberry's role model? Who knows?)
2. In general, the two bands seem to favor a different style of song structure. Chvrches seems to like regular-length verses and simple choruses, ones with few words that are simple to sing along with. Charly Bliss, on the other hand, makes use of regular-sized verses, then speeds up some of their choruses and allows Hendricks to stuff them full of words. For example, here's the chorus for "Camera". Sing along if you dare.

Everything is coming
Not sure what I should be learning from it
How can I convince you not to stay?
Always either running or I'm always overflowing from it
If you think it's bad today, just wait.

Hope you took a few deep breaths before you started.

Anyway, it was nice to get out and see a couple of newer bands, one of whom is up-and-coming, and the other of whom is probably just now hitting their prime.

Manhattan still sucks, though.