Chairlift and Nite Jewel Live in Austin at The Mohawk

Mohawk’s pre-show atmosphere was the perfect setting for a Tuesday show from Chairlift and their openers.  The weather, cooling in the late evening, made downtown Austin itself seem sleepy, as if its weekend hangover hadn’t quite worn off and two days of work had already dulled the impulse of carefree abandon. Indicators of the music to come.

Bell (aka Olga Bell) began the occasion with the ever popular method of a solo artist surrounded by electronic music-making machines.  Although still a bit too heavily indebted to Bjork, Bell was none-the-less charismatic and easily carried her set without putting anyone off (although not quite winning them over either).

Nite Jewel showed an abandonment of the weirdness that drew attention earlier in her career.  Replacing it was an obsessive restraint and attention to detail that resulted in an impressive display of tastefully polished performance.  Ramona Gonzalez has developed a solid singing voice and has undeniable talent as a keyboardist. Her band was tightly in sync yet the whole affair was still relaxed.

The only miss was a flat placidity that hinted at emotion without ever quite fully getting there. In one of the few instances when Gonzalez engaged the audience, she said she drunkenly practiced playing the keyboard so much the previous night that it seemed as if she was playing for infinity.  It was a fitting description of the performance. The show did exhibit a high degree of minimalist technicality, deftly touching on an array of 70’s and 80’s pop references , but could not escape sounding routine.  Like figuring a math problem without ever finding a solution.

Chairlift was a breath of minty-fresh air in comparison.  Despite an explicit non-offensiveness, their unique blend of both mainstream and independent influences from the last several decades contained a good deal of dynamism.  Caroline Polachek is the obvious standout.  She managed to pull off sultry and awkward simultaneously, without being overly-confident (or overly-humble).  Her voice is just as good as the recordings (if not better) and has a degree of control and strength unheard among her contemporaries.

Patrick Wimberly kept his head down, propelling the music forward with aggressive, yet understated basslines.  Combined with their backing band the music sparkled, matching Polachek’s voice without overpowering it.  Any doubts of Chairlift’s potency after losing founding-member Aaron Pfenning can be laid to rest, and accusations that they’re nothing more than a one-hit wonder unjustly picked for an iPod commercial were proven false.

Speaking of said commercial, there was the obligatory rendition of “Bruises”.  But the surprising substitution of a single bar with Modern English’s “I Melt WIth You” prevented it from sounding tired. It was a fun way to acknowledge their influences.

Although older material wasn’t ignored they wisely focused on tracks from their current record “Something”, doing a fine job of maintaining the album’s rich sonic palette. “Wrong Opinion” smoked, “Cool as a Fire” compelled, and “Take It Out One Me” exuded melancholic grandeur. “You Belong in My Arms” was buoyant and “Amanaemonesia” still has some staying power as the sonic crack of the spring season.

Chairlift were careful to never go too far, and that presented one of the few problems with an otherwise solid set.  When Polachek unexpectedly picked up drum sticks to frenetically add additional beats to their drummer’s kit during “Guilty As Charged”, the energy built to a point where it might lose control at any moment.  Instead it ended right when it reached it’s most interesting point.  While there was no lack of confidence, the set had an overall lack of spontaneity.  Ending with the encore cliche — leave stage, wait two minutes, come back and play two fan favorites before ending with the big hit (Amanaemonesia) — furthered the impression of by-the-numbers banality.  But there’s still huge potential for more, and based on Tuesday’s performance Chairlift seems poised for greater things as a group that is just beginning to bloom after recently discovering who it is.

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