It’s fair to say that music fans in New York City are obscenely spoiled. We get to see some of the world’s best music in the most intimate spaces. With the exception of a few giant venues, most concerts keep you within a stone’s throw of the lead singer.
Of course, being this spoiled has made us finicky. If a band has come to one of the more popular ballrooms or concert halls, they should be fairly matured. Their musical thesis should be clear and concise. Anything less leaves a sour taste in your mouth. Even in a small venue like the Glasslands, this holds true. I went to Friday night’s show with the Belle Game, Starlight Girls, and Ski Lodge, and got a taste of all types of musical sophistication.
First, I’ll say that I was unlucky to come into the Belle Game’s opening set midway (insert John-McEnroe-style rant about New York subways here), but lucky that I got to see them. The five-piece band bills themselves as “dark orchestral pop,” which is accurate enough. Lead singer Andrea Lo’s voice is a beautiful centerpiece to their arrangement. Her singing has clarity, excellent pitch, and a maturity well beyond a band with only one album under its belt. The highlight had to be “River,” a sort of wandering unhappy single that demands you listen. Everyone of Ms. Lo’s notes are backed up with ornate and layered instrument work. The drummer has a wonderful presence, with a rhythm that matches the large sound, and keyboardist Katrina Jones uses gentle, well-placed accents. The band’s guitarists also showed off a bit of virtuosity (some of their riffs would not be out of place in a Battles show), without stepping on the vocals or withdrawing from the central sound.
After such a rousing opener, I was ready to be excited by Starlight Girls. Unfortunately, I was not. Which is not to say that the band is untalented or uninspired. Starlight Girls pulls wonderful elements from the 90s and 60s that clearly showcase the band’s potential. But the entire set was just too indecisive; whether it was volume, pace, energy, or any of the smaller elements that make a live performance. At one point, lead singer CB even told the audience, “Wow, I feel awkward.” From the tepid applause, the same was probably true for them.
The band started off their set with an elaborate flute piece and various psychedelic montages projected behind them, which has become somewhat de rigueur for anyone playing a rock show in Brooklyn. While Starlight Girls established their tone and themes quite easily (most of the melodies would probably work on Addams Family tribute album), none of the opening songs stuck out. “Intrigue” in particular created a disjointed sound which was too pop for noise and too noise for pop. On top of this, CB’s high-in-the-diaphragm voice was working with what seemed like a fairly weak sound setup. And the band did themselves no favors by abruptly ending each song, or sharply turning down the volume on climatic notes or phrases.
Most of the songs suffered from these problems, but it was still possible to hear talent amongst all those distractions. “9 million” highlights their influences, including orchestrated pop like Belle and Sebastian. Guitarist Shaw Walters exhibited a clear understanding of Calfornia rock during his solo on one of the band’s bigger tracks, “Inhibitionist.” But the two real standouts for the set were “Lion in a Cage,” where quiet drummer Steph Barker was able to anchor the song in a great rhythm, and “The Hunch,” where the band took advantage of having three female vocalists.
I’m tempted to say that centering the set around CB may have been the problem. Even a band leader with low energy or an introverted sensibility still has an obligation to drive their band forward and highlight their best elements. CB has a competent voice that draws lessons from reedy-throated women like Alanis or Lisa Loeb, but fails to draw Starlight Girls together.
I will say that headliner Ski Lodge finished the evening on a high note. The lovely page boy voice of Andrew Marr immediately got the crowd back in the swing of things. The boys of Ski Lodge practice a sort of synchronicity on their guitars, and from the first bar of the first song, their brand of British new wave (with a Brooklyn slouch) is evident.
From their preternaturally calm drummer to the kind of upbeat simmer of their melodies, Ski Lodge easily inhabits the stage and lays out a surprisingly fun rock show. Their inclusion of piano on a few tracks also highlights their potential for real popularity without sacrificing anything essential about their style.