Suuns, Julianna Barwick
Live at Mercury Lounge
Thursday, January 27th, 2011
Manhattan’s 1st Avenue was a slush festival yesterday evening, street corners moated off by ominously wide-radius puddles, generating visions of Principal Ed Rooney going in ankle-deep and coming up just sock. Avenue A, however, was sort of tidy, merely slush-glazed and entirely navigable. They’ve really got their shit together over on Avenue A! Keep that in mind for when the next degraded foot of urban powder, which a vengeful winter god is likely preparing as I type, is thwarting your stroll downtown towards, say, Mercury Lounge. Enough show-goers had waded down that there was a modest line-up waiting outside for this very early 6:30 show, though the mass looked less formidable once lining the benches of the main space.
I’d seen Julianna Barwick perform a few times, seemingly never for the right crowd. Her minimal set-up — just a treated mic, a tiny synth-box or two, and a looping mechanism — fits on a TV dinner tray that she stands behind, alone. Her songs, sculpted in real time from accumulated layers and layers of strange, ethereal sighing and wordless high notes, is the still and puzzling sort that usually gets bailed out by a back-wall of psychedelic film projection. But she just stands there by herself, filling the room with these weird, slow Sigur Ros-ian ululations, a compelling choice that can also makes an empty or inattentive room seem unusually awkward. This half-filled, semi-rapt room was better than some, and Barwick earned focused listening by taking the time to build rhythmic counterpoints into her giant harmonics. Short, clipped syllables sounded mismatched at first, but on their fourth or fifth repetition, with each previous iteration looped and still hanging in the air, they gained heft, grounding her airier notes with something approaching pop structure. She’s just barely tinkering with captured instrumentation (for now just a few rickety keyboard notes, or a tinny half-beat here and there) and vocal inflections that almost sound like words. While I’m quite keen to hear how these progressions color her new record, The Magic Place, out next month, I really want to impatiently fast-forward to LP6 or so, to see how the story ends. There are so many different places she can take her sound, even if its current starkness might gel for folks now swooning over the empty space in James Blake songs.
Montreal’s Suuns (pronounced like “soons” if you said it with a really goony inflection) were possessed of a different energy level entirely. Manic, thudding pogo-pop drone, in lieu of reflective beauty. Lead singer Ben Shemie’s high, huffing inflection over his band’s locked grooves instantly brought to mind Clinic, who’ve been doing that sort of thing for years. But once the initial similarity was noted, departure points quickly emerged. They often sustained a kraut groove longer and tighter than you thought they might (but not as long as Oneida would), going from art-damaged to anthemic by adding emphasis and vocal sweeteners in the right spots. They invited a lady saxophonist on stage at one point, adding some unkempt No Wave skronk to their sweaty psych riffs. Playing “Armed for Peace,” the opener from last year’s Secretly Canadian-released album Zeroes QC, they rode a bare, repetitive synth line reminiscent of John Carpenter’s oppressively creepy film scores for a good long while, until rushing in with bits of cocksure, nearly Franz Ferdinand-y guitar. They could be mean, thrashing, unhinged, and then suddenly sort of dancey or sweet. It’s a nice little bag of tricks they’ve got.