A grotesque-sounding electric violin opens EMA’s early-evening set at Mercury Lounge like we’re waiting for a B horror flick to start up. After a minute or so, Erika M. Anderson ambles on stage and before speak-singing a strained, barely audible “god damn,” looks straight into the audience and half smiles like she’s amused that we don’t know what’s to come. Then comes a “fuck,” just a few words later. She’s singing a song called "Butterfly Knife," and it’s about being in high school — not a happy experience for her in South Dakota I take it. When Spencer Krug takes the stage three hours later under the alias Moonface, he solemnly warns us that he’ll be playing his forthcoming album, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I Hoped (not, say, Wolf Parade or Sunset Rubdown material), and that he’s having technical difficulties with his organ. But, don’t worry, if everything sounds like crap he’ll cut the show short, and we’ll have free admission to his next NYC appearance in October. People in the audience cheer, but he doesn't acknowledge them. Needless to say, this is not a night of 1,000 laughs.
EMA is not selling sex up there on stage, or cutesiness, or even vulgarity, despite some of the language, and still manages to be utterly magnetic. Both live and recorded, she uses a whisper-to-a-scream device for optimal emotional impact — here, the small capacity of the room plays to her favor. Sometimes things build to the climatic "scream" gradually, her band slowly turning into a crunchy alt-rock guitar outfit with gothic undertones, and sometimes it’s disorienting how quickly a song goes from barely being there to overwhelmingly noisy. No matter the case, Anderson sounds intense and focused. Her voice plays the role of shaky and weak, like on the cheerless a cappella featuring the line "Can I crash here tonight/I want someone to lie next to," and also demented and angry, like on the blown-out, NIN-nodding "Milkman." When my hypothetical daughter turns 18, I want to bring her to an EMA show so she knows it's ok for a woman to sound strong and pissed off and lonely and vulnerable all at once.
For Spencer, there are no climaxes to build up to: each song is a mini-marathon through darken alleys of loops and various percussion. The stage is barley lit — there are exactly three lights on — it's already past 11pm, and 30 minutes into the set, he's only starting on the fourth song. By the time the six-minute mark rolls by on any one of them, the cyclical loops have become hypnotizing and you feel like you've been led into the underground den of a cult leader, who, flanked by a rabid multi-percussionist and backed by projections of a guy dancing, is luring you to join. His voice booms, rising and falling in that unique Krugian way, and, true to form, weaves enigmatic tales filled with animal allegories (there are mentions of whales, hawks and seagulls). There's only one song about love — the album's single, "Fast Peter," and it's the closest we get to one of Sunset Rubdown's yearning melodies. For the rest, it's a neat little juxtaposition Krug and his drummer pull off with the low-brow percussive beats interlocking with a majestic, warbling organ, drawing up religious connotations, and also images of dancing at a club. He ends with a deconstructed version of “All Fires,” a song from his Swan Lake repertoire that never gets to be played live (Swan Lake has never toured).
Things could have easily veered into self-seriousness over the course of the night, but Anderson's in between-song monologues touch on mustard stains, kissing booths and this thing her and her grandmother do where they both pretend Grandma doesn't understand Erika's lyrics. After explaining this to the crowd and launching into the line, "Fuck California, you made me boring," she thanks us for a fourth time, leaves the stage, and hugs a middle-aged woman who has promised Erika's mom she would send a picture from the show in her absence. Later, during an extended looped interlude, Spencer rocks his body back and forth, eyes closed, fully submitting himself to the melancholy clicks. He looks possessed. You have doubts that either one of them is going to make it through the night unscathed but, boy, are you rooting for them.