For the small sector of humanity who are aware of them at all (a subset big enough to fill a mid-sized Lower East Side venue, say), Tuesday was Purity Ring Day. It was the day the Montreal duo released their debut record through esteemed British label 4AD, the day that record was crowned "Best New Music" on Pitchfork in a review written by editor-in-chief Mark Richardson, and the night they capped a year or so of growing festival buzz to play the album in full (well, almost), staged elaborately "in the round," to a pre-primed crowd there to hang on every hanging-lantern-lit beat.
Shrines, the record in question, is good. It contains the sort of electronic goth-pop that's been growing in popularity for the last few years, with all the mysterious distance that suggests. With warped vocals and melodic beats drawing both from The Knife records and hip-hop production, and an image stuck on on "vague creepiness," it's clearly a mutated strain of the misbegotten non-genre of 2010—"witch house." It's a comparison that just has to be made, although almost everyone seems sad that they've got to make it. Witness the Pitchfork review, which gets the term out of the way early and then runs far, far away from it, ending on a much more cuddly High Places comparison (that both makes a bit of weird sense and feels strangely off at the same time). That sound and aesthetic was so instantly mocked that now, two years later, if you want to praise similar music you've got to explain yourself. Because the band's most glaring faults are all taken straight from the list of witch-house's unforgivable sins: a reliance on imagery that's abstractly icky to the point of silliness; the vapid eccentricity that names a song something precious and nonsensical like "Lofticries," unashamed; a weird fetish for southern speak that leads to lyrical phrases like "keep them crawlers out" where "those" would have fit just as easily; and worst, the impulse to take an interest in hip-hop production too far, to the point that you've brought a dopey white guy on to your songs to rap reeeeeeal slow.
But Shrines also manages to be way more convicted, thought out, affecting, and just flat-out better crafted than a joke band like SALEM or a overly solemn noodler like Balam Acab. In their finer moments, they aren't fleeing from the things that made that music eye-rolling just a year ago. They just understand what was missing. There's a marginal, but real, increase in clarity that allows singer Megan James to express actual personality through her vocals treatments. Their expected creepy lyrics—here centered around queasy Cronenberg body-horror imagery—somehow wander into real, sorta-sweet emotional places. ("Fineshrine"'s "cut open my sternum and pull my little ribs around you" could be about the impossibility of getting as physically close to a lover as you actually feel emotionally.) And most important, songs with the big hooks to match their woozy production. There's still a lot of amorphous murk on their record, but when the songs hit, they really hit. But when a backlash as swift and deep as the one "witch-house" got is in such recent memory, there's an impulse to bury it, deep, before it ever had the chance to become interesting, and to flail around to find a new non-term to describe it when it suddenly does.
In concert at (le) poisson rouge last night, that remaining muddle was mostly negated by the show's gadget-y sculptural component, simple light effects that gave even the blurriest mood piece an engaging point of visual focus. In addition to Corin Roddick's usual light-up drum pad, their stage gave root to a sprawling pear-tree of poles hung with Alien egg-fruit, which lit up in time to the music. Otherwise, the stage was pitch-black, with the rare exception of flashing light that blared from a central snare drum every time James saw fit to thwack it. It's a gimmick, for sure, but a fairly wondrous one.
But they also had live moments that went well beyond smoke machines and a soothing glow. Their best songs are the ones with the most convincing beats (often the case with pop of any sort). And the feeling of the room for songs like "Ungirthed," "Fineshrine," and "Obedear" was tangibly different than polite appreciation for novel staging. Those are physical hits that demanded audience motion. They take the band's lyrical obsession with the body to a higher level by momentarily taking hold over their listeners'. They don't yet have a knack for dance music mechanics, or the complexity in their vocal warps, to really earn their Knife comparisons, but they are already grander than Richardson's High Places reference suggests (that band, sweet as they are, always felt consciously small). And once you start really going for that sort of big flash, it doesn't matter what poor, unloved subgenre spawned you. From a certain height, it all just ends up pop.