Live: Charli XCX Punches Through The Haze At Santos

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@soundbitesnyc/Twitter
Charli XCX
Santos Party House
Monday, March 12

Better than: Writing in a diary.

The early Monday-night slot is by no means a prime gig; potential audience members are still shaking off the weekend cobwebs, counting the change from a couple of days of overindulgence and late-night taxi rides. But the British singer Charli XCX, first on a three-act bill at Santos last night, filled the downtown venue's main room and then electrified it with a performance that made it seem like she was trying to fight her way out of the heartbreak of which she sang in a physical way as much as a mental one.

Charli, who first gained the media's attention at 15, put out a couple of singles last year—the sullen "Stay Away," the glimmering "Nuclear Seasons"—that garnered attention from musical spelunkers looking for artists who bend pop idioms into their own image. She has a velvety, quivering voice and a knack for synthesizing ideas from past hits into a way that sounds fresh coming out of laptop speakers; "Nuclear Seasons" borrows liberally from "It's My Life" and the also-rans of that Talk Talk track's era, while her wounded gasp recalls the more sullen modes of Siouxsie Sioux, Ana da Silva, and Robert Smith.

Heartbreak can be kind of a bummer to watch in person, but Charli's live act—full of flailing and hair-whipping, and encouragement to the audience to let loose—was a spectacle, one that drew the audience infinitesimally closer with each punch of the air. She may sing of sour times on record, but in person she imbues her music with the boisterousness of teenpop, if not that genre's precise choreography; instead, her jumping and swatting and shaking of her sizeable mane give off the air of someone trying to achieve catharsis by any means necessary, whether it's through singing of the heartbreak she's experiencing or very literally shaking it out.

The set moved along briskly, with the rich melodies fanning throughout the room and her two backing musicians providing a plush bed for her to jump upon—the percussionist also got in a couple of good callbacks, sprinkling in a beat that sounded like that from "Sign O' The Times" to open "Stay Away" and a harrowing blown-out drum pattern borrowed from Portishead on "How Can I." Her voice cracked and bent as she sang of cemeteries and nuclear winters and people who had pried open her heart just long enough to expose the parts that feel pain.

The night closed with "Mess," a nervously speedy track that seemed like a last chance to let it all out, and she took that chance and ran with it, dancing faster and faster until she screamed "Mess!" A "peace" to the audience and that was that; it had ended too soon, almost abruptly. But given Charli's charismatic presence and undeniable songwriting talent, it's not hard to think that she'll be back, shepherding ever-bigger audiences through whatever heartbreak they're dealing with at the moment.

Critical bias: Firmly established.

Overheard: "It's kind of like pop."

Random notebook dump: After the show she informed her Twitter followers that it takes two hours to wash her impressive mass of hair. "It's a big job," she noted.

Set list:
You're The One
Set Me Free
How Can I
Stay Away
Nuclear Seasons
End Of The World
Mess

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