Live: Ladyhawke's Anxious Anthems At Bowery Ballroom
Ladyhawke w/Computer Magic
Saturday, September 8
Better than: Waiting for the rain to behave.
"I'm on a high, and I don't even know why," sings Pip Brown on "Girl Like Me," frayed and afraid. The track, the first from Ladyhawke's second album Anxiety, doesn't pace itself so much as snap and shudder on its own impulse. Everything's distorted and cluttered, as if trying to fight its way through speakers a mile away. The story's the same as Robyn's "Dancing On My Own""I saw you dancing with a girl like me/ I watched in silence as you held her hand"but doesn't bother with the former's triumph. Anxiety is a soundtrack for scheming rather than dancing, for bitter rainy days, its rock influences put on as armor, not swagger. It's one of the most striking, unjustly overlooked albums of the year.
It's also not much like Ladyhawke's self-titled debut, which is also great but in the same way as so much retro synthpop (even Brown's stage name comes from an '80s movie). The subject mattermalaise of various formsis the easiest talking point. "Brown doesn't channel her anxieties, her history of illnesses, into her lyrics," the Guardian once wrote; that's now as scuppered as it could possibly be. But the content's not that different from Ladyhawke's debut, which was angsty enough when it wanted to be. The sonics, however, are. Where there were synths, there were guitars. The hooks from tracks like "My Delirium" are sharperthey've got to be, to cut through such a crowded mixand more indebted to bar-room rock. "Black White and Blue" evokes "Livin' on a Prayer"; "Blue Eyes" peaks with a na-na-na singalong. Every anthem is shaken up somehow. It's less Little Boots, more Lisa Germano circa Happinessnot the obvious sonic evolution, but the canny one.
That still makes it a difficult sell for fans of Ladyhawke's electro, let alone the uninitiatedespecially given her four-year gap between albums. (A few fans I know weren't aware she had a new one.) Her stop in New York, then, was largely a reintroduction, bookending the set with the comparatively chipper stuff ("Back of the Van" first, "Paris Is Burning" last), coming off absolutely winsome, then plunging into Anxiety's harder stuff, heavy and thick with introductions. That said, newcomers might still be surprised if they pick up the album. Gone is the clutter, the deliberate tension, most of Brown's diffident vocals. The anthems are actually anthems; the rock tracks actually sound like rock tracks. Brown and her band headbang and mean it. It's a different experience, but it works. You hear the individual parts on "Black White and Blue" much better, such as one particular careening synth I'd missed in my replays. A cover of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" transcended cliché, if only because Anxiety could have easily included it. The gorgeous, sweeping power ballad "Cellophane," had it been released 25 years ago, would have moved entire rooms to slow dance, and I've got to assume only unfamiliarity held Bowery Ballroom's crowd back. The whole place did dance for one song, mind"My Delirium." Which is fair; that song all but demands movement. Moreover, anxiety takes a while to catch you, but it can. You might not even know why.
Critical bias: Is there a more appropriate song for last Saturday than "Sunday Drive"? Not as far as I'm concerned.
Overheard: Loud bro, loud shout about a guitar. Couldn't hear specifics, but the crescendo was definitely "GUITAR."
Random notebook dump: The Five Artists Doing The Most With Glottal Stops
Back of the Van
Girl Like Me
Dusk Till Dawn
Black White And Blue
The Quick And The Dead
Love Don't Live Here
Better Than Sunday
Paris Is Burning
White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane cover)