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Transforming a well-received studio sound into something that can work just as well on stage is probably one of the toughest tests of a modern musician’s mettle. With so much being done on record that can’t really be replicated live, it puts many bands in difficult positions. Wayne Coyne, the gloriously deranged frontman of The Flaming Lips, is oft quoted as saying ‘the recording studio’ when asked what instrument he played on their seminal album, The Soft Bulletin. So how do the Flaming Lips bring that sound to the stage? They start every show by emerging out of a glowing vagina the size of a house before Coyne rolls over the crowd in a human sized hamster-ball. And then they add a different guitar for almost every song and so many effects pedals that a troupe of river-dancers would have difficulty operating them.
Admittedly, this psychedelic lady parts tactic doesn’t work for everyone, and nor should it; variety is apparently ‘the spice of life’ (though I can’t imagine we’d be bored if every band was as fun to watch as the Lips). So for your standard rock outfit it’s just a matter of throwing guitars around a bit and setting amps to ‘kill’, adding a couple of synthesisers to bulk out the and bringing a theremin or a zither on stage just to prove how incredibly eccentric your band is. Pop stars simply turn up everything, add smiling, jiving backing musicians who don’t actually play anything to add a veneer of respectability, and then don a Daily Mail baiting costume. Kanye West pretends he’s Jesus and recruits a choir of archangels to sing backing vocals.
But what’s a band like Washed Out to do? Ernest Greene’s band started as a home-made side project – all fuzzy beats and softly sung vocals – and he probably had no intentions of success beyond a couple of hundred plays on MySpace, never mind becoming the figurehead for the burgeoning chillwave genre. It’s not music that’s particularly well suited to a live venue; too slow to properly dance to, too lively to sit down and relax to, and exactly the right tempo to cause a mass breakout of that slight-headbob-combined-with-an-almost-imperceptible-bounce-of-the-knee-on-every-other-beat-whilst-hands-are-placed-firmly-in-cinno-pockets ‘dance’ that seems to be so in vogue at the gigs where no one in the audience knows what they’re actually meant to be doing.
So if they stick rigidly to their studio sound they run the risk looking and sounding like a terrible version of Kraftwerk, but without that particular band’s brilliantly austere, precision-engineered personas, and without their peerless songs about long haul train journeys. And if they take any of the routes mentioned above, then they completely miss the point of what made them enjoyable in the first place. So it’s fortunate that in one of Manchester’s smaller venues (the used-to-be-a-music-shop Soundcontrol) on a rainy Sunday night, they get the balance just right. And it’s very probably because Greene has figured out how his music should be presented – this is late night music, ohrwurms for a walk home in the dark, and he spends the entirety of his set using the expanded live set-up to lodge his songs into the skulls of the audience, leaving echoes of a strong set persisting in the memory for days afterwards. And brilliantly, it doesn’t diminish the immediate effect of most of the songs either.
Admittedly, the set does take a while to get going. The set opens with a run through a few of the songs from their album, Within and Without, and although the likes of Echoes and Amor Fati are technically impressive, the bite isn’t there, and the hands of the crowd remain planted firmly in-pocket. So it came as a surprise that two new songs – one as of yet unnamed, one that would be named if it were not for a terrible mistake made my hippocampus to commit the song’s title to memory – were the ones to pick up the set from the early lull. They were brighter, brasher and simply a lot more upbeat than anything that was played from the more polished and clinical loop-a-thon that was Within and Without. The prominent, pretty arpeggios and more interesting harmonised vocals made a welcome change, and the bright melody, changing rhythms (which is almost unique for Washed Out) and more upfront synthesiser sounds from the second song have stayed in my head, even when the title of the song hasn’t.
And whilst not all of the songs that were played from Within and Without bristled with the same kind of energy as the new songs, notably the naggingly repetitive Echoes, some were imbued with new life. Soft, aptly named because of how incredibly limp it sounds on record, came alive on stage and received one of the best responses of the night, finally starting to move a crowd that was still full of pocketed hands. This is where the live instruments came into their own – the guitar was a powerful contrast to Greene’s ethereal vocals, and the drums brought the usually overly hazy synths into a sharp, danceable focus. The older Belong was another delight, mainly because Greene had recruited someone with proper, actual, voluptuous dreadlocks to sing over what the front man described as ‘our only foray intro reggae’.
Yet in spite of everything they’ve got going for them, there’s a nagging doubt that they’re just a bit too repetitive. The show goes on for about 45 minutes, but by the time Greene and his band have hit the half hour mark that these are mainly just variations on a theme. Greene just sets the Macbook to run up and down some arpeggios, sings in his soft, trademark falsetto, and has the keyboard players play two or three of the same chords over the course of the entire song. That’s the recipe for almost every single song, with the energetic reggae strut of Belong being the only real exception.
It’s an enjoyable recipe, to be sure, but you can only lick the cake mixture out of the bowl for so long before your teeth turn to rotten stumps and your stomach attempts to forcibly disconnect itself from your oesophagus. A bit more variation would have been appreciated; after all, Greene’s a prolific songwriter, with a long string of demos and EPs leading up to the album, and you could tell the crowd were waiting for the more danceable, hands-out-of-pocketable material from the Life of Leisure EP to make an appearance. Still, this was an enjoyable night, and even where the songs didn’t catch the audiences imagination straight away, they were infectious enough to have them unconsciously humming them on the way out.