By Andy Johnson
If you’re an upcoming British rock group on your first US headlining tour, you want to make an impression. You want to grab America by the balls and compel your audience to stumble out of the venue, dazed at what they experienced, eager to proselytize your music. The first times I saw Bloc Party and Chvrches and Disclosure and Savages, I felt that rush. I knew I was experiencing something, if not perilous, than certainly kinetic. There was energy in the audience those nights that was undeniable.
Glass Animals, a four-piece hailing from Oxford, did not conjure this magic during their sold-out show Tuesday night at U St. Music Hall. This sounds like a disappointment, and I suppose it was given their debut album Zaba is one of my favorite releases of the year. (And one that has woefully under reviewed by the American press). However, seeing the young group live made me realize that given the sound they’re trying to cultivate, perhaps they’re not the type of group that’s bent on world domination. My expectations were too high. Glass Animals don’t aspire to be Oasis or Arctic Monkeys. They also don’t want to be darlings of the indie world. They just want to do their own weird thing, and if you like it, well good for you.
The pleasure of Glass Animals is their focus on restraint. Dave Bayley, the group’s creative force, vocalist and guitarist, is not a great singer. (He also resembles a British Johnny Manziel, but that’s neither here nor there). Because he realizes his weakness, he wisely elects to sing in a quiet murmur that muffles his nonsense lyrics under the group’s trip-hop-meets-psychedelic-pop soundscapes. Glass Animals are commonly compared to Alt-J, another English rock group that merges jazzy, electronic grooves with varied percussion. However, Glass Animals take it one step further, incorporating hints of indie R&B that’s currently the flavor du jour seen in acts like Wild Beasts and Hundred Waters.
The group opened the evening with “Psylla”, the lead track from their eponymous EP. Bathed in blue light, Bayley whisper-crooned “Stop swaying when the moon is shaking thou / Makes mama throw her hands and flip around” while the rest of the band compiled the group’s click-clanging backbeat. Maybe it was due to U-Hall’s always-impressive sound system, but I was also surprised with how teeth-chattering the bass was throughout their performance. I did not think a group so influenced by laid-back trip-hop acts could generate reliably contemporary dance music, but given how the crowd reacted—and I must note how packed this sold-out show was, a surprise given the little press they’ve received domestically – I stand corrected.
One of the evening’s highlights was “Flip,” a sultry tune that built in intensity until Bayley warned, “I’m running round your head with a bolo knife” before a powerful drop worthy of the world’s top DJs. “Gooey,” one of the group’s singles, also went over extremely well, as the audience danced along mirthfully as Bayley sang jibber-jabber lyrics like “Right my little pooh bear, wanna take a chance?” and “You just wanna know those peanut butter vibes.” I’ve spent some time trying to decipher what a peanut butter vibe is to no avail, but such logic is moot when you’re bopping your head in the club.
The group also performed a stripped-down cover of Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown” that replaced Yeezy’s android soul for a mechanized beat. I still favor Kanye’s version, but I give them credit for covering an artist that’s outside of their wheelhouse.
My primary unrest with the performance is that outside of a handful of fully-fleshed songs like “Gooey” and “Pools”, a summery tune performed in the encore that can be rightfully compared to Friendly Fires or Tanlines, most of Glass Animals’ songs sound interchangeable. Several songs consisted of the same template: Bayley whispers gobbledygook while the rest of the band adds synthesized wood blocks and bass swells. Such repetition lent itself to good vibes, but 30-minutes of the hour-long set sounded anonymous. Nevertheless, I remain bullish on the group. As they continue to expand their sonic palate, I’m eager to see what new stuff they’ll create in the future.
Credit should also be given to the evening’s opening acts. I didn’t catch much from DC-based dream pop duo Vedas because I was caught in the evening’s violent squall, but I did appreciate “Cairo,” a woozy, shimmering track that sounds like a cross between early Sigur Ros, M83 and The Antlers.
I was also impressed by Tei Shi, a Brooklyn-based singer who sang over layered vocal loops. Accompanied by a guitarist and drummer, she boasted an impressive vocal range that at times reminded me of Imogen Heap. At times, the minimalistic, electronic beats, propped up by her sighs and vocalizing, bordered on hypnotizing. She also surprised the audience with a cover of Beyonce’s “No Angel,” and considering yours truly just saw her and Jay Z a few days prior, I can confidently say she did Queen B proud.