All words: Courtney Pitman — All photos: Daniela Toleva
Just six months ago Megan James and Corin Roddick released their impressive debut LP, Shrines, as the electro-witch-pop specialists Purity Ring. In that short time the attention and fanbase they’ve garnered is seriously impressive, to the extent that you forget their youth—and perhaps that you should still be forgiving them their youth. I have several working hypotheses to try to rationalize their gorgeously illuminating but confusingly… meh… set in front of a fanatic sold-out 9:30 Club crowd on Monday night. Let’s dive in.
H1: James and Roddick have somehow focused so completely on nailing the complicated details that their resulting successes have come at the detriment of the simple details. I love the way the Montreal duo’s mashedup tracktitles from Shrines actually reflect their mischievous, obscured sound. I love love the elaborate staging for their live show, transforming the 9:30 Club into a mystical swampland reminiscent of Yoda’s turf on Dagobah. I love love love the trough of orbs that Corin plays like drums, lighting up when he strikes each note.
The throng of fans that showed up en masse on a Monday night proves these elaborate elements of the Purity Ring experience work in a big way; you’d think it would be easy to cash in after they’ve invested so much legwork. Unfortunately, however, their triumphs as a live act largely end there, with the complex items. Where the simple stuff is concerned, it was as if they hadn’t bothered to do a sound check. Turn the bass down, guys!!! It was so uncomfortably high that the skin under my chin (which I like to believe doesn’t exist) was bouncing while the air in our mystical swampland became even heavier. In general, Purity Ring’s songs beg you to dance along while stubbornly refusing to provide you with a steady rhythm to do so. The added bass effect weighed down the crowd further, effectively turning them into a sea of swampthings that sort of shuddered and slid further into the Dagobah sludge.
Which brings me to a separate hypothesis… Purity Ring is pulling an MGMT.
H1: Purity Ring, as a band, doesn’t want to be had. We, as human beings, want what we can’t have. And so the chase ensues. Part of the reason the mashedup tracktitles are so great is because it maintains the songs’ obscurity. What the heck is a “Crawlersout,” anyways? It challenges the listener to experience the ah-ha moment when, at the end of the song, James’ far away, imp-like vocals come into clear focus to sneer “Keep them crawlers out—Keep them crawlers out.”
The sinister lyrics and murky soundscapes all serve to distance Purity Ring from the listener, and ultimately that’s what has drawn in their fans, who have discovered that the tracks from Shrines creepy crawl into your subconscious and yield a gratifying new discovery with each listen. However, this phenomenon is lost at a live show where the audience has already dedicated the time to wading through the fog. The crowd, which was attentive and shockingly attractive, came to take part in the grisly fun, singing and dancing along (good on you, 9:30 Crowd). Purity Ring could be reacting to their own success by intentionally retreating further into the Swampland. The heavy bass smothered the dancers—with the notable exception of closer “Fineshrine”—and made James’ vocals almost unintelligible, if you could hear them at all. At one point midway through the set a friend asked, “Didn’t they play this one already…?”
H0: Purity Ring is still figuring it out. When it comes down to it, all of these ponderings are likely overthinking the reality: Purity Ring released their very first LP in July 2012, and it’s fantastic. James and Roddick are young, the 9:30 Club is a bigtime venue, and James looked under the weather throughout the show.
There were also a few times where their youth shined through, and those tended to be the more endearing moments of the evening. After “Obedear” finally brought about a cause for cheer, James blatantly explained that she needed to take a three minute break, but she’d be right back. The house music came on, folks chatted, and three minutes later they were back, no unnecessary clapping required. #TheNewEncore? I don’t know, but I dug it. More importantly, when Purity Ring returned to the stage they played the best song of the evening, a cover of – wait for it – Soulja Boy?! Whaaaa? Who saw that coming? The duo ditched the bass and the audience discovered, ten songs in, that James’ voice is wonderful. And she can rap. It was Polica-esque pop music through their swampy filter and it was a delightful departure from the weight of the evening.
Regardless of the intentionality of their live show, go home and listen to Shrines—with headphones—because that is a detail they nailed.
Young Magic proved to be a fitting opener for the night, and just like on the album, singer Isaac Emmanuel emerged to provide vocals on Purity Ring’s “Grandlove.” Walking in during their set, my clever friend J9er correctly identified Young Magic as a band we’d seen before—they opened for Youth Lagoon at Red Palace (pour one out for RP) in November 2011. While we both remembered having not-great reactions to them then we couldn’t place our precise thoughts. Good thing BYT is always there to help us remember, and document the great strides they’ve made in the past year. Whereas back then, “They built up thick walls of melodic noise, which often wasn’t all that melodic as it was noisy,” I might have enjoyed them at 9:30 Club on Monday more than Purity Ring. Their grand sound was better suited at the 9:30 scale for sure, but they have also honed their electronic beats while still retaining their weird / accessible vibe.
Bonus points to you if you know the statistical terms for H0 and H1.
WRAP-UP: Brightest and Dimmest Moments
- The crowd. Huge kudos to you, DC. This was the first time I’ve ever, ever, thought that the crowd deserved a better show, and not vice versa.
- Soulja Boy cover. Megan cranked that better than Soulja Boy could ever even dream of doing.
- Light show and decor
- The bass was horrific. And it permeated through nearly the whole set.
Grammy (Soulja Boy cover)