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all words: William Alberque
all photos: Shauna Alexander

I’m a big fan of shoegaze bands and droning, Joy Division-esque, Chameleons-worshipping miserabilists –so this lineup came as both a great surprise and a delight.  In retrospect, my optimism about one of the two bands was misplaced – and it was not the band I expected – leaving me with the question: is mope-rock over?

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I fell for White Lies upon my first listen in 2008.  The NME supplied a link to a demo of “Death,” and I was hooked.  Morbid lyrics sung in a deep voice?  Check.  A galloping, careening bassline of doom? Check.  Pop hooks as big as the sky?  Check. “Death” got its proper release, first on the superb indie Chess Club, and then with some more financial backing on the Cure’s own Fiction Records.  A couple more leaked tracks – “Unfinished Business” and “To Lose My Life” – further reinforced my decision to see them live, along with their (very odd) decision to tour with Friendly Fires in March 2009.

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Asobi Seksu came to my attention years back (2004, to be exact) due to my compulsive pursuit of all the children of My Bloody Valentine. Their songs combine the impossibly gorgeous voice of Yuki Chikudate and the drowned-in-sound guitar gouaches of James Hannah – but typically a drum machine and Isn’t Anything or Blue Bell Knoll sonics.  I liked their self-titled debut (see the appropriately-named “Sooner”), but not enough to continue my pursuit until a superb Ulrich Schnauss remix led me to “Strawberries.” I have managed to miss each of their tours since then, so, when I heard that they were opening for White Lies this at the 930 Club, I was determined to make up for lost time.

The lights went down over a noticeably small crowd as Asobi Seksu took the stage.  It’s a shame, because they are a wonderful live band. Chikudate’s vocals really shock me by the range she employs.  She jumps from the trademark, breathless delivery (like Alison Frayne of Cranes, to shamelessly steal from a fellow reviewer) to a throatier, fuller (dare I say Florence-esque?) voice with seamless ease.

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I didn’t expect Chikudate to break out with a soulful delivery from time to time – especially on more recent tracks from their latest effort, Fluorescence.  The other shock in seeing them live is Larry Gorman’s drumming.  I expected a drum machine, and instead am treated to a thundering, tom-filled backing rhythm, erasing the (rather enormous) spaces in the cavernous 930 Club and creating an unexpectedly intimate, immediate atmosphere.  Hanna’s guitars are far thrashier than I expected – turning the gentle pastels of the third track (“Strawberries,” of course) into a much darker and bloodier red.

Considering they were originally named “Sportfuck,” I think I can be forgiven for mistaking the introduction of “Sigh” for a song called sex, but regardless, it’s stellar.  Chikudate opens her range by several extra octaves for this one, enveloped in a wall of noise.  They start reminding me of Wire with Miki Berenyi of Lush on vocals, and as they add in keyboards and backing vocals, I’m blown away.

There are still more surprises in the set, though, with full on pop tunes replete with sing-along vocals, followed by a real guitar thrasher (“Trance Out,” I believe) – somewhere between the Cocteau Twins (think “Rococo”) and A Place to Bury Strangers, with a driving, machine gun rhythm section supplied by bassist Billy Pavone and Gorman’s drums.

Seksu switches gears again to a song reminiscent of Siouxsie’s “The Last Beat of My Heart,” overwhelming the end with a luscious shoegaze apocalypse (rapture, indeed), before ending with a soft gentle tune that predictably but joyfully ends up buried in a Jesus and Mary Chain-esque ending.  Fantastic stuff.

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My heart’s beating a million miles an hour with the pure glee that was Asobi Seksu.  I think I know what to expect with White Lies coming on next, but I should have exorcised the memories of their superb show with Friendly Fires two years ago. At that point at their Black Cat show, I was pressed up front, sweating profusely from a FF set that will remain with me for years.  I couldn’t help but continue bouncing to the entertaining yet pleasingly short set by White Lies.  Headlining at the 930 Club is a different proposition altogether – and, for the White Lies, not in a good way.

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The surprisingly great between-band music, supplied by an in-house DJ, is quite blatantly cut off and replaced by some glam a few minutes before WL takes the stage.  This then fades into a sample from Clockwork Orange as the lights fade to black.  The band takes the stage, and it’s an odd choice for the first song – I think it’s “A Place to Hide” from the first album.  Not one of my favorites, and not really a fan favorite by the look of it.

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White Lies segue neatly into “Holy Ghost” from the new album, and it’s far better live than the album would suggest.  The crowd’s still filing in, and they seem energized by the opening notes of “To Lose My Life.”  I am far from energized though.  Something – maybe the newness?  Maybe the energy? – is missing. I write a note for myself that this sounds almost like an Editors cover played by a Nickelodeon band.

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Another new song follows (“Strangers”?), with lead singer Harry McVeigh sounding alarmingly similar to Brandon Flowers fronting Interpol, the mid-tempo beat and hook-free chorus instantly passing from memory.  Another one from the first album follows, with first album-closer “The Price of Love” next.  The crowd follows along with a synchronized clap to end the song, and my attention has completely waned.

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“I’m bored and I’m afraid,” Brandon – uh, sorry, Harry – sings on the next song, “Street Lights,” I’m falling like rain for you.”  The pseudo-goth feel to this has me laughing derisively, and “Farewell to the Fairground” has me visiting the back bar again to try to make me stop caring at how lifeless this show has become.

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I’m not sure if Fairground gives way to another song in a medley or if it just goes away and comes back, but it seems an age before we finally get “Death” (what an odd sentence to type!).

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Harry introduces it by hoping aloud we know it – I can’t say there’s been a lot of sing-a-longs so far in the set – and the audience get the plea, showing some enthusiasm, and giving the band a rousing ovation as they go off for the first interlude.  “Unfinished Business” follows as the encore – like “Death,” I like this one, but they lost me so long ago in the set, I can’t be bothered.  Two more – I’m not sure what the second encore is, but they end with the first single from the (otherwise failed sophomore effort, Ritual) “Bigger than Us.”  It’s a decent tune, with a soaring chorus and an almost optimistic feel, but it’s still a fairly disappointing end to the evening – I was holding out hope that they would play their stunning and superb cover of “30 Century Man.”

On reflection, I will note several things:

  1. Asobi Seksu is phenomenal live, and I hope they headline the Cat next time they come through.
  2. White Lies over-reached by playing the 930 Club, and AS were a mismatch for their fans, their sound, and the venue.
  3. Ritual is a weak album, and the future is surely embracing the loose and winning style they exhibited on their cover of “30 Century Man” rather than continuing to pretend that they’re the new Interpol/Chameleons/Editors.

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