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All photos by David Greenwald
The worst thing an artist can do is have nothing to say. EMA, like a magpie, has plucked at convenient bits of rock history (Debbie Harry’s style, Kurt Cobain’s guitar playing) and stitched them together into the facsimile of something fresh. Watching her was like watching the Gus Van Sant version of Psycho. Were she performing in a warmer genre — twee-pop, maybe, or folk — she would’ve been easier to like, but as it was, her sour punk rehash was icy and airless. The band was painfully competent, avoiding the technical virtuosity that might’ve made them intellectually compelling and the amateurishness that could’ve turned them human. To her credit, Erica M. Anderson is a fine student of the rock playbook, prancing and prowling about the stage with leonine confidence. But it has to be said: if she wasn’t a pretty, stylish young woman with a choppy haircut, she would have a deserved thin sliver of her current popularity. Do you know how I know this? Show me an unpretty indie singer and I’ll show you a band you’ve never heard of.
By contrast, Wild Beasts offered dazzling musicianship and charisma hairy and powerful enough to climb the Empire State Building. Despite Radiohead’s ubiquitous American popularity, growing up in their shadow has had a more profound effect on the musicians of their native Britain; there’s an intensity and ambition in Wild Beasts’ music that’s simply absent from most of their domestic counterparts. The group opened with “Lion’s Share” and immediately established their hold over the room: unlike this year’s terrific Smother, the band’s live performance is anything but gentle. The rhythm section boomed with sub-bass eruptions and Bonham-esque drumming, hammering the crowd into the ground even as dueling singers Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming’s melodies and guitar lines pirouetted skyward. Either Thorpe or Fleming could offer the band a sterling full-time lead singer; watching them balance each other’s raw charisma was to witness an act of staggering generosity.
None of their material was less than gripping, but Smother‘s songs, removed from their bedroom atmospherics, were the hardest to deny. If their set had a flaw, it was location: Wild Beasts could’ve played to Coachella’s polo fields on Thursday night and still struck each listener in the heart. Or whatever part of them was most susceptible to thunderous bass.