Review by Jhoni Jackson; photos by Matt Smith (www.shadowboxerphoto.com)
It wasn’t just the rarity of a smoke-free show that displaced Thursday night at the EARL from regularity. Two of indie’s most hyped acts – Washed Out and Beach House – caused a dreamy transformation. Pom-poms were strung in abundant rows along the ceiling and exaggerated diamonds made of silver streamers dominated the stage. At such an intimate venue, the coupling realized a last-chance fantasy for the masses suddenly entranced by the heart-wrenching, magnetic nostalgia each band softly exudes.
Washed up was probably an accurate description of how Washed Out, the musical alias of Ernest Greene, felt before a handful of songs on his MySpace profile catapulted him to indie stardom late last summer. The Georgia native had earned a library sciences degree but remained unemployed, and eventually found himself back under his parent’s roof in June of 2009. He made music on cassette tapes as an uplifting hobby and, presumably for shits and giggles, made digital versions available on his MySpace.
From there his tracks traveled blog-to-blog, eventually reaching the taste-making Pitchfork — all without the slightest promotional push from Greene. By the time his distorted, chilled-out songs were featured in New York Times, Greene’s story had already been told a thousand times. Carles at Hipster Runoff even coined a new genre after Washed Out’s emergence – chillwave, which also includes Toro y Moi and Neon Indian. Newly married, Greene wasn’t planning to traditionalize his foray into music by touring. Beyond putting his recordings online, he wasn’t planning much of anything, really. Lucky for listeners, he recently caved – and fans can watch him recreate his lethargic jams as Washed Out in person.
Onstage, Greene looked much like a traditional DJ behind his set-up, hopping around and dancing to his own beats, even hyping the crowd occasionally. But that’s the last remotely appropriate comparison to the stereotypical image of a DJ. He offered no seamless transitions between songs. He stopped for the crowd’s response after each tune, and looked a little relieved the first few times fans answered with thunderous applause. He sang the vocals live, sometimes looping them to repeat while he stepped back to groove. Despite his reluctance to tour, he appeared to thoroughly enjoy performing the virtually perfect replicas of his recordings.
The popularity of Beach House has exploded considerably since the duo’s first two releases, Beach House (2006) and Devotion (2007). Decidedly more upbeat, Teen Dream (2010) has significantly expanded the band’s audience and gained them substantial mainstream attention.
Even if the next release drops the pace back to the speed of their first two LPs, it’s unlikely that the band’s momentum will dwindle. Thursday’s performance was probably the last time front-woman/keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally will bestow their charming, ethereal music upon an audience of that cozy a scope.
At one point, Scally asked the EARL employees to turn off the lights above the merch area. Legrand backed him, and then Scally asked for the lighted Marlboro sign to be shut off as well. The EARL was almost entirely pitch black. This could read to some as power-tripping, but the encompassing darkness suited the vibe. It felt right.
There’s an eerie but satisfying familiarity to both Washed Out and Beach House, regardless of their very different approaches to subtle shoegazing. The intensity is tripled hearing them live. They make the kind of music that reminds the mind of what the body felt during its most beloved but altogether forgotten scenes. That grainy, bittersweet car ride home from a beach excursion with friends. When someone you don’t know well says precisely what you’re thinking and you feel inadvertently in sync. The warm awareness of existing, of life moving, that hits you at inconvenient times, like riding an escalator in a mall. The intricacies of these moments are hard to remember, but the corresponding emotions are unforgettable, unshakable. Washed Out and Beach House have bottled those emotions and turned them into music.