Quick, name a sultry, smoky, R&B-influenced pop act to garner attention in the last five years. Not a very difficult task, is it? In syncopation with the bass music (don’t call it the D-word) craze of recent history, more than a few bands have been taking cues from their club counterparts, producing hazy, atmospheric takes on the pop format that bend genre boundaries without ever losing their song-like qualities. From the smoked-out, beat-driven compositions of contemporaries like James Blake to decidedly more radio-friendly, vocal-centric acts like Grimes, a fusion of songwriter stylings and speaker-melting electronica has been steadily poking through the fringes of popular music.
Arriving on the scene at the Fillmore Miami Beach Tuesday night, it would be tough to pin down exactly what kind of show this was without knowing ahead of time what you were in for. The crowd was that diverse, a blend of club-ready South Beach regulars, young, hyped-up hipster mobs, and older couples looking to enjoy a mildly stimulating night out (who undoubtedly got more than they bargained for). It’s a testament to the reach of this music that it can enthrall house addicts and low-key songwriter aficionados alike.
All photos by Jessica Hodder
Toronto-bred Austra took the stage at roughly 8:30 p.m., a circular piano line building tension underneath frontwoman Katie Stelmanis’s drawn-out, monosyllabic wails, somewhere between Björk’s alien squeal and Regina Spektor’s folksy drawl. That signature sound came to encapsulate much of the set, her band creating alternately sparse and undulating rhythms to highlight and drive the relentless caterwaul. Her voice, able to leap between all-encompassing power and hushed, understated tics and accentuations, helps give the music the dynamic heft it needs even during moments when a heavy bass line or steady kick drum is all but absent. All this praise for Stelmanis shouldn’t take away from the instrumentals and rhythms, however, which spill giddily forward with a knotty, glitched-out sensibility (due in no small part to drummer Maya Postepski, who handled driving four-to-the-floor beats and tension-heavy tom crashes with equal ease and aplomb). To hammer my point in: impressively, for a four-piece band with mostly analog instruments, they sound crisply and deftly electronic.
After a short intermission, the sold-out audience amassed in the ballroom for The xx, the extremely stoked crowd supplying ear-shredding yelps and hoots (the band seems to inspire equally fervent adoration from their older fans as from head-banded teenyboppers). Muted opener “Angels” rung out with measured pacing as the band played behind a translucent screen, a projection of bubbling oil-slick shapes taking form to match the song’s rising momentum. “Being as in love with you as I am,” singer-guitarist Romy Madley-Croft bleats repeatedly, as the melodrama neared crescendo. It’s a sentiment that’s probably been expressed more creatively before, but one that connects on some universal gut-level regardless. The intensity finally (literally) snapped as the screen dropped to the ground and the now-illuminated band finally broke into full-on beat-music. Later, “Sunset” contained some of the more emotive lines delivered by the band: “I always thought it was a shame / that we have to play these games / it felt like you really knew me”, Madley-Croft and bassist Oliver Sim duet in syrupy croons, expressing a loneliness and distrust any scorned lover can readily identify with.
The two bands proved an excellent pairing, Austra’s rollicking dynamics making up for The xx’s relatively plateauing energy, and The xx’s plainspoken directness lending context to Austra’s primordial howls. In a good evening for both club and bedroom listening, the pop-minded crowd got a dose of consciousness-expanding bass and the technophilic beat junkies got a heavy drop of emotion.