Youth Lagoon and Swahili at Wonder Ballroom 5/22/13

A dark and rainy Wednesday, full of the frustrated expectations of many a Portlander who had thought that Nature had relented precociously and yielded to the bluster of summer, hot on the heels of several 80 degree+ days in early May,  No, to the great dismay of most (and to the secret joy of your humble narrator, who prefers to listen to his Dufflecoat Records in Dufflecoat Weather), it was the constant downpour– large enough to be audible on my roof while in my bed at night– that provided the backdrop to this eventful day when Youth Lagoon also played the Wonder Ballroom.

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The show began with Swahili1. A very cool and poised opener, with a big sound. This five piece explores a churning psychedelia with a decided pop refinement that belies the reverby rawness found in their recordings, which alternate from sedate psychey musings to hyper-rhythmic drum-lead whirlpools of sonic tumult, suggesting ego-death and subsumption into some sort of collective expression of movement.

In short, the perfect soundtrack for a first year Anthro student to read Durkheim to.  A good opener for Youth Lagoon as well, setting the stage for the experience of the polished-yet-unfamiliar.

The lights of the stage turn a dreamy shade of indigo, affecting the feel of the moon at midnight viewed from behind the shimmering prism of a waterfall.  Trevor leads his group onstage to the cheers of a crowd whose enthusiasm is triple the size of their number, which is not actually a bad one, considering the wonderfully dreary weather outside and the fact that the show is on a Wednesday. The intensity of the lighting, the excitement in the room and the otherworldly feel of the music all conspire to create that feeling like a drug coming on.  I suspect that for many in the room, my analogy is no mere rhetorical exercise.

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It must be mentioned that Trevor affects the energy of a Jim Henson creation. He kinda has a puppet-y voice as well, which just lends itself naturally to the kind of ethereal space the music inhabits (I typoed “inHobbits”). It’s as if these songs are meant to be heard outdoors, surrounded by tall trees next to a sparkling body of water, like say a river…or stream. A brook? (Ok, fine. I’ll stop.) Don’t ya just love it, though when a band is just perfectly named? I mean some bands tell you nothing about what they are like in the name. (“The Smiths”, anyone?) And then others will just out-and-out lie to you, which is why I was dreadfully afraid to give a band called Acid House Kings a chance, until something awoke the slumbering summer in me and I discovered that they’re only about the BEST THING EVER IN THE HISTORY OF EVER, and have *nothing* at all to do with “Acid House” (which is also a genre I’ve warmed to).

Then there are other bands, like “Black Sabbath” or “Slayer”; I mean even if you just got evicted from underneath that rock you’d been receiving your mail at (SHIT I TOLD THAT FECKIN’ BANK TO ONLY SEND ME E-MAIL STATEMENTS. Srsly, planet’s not gonna save itself.) you’d still know exactly what these bands sounded like. Pearl Jam, though? You’d think it’s by hippies for hippies. And a band named Pavement should sound like the Jesus Lizard, or at least be on Touch & Go records. But Save Ferris? Sounds kinda like you imagine a 90s ska band named after a John Hughes movie should. Tricky?  Yes, well he is, isn’t he? Five For Fighting? NO! With a name like that, he should bloody well sound like Gang Green, not Jack bleedin’ Johnson.  (and *no one* should ever sound like Jack Johnson, even– & especially– Jack Johnson) But Beach Fossils? Yup: surf pop with some kind of sonic relic. Tennis? Yes. Sunny Day Real Estate? Yeah, but only because of irony. Tool?  Too perfectly named. Shit, that’s a fun exercise for another post: breaking down bands by what you expect them to sound like & what they actually do.  Any suggestions? Get at me in the comments.

Back to the show, Youth Lagoon drift pretty comfortably from quietly dripping crystalline reflections, to upbeat and nearly Polka-y jaunts across Eastern Europe on Molly. Ably backed by the drums, bass & a guy on a strat, the energy is all with Trevor, as he alternates between a forward facing synth, and two synths stacked on top of each other facing stage right, the lowest of which he occasionally kneels to reach and coax more feel from. Some of these songs veer into more indie rock directions, but are coaxed back from the more angular edges by dreampop smoothness.  Many of the later songs dip into quieter territory, nearly abutting the synth ballad, but always with a fantastical edge to it, as if this were music drawn by a hypothetical non-creepy Boris Vallejo were he to be more interested with fantasy natural scenes with flora and fauna instead of Heavy Metal-esque nudes and Conan the Barbarian stuff.

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What’s really exciting about Youth Lagoon is the way that these plinky and trembling slow dream sounds build up a head of steam like a tiny pebble that is rolled down a snowy hill in a Bugs Bunny cartoon that then becomes a giant snow boulder.  Both the song that they closed the set with and the encore (which I think was “Dropla”) really transformed from humble beginnings into booming crescendos, fit for a benediction, as if to say “now, run out joyfully into the world with this delicate and beautiful knowledge, hold it firmly enough not to lose yet loose enough to grow.  Let your growth be strange, and the strange will surprise you as it transforms in front of your very eyes into beauty.”

Ok, maybe I got a contact high.  Whatever it was, something beautiful happens when you let yourself go at a Youth Lagoon show and just give over to the curious suggestions of the music, and allow yourself to feel as if you’re a 5-year-old kid exploring a cave of fluorescent and incandescent multi-colored crystals.  The rain that came that night was unrelenting, but the dreams were beyond description.

-Michael Feck

 

 

1:  I won’t lie, the name (as you can probably imagine) is a little worrisome to me, seeing as it reeks of misappropriation and fetishisation.  That Swahilil is a go-to language that people employ when trying to explain impermeable otherness doesn’t make that any less problematic; in fact it is precisely these tropes that are so cliched they stand-in as shortcuts for actual thought that we must examine the closest, since they are seemingly the most invisible.

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