Canada Night @ The Firebird: Purity Ring, Headaches, and Cousins
August 27, 2012
I’ve been describing Purity Ring in terms of Björk for a month, and people keep looking at me like I’m ridiculous (I often am), but I finally cracked the code. My first favorite Björk record was 1997’s Homogenic, and I thought that’s how Björk had always sounded. In reality, Björk was way more punk than Homogenic‘s layered electronic drumbeats, looped vocals and elegant noise would lead one to assume. If you want a played out “this meets that” music description, Purity Ring’s music sounds like Homogenic run through Colin Meloy’s creative writing school, but it’s way better than a music critic’s shortcuts. Shrines came out less than a month ago, but it slithered wetly next to fellow Canadian and label mate Grimes’ debut record Visions, on my list of potential favorite records of the year.
There was little reason beyond buzz and luck that this show should have been successful. The Firebird scheduled it the closing night of LouFest, opposite The Flaming Lips playing in Forest Park. And yet, I heard that most of the tickets were sold by Saturday afternoon. I left the park soon after Cults finished their set and had time to scrub off the festival filth before arriving at the ‘Bird. I’d been looking forward to its cold AC and darkness all day and it delivered.
The stage was spread with pale, slightly rumpled, cocoon-esque capsule-shaped lights suspended on rigging that arced over the stage from the back to the front. Megan James’ bass drum perched on a stand, with a muted yellow work lamp inside it. A tree-like structure with impact-triggered lanterns hovered around Corin Roddick’s electronic instruments. [Indulge me a brief aside: the word nerd in me adores the assonance and rhythm of the syllables in their names.] With the house lights turned down, Purity Ring conducted light less like a rave than a dark daydream; ethereal, but kind of creepy. Which pretty much sums up their vibe.
Halfway through, Megan James picked up a yellow shop light and perfectly spotlit her face (at least from where I was standing) while she sang. It was otherworldly. The heavy effects and distortions on her voice made her sound a little possessed at times. It’s disconcerting watching someone who looks a bit like a wood elf sing lyrics like “Cut open my sternum and pull/ My little ribs around you.”
The songs melt together a lot musically, so their wet, viscous lyrics hold a lot more weight than they might otherwise. Indistinct lyrics on the album became crisp live, and it was a joy to hear them in person. Both Roddick and James held the stage with confidence, which was surprising for such a new, and young, band. James sipped from a bottle of water and a clear plastic cup of an amber liquor of some variety (which at one point Roddick swiped from her while she wasn’t looking, leading to an amusing search for it later) and she gamely clinked with the extended beer bottle of a woman standing in front of the stage. But mostly they were all business and fully in character. Their set was full, but succinct, and there was no encore.
I’m not normally in the habit of describing clothes, but according to the internet, Megan James makes all their outfits, so I will tell you: She wore a brown, high-waisted, knee-length pencil skirt with a brown blouse tucked into it, and a slightly darker brown cardigan with a thrift store brooch pinned on her chest, along with two large charms on a long chain around her neck. I won’t swear to it, but I’m pretty sure she was wearing nylons, and sensible shoes with a short stacked heel. Her hair was a little wild, like in Regency era costume dramas when the ladies untie their tresses for bed. It wasn’t twee, it was librarian chic, and she nailed it. Roddick’s tidy skater haircut (it is time to bring those back) was cool without trying hard, and his tank top was pretty.
And to be fair and balanced: The first opener, bluesy rock guitar and kick drum solo band Cousins, sported a dirty blonde Cobain in the front, close cropped business in the back, mismatched tube socks, frayed jorts and a faded t-shirt (might have been Pink Floyd, I couldn’t tell).
Another Canadian countryman, ambient electronic with a hint of drone, Landon Speers’ solo act Headaches wore a backwards trucker cap, a mountain-man beard, plaid flannel shirt layered under a denim jacket, and sliced up acid washed jorts. And he gave a very weird speech about Jesus, but I liked his accent. He also introduced Purity Ring as two cute cool chicks. o_O
In summary: Sunday night has all the hallmarks of “I was there first” show cred. Everything about Megan James and Corin Roddick speaks to their bigger plan. They are determined, talented and ambitious, but they’re also careful and patient. Those qualities aren’t seen together very often. It’s no coincidence that Purity Ring is on 4AD (with St. Vincent!). This band is going to be huge, and if I’d had any money left from LouFest, I’d have spent it all on merch.
If you’re not in the mood for a “Get Off My Lawn” style screed, move along.
A note on the belligerent, entitled, and sometimes vicious crowd: I tend to meet friction at The Firebird with a distinct air of, “I LIVE HERE, STEP OFF,” which had never failed me before. But last night, I had to stand with my arms crossed over my chest because this Wash U grad student (who was pulled up to the front by by another drunk, belligerent classmate) kept jabbing her elbows intentionally into my boobs because she thought it was funny. One of the guys with them (whom the drunk one in the front was also trying to pull in front of me) pretended to protest, “I can’t, it’d be rude!” as he did it anyway. These people slurred incoherently at the top of their lungs through both openers. Dear Young People: I’m real proud of you for living to be old enough to drink in public. I’m sure that’s really exciting for you, but everyone else is over it. Please do yourself a solid and learn some self control. There is so much beautiful music to enjoy, and you’ll get so much more out of it if you’re not shitfaced, and if I’m not using the power of my mind to render you sterile. Also, since your parents neglected to teach you this, I’ll take the wheel: I fought the urge to smack the hands of every one of you who reached out and touched Purity Ring’s set lights. When you see something you want to touch, stop. Ask yourself, “Is this mine?” and if not, “Have I asked the owner’s permission?” If the answer is no, don’t touch it. AGAIN, SELF CONTROL IS YOUR SAVIOR. </>rant
Extra special thank you to my dear friend Louis Kwok, who contributed photos to this review, and who was a witness to the unholy assholery that was going on all around me most of the night. Be sure to check out his other photos from the show.