Alienation and Imagination: Youth Lagoon at the Fine Line Music Cafe 05/17/13

Youth Lagoon Performing Live at Fine Line Music Cafe

Youth Lagoon Performing Live at Fine Line Music Cafe

When I went to Pitchfork Music Festival last year, I tried to learn about as many of the artists as I could, but, unfortunately, some truly great ones slipped through the cracks. Boise based musician Trevor Powers, better known by his stage name Youth Lagoon, was one act that I completely missed at the festival. Later that summer I discovered Power’s debut album The Year of Hibernation, and was struck by the youthful ernest of the lyrics and music. Youth Lagoon’s sophomore effort, Wondrous Bughouse,  continues Powers’ dreamy sound, but with a much more lush and full sound than the prior record. While I missed him at Pitchfork, I did get a chance to see him perform live at Fine Line Music Café, with opening act Majical Cloudz (who I saw open for Autre Ne Veut, read the review here).

Majical Cloudz 

Majical Cloudz perfoming live at The Fine Line Music Cafe

Majical Cloudz perfoming live at The Fine Line Music Cafe

Last night’s performance marked the end of the tour with Youth Lagoon and Majical Cloudz, a fact that both artists mentioned a few times during the show (and Powers tweeted about as well). It would seem that the two acts did very well together, and I would have to agree that there is definitely a common thread between the two musical groups. The songs from both groups tend to focus on feelings of being adrift and lost, the world described in Majical Cloudz songs is alienating and lonely. While Youth Lagoon’s music tends to be more inwardly focused, Majical Cloudz seems like they are a very awkward person trying to make friends, and failing. Needless to say, it’s a subject matter that most people can identify with.

The duo can definitely be described as maintaining standards, the set that I saw last night was pretty much the same as the set I saw back in March, down to the outfits. The biggest difference was with the demeanor of front man Devon Welsh, who was more outgoing and interactive with the audience than last time. He joked, and talked more, though his singing persona was virtually the same constrained intensity. Even though the interaction was increased, it was still as awkward as last time, with Welsh ending the set on a pretty (and self-admitted) lame Total Request Live joke. He proceeded to take his shoes and socks off for no reason during the show, and made weird jokes. That said, this was more endearing than off putting, as it made him seem genuine. On the second to last song, Welsh invited the audience to flood the stage as he sat down to sing.

Majical Cloudz performing "Silver Ring" with the audience on stage

Majical Cloudz performing “Silver Ring” with the audience on stage

This tour was in support of their forthcoming second album Impersonator, which I am looking forward to hearing in full [UPDATE: Check out Impersonator on Pitchfork Advance here]. While the act might not have changed dramatically, I still liked what I heard, and the sound seemed much fuller – though if that was due to the music or the venue or my poor memory I’m not sure.

Youth Lagoon

Youth Lagoon During Soundcheck (Fine Line Music Cafe)

Youth Lagoon During Soundcheck (Fine Line Music Cafe)

The stage for Youth Lagoon’s act was dominated by large cloth structures, which simultaneously resembled teeth, mountains and trees. A constant light show and fog dominated the atmosphere, creating a dreamworld on stage. Youth Lagoon’s music has a childlike quality in its sound and lyrics, and the towering structures dwarfed the band. This set-up, combined with Powers’ grandma chic styling and spacey guitars connecting songs, created an atmosphere of childlike wonder and imagination, reminiscent of spending afternoons in an attic playing.

The set opened like the opening two tracks from Wondrous Bughouse, the instrumental and noisy “Through Mind and Back” and then seamlessly segueing into “Mute.” The next song was “Sleep Paralysis,” not sure if I agreed with placing the placid track so early in the set, but it definitely showcased Powers’ voice. The set list was mostly comprised of songs off of Wondrous Bughouse, while there were, of course, the more popular songs from The Year of Hibernation, the tour is definitely meant to showcase and promote the new album. Wondrous Bughouse didn’t capture my attention immediately the way that YoH did, but it has grown on me more and more since I first listened to it, and i find myself coming back to the album more and more. The band ended the show with an encore of “Dropla,” the first single from the new album, which, in my opinion, was a high point of both the album and the show.

Powers stage persona is a bit of a paradox; on one hand, he is small framed and his voice seems fragile, though the forcefulness with which he sings and plays makes him a presence to be reckoned with on stage. From what I gather from YouTube videos, his Pitchfork set was just him and a guitarist. This has expanded to a full band, which makes sense given the much more maximal style of Wondrous Bughouse over YoH. Despite the fact that Powers is the face of the group, he was hidden behind his Tim Burton/Helena Bonham Carter-esque mop of hair and would often times disappear to fiddle with various machines during the songs.

Youth Lagoon Performing at Fine Line Music Cafe

Youth Lagoon Performing at Fine Line Music Cafe

Not only is the music from Wondrous Bughouse more orchestrated than YoH, the songs are also more complicated. While the first album seemed more innocent, there is something more at work on WB. This is most true of the song “Attic Doctor,” which tells the story of exploration between a young man and a young diseased woman. The song, which strongly reminds me of “Casimir Pulaski Day” by Sufjan Stevens except much creepier, while innocent on the surface, has an extremely menacing undertone. “I don’t mean any harm / You can trust me like you would trust your own brother / Maybe even better,” Powers sings, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The 3/4 waltz time gives the song a dizzying tone that makes you feel like you are in some kind of demonic fun house. The end result is a song that is both disaffecting but also enchanting.

One of the things I first noticed while watching the crowd filter in was the wide demographic of age groups in the audience. Not only were there the usual crowd of 20-and-30-somethings, but there were also audience members in their 50’s and 60’s. At first I was surprised that Youth Lagoon would have an audience for the older crowd, but as I listend to “Seventeen” it started to make sense. “Seventeen” followed “Attic Doctor,” an interesting juxtaposition as I feel “Seventeen” is Youth Lagoon at their most pure. While I mostly thought of Youth Lagoon’s music as being written about being young, I began to realize it was more about reminiscing about being young. The chorus of “Seventeen” is a motto for the young of heart: “When I was seventeen / my mother said to me / ‘Don’t stop imagining. The day that you do is the day that you die.'” Youth Lagoon’s music is a celebration of both the awkwardness and the beauty of being young, a perfect mixture of the good and the bad of the time  filtered through nostalgia.

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