March 26, 2009

Live: Soft Pack, Friendly Fires, White Lies at the Black Cat

Tuesday night at DC's Black Cat was a backwards affair. The lineup, that is, was a bit inverted.

San Diego's the Soft Pack—formerly the much discussed Muslims quartet and the band whose minimalist, expertly arranged, clean driving punk rock I can't shake—opened. That meant paying to see a band in a half empty room with a largely sober and sedate crowd.

Instead, London's White Lies—the band that reached the #1 spot in the UK charts for its simplistic and clumsy take on the much beloved Joy Division—headlined. The band's performance didn't change any of my preconceived notions: its sound is more derived from alternative chart-toppers Lifehouse than it is from any post-punk group. In fact, the act tried to make up for its one-dimensional sound by seizing the audience with direct and flashing beams of blinding light. At a Cut Copy concert or in a club filled with intoxicated and/or rolling youths, this would be acceptable. For dreary industrial rock, obnoxious is more the appropriate sentiment.

But that's the last of my negativity. After all, Friendly Fires was also on the bill. Lead singer Ed Macfarlane came out as a bouncing, bobbing, and spotlight loving jackrabbit of sweet, synthesizer-fueled love. The dynamic rhythms of songs "Jump Into The Pool" and "Skeleton Boy" elicited loud cheers and limb-throwing dance moves from the crowd on an otherwise tame night. Friendly Fires, hailing from St. Albans, Hertfordshire in England, have a bit of that 1980's Manchester club sound that propelled groups like New Order to fame. On stage, they are entirely unself-conscious and unafraid to show how much they enjoy delivering blissful and dance-friendly pop music.

Lastly, but playing first, were the furiously simple Soft Pack. The band earned buzz last spring for both its spacy and retro-punk debut as well as its name, the Muslims, which was subsequently changed after it became more of a distraction than it was worth. Now it seems the group has a lost a bit of that publicity magic as audiences members seemed unfamiliar with the band and any of its tunes. The Soft Pack seemed use to this exercise and nevertheless dove into a rush of deceivingly fast songs, including the excellent "Right and Wrong," "Extinction," and "Bright Side." Singer Matt Lamkin delivered his Lou Reed-esque vocals slow and steady, which almost conceals the speed of the group's songs and the fact that drummer Brian Hill plays at a break-neck pace. But Hill's face told the story: within minutes his balding forehead was pouring down sweat and his expression was imbued with pain. I guess that's what happens when you sprint through the first two songs back-to-back with a ten-second wow-factor drum segway.

I learned two things Tuesday: Sometimes it's okay to go first. And sometimes it's best to leave early.


  1. spot on with the rehashed joy division comment. i was telling my friend exactly the same thing as we left during their second song....extremely boring and uninnovative

  2. i guess the only problem with them is the fact that those strobe lights would have given Ian Curtis a seizure

  3. I liked White Lies. Certainly, I can relate to the Joy Division influence, but they're far more melodic and much less dark than JD. They remind me more of Echo & the Bunnymen, I think. Speaking of drummers, Jack Lawrence-Brown was impressive.

    I agree that Friendly Fires was terrific live, but they're really not my cup of tea, genre-wise. Loved the Soft Pack. Could have done with more of them, absolutely.