The modest effects proved highly compelling paired with Polachek’s natural magnetism.
Zebulon, Los Angeles, CA
Earplugs at the entrance, water pitchers off to the side. Zebulon planned for auditory security and refreshment at Caroline Polachek’s tour kickoff. Though not hot enough to hurt feelings, the venue certainly felt toasty as if in reminder of LA’s recent heatwave. Temperatures ran high, but so did anticipation. In less than a week, Pang established itself as an album of the year, and the crowd resounded with enthusiasm at the chance to hear its beauty up close and personal.
To open the show, Alaska Reid introduced her blend of shoegaze-y folk rock, a sound you’re starting to hear more and more in Infinity Crush or Zack Villere. Rather than pump up the venue, she more so eased the audience into what would be an evening of emotional connection and catharsis. “Take it while you can/ I’ll let you hold my hand,” Reid sang, an invitation with the underlying feel of a plea. Like Polachek who followed, Reid walks that precarious edge of diffidence and honesty.
Reid played against what would be Polachek’s backdrop, a deceivingly simple-looking gate. Like a Disney adaptation of Gothic style, the structure resembled the entrance to Maleficent’s lair or the Inferno-inspired cover of John Connolly’s The Gates. When Polachek arrived accompanied by pop savant Danny L Harle on bass, blue light began emanating from the center of the gateway, eventually enveloping her (and some of the taller guests in the audience).
The modest effects proved highly compelling paired with Polachek’s natural magnetism. On the dreamy title track, the set illuminated for every “Pang!” to then fade into a starry night sky. It grew more complex with each song, turning the 2D gate into a 3D backdrop worthy of a cinematic production. Windblown streamers draped onto its hinges during “Go as a Dream” while “Insomnia” saw electric currents channeling up its pillars. Most impressively, “Hit Me Where It Hurts” somehow turned the gate into a three-dimensional object using only light and shadow for a dazzling visual.
Admittedly, Polachek’s got a thinner voice, one well-suited to lilting and pining but not always fit for belting. This felt troublesome on the aforementioned “Hit Me…” where she initially fell flat on a few descending lines. However, she, like her backdrop, became more powerful as the night progressed, the soprano heights of “Ocean of Tears” alleviating any questions about her vocal ability. She even showcased her guitar skills for “Look at Me Now” alongside her “two favorite UK producers,” Harle and A.G. Cook, both of whom also uncharacteristically wielded string instruments instead of synthesizers.
Such surprises played further into a night of subverted expectations. Late into her set, Polachek unleashed a cover of the Corrs’ “Breathless.” A sole outlier among the Pang material, it still fit in among her digitally-driven, Joni Mitchellesque style of songwriting. But subtle subversion should be expected of her, the writer behind the deceptively straightforward “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings.”
That particular song served as the penultimate finale with the audience enthusiastically chanting “Show me the banana!” as Polachek wailed into her microphone. It could have ended there, but she encored with the album-ending crushers “Parachute” and “Door,” both enhanced by the spiraling cityscapes and lush environments on the ever-chameleonic background.
Somehow, that didn’t actually mark the end of the evening. The actual finale involved A.G. Cook playing a DJ set, one that started with a Nightcore version of “So Hot…” that needed to be on streaming services since yesterday. Keeping with the evening’s theme, this ending belied one’s expectations, using unexpected tricks to elicit the familiar, nostalgic rush of live music. Probably not dissimilar to what Polachek might call a “pang.”