There was a chill in the air all throughout Chicago this past Friday night. It was odd only because not a day or two earlier, temperatures were in the mid-to-upper 90s. You could say that fall showed up from out of nowhere. Or maybe it had something to do with the “eerie” Friday the 13th, where bad things happen because of a random day on a calendar. But if you’re looking for a more honest, completely non-scientific explanation for the seasonably cool weather, it’s because Washed Out (aka Ernest Greene) came to town. Greene was one of the original artists to get wrapped up in the “chillwave” genre descriptor when it first came to prominence around 2008. Chillwave grooves might be quite lovely overall, but they project a rather frigid demeanor as well. You’re invited to sit back and relax, but don’t get too comfortable. The chillwave tag might be all but dead these days, and Washed Out may have transitioned to greener pastures via the latest album Paracosm, but that doesn’t mean the city of Chicago has to accept it. We are the Windy City after all, and just like our weather our opinions about things can change dramatically thanks to even the slightest passing breeze. For the sold out crowd at Metro on Friday however, the physical and mental temperature rose big time thanks to cerebral but immensely fun sets from two bands that ignited a dance party of sweaty bodies.
Starting the night off right was New York band HAERTS. They’ve spent the last few months gathering more and more attention for their singles “Wings” and “All the Days,” both of which are bouncy and dynamic pieces of synth pop. You could call them part of a trend in 2013, boasting a similar sound and style to that of Chvrches, another band poised to hit it big despite not having an album out yet. At least Chvrches have got an EP right now. HAERTS are readying their debut EP, titled Hemiplegia, which has been in the works for awhile but will finally be out on September 24th. This tour with Washed Out provides a nice preview of what to expect from this young band in the immediate future. The good news is that the outlook continues to appear bright, and the new songs tend to be as strong as the pair we’ve already been exposed to. They played all four tracks from their EP, including the aforementioned singles, then dove into material that will presumably be on their full length, which is still tentatively due later this year. This is material they’ve been performing and essentially sitting on for at least a year now, if producer Jean Philip Grobler (aka St. Lucia) is telling the truth. One of the best and catchiest of the new tunes is “Heart,” and you can watch the band perform a live rendition of that as part of a recent Yours Truly session. Outside of all that, I’m not sure about the titles of anything else they performed, except to say that there was another fun one and also a slow ballad. On stage, HAERTS sound good and look good too, but those two elements alone don’t win you awards for being a great live band. Their faithful renditions of their recorded output left little room for sonic detours, and the overall stoicism stripped back any genuine emotional impact the songs might otherwise have had. In other words, they might do even better than they currently are if they adopted a looser and more playful attitude on stage. Maybe that’s a quality you attain with time. For now though, HAERTS packed a lot of punch into their opening set, and the crowd got a little bit into it. Hopefully the next time they come through town it will be on a headlining tour in support of their record, and they’ll be better than ever.
The first thing that amused me about Washed Out’s set happened before any notes were even played. It was that the entire stage was decorated in flowers and vines and even patches of fake grass, all in service of fulfilling Ernest Greene’s grand, nature-laden vision. After an album and an EP of intimate but emotionally cold music, the new Washed Out record Paracosm seeks to change things by adding warmth and more organic elements overall. It very much sounds like a summer album to help connect you with the world around you, and all the album art and music videos push this theme even further with flowers, plants and jungle animals. That’s why the look of the Metro stage was so appropriate and equally fascinating. But as far as organic elements go, the biggest positive the new record has to offer is a lot of live instrumentation. In the past, Greene has used samples played off a laptop both in recorded versions of songs as well as in concert. When I last saw the band in fall of 2012, there were more people playing live instruments than I expected, but a laptop was still used from time to time. Now in fall of 2013, all of that computer technology has been eliminated. A handful of people joined Greene on stage to help bring everything to life, and the results were positively lovely.
Starting with Paracosm‘s opening track(s) “Entrance/It All Feels Right,” the crowd got into it right away and bounced along with its upbeat rhythm. Greene strummed an acoustic guitar and sang in tandem with one of his bandmates to create a dual, echo-laden vocal. That vocal style would be adopted for much of the set, and it begs the question of whether or not this choice had anything to do with a lack of confidence/vocal weakness or is intended to be an aesthetic that’s there solely to provoke certain vibes. Whatever’s behind it, everything sounded (and felt) right/well constructed. There was a surprise early on in the set when the band played “Belong,” off the 2009 High Times EP which is the first and probably least recognized Washed Out recording. The live version on Friday night was a bit different from the studio version, which is understandable given how much the show and on stage personnel has evolved since then. The same went for “New Theory” and “Get Up” from the Life of Leisure EP, though there was a certain faithfulness to the recorded original, just recreated by people instead of a computer. Overall the dozen songs performed were pretty evenly split between the varying Washed Out albums and EPs, and actually it could be said the new album was slightly underrepresented by only squeezing three (technically four if you count the 90 second instrumental “Entrance”) of its songs in. Of course they were the poppiest and most enjoyable tracks on the record, and that was perhaps the underlying strategy when performing live – to never let the energy drop. The crowd was dancing and having a great time, so why slide one of the slower and less engaging cuts into the set? The second half in particular was heavy on the hits, with new single “Don’t Give Up” leading into “Feel It All Around” (aka the Portlandia theme song), and “Amor Fati” to close things out in a fun way.
Greene wasn’t a man of many words during the Washed Out set at Metro, but he did introduce the first song of the encore as “one for the old school Washed Out fans in the house.” The band then launched into “Despicable Dogs,” which is actually a cover/remix of a Small Black song that was put together for a split EP back in 2009. Of all the unexpected surprises during the set, that one probably qualified as the biggest. Technically speaking, the band took that song and made it their own, but it wasn’t that far removed from the chillwave original anyways. The novelty was the main selling point. Reflecting on the show afterwards, there were a lot of those unique touches that popped up throughout the 65 minute set, all the way down to the decor. Chillwave may be a subgenre of music on its last legs, but not only did Greene prove himself to be at the top of that pile, he managed to prove there’s still plenty of life left in that particular sound. His continued evolution remains our gain.
Paracosm full album stream:
Entrance/It All Feels Right
You and I
All I Know
Don’t Give Up
Feel It All Around
Eyes Be Closed