We’re quickly approaching the two-year anniversary of The Courtneys’ excellent sophomore album II, and they’re still touring in support of it. Their commitment is admirable, and the reward is hopefully a wealth of new fans eager to hear more from the Canadian trio. A stop at Thalia Hall in Chicago on Friday night actually marked the end of their tour with Cloud Nothings, so they celebrated with a wildly fun performance that perfectly balanced their winning charm and sadder sensibilities.
That same vibe reverberates all throughout II, and The Courtneys’ ability to pair upbeat and addictive punk-adjacent melodies with pointed lyrics about longing and unrequited love really goes a long way toward helping them stand out in a crowded music scene. Also unique is singer/drummer Jen Twynn Payne, who somehow manages to make the dual roles of keeping a beat while singing in key look easy. All I’m saying is there’s a reason more bands don’t have drummers on lead vocals, and it goes beyond whatever silly drummer joke you’re thinking of right now. Of course it helps that guitarist Courtney Loove and bassist Sydney Koke are multi-talented as well, creating a real sense of equality and shared responsibility both on stage and off.
The Courtneys wasted no time barreling through the first three songs of II to kick off their set on Friday night, in order and without much in the way of frills aside from some psychedelic projections on a screen behind them. That’s really more than they need anyway, because the songs stand up so well on their own. There were some nice touches thrown in here and there though, particularly on “Lost Boys,” which hit with more aggression than it does on record and was paired with acid trip-esque polarized footage from the fantastic 2016 feminist occult throwback horror comedy The Love Witch. There’s some brilliant subtext in that combination of elements, one worthy of a multi-paragraph essay outside of this piece. But that’s one of the great things about The Courtneys – what initially appears to be a bunch of catchy, upbeat songs about sad topics actually contains quite a bit of nuance and depth you don’t get from most bands.
The second half of their set was an intoxicating mixture of old and brand new material, including the throwback “Nu Sundae” from their debut album. The pair of unreleased songs they played (including one with a “secret title”) fit in perfectly with the rest of their material, but also had some shaggier edges that gave them just a little more character. It’s clear The Courtneys are continuing to grow in their songwriting, style, and fan base, and I’m excited to see where they’re headed next!
Cloud Nothings are responsible for one of my favorite live performances in recent memory, and the best part is that they didn’t even play a full set. Indulge me in a quick flashback. The year is 2014, and it’s mid-July in Chicago. Cloud Nothings are performing at Pitchfork Music Festival, when some dark clouds start rolling in over Union Park. The band leans into the weather, appearing to increase the aggression already present in many of their songs. What started as a light drizzle soon grew heavier as they raced through several songs without much of a break. As the opening notes of “Wasted Days” rang out, we were in the midst of an all-out downpour. They kept going, soaking themselves and all their equipment while both the band and the crowd all screamed, “I thought / I would / Be more / Than this,” keeping the fight alive as Mother Nature rained fury down upon us. The speakers shorted out as the song finished, so they went a capella in those last moments. Then the park was evacuated. Thanks for that memory, Cloud Nothings.
Four and a half years later, I’ve seen Cloud Nothings perform a couple more times and they remain a vital live act not to be missed if you get the chance to see them. The band is touring in support of their latest record Last Building Burning, which might just be the loudest, darkest, and most ferocious thing they’ve ever released. It’s a bit of a course correction following 2017’s Life Without Sound, an album that fell on the lighter and poppier side of the spectrum (for them). Most of all, I was looking forward to their set at Thalia Hall on Friday night to hear how those new songs translated on stage. The answer turned out to be impressive and great, though not quite in the way I expected.
Cloud Nothings used the entire first half of their set to play Last Building Burning in its entirety. It was a nightmare disguised as an adrenaline rush, and to a degree felt like a (positive) punishment. The guitars and drums pummeled you into submission while Dylan Baldi screamed with the intensity of someone in immense emotional pain. It’s incredibly raw on record, but somehow even more so on stage. Part of me wondered if the songs would push the crowd into an aggressive tailspin resulting in mosh pits and body surfing, but instead everyone seemed more shell shocked than anything else. Maybe the newness of the material kept people restrained as well, along with the general lack of addictive singles that populated their earlier records.
Once the dust had settled from those first eight songs, the set switched into a different gear. Pulling two songs apiece from their three previous records, Cloud Nothings kept the mood heavy even as the overall pace slowed. The build up of “Realize My Fate” compounded a sense of dread and paranoia before exploding into a powerful crescendo. What finally lit the match on this powder keg of an evening was “Stay Useless,” which suddenly sent a whole bunch of people pushing to the front so they could participate in the gigantic mosh pit that had formed. That and the set-closing “I’m Not Part of Me” felt like true catharsis, a rush of endorphins where fists were thrown into the air and lyrics were sung as loudly by the crowd as they were on stage. It’s Cloud Nothings at their finest. Of course nothing can ever truly prepare you for an encore of “Wasted Days,” and there’s comfort in knowing that song still retains every bit of its power in the few years since its initial release. While I can’t say the song and the band’s full set eclipsed that Pitchfork Music Festival performance from a few years back (few things can), I’d like to think that if we were outdoors and the weather conditions were similar then I’d barely be able to tell the difference. Thank goodness for that.