culture, music, and identity politics musings from a 20-something Australian-Asian living in Washington D.C.

Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton @ the 9:30 Club January 11, 2007

Filed under: Concerts,Music — itslateagain @ 6:44 am

January 10, 2007.

I love Emily Haines. She wears short dresses on stage, has shapely cheekbones, and rocks the fuck out. Well, according to YouTube. I’ve actually never seen her rock out in person.

This evening, I discovered another reason to justify my long-held (and as yet, unrequited) crush on Emily: her honesty. Her performance tonight, mined almost exclusively from her recent solo release, Knives Don’t Have Your Back, was a sweet, terrifically courageous exercise in restrained, personal revelation. Stripping bare her songs from the usually thunderous accompaniment of her band members in Metric, Haines laid the spotlight upon her songwriting and voice alone, accompanied only in shadowy form by her friends as the Soft Skeleton. This was my first seated show at the 9:30, and what with the newly imposed smoking ban and subdued mood, the club felt at times more like a recital hall than the seminal rock venue Washingtonians associate it with.

On musical value alone, I can’t say I found Haines always enthralling. Listening to her warm, breathy voice hop along over sing-songy melodies, often without even a basic beat laced beneath to steer the ship, can be underwhelming. What makes Metric so compelling is the way it skilfully marries the uneasy suspense of Haines’ arrhythmic songwriting and unique turns of phrase with the satisfying thud of familiar riffing and comfortable rock stylings. As a rock group, Metric is (along with Stars), perhaps the most conservative of the Broken Social Scene collective in terms of musical vision and instrumentation. They write sharply crafted pop songs, filled out with sticky hooks and counter-melodic guitar lines, where Haines’ sass and phrasing is the cream, rather than the pie. The Soft Skeleton, on the other hand, played more in the vein of a subtle jazz house band, adding a semblance of form and the lightest of color to Haines’ collection of deeply personal tunes.

In this setting, then, having consciously placed herself under the artist’s microscope, Haines succeeds on the whole, and quite resoundingly at that. The greatest strengths she displayed tonight were a wonderful command of mood as well as an impressively skilful lyricism. With little apparent effort, Haines entered the stage and immediately nailed the somber, pensive, almost clinical fragility that dominates Knives, like a female Amnesiac-lite, only without the electronic masturbation. It was a tone that she maintained throughout the concert, sprinkling in only dashes of rudimentary rhythm, without ever releasing the audience from the melancholy solitude from which it seems these songs were born. The screen above Haines’ electric piano ran stark, monochrome footage of vulnerable-looking figures, cut from classic cinema. It was well-chosen visual pairing for music that reaches far into the depths of this reflective thirty-something songsmith, one equally adept at referencing her weighty, existential pain as she is offering well-placed social jibes.

The second song of the set, Pitchfork-favored video single “Doctor Blind,” is a prescient critique of a fearful, over-medicated society.

“My baby’s got the lonesome lows/Don’t quite go away overnight/Doctor blind just prescribe the blue ones/If the dizzying highs don’t subside overnight,” Haines sang, her voice closely taped to the minor key dance of her right hand. In the minimal, if very relaxed, interaction with the crowd, Haines was sweet and self-deprecating. But she can switch quickly toward sharp, social commentary, as her performance displayed.

Haines’ role as a musician and her writing process itself also receives wonderful exploration. My favorite stanza is from “Mostly Waiving,” a largely unspectacular tune which only really grabbed my attention during the middle verse:

“Get the line down/Don’t elaborate like that/You’ll frighten off the frat boys/Use your baby talk/Frighten off frighten on.”

It calls to mind the lyric of another indie princess of recent time, Jenny Lewis, who sings:

“Folk singers sing songs for the working, baby/We’re just recreation for all those doctors and lawyers,” in “Absence of God,” from Rilo Kiley’s last album.

This sort of meta-critical insight into the cynicism and self-consciousness of relatively successful independent musicians may not speak particularly closely to their audience’s own experience, but it’s unabashedly honest in the most modern sense of pop art. This could even be the central theme of tonight’s concert: that in a society so numbly sterilized and force-fed on consumer-tailored messaging and niche markets, the most revolutionary thing a singer like Haines can do is sing about what she’s actually feeling.

As mentioned earlier, however, for whatever skill and clear cut talent in tone-setting and poetic penmanship Haines confirmed tonight, her shortcomings were equally apparent. Clearest of them all is the need for more balance in her craftsmanship. Too often, Haines’ melodies fall into lethargic waffle-land, treading water where the Fiona Apples or Sias who trade in this genre of intimate piano songwriting will steadily guide songs toward their logical peaks. “Nothing and Nowhere,” with which Haines comes closest to striking songwriter gold, robs a clever bridge by providing it a chorus take-off that simply stalls, just as the listener is ready to be lifted into its arms.

Another final point is Haines’ voice. Bold, intimate and desolate as Knives is thematically, the singing offered tonight provided a familiar, warm sensuality to which I suspect Haines owes much of her teen male following. Her breathy style is intoxicating and catchy, as effective in its subtle rebuke of the music’s colder winds as it is floating over a punishing thrash-out in a Metric song. But there’s no mistaking what it isn’t, either. Compared to Regina Spektor or Cat Power, Haines’ pipes don’t have the horsepower, nor the upper register, to run a competitive race. She’s a coquettish whisperer, rather than a full-fleshed singer in the traditional sense.

Of course, Haines is not trying to race with anybody. What she’s done with Knives, as she showed to a grateful 9:30 audience tonight, is created a moody, thoughtful, and remarkably honest album of haunting piano ballads which only confirm her place as a legitimate solo artist.

Not enough, however, to keep us from looking forward to Metric’s next album!