I honestly had no intention of writing up this show. It was nothing personal, but with five shows in one week, something had to give. Besides, I figured I had said everything I needed to say about Parallels when the band played Record Bar last year. And finally, to be terribly blunt, modern dance music just bores me. So what changed my mind? Read on.
At 10pm the stage was entirely obscured by fog, but the machines kept pumping out the mephitic mist until it threatened to choke the entire club. Steady rays of blue and white light grew from the floor of the stage to the club's ceiling. I imagined them as beacons, attempting to lure openers White Girl onto the stage. Or, if the band was already on the stage, to help the players find their way through the fog to their instruments. Frankly, I just wasn't sure – the stage was just that murky.
Without warning, electronic beats blasted from the stage. Through the fog I made out three players – two with guitars, and one centerstage behind keyboards. After a few songs I spied the band's fourth member drumming in the darkest corner of the stage. Seriously, it was dark.
Although White Girl is a new name in the Kansas City synth pop scene, frontman Martin Bush's defunct Audiovox project laid the band's foundation years ago. The difference is simple – Audiovox attempted to fuse rock with electronic beats, White Girl is only interested in motivating the dance floor. The band's five-song, 25-minute set included a couple of clumsy, pre-programmed, big beat stompers, several shimmering OMD-like pop numbers, and a curious post-punk closer that introduced crashing live drums and droning guitar. When the band's debut album is released in October, listeners will learn if the songs meld better in the studio than they do on the stage.
Throughout the set, Bush shifted between guitar and keyboard duties (trading off with Skyler McClun), while guitarist Matt Epstein and drummer Nick Organ remained stationary. There was little interesting about the band's live show, and curiously no banter between songs – just a roaring silence. This was peculiar considering Bush's extensive live music resume. But maybe that's the plan. With enough smoke and dim lighting, listeners are supposed to imagine a post-band musical performance, one that takes Damon Albarn's Gorillaz a step further toward abstraction.
While White Girl offers up a musical performance devoid of personality, Brooklyn's Dynasty Electric is its polar opposite. Frontwoman Jenny Electrik (Jennifer DeVeau) is the rock & roll manifestation of Hollywood's manic pixie dream girl – only on coke. She was ever exuberant, thrilled to be in Kansas City, constantly bouncing about the stage in a glittery figure skater's dress augmented by blinking LEDs, and laughing joyfully between every song. She was adorable, and a lot to take in. But Dynasty Electric believes in more, and as such, it brought a projector along to sends colourful trippy patterns over the band to the screen at the back of the stage. When the images were bright enough, the stage and the musicians on it merged into an abstract psychedelic mass of motion and energy. It is of no surprise then that the band is currently playing gigs on the way to Burning Man. Although the visual stimulation was already nearing its flashpoint, the band pushed things farther with the addition of dancer Andrea DeVeau (the two are sisters). DeVeau distributed glowing bracelets to the entire club, danced in the audience, danced on stage, danced with colourful scarves, with ornamental fans, and with bubbles that floated at the front of the Record Bar stage. This was more than a rock show, this was a circus. A wonderful, organic, sincere, hypnotic, happy circus.
If there is a downside to stunning visuals, it is only that shifting the audience's focus to your music can be difficult. Maybe this is why the band began with a sort of homage or offering to misunderstood rock God Jim Morrison, in the form of a re-imagined "Hello I Love You." The loose cover sent dance beats swirling over the original lyrics, leaving plenty of room for the saxophone of Dynasty Electric's co-founder Seth Misterka. The remainder of the band's too-short 35-minute set was built on airy synth pop that recalled the production work of Dan Deacon (with Electrik's Theremin replacing Deacon's manipulated samples), or more grounded compositions with flat out 4/4 disco beats and the wah wah guitar of Misterka (think Phenomenal Handclap Band). Electrik voice isn't particularly large, but it's pushed out with a rock intensity, rather than the calculated precision of most dance music. For this performance, sequenced percussion tracks were augmented by Margin Goldrick's live drums and Tony Grund's real-time synthesized bass tones.
While the audience presumably knew that they had paid for a night of rhythmic synth-pop, Dynasty Electric and DeVeau were only able to inspire a couple of women to dance. Maybe the audience was afraid they'd miss the floor show if they were shaking their asses, or maybe they were saving their energy for the headliner. The answer came at 11:55 as Toronto's Parallels took the stage.
When the band played the Record Bar last spring, it was as a duo comprised of vocalist Holly Dodson and partner Cameron Findlay who provided live drums and sequences. The duo has since split, with Findlay now performing as Kontravoid [he opens for Crystal Castles 10/16 at the Uptown] and Dodson rebuilding Parallels with brother Nick Dodson on drums and keyboardist Artem Galperine. Is the band now back, better than ever? Well, that depends.
The band's current line-up is responsible for Parallels latest album, XII which came out this spring. The album is a introspective collection of songs that focuses on loss, heartbreak, and new beginnings – not surprising since Dodson's favourite recording is the ultimate breakup album, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. With the departure of Findlay, Parallels' music is lighter, with fewer secrets and nuances. Dodson's high girlish vocals work well in this new idiom, but comparisons to mid-period Madonna start to sting when the songs lack the menacing punch to balance out the saccharine pop.
On stage, the new line-up does an impressive job of reproducing songs from both of the band's incarnations. However, since neither Nick Dodson nor Galperine are especially charismatic performers (though Galperine is quite handsome and his backing vocals are more than serviceable), any panoply then must come from Holly Dodson – and based on her conservative white blazer, things don't look promising. In fact, there's nothing flashy about Dodson; her small dance moves never take her far from the synthesizer that she taps short leads upon, nor do they wind her, as that might impair her ability to deliver her crystalline vocals. Thankfully her stage presence saves the show, as it balances the smooth schmooze of a seasoned professional, with the the informality of a performance intended only for friends. Dodson is just like that, though – everyone is a friend. In the end, Parallels has an entirely different feel and approach from either of the opening acts, no matter how much it may share with them musically.
The audience never grew to more than several dozen patrons at any point in the night, with most remaining seated in the dark periphery of the club for the first two acts. It wasn't until Parallels' set that the audience crept forward, motivated by Andrea DeVeau who was inspired to unpack the props she had carefully stowed moments before, now sharing them with the audience, and sending bubbles floating over to the smiling Dodson. Dodson was sure to thank her new friends in Dynasty Electric and White Girl, and then wrapped up the band's 45-minute set telling the audience she hoped the DJ would play something that everyone could stick around and dance to. Seconds later the DJ started a Steely Dan song, quite effectively ending the night. I thanked the bands – even getting pulled in by Dodson for a surprise hug – and headed out to my scooter. On the ride home I wondered how it was that I had such a good time at a boring dance show.