Reviewed by Anthony Spak (@AntSpak)
Photos by Jack “George” Allen
Wunder Wunder, a three piece from Melbourne, Australia, took the stage just as the sun was beginning to set. The downstairs of the Crofoot Ballroom was only half-full of young hipsters when they began, but the sounds of their driving, psychedelic synth-pop quickly emptied the outdoor patio area of guests and brought all of the young hipsters inside to listen. Never have I seen so many floral-patterned snapbacks, cut-off high-waisted shorts, floral patterned button-up shirts, brightly-colored neon windbreakers, and Toms gathered into such a small area.
There were many similarities between the sounds of Wunder Wunder and another, far more successful Australian band that has emerged over the past few years. The reverb-drenched vocals, driving, repetitive drumming, and a spacey blend of delay, phasing, and fuzz guitar effects gave Wunder Wunder the feel of a poor man’s Tame Impala.
What the band lacked in originality, they made up for in terms of pure energy, particularly drummer Benjamin Plant. Positioned center stage between the other two members, Plant put on a show with his manic, spastic drumming. The man flailed his arms and body around wildly for the entire set, similar to the way Animal did in the Muppets movies for most of the set. At low points in the song, Plant would dip down below his drum set in a crouch, sipping on his Newcastle Brown Ale for a few brief moments behind his massive, 24” bass drum, only to pop back up like a Whack-A-Mole mole at the last possible second and re-enter the song with extreme force. In terms of technique, his was terrible. In terms of what he was playing, he didn’t have to work that hard to play his fairly simple patterns. But in terms of drawing attention to himself and putting on a show, Plant shined through and was easily the most exciting member of the band to watch.
Shanahan was no slouch of a performer either, but his presence was more obnoxious at times. Looking like a young Todd Rungren (no doubt intentionally), Shanahan played simple, catchy guitar riffs for most songs, but was constantly hopping around the stage, lifting the guitar above his head and attempting to entice the crowd to clap along at the poppiest moments. It never really caught on. Shanahan’s high-pitched vocal screeching covered in a blend of vocal effects made him sound like Roger Waters’ guttural screams in “Careful With That Axe Eugene”, filtered through a broken blender.
Halfway through their set, singer and guitarist Aaron Shanahan announced, “We drove ten hours overnight from New York to be here with you,” then proceeded to play one of the most energetic sets I have seen from a band in quite some time. Their liveliness and stage presence was impressive, if not a little overzealous, and made up for what their sound lacked in lyrical content and originality. “Enjoy Washed Out, enjoy life,” said Shanahan at the conclusion of their set.
Washed Out, the dream-pop project of Georgia native Ernest Greene, took the stage a half hour later. Greene’s music has been labeled as “chillwave” by the press, and it serves as a very fitting descriptor for his blend of dreamy electronic pop songs, played at laid back tempos; very “chill” indeed.
I’d had a history with Washed Out before this show.
A year ago, Paracosm was released, Washed Out’s most recent album. Before it was released, I had only ever heard “Feel It All Around” a.k.a the Portlandia theme song a handful of times, but liked what I heard. The colorful flowers on the cover caught my eye, so I borrowed the CD from the WXOU Music Library for an inexcusably long period of time and played it in my car stereo for a solid two weeks. Paracosm is by no means the greatest album, or the catchiest album; but for driving around in the summer sun with the windows rolled down on the way to work, it was the chillest.
Fast forward a few months to Laneway Festival, the Australian-based touring music festival that made its first appearance at the outdoor Meadowbrook music theatre last fall. Washed Out was on the bill, and was one of the bands that I wanted to see before the day was done. As one of the bigger acts at the festival, they had a prime time slot at 8p.m. and I made sure I was there early to get a good view. Washed Out then proceeded to play the most struggle-filled set of any band I have ever seen: festivals are notorious for being the worst places to hear live music, and Washed Out proved that to me that evening. Plagued by problems with their monitors and their sound levels, you could see the band looking at each other and the sound booth in frustration through their entire set. Band members kept missing cues in their songs, instruments kept making noises they weren’t supposed to, and Greene grew physically angry as the set went on. After twenty minutes, I couldn’t stand to watch a band I had really grown to like struggle so hard just to get through a half hour set, so I took off to go save myself a good spot to take a nap during Sigur Ros.
My second Washed Out show was much better and less frustrating. Greene and his band opened with the infectious, reggae-esque single off of Paracosm, “It All Feels Right”, and no one in the crowd could help from at least swaying from side to side. The brightly colored, rotating lights display fit the music perfectly and put the crowd into a brief trance.
However, the trance didn’t last very long. Washed Out played a very subdued brand of synth-pop, with boring synthesizer drones that were just a bit too slow to be exciting and a bit too soft to gather any power. The drums were so muffled and buried in the mix that they lacked the necessary snap and crack to physically drive the music. This was most apparent on “Feel It All Around”, a song that is very percussive and vibrant in its recording. At the show the funky timbale fills, the coolest part of the song, were not played, and what little drums you could hear felt very limp, turning the song into a slow saunter instead of the synth-pop banger that the recorded version is.
The set did pick up near the end as Greene and company played excellent versions of “Get Up” and “New Theory” off of 2009’s short album Life of Leisure, as well as a very beautiful version of “Falling Back” off of Paracosm. For the encore, the band burned through two final songs. Drummer Cameron Gardner finally started to hit his drums with vigor, even throwing in a few very dynamic fills which gave the band’s colorful textures the edge they needed. It was if Washed Out had tried to subdue the crowd into a half-interested lull for most of their set, and then bring them back to life with two noisy, energetic encore songs. Intentional or not, the encore gave the crowd just the boost they needed to fully wake back up from Washed Out’s chillwave lullabies, find their cars, and just barely make the drive back home.