LIVE REVIEW: Daniel James, Empress Of & SOHN

It’s winter in Brooklyn, make no mistake.  The lovely, mild autumn we knew only weeks ago has been replaced by bitter, brutal winds hellbent on penetrating every last layer of coats and sweaters to sink into our frozen bones.  But every season has a soundtrack; we can’t listen to beachy pop all year round.  And because humans have unwisely adapted to function through winters without hibernating, there are still plenty of shows to go to.

For those of us that brave the chill, there are rewards to be had.  You see, every once in a while, a song comes into my life at the exact moment that I need to hear it.  Everything clicks thematically, from the visions and sentiments the lyrics evoke, to musical arrangements that marry emotional and atmospheric elements completely outside the music itself.  The three bands that played Glasslands last night embodied the dark, lonesome winter I’m slowly settling into, warming it just a little.

The first of those acts was London-based singer-songwriter Daniel James, originally from Northern Ireland.  James manages to execute a huge sound as a soloist, one that similar bands enlist six or seven members to pull off.  The tracks he’s released via Soundcloud borrow from folk, gospel, and dabble in electronica.  Live though, James is left to his own devices – soaring vocals, acoustic guitar, and percussion by way of stomping on a drum pedal.  What the stripped down live set-up loses in orchestral production, it gains in soul.  In the course of providing his own backing beats, James grows so breathless he can barely sing, but his voice never falters.

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Daniel James
Daniel James mid-stomp

James has an endearing stage personality that goes beyond his accent; he is funny and gracious and warm, and the audience was extremely receptive.  There’s a weight to his songs that you might not expect based on his easy laugh and genuine smile.  For every yearning love song (and there are plenty), there’s an impassioned political call to arms or a narrative drawing parallels to the struggle of slavery.  Sonically, James owes a lot to acts like Timber Timbre or Fleet Foxes, but if his set was any indication, he’s more than able to pay down that debt, even without a full band.

James was followed by Empress Of, the moniker of Lorely Rodriguez.  Her synthy, sparkling EP Systems and a handful of CMJ appearances have generated a lot of buzz for the Brooklyn-based artist.  While Systems presents Rodriguez as a precious, otherworldly performer – the cover portrait makes her look like a Greek bust, her vocals are layered with angelic reverb  – she’s much less fragile in person.  Her quirkiness comes through in the compositional choices she makes.  Her awkward stage banter places her solidly on planet Earth.  And her voice possesses a power that’s shocking when untouched by production, approaching the complexity and strength of Bjork’s wildest shrieks.

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Empress Of
Empress Of

She mostly sticks to tweaking those vocals electronically, looping and distorting them at appropriate moments.  Accompanied by a live drummer as well as a synth player, she was otherwise free to move with her own beats, swirling her arms above her head.  Technical difficulties from her road-weary mic frustrated her slightly, but she carried on.  “This is my last show of the year,” Rodriguez explained, a note of regret in her voice.  “But that’s ’cause  I’m gonna make a record.”  She was met with excited shouts and applause from the audience, which at this point was pretty packed in.  That new album holds a lot of promise; the strongest songs she played were totally new, introduced in the last half of the set.  Gradually, people in the crowd began shedding layers, forgetting the frigid temperatures outside.

London-via-Vienna producer SOHN kept the audience moving, but brought back decidedly heavier moods.  Having built a reputation on a sporadic stream of solid singles released on Soundcloud, SOHN is absolutely poised to release one of the best records of next year.  He’s a master of the build-up, knowing just how much to hold back, and just how dramatic a crescendo of synths can be when tethered by skittering percussion or chopped vocals.  It’s the vocals, really, that are the kicker, existing in the same realm as Justin Timberlake, How To Dress Well, The Weeknd or Rhye (who SOHN has remixed).  SOHN’s falsetto is heartbreaking enough on its own, but when it’s expressing the kinds of distress and disorientation highlighted in most recent single “Bloodflows” for instance, by repeating the forlorn line “My love my love my love don’t love me” it’s almost too much to handle.  In the next moments that line is hacked to pieces and collaged over an insistent back beat, providing relief from shared anguish.

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SOHN at Glasslands
SOHN finishing out the night

When SOHN’s set ended, the room was pulsating, but the cold was waiting outside.  SOHN, Empress Of, and Daniel James had all done their part to drive out the bleakness of the oncoming winter, and had succeeded in unique ways.  James brought heartfelt songcraft, and Empress Of’s burbling beats and virtuoso vocals, followed by SOHN’s thick synth layers were enough to thaw the frostiest showgoers.  At the same time, each act’s set was threaded through with dark underpinnings that reflect the hollowness of colder weather, either through afflicted lyrics or electronic arrangements that crystalize around a solemn motif.  Even if sunny summer jams don’t feel appropriate in November, there’s no shortage of songs that sound just right beneath our heavy blankets.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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