Lily Claire, frontwoman and primary songwriter for the New York-based Parlour Tricks, gets wild-eyed when she performs. Standing squarely in the middle of the stage at the Mercury Lounge last Saturday, wearing a white tunic with a black collar (her backup singers wore matching outfits, but with the colors reversed), Claire gripped the microphone and gave the audience this look, poised yet deer-in-headlights-ish, as if she were a circa-1920s high-end jewelry thief, stealing just for the thrill of it, and to escape the tedium of her wealthy but loveless marriage, and we were the police squadron waiting outside her secret trapdoor exit to catch her with her bag of loot. Drama flatters rock and roll.
The six-piece bases operations out of New York City, though technically Claire is the only native. True to its name, Parlour Tricks consists of an array of hometowns, and many different musical scenes–its members hail from Philadelphia, Nashville and Paris, to name just a few. If you listen to the singles the group has released over the past couple of years, the show-magic quality of the name links best to the Parlour Tricks’ sense of theater, the heavy beats and brawny soprano vocal harmonies. A performance from Tricks falls into the category of stage magic that happens at close range in front of a small audience; no pyrotechnics necessary. On Claire’s left and right, backup singers Morgane Moulherat and Darah Golub didn’t need acrobatics to coax the high drama out of their voices. Just standing there, swaying in tandem, like they were being pulled by the same tide. They looked haunting as a pair of Greek Sirens.
All told, Tricks’ output has been surprisingly small, just a few singles over the last couple of years. Why surprisingly? Maybe because “Belle Gunness” got featured in that BMW commercial, or maybe–relatedly–because every track they’ve released has the “this is it” quality of a breakout hit. Standing in the audience, amidst an enthusiastic-ish crowd (sidebar, paraphrased from my notebook: Why, in the presence of all the group’s musical prowess and slight of hand, all its heavy hooks and belty harmonies, was a Saturday night crowd at the Mercury Lounge only enthusiastic-ish?), I felt that with each song a heavy weight dropped, the way a young band performs the first song that comes straight from the guts. But the songs didn’t talk to each other. Every last one was a power single. Every last one was a breakdown, an epiphany, a turning point. I couldn’t imagine them all crowded onto an album together.
About three quarters of the way through the band’s set, Claire said “This is a song about a crazy woman,” turned her back to the audience, and shook out her shampoo-commercial-shiny hair. “Me,” she added off the mic, laughing in the direction of her bass player. The band launched into “Bukowski,” which turned out to be my favorite performance of the night, because though it began and ended in the spotlight, the song’s theatrics meandered into shadowier–and more vulnerable–corners between the hooks. Maybe it was the combination of a crunchily chaotic guitar line with Moulherat and Golub’s high-pealing (even for them!) vocal lines. Certainly it helped when Claire eased her pose at the microphone. Once she began to amble around the stage and joke with her fellow players, the aesthetic got pleasantly rumpled. They looked more like a band, and less like a portrait.
Check out the music video for Tricks’ irrepressible latest, “Lovesongs,” below. You can go here to buy a download!