LIVE REVIEW: The Radio Dept. @ Union Transfer


Swedish dream-pop outfit The Radio Dept. has long been revered for combining a mellow haze and hypnotic beats since forming in 2001. Live, this translates to a singular live experience that hits somewhere between being stress-free and imaginatively demanding. Their U.S. tour in support of Running Out of Love (which came out in October of last year via Labrador Records after long delays due to legal battles with the label) kicked off in Philadelphia on Valentine’s Day, and proved to be a  thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable show.

A former baggage depot in Callowhill, Union Transfer was a fun change from the packed NYC locales I’m used to. It’s intimate and architecturally dramatic but still has a casual feel, with quick, friendly bouncers and a no-alchohol-on-the-floor policy that limits both excessive drunkenness and the nightmare of getting beer sloshed all over your shoes – perfect for Radio Dept. and their meditative set.

The band took to the stage quietly but began with a bang, playing a few songs from Running Out of Love, which has a more steady, rhythmic and electronic focus than a lot of their past music. This branching out of their comfort zone brought the album critical acclaim, but the new material wasn’t their only concentration on stage. The show featured plenty of old crowd favorites from the 2006’s Pet Grief and 2003 debut Lesser Matters, as well as their last proper full-length, Clinging to a Scheme, released in 2010. “David” and “Heaven’s On Fire,” both from Clinging to a Scheme, seemed to be big crowd-pleasers, while “Death to Fascism,” a single released in 2014, saw the band at its most exciting and dovetailed nicely with the subtle political messages on Running Out of Love.

With its impressive treble and the infectious robotic call of “Smrt fašizmu, sloboda narodu!” (Croatian for “Death to fascism, freedom to the people”), the single had sparked new interest  in the band after a four year hiatus. Fans had shouted out its request all evening, and while it is doubtful that the heckling had much to do with its eventual delivery, the crowd’s hunger for this song seemed directly tied to the current American political climate. The band spoke through the messages in the music, rather than offering political speeches – frontman Johan Duncanson only spoke between songs to say “thank you” and “thank you very much.” He attributed this “shyness” to the fact that it was their first show on the U.S. leg of their tour. This quietness was reflective of the calm and repetitive motions of the music, a parallel I could certainly respect.

Everyone on stage – even frontman Duncanson – played multi-instrumentalist, switching between bass, percussion and synths. Even though every song had some pre-recorded element (due to the band’s electronic nature) there was a lot of power in the live aspects. The guitar parts were especially rousing; after various intensely rhythmic openings with limited or specific melodies, the guitar and vocals would break in and remind us that The Radio Dept. always tends to its dreamy qualities. There’s something plainly stunning about the combination of more dance-like beats and echoing, fuzzy shoegaze.

The high energy instrumentals from Running Out of Love were significant in keeping the audience from falling into a mesmerized daze. There was plenty of dancing to go with that mesmeric feeling and, although it was disjointed and varied from person to person (a couple basically dirty dancing on side of the floor, a fantastic bald man with glasses and a wool sweater with some incredibly unique and memorable moves, clearly in his own little world, on the other), there was a general agreement with the flow and mood of the music. Everyone bobbed their heads in some kind of unison.

At the heart of this performance was the inexplicable ease to the band’s sound. The songs were layered and complex, but they were effortlessly organic on stage. This contributed more to the natural ambience: heavy-lidded eyes and loose limbs. Buried somewhere in that was a covert political criticism of Sweden that unfortunately applies to the U.S. as well. Closing out with pop-forward “Swedish Gun” single, the clubby “Teach Me to Forget,” and the ominous “Occupied,” all from Running Out of Love, served as a reminder that dancing and resistance are not mutually exclusive.

The Radio Dept. close out their tour with two shows in New York, at Bowery Ballroom March 8 and Music Hall of Williamsburg March 9; the rest of the dates are listed here.