The Sounds' 2014 North American tour hit San Diego last week at the House of Blues, and they were joined by Blondfire and Strange Talk.
I arrived to the show just in time to catch Australian synthpop band Strange Talk performing "Cast Away," the only song of theirs that I actually know. It's an infectious neon number that has been featured on some TV shows and in the video game Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2012). Their other songs were decent, but many just sounded like less inspired, overly samey variations on their best track—nothing that had me especially eager to check out their album (Cast Away, due for release in the U.S. on April 20). Still, for being the warm-up to the warm-up, they performed well above par. At times, they had three keyboards going at the same time.
Strange Talk was followed by Blondfire. While synth is a substantial part of Blondfire's sound as well, they built upon Strange Talk's opening act by bringing much more power and live energy to the evening. I had seen them open for The Mowgli's just a few months earlier, and I had thought that they were good, but, having since had more time to familiarize myself with their recently released album, Young Heart, I was better able to enjoy their performance this time around. Once again, they only played songs off Young Heart (so no "L-L-Love"), and I was disappointed that they didn't play one of my favorites off the album, "Kites." On the other hand, "Right Gone Wrong," the song I had considered the most boring on the album, was more impressive live, particularly when vocalist Erica Driscoll reached for the bigger notes toward the end. Music aside, Driscoll and the band seemed, as last time, fairly low-key, content to play supporting parts for the night.
After Blondfire finished up, the bassist from Strange Talk returned to the main stage, wheeling out a mixer, to play DJ during the intermission before The Sounds' set.
When The Sounds finally took the stage, I almost didn't even recognize lead singer Maja Ivarsson. Dressed in a leather jacket and with her hair tied back and a dirtier shade of blonde than in the poster above, she looked nearly like a normal person, but for the combination of stiletto heels and obscenely high-cut hot pants.
It was quite the contrast, having The Sounds come out after Blondfire, both of them cheery bands fronted by blonde female vocalists. Although I had thought Blondfire had rocked it with their set, the difference in the level of performance, once The Sounds came out, was night and day. To a degree, The Sounds' performance could have been described as businesslike, since the band wasn't all that chatty between songs, and I never got the sense that I was seeing them doing anything they hadn't done the same way hundreds of times before. But Maja exudes such incomparable charisma in her vocals alone—fresh, forceful, clean yet with a somewhat abrasive edge, absolutely spellbinding—and the amount of breath she must have to have been able to sustain that level of all-out singing through the night (plus another twenty-five on this tour) is astounding.
They played quite a number of songs (more than I could keep count of), their set drawing broadly across a catalog that has so far spanned five albums and more than a decade of stellar indie rock. Deep enough is their catalog, in fact, that they probably could have played a completely different set comprising none of the same songs performed that night, and it could have been just as excellent. Maybe the closest they have to signature songs are the brash inverted anthem "Living in America," off their debut album (2002) of the same title, and the catchy "Something to Die For," the title track to The Sounds' more synth-based fourth album (2011) and also featured on the soundtrack to Scream 4. They played both songs that night, as well as other such popular favorites as "Painted By Numbers," "Song With a Mission," and "Rock 'n' Roll." They did not, however, play my personal favorite, "Hurt You" (AKA "the song from that one Geico cavemen commercial") from their second album, Dying to Say This to You (2006). I didn't really expect them to, since it's a bit of an unusual song for them—more of a club track, where Maja splits singing duties with guitarist Felix Rodriquez, and the vocals overall take a backseat to the electric instruments—which probably would not have been the most suitable for a live show. (Although they did perform a lively rendition of the similarly structured "Tony the Beat"....) For me, the highlights of the night were instead "The Best of Me," featuring Maja's most epic vocal performance off Something to Die For, and "No One Sleeps When I'm Awake," with its addictive opening guitar solo to intro their third album, Crossing the Rubicon (2009).
To my recollection, they only played maybe half the tracks off their most recent album, last year's Weekend, spread across the night. My first impression of Weekend was that it was disappointingly their weakest album to date, and so I was glad not to have it dominate their live show. The only immediately compelling song on the album was "Shake Shake Shake," which, no matter how catchy it might have been, was clearly ill-conceived, being unfortunately and unavoidably associated, on account of its title and key lyric, with the KC and the Sunshine Band song. "Too Young to Die," the designated poignant song, in the tradition of "Midnight Sun" and "The Best of Me," was about as sappy as "The Best of Me," but it lacked the great hooks and just never seemed to build to anything. "Hurt the Ones I Love" was an even cheesier and clunkier variation on the same theme. "Weekend," the ballad, had the double misfortune of suffering from an already-tired-to-begin-with lyric that was then further exhausted through excessive repetition as the chorus. Or was "Weekend" actually the epic, and "Hurt the Ones I Love" the ballad? It was hard to tell, because in neither case was the band succeeding at whatever it was going for.
[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/112042425" params="color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true" width="100%" height='166' iframe="true" /]
(You can listen to the rest of the album on SoundCloud here.)
My opinion that Weekend is The Sounds' weakest album remains unchanged, but hearing some of the songs performed live and in that greater context of an overview of the band's collective history has given me a newfound appreciation for them. It's an uneven album, lacking in instantly accessible winners, compared to their more refined previous two albums. In some ways, it's more of a back-to-basics record, with songs that seem composed specifically with live crowds in mind, in contrast with the more electronic, dance-oriented Something to Die For.
They opened the show with the fun and playful "Emperor," which, after a few listens, emerged as my definite favorite track on Weekend. Maja sings this one together with guitarist Felix Rodriguez, whose distinctly high-pitched and endearingly accented English is really what makes the song. "Take It The Wrong Way" is another really good one, showcasing Maja's vocals in fine sassy form, alongside the most compelling guitar work on the album. "Outlaw" is not one of the band's better tracks, but it evokes the more punk sound of their earliest successes. Meanwhile, "Panic," which they did not perform live, carries on the dance vibe they had going in Something to Die For. And the acoustic "Great Day," the most surprising track on the album—almost The Sounds' take on country—perhaps best exemplifies the easy mirth that characterizes Weekend, overall less fiercely determined, for better or worse, than their previous albums.