the Metro – Chicago
I’ve been sitting in front of a blank page for way too long, trying to figure out how to approach this Pretty Girls Make Graves review. Last summer, I caught them at the Bottom Lounge. The small scale of the club and the intensity of the summer heat made for an intensely personal experience.
This time around, PGMG was scheduled to play the larger Metro. Their new release Elan Vital left me with mixed feelings, a sludgy affair that showed their looser side. The razor sharp edge that defined Pretty Girl’s sound was dulled, giving more room to breathe and I didn’t know how I felt about it. I walked into the thinly populated Metro in the middle of The Jogger’s set. While I’d been strangely lulled by their 2005 release With A Cap And A Cane, there was something about what I saw that just didn’t sit well with me. There was something mildly “hippy” about the way they approached their music live; maybe it was the excessive amount of jangle or maybe it was the four-part vocal harmonies, but it drove me to the bar.
After a few songs, they wrapped up and Giant Drag took over. The two-piece band consisted of a talented drummer who did double duty, playing the bass lines on a small synth along side his kit and a lead singer/guitarist. The downside was that lead singer Annie Hardy was as grating as nails on a chalkboard. The waifish front woman had a bad habit of blindly rambling in between every song like a teenager who’s just hit her first bong. Her twee speaking voice would shift into a stronger singing voice that evoked Kristin Hersh and a hoard of other similar 90’s female vocalists. The band pulled off a sludgy kind of guitar heavy alterna-pop that recalled That Dog. Drummer Micah Calabrese was the saving grace of the duo, his mechanical playing holding the songs together with the occasional showy flourish. The acid-wash projected visuals didn’t help endear them to me any further. Even from my halfway comfy seat (not standing for opening acts tends to dull the pain somewhat), I had difficulty finding anything charming about the band, even though the audience played into her startlingly annoying stage banter.
As Pretty Girls Make Graves set up their equipment across the wide Metro stage, I thought back to the evening at the Bottom Lounge. Drenched in sweat from the stifling late summer air that filled the club, it seemed far away from the air-conditioned comfort of a balcony seat. I looked down to the audience as the lights went down and saw that the club had still not yet filled up.
They started their set with a string of songs from Elan Vital. Live, the songs are stripped of the glisten of production that the album leans on more so than previous PGMG efforts. The economical manner in which they would utilize every second of a song is now lost, replaced by a looser, more meandering feel. The stomping combination of incessant drums and fuzz bass in a song like “The Number” shows the drive that has always been present in their music, but it sadly ended in little payoff. In contrast, “Pyrite Pedestal,” the song that followed, showed a shimmer of the magic that the band can bring. The song’s guitar and vocal melodies are taught and bright, stretching in time with the rising gallop of the drums to an anthemic apex that was visible from the song’s opening moments. On the lumbering “Parade,” the sparsity of the backing gave great room for Andrea Zollo to allow her voice to fill the air. The one thing that has definitely changed for the good is that she has come into her own as a front woman. A confidence could be seen in her swagger, as she danced about the stage unleashing her soaring voice as her bangs hung over her eyes. Even if Elan leans on production, her voice stands strong, live or in studio.
Smartly, they almost split the set in half, giving the first half to their new album and letting most of the second half be for songs from Good Health and The New Romance. The crowd was more receptive to the older material. The introductory notes of “Grandmother Wolf” had the audience clapping away, as well giving guitarist Nathan Thelen reason to deftly tap away at his huge array of guitar pedals. He also added beautiful,spastic guitar frills to “Blue Light,” the intro to which had the whole audience chanting along. The song showcases how the old songs build perfectly to a classic PGMG pinnacle of noise and energy. The intensity boils closer to the surface, the guitar is more shrill and the urgency is more present. “This Is Our Emergency” is the kind of song that bristles with electricity that translates easily over to the audience, causing some people to punch the air in time to each word.
Even with great songs like “The Teeth Collector” and “All Medicated Geniuses” stacked at the second half of the set, something felt missing. Not that I feel like pulling out the “I was there when…” card but some of the magic of being stuck in the sweltering, tiny Bottom Lounge was lost on the larger scale of the Metro. At the sacrifice of immediacy, I just couldn’t fully engross myself in the show. Elan Vital could be the album that exposes Pretty Girls to a far wider audience, but I’ll have to rely on the memories of past shows to keep me as a fan.Previously published on Loose Record