In some circles, Alt-J has become the latest in a long line of whipping-boy bands, the Nickelback from Britain.
Three albums into a history that started 10 years ago and started to flourish in 2012 with the release of its prophetically titled debut album “An Awesome Wave,” the artsy-indie band from Leeds, England, is riding a rising tide of popularity, one that has also inspired plenty of backlash and mockery.
Thursday night, Alt-J headlined a show at Starlight Theatre. The outdoor setting was idyllic: a dog-day August evening that felt more like September on the cusp of October, and a crowd that was primed to validate the hype. This was the band’s sixth show in Kansas City in less than five years, yet the large crowd appeared to exceed 6,000.
They were rewarded with a show that was short for a band with three albums in its discography – it lasted about 80 minutes and comprised 19 songs – but one that provided nonstop visual stimulation and a parade of songs that tapped into or insinuated a wide array of music styles and genres, everything from Gregorian chants (in “Every Other Freckle”) to diluted ‘70s prog rock, bursts of ‘80s synth pop (“Dissolve Me”), Radiohead homages (“Something Good”) and straight-up British indie-rock. And then there are the lyrics.
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Alt-J’s music is as well-crafted as it is derivative. There is plenty of meat-and-bones in its melodies, clever and thoughtful riffs and hooks, few surprises or inventions. Lyrically, however, they can be as deviant and libidinous as they are cryptic and abstract.
They opened with “3WW,” the opening track from their new album, “Relaxer.” It’s a rock song that references classic prog-rock and folk and includes the awkwardly sexual verse “Well, that smell of sex / Good like burning wood / The wayward lad laid claim / To two thirsty girls from Homsea.”
That, however, was nothing compared to “Fitzpleasure,” which closed the main set, a song that employs a crude nickname for a woman’s genitals and alludes to someone getting penetrated by a broom handle – a lyric that apparently alludes to a moment in the novel “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” Who’d have thought a band that sounds so calculated and accessible could be so subversive?
Between those two songs, Alt-J delivered more than a dozen tracks, most of them rewarding for one feature or another: a catchy melody, a fetching groove or some warm vocal harmonies. The band’s lead singer is Joe Newman, whose voice, depending on your tastes, is either charmingly elfin or annoyingly nasal. He flashed some charming banter during the set, at one point telling the crowd he’d eaten the best steak of his life during his stay in Kansas City (without revealing the restaurant, however).
The visuals were dazzling and incessant: columns of lights that rose and dropped, like white-hot incandescent stalactites or stalagmites; spotlights and backlights that cast the trio in silhouettes and shadows; provocative video footage that embellished the live music; and other visual choreography that changed colors and mood to fit whatever song was performed, as during the poppy “Matilda,” a favorite that prompted one of the loudest sing-alongs of the night.
They ended with a three-song encore that included “Left Hand Free,” a catchy garage-rock/soul track, and the closer, “Breezeblocks,” the sinewy, guitar-centric indie-rock track from their debut album and the song that launched them into Top 10 success in America. It’s trippy, melodic and hypnotic, and Newman sang it in his nasally/elfin slur, which makes the lyrics nearly indecipherable all Alt-J traits that determine whether you love or dislike this band.
3WW; Something Good; Ripe & Ruin; Tessellate; Deadcrush; Nara; In Cold Blood; Dissolve Me; The Gospel of John Hurt; Bloodflood; Every Other Freckle; Matilda; Hit Me Like That Snare; Taro; Pleader; Fitzpleasure. Encore: An Awesome Wave; Left Hand Free; Breezeblocks.