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The Problem With Pretty Music: A Review of FKA twigs’ Show At The Showbox Market in Seattle

The Problem With Pretty Music: A Review of FKA twigs’ Show At The Showbox Market in Seattle

fka-twigsPlease make note of two points here, especially if you have strong feelings about FKA twigs or other similar artists:

  • Broad generalizations are fun to make and inspire strong feelings, which parallels with music itself quite readily.
  • This is a piece of music journalism, so it’s framing a subjective matter in a format traditionally known for “objectivity” which inherently makes no sense at all.

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When the deluge of FKA twigs hype first began, my skepticism reached record highs. Here was a delicate-looking angel/former backup dancer with cartoonish doe eyes being heralded as the triumphant return of trip-hop/downtempo. Watching quietly, I began to appreciate her weirdness and newness piece by piece. A song leak here, a video there. The day her debut full-length dropped, a friend of mine whose music opinions I hold in high regard said LP1 was “the best LP since Portishead’s Dummy” and I was like, “Nah.” That was before I had bought the record and listened.

Best thing since Dummy and/or sliced bread is still going overboard, but I see where the sentiment came from. LP1 is dreamy, beautiful and dynamic, matching next-gen vocal layering and processing with production so forward-thinking it’s almost backsliding. Her lyrics at times almost remind me of high school English class poetry and leave something to be desired and her videos seem creatively heavy-handed, both hinting at traces of the uber-artiste direction I was initially afraid of her taking.

For those unexperienced in the practice of uber-artistry, here’s three more uber-artiste things that happened at the show:

  • Fifteen+ minutes of nebulous droning music as a precursor to the actual show
  • A group of backing instrumentalists looking like a Flock of Seagulls cover band
  • Herky-jerky ragdoll choreography(?) most people would describe as interpretive dance

In spite of it all, FKA twigs is pretty. Her music, not just her. The ear for harmonies, the beat selection, the massive yet judicious use of effects processing, the soft and crystalline voice floating along inside the music rather than standing on top of it. Perfect music for the bedroom or the headphones. It’s just pretty music. Here’s the problem with pretty music though: it’s near impossible to reproduce faithfully in a live setting. Unfortunately—but predictably—this happened with FKA twigs’ performance.

The voice? So gentle it got lost in the mix, trampled by anything close to its frequency range. The vocal layering? Gone, save for emphasis during choruses and bridges. The production? Pre-cut loops and one-shot samples played by a trio of sample pad drummers with a broken clock’s sense of timing (one of them apparently missed the day in drum school when they learned about triplets). Blaming the sound engineer is a cheap fallback. Sure they could have turned up the mic, but what’s frustrating is that, with the proper caliber of musicians, the live show would have worked well.

What I learned is that FKA twigs is such a striking presence, she can do without what happens when artists making music created strictly in the box try to make for a more palatable (read: exciting!) live show. The drummers and light show and smoke machines were ostensibly there to make the visual presentation more “interesting” yet all the pomp and circumstance did nothing but distract from the star of the show. Twigs is so entrancing and mesmerizing and full of beauty and sensuality and sex and fire, I would have been equally entertained just to watch her do the damn thing by herself or maybe with a single DJ to back her up. She snakes and bounds across the stage when she needs to, and it feels like she makes eye contact with the entire crowd at once. If you can tunnel your vision to focus on her and her alone, her concert feels like you’re the only one watching.

Listening to LP1 the morning after, I had a minor struggle in fighting the feeling it had been somehow cheapened by the lackluster of the show I’d witnessed 12 hours prior. It’s difficult to reconcile your feelings when you’re disappointed by live performances of music you’ve already decided you love, only when it was in headphones and your eyes were closed. Just remember that you can apply the old adage to the albums that will come to save the day, every day: never meet your heroes. An album is a permanent record and a legacy of that thing you love. A live show is just ephemera.

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