Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Naked and Famous concert review: Santa Ana, CA

photo by Kelly Swift
A version of my review originally appeared at

An intriguing yin and yang dynamic accentuates the music of The Naked and Famous.

It’s opposite what you’d normally expect from male/female frontpersons: guitarist Thom Powers tends to sing in a quiet, hushed fashion, while keyboardist Alisa Xayalith often leans toward a more exuberant, Bjork style (both are pictured, left, from an LA show earlier this month). Their album title Passive Me, Aggressive You is totally appropriate as a result.

The New New Zealand alt-rock band formed in 2008. That captivating debut effort emerged Down Under last year, reached the pole position, spawned a No. 1 single (“Young Blood”) and helped the young Auckland natives snag seven trophies at the New Zealand Music Awards, which is equivalent to our Grammys.

Passive Me, Aggressive You arrived Stateside the following spring and was also well-received. “Punching in a Dream” is currently top 20 on Billboard’s Modern Rock radio chart; the track “Young Blood” sits atop the KROQ/106.7 FM play list.

Although The Naked and Famous toured America consistently in 2011, I never had the opportunity to catch a Southern California show. After seeing them on the station’s Almost
Acoustic Christmas concert web cast last Sunday and being mightily impressed, my attendance at the local gig was suddenly imperative.

Another good reason: Thursday night’s packed Observatory (formerly Galaxy) appearance was relatively cozy, compared to when the group steps up to the much larger Wiltern in L.A. on March 21 (tickets are on sale now, $27-$34, through

Opening the hour-long set with a brief, atmospheric “The Ends,” Powers – whose handsome looks are reminiscent of Haircut 100’s Nick Heyward circa 1984 - and Xayalith’s pipes blended smoothly. Then everyone transitioned into the near industrial assault of “A Wolf in Geek’s Clothing.”

Fans that filled the pit area immediately went bonkers upon the initial sleek, plinking synth lines in “Punching in a Dream” and danced around. Xayalith followed suit as she sang lead on the exhilarating tune (The pristine mix was another fine example of the Observatory’s recently upgraded sound system; I almost felt like I was listening to a CD).

Both singers’ monotone delivery on “The Sun,” plus Aaron Short’s sedate keyboard work, set an ominous tone. The LED screen behind them projected selected pixilated images related to the song’s risqué music video banned from YouTube (the clip is available at The pair’s vocal phrasing steadily increased with Powers’ slicing electric guitar and built up tension before deflating into a slow, Radiohead-esque piano finish.

Other highlights included Jesse Wood’s crashing drums amid the dramatic “Frayed,” where the sensual male/female vocal interplay recalled Berlin’s “Sex (I’m A).” A majestic wash of ‘80s synths (there were four onstage, used at different junctures) had a mid-period New Order vibe during the frantic, dancey electro-pop of “All of This”; the soaring “Eyes” was more dense, a la M83.

The crowd clapped along during the enticing main set closer “Girls Like You” - an emotional showcase for Powers that could’ve easily slotted on an old John Hughes film soundtrack like “Pretty in Pink,” but still comes across entirely modern. The Naked and Famous capped off the encores with a high energy “Young Blood.” The band's enthusiasts went mad for it, pogoing and singing along at high volume as Xayalith (a real spitfire) danced around some more.

All told, this was an excellent concert from the promising Kiwis.

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