November 3, 2008
When Swedish songstress Lykke Li played an in-store set at Amoeba Records a few months ago, it was hard to ignore the fact that the live presentation bore little in common with her songs as they exist on her current release, Youth Novels. Where that album paints her in an overproduced sheen — complete with an electronic bias — the Amoeba show saw her in a vulnerable, organic state. Perhaps it was the bustle of the patrons and employees that were paying her no heed or the under-a-microscope daylight setting, but that performance was particularly spare, with her vocals soaked in reverb as if to mask any fragility the environment might have betrayed. Regardless, the show was endearing and lovely, rendering the album almost unlistenable in comparison. To be sure, for the few that were there, seeing that event was to witness something special, as she and her band created an artful halo in an intimidating, odds-against environment.
Returning to Los Angeles to headline a sold-out El Rey Theatre, Lykke Li improbably topped that Amoeba experience last night. Taking the stage in front of a simple black backdrop which boldly proclaimed her name in white letters, she set the mood with “Dance, Dance, Dance” — a goosebumps-producing number at the in-store — and instantly took the crowd captive.
With fire in her belly, she toured the bulk of her album with refined delivery and interpretation. Gone were the reverb-sauced vocals, and her backing trio of cute indie rock boys, tighter now than newly minted Velcro, provided choir-like vocals and an onslaught of pulsating, dance-insistent beats with minimal electronic manipulation. Fully invested in her performance, it was clear each syllable that left Lykke Li’s mouth was emphatically backed by every fiber of her being. Magnetic on stage, her movements were at times spastic and reminiscent of the African Anteater Ritual from the 1987 Patrick Dempsy teen vehicle Can’t Buy Me Love (when she wasn’t busy beating the hell out of a cymbal, tambourine or harnessing a kazoo or megaphone). While that might invite unkind commentary toward anyone less sincere (and sexy), with Lykke Li, it’s not so much that she “pulls it off” as it is just part of who she is — and to have it any other way would be criminal.
Surprise covers of Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” and a jam with openers Friendly Fires helped buttress her limited catalogue, but in no way overshadowed stalwart renditions of her own “I’m Good, I’m Gone,” “Hanging High” and “Breaking It Up.”
Amping things up with a journey through A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” to close her encore, Lykke Li caught the audience off-guard by asking them for some call-and-response. “Can I get an ‘O?’” she started, to which the puzzled crowd responded weakly. Four letters later, she had to sum it up herself: “Obama,” she stated simply, then escaped to the wings of the stage amidst cheers of approval. A far cry from her Amoeba performance, which she ended by imploring “buy my record…I need new shoes.”
As Lykke Li’s lead-ins, Friendly Fires positively erupted on stage like south-of-the-border firecrackers, laying claim to the house with virus-like accelerated disco beats and lots of cowbell. Coming on visually like a short-bus fistfight between Mick Jagger and Ian Curtis, frontman Ed Macfarlane made an irresistible master of ceremonies. With a hellacious set couched somewhere between the dance haven of LCD Soundsystem and the affable effectiveness of Franz Ferdinand — with bits of New Order and polyrhythmic space junk thrown in — Friendly Fires instantly made their remaining L.A. performances this week mandatory.