Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Hall is the kind of room that was built to be a showpiece. The elaborate paneled wood and vast window behind the stage seem to beg for precision and control in any performer who graces the stage, the perfect context for orchestral music and studied jazz. It’s a curious setting, then, for a double bill of “indie rock,” that dubious genre of popular music that relies as much on an element of volatility as it does on its near-universal accessibility. Performing to a quiet, seated student body, Atlas Sound and Laura Stevenson and the Cans made an academic display of why indie rock belongs in such a space—for better or worse.
A former Skidmore student, Stevenson filled the time between her quintet’s songs with affable banter about the dining hall and dorm life, making sly reference to the night ahead at Saratoga bars and how odd it was that the crowd wasn’t standing. But it was clear that the audience was perfectly comfortable where they were, listening to the Cans’ sweet, agreeable/forgettable songs about making one’s way in Brooklyn as a 20-something, while the band enjoyed ample space to purvey their fresh-out-of-the-box Telecaster-accordion ditties at a prudent volume.
It was exactly the type of display that Bradford Cox, the frontman for Deerhunter who performs solo as Atlas Sound, railed against in an interview earlier this month, decrying “indie” rock as having become easy, generic and institutionalized. The irony, of course, is that Cox’s new music, released as Parallax, not only belongs in a listening room as pristine as the Zankel but demands it. Cox’s musical vision is independent in the way of a bedroom recluse or outsider savant. And given the space afforded full orchestras, he crafted, at times, a sound nearly as magnanimous.
Cox is no virtuoso. With acoustic guitar and harmonica, he cut a simple, if distinctive, figure onstage, clawing and pecking at his strings and incanting stream-of-consciousness phrases into the microphone. But with a vast effects board at his feet, he could turn a brittle, atonal lament into a celestial wave of sound that yearned to fill the room. “Te Amo” utilized string-triggered arpeggios, at least a dozen loops of guitar and enough reverb and delay on Cox’s vocals to fully evoke a lyric describing “such strange dreams.” Indeed, when the choir of oscillating loops would reach their crescendo, often segueing into other tunes entirely, the effect was usually warm and slightly euphoric, a somewhat naïve escape from the song’s underlying depression rather than full catharsis. On “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs,” though, the effect was queasy and deliberately unwell, illustrating the opening line “Is your love worth the nausea it may bring?” then plunging deeper into the lonely, looping haze with shivered gasps of “cold, cold, cold.”
A naked performance of intensely personal music, Cox’s set felt at times like a reluctant exposition of a process he’d prefer to keep within the intimacy of a recording studio. Yet, as he awkwardly returned to the stage for an encore, following the audience’s partial, confused exodus, he showed a genuine interest in sharing this music, if for no other reason than to extend that gauzy cocoon of sound protecting the frailty of the lyric to those with whom it might resonate.