Trevor Powers has all the markings of a psychedlic savant: precocious age (22), obscure origins (Boise, Idaho), instantly identifiable voice (reedy and childlike), a couple of lush studio records (The Year of Hibernation and this year’s Wondrous Bughouse) and a cheetah-print blouse. The last of which helped Powers immediately stand out in the pre-show crowd, Tuesday night, along with his gravity-defying plume of curly bangs. Press for Wondrous Bughouse has made his project Youth Lagoon out to be a cryptic bedroom creation, celebrated as much for its unlikelihood as for its masterful production work, and Powers out to be something of the Gen Y outsider artist, crafting baroque missives from just beyond the conscious mind. Yet, in person, it’s perfectly clear how calculated Powers is about the presentation of his work, from the Animal Collective-esque iceberg stage backdrop, to the paisley linens adorning his keyboard rig, to the fact that opera played before and after the set.
It’s all a bit like a Pandora station desperately trying to constellate between Syd Barrett, Henry Darger, Wayne Coyne, Panda Bear, Built to Spill and MGMT—that is, fully aware of the ingredients in the magic tonic he (and label Fat Possum Records) have stumbled upon.
All of this, however, largely disappeared into the soup when Powers and his backing trio began to play. Less evident on Wondrous Bughouse, in all its studio-adorned glory, is the fact that the music of Youth Lagoon is piano rock at its core. Most tunes started with a simple piano motif before evolving into long-arc chord progressions and post-rock crescendos that built dramatic tension from witholding that tonic resolution the ear craves and patiently layering on more textures. Tunes like “Pelican Man” and “Sleep Paralysis” felt a bit like ’80s power ballads done up with swatches of London psychedelia, and “Attic Doctor” conjured a decidedly retro dark-carnival psych-waltz. The palette never grew quite as thick onstage as on record, with interstitial synth noise taking the place of the record’s longer interludes, but there were some trully sublime moments along the way if you were patient enough to sway along until they unfurled.
Everything about Youth Lagoon seems poised for breakthrough, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see these guys opening for the Flaming Lips or somesuch in the coming years (Powers’ strikingly vulnerable voice creates a similar effect against a psychedelic canvass as Coyne’s does against his band’s harder-rocking one), but that all depends on where they go next, namely toward heavier riffing or more danceable beats. While Foxygen have been this year’s buzzworthy new art-rock act, with their transparently rockist influences, Youth Lagoon carry more potential to radically transform how this medium works.