“Live from New York, it’s Monday night!” It didn’t have quite the same ring as it does on Saturday Night Live, but the crowd cheered the line anyway, as it was the first spoken during the set by Lauren Mayberry, the pint-sized lead singer for Glasgow trio Chvrches. This was the electro-pop band’s first time as a unit in New York, which Mayberry deemed “the spiritual home of Tina Fey,” and it was scheduled for not one but two sold-out shows at Mercury Lounge that night. I went to the early one, and while the stage banter was a little stiff though charming in its awkwardness, Mayberry’s voice was warmed up from track one.
Mayberry has experience as a drummer, but she played nothing but an occasional tambourine during the Chvrches show. She didn’t know what to do with herself during the instrumental portions of songs, and she closed out some of them with an air-drum flourish. Iain Cook and Martin Doherty have known each other for years, but they just brought Mayberry aboard about a year ago after Cook produced an EP for her band at the time, Blue Sky Archives. Mayberry’s vocal stood out in that pop-punk ensemble, but it took pairing her with clap-track beats, bass-heavy electronics and soaring synth lines to really make her sound epic. She has a pitch-perfect, squeaky-clean pop voice, but it’s not one that’s devoid of emotion. It’s got this determined sparkle to it, and it remained shining in the foreground despite attempts from Cook and Doherty, flanking her on stage, to pummel her with sinister, hulking rhythms on set-opener “Lies.”
Standing behind their planks of electronics, Cook and Doherty laid the foundations for each song with only sporadic assistance from Mayberry’s tambourine and Cook’s bass guitar. Doherty was the more rambunctious of the two, playing his drum pad with his head bowed and bobbing, and pulling his body back from his machines only to pounce back on them when the beat hit. The guys threw little flecks of gothic blackness into Mayberry’s neon rainbow, but unlike other electro-focused acts like the Knife or Purity Ring, they never let the dark side cloud the atmosphere, instead draping a shimmery veil over each track.
Mayberry left her frontwoman post once during the set so that Doherty could come forward and sing lead on a song. After such a crisp sound from Mayberry, who’d just finished singing the band’s “Recover” single, Doherty’s voice sounded muddled, his over-enthusiasm abrasive. Doherty had introduced his track by saying something about how people should know that he sings sometimes too. He said it in what appeared to be a mock aggressive tone, and it got a couple of laughs from the audience. But after watching him perform, and seeing the determinedly head-down, staring-at-the-drum-pad stance that Mayberry took the whole time, I wondered if sharing the mic was or will be a point of contention in the band. Maintaining a good band dynamic is obviously important, and letting Doherty have his go at it for a song or two can’t really hurt, but it was tough to muster excitement for his performance when Mayberry’s was obviously so much stronger.
Chvrches closed the night with a fitting though forgettable cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U,” but the better closer was the one that ended the regular set, crowd favorite “The Mother We Share.” To Mayberry’s surprise, some in the crowd called out the song’s title right from the opening synthesizer twinkle. Mayberry was singing about being in misery, but her bright voice, the breathy sustained notes and the uplifting punches of beats sent the whole thing flying. There are dark elements to Chvrches that make their type of electro-pop comparable to that of their contemporaries, but it’s the unabashed lightness in their music that disrupts the mold, like a Knife with fewer oddball edges or a Purity Ring on Prozac.