Washed Out‘s headlining performance on the Bowery stage was immediately preceded by Grimes, a one-woman synth-pop outfit. Claire Boucher, a winsome Canadian blonde with a nervous demeanor, overcame her initial nervousness (“I haven’t performed in awhile, so this is going to be really sketchy”) to provide oblique and dark synth pop that was pretty, moody and also pretty moody. Boucher messed with her voice—a really weird creation halfway between Kate Bush and that singer from “Barbie Girl”—by adding reverb, meta-harmonies and pitch shifts. That, coupled with the dark synth beats, veered Grimes’ set dangerously close to “witch house.” But witch house sucks, to the point of it not being able to justify its own existence. Boucher certainly achieved a dark—though purposeful—set.
On the other side of the spectrum, there was Washed Out. A Washed Out show, at least in theory, could be cause for apprehension. It was only back in 2009 that Washed Out became one of the poster bands for “chillwave,” that amorphously defined movement that nestled somewhere between lo-fi and synth pop. Unlike its similarly facetious sibling “witch house,” chillwave has become an established genre—one of the oddities of indie rock at which we knowingly shake our heads and keep listening.
The trouble with chillwave, at least in some opinions, is that it eschewed songcraft for woozy synths—basically that it was boring. But this year we’ve seen a minitrend, with chillwave stalwarts Toro Y Moi, Washed Out and Memory Tapes releasing brighter, poppier works with stronger songs.
Washed Out signified this transition with a five-person band taking the place of a bedroom project and alter-ego Ernest Greene turning into a frontman. Greene came onstage with smiles, handclaps and frontman banter. The rest of the band was similarly muscular, with bass and synths stressed (the drummer could have been stronger). With harmonies, choruses and disco beats, Washed Out is a synth-pop band—chillwave nothing. And it’s a pretty good band, too.
At the end of the show, Washed Out proved Bradford Cox’s premonition that 2011 would be the year of the saxophone, with an irony-free sax solo out. It was just one of a litany of musical moments—Kaputt, Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory,” that ridiculous last song on Bon Iver’s new album—that is making 2011 the year of the sexy sax comeback.