"Data Garden: Quartet" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Augustana and Greylag at Knitting Factory

Asobi Seksu, North Highlands, and little, big at Roe on the Rocks

by Laura Wasson Little, big at highline ballroom 4:16

Monday’s Roe on the Rocks show at Highline Ballroom was a bit like going to a rock concert with your besties from Women’s Studies. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and it was certainly for a great cause, but the overall atmosphere felt as subdued and reticent as a high school dance where the (ten) boys stand on one side and the girls on the other. Either that or a really electrifying Simone de Beauvoir seminar.

Comic Sara Benincasa acted as affable MC with a distinctly sardonic Peggy Olson in flip-flops vibe. When her jokes landed, they were great, but long-winded ramblings about diaphragms and NuvaRings resulted in embarrassed laughter. The crowd might have been ardent supporters of women’s reproductive rights, but it seems that no one, including liberated ladies, really wants to talk about vaginas at length on a Monday night.

Up first was little, big consisting of Dana Young (little) and Chuck Meyer (big). Their catchy, fun dance songs, presented only with guitar-ified bass (the chicken fried steak of the music world?) and iPod, were vaguely reminiscent of Letters to Cleo or a really happy Siouxsie and the Banshees. The overall effect was a bit like being at some sort of disco ashram or inside a Free People catalogue with Young twirling and skipping about in a loose, shredded sundress and glittery TOMS and Meyer strumming madly on bass. While the songs were certainly enjoyable, the vocals were turned down too much to really be understood making it a bit hard to follow along. Their best number was a hip-shaking rendition of Prince’s “When You Were Mine”. If Young and Meyer capture more of that energy, they’ll be on their way to a really promising sound.

North highlands at highline ballroom 4:16

After another awkward/funny interlude from Benincasa, Brooklyn’s North Highlands took to the stage. The eclectic indie-poppers’ sound is distinct in that it is both nostalgic and completely forward looking; you’ve heard it before but not really. It takes the best aspects of eighties pop rock like echoing guitars and mandolins (courtesy of Daniel Stewart and Mike Barron), high haunting vocals and danceable keys and reconfigures them for the twenty-first century. There was unmistakable melancholy in songs likes “Benefits”, but vocalist Brenda Malvini’s tone never felt overtly sad, in fact she encouraged the audience to dance as the band took the stage. Pity they didn’t follow her lead. So much of the set was worthy of enthusiasm.

Interestingly enough, Malvini provided the most poignant moment of the night. In between songs, she popped one of her birth control pills and chased it with beer. It was a simple act, in fact it was downright ordinary, but it was the perfect reminder of what we were all there for in the first place. When ordinary rights are being challenged, sometimes the most rebellious thing is to just keep exercising them. No apologies. No fanfare.

  Yuki chikudate at highline ballroom 4:16

Asobi Seksu closed the evening with a rousing set of really noisy, yet miraculously melodic pop. Aggro-pop if you will, with a side of heavy distortion and frenetic drums. While the band as a whole worked beautifully together, it was clear that vocalist and keyboardist Yuki Chikudate was the real star. As tiny as a sparrow, her delicate voice had a distinct, airy softness. That isn’t to say her vocals lacked confidence, rather the delicacy belied an undercurrent of strength that soared up to the rafters as pure as the blade of a knife while dreamy synths raged below. It was somewhat reminiscent of Hooverphonic, but with a lot more angst.

During their encore, Chikudate got behind the drums herself and let loose a torrent of sound. It was a thrilling moment, the front row smiling and yelling with glee. As the band left the stage for the final time, I turned to gage the rest of audience’s reaction only to discover that a good eighty percent of them had left. Sure it was a Monday night, and granted this didn’t seem like an audience hell bent on raging. But still, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Why leave early? You never know what magic you might miss.