“What’s up North American mammals?” Michelle Zauner asked as a follow up to her band’s opening song. Boxed in by massive diorama scenes of the natural world, it wasn’t clear if she was speaking to some of the notable achievements in taxidermy (buffalo!) or to the Angeleno attendees of the Natural History Museum’s continuing First Fridays series.
Japanese Breakfast, Zauner’s most recent project (she is also a member of Philadelphia’s Little Big League), filled the headlining slot with a bright, airy and efficient set. Anchored by peppy bass work from Craig Hendrix, Zauner was set free to belt out lyrics from Psychopomp, Japanese Breakfast’s first proper LP. Consider that the first line uttered during the set was, “I want to churn like Amish butter.” Now that’s an audacious entrance.
Two songs in, the gangly Hendrix hopped in place, powered up by the shimmering sounds of his band. “Day 6” was an all-hands-on-deck walk down into a chorus that is seemingly absent on the version from June, a 2013 cassette release. It was a quietly huge moment, subtly anthemic in that lo-fi way.
“Everybody Wants to Love You” best exhibited Zauner’s sweet vocals on top of an unlikely blend of garage punk and tropical island breeze, while The Cranberries’ 1993 megahit “Dreams” proved to be a slam dunk choice of a cover song for Japanese Breakfast. The instant that the band kicked in, that tune alone seemed to erase any geographic or cultural gap that developed in the quarter century (!) between 1993 and 2017.
Those keen on Psychopomp should know that two new songs were played on Friday. Apparently a second LP is in the can, and should receive a “summer” release, we were told. Closer “Machinist” may end up on that new album. It was a noticeably different palette for Japanese Breakfast, as the song featured Zauner sans guitar, working an auto-tuned microphone over dancey beats, skulking about the stage. Suffice to say, any lingering remnants of 1993 had, at this juncture, promptly left the museum.
Touring in support of new EP In The Hot, once LA local Emily Wells marched on as a one-woman band — still one of music’s best kept secrets. Truth be told, she was not alone to open the show. Joined by cellist Topu (Live Footage), Wells conjured a dark and magical set with digital loops of percussion and violin.
When Emily Wells records violin fragments with a bow in one hand, the dexterity required to set a loop with her other hand — while pinning the violin between shoulder and jaw — will make one’s head spin. Meanwhile, her vocals are often a series of mumbled syllables that obscure defined lines between single words; part of her poetry becomes lost. But it also effectively creates yet another element for her to loop.
If you were able to decipher some of the more audible lyrics, there were gems like, “you said nothing when you said it all,” or, “to tell you the truth, I was born a liar.” The latter zinger was immediately followed by a casual cymbal hit with the butt end of a drum stick, the gesture like a wink towards the sly wit of a troublemaker.
“Mama’s Gonna Give you Love” has evolved beautifully in the five years since its studio release. Following a distorted intro that included Topu’s handpicked cello work, Wells was in total control as she reached for a tambourine in between the other analog and electronic beats that she had created in real time.
Towards the end of the truncated set, Wells played “Don’t Use Me Up,” a criminally overlooked cut from 2016’s LP, Promise. Like many of her songs, it is laced with undercurrents of anxiety and desperation. But this one managed to negotiate subtle uplift via its unforgettable hook, and the tension and release generated by masterful interplay between Wells’s percussion and swirling vocal loops.
An Emily Wells set is a trance, chock full of myriad nuance that deserves the quietest of rooms. Hopefully her next LA performance will take place in a setting that is more conducive to this meditative experience. First Fridays are lively and enjoyable gatherings, but they also birth a particularly chatty happy hour that is fueled by pent up “fuck it, it’s Friday” energy. Some attendees probably should have been caged behind the glass windows of the surrounding dioramas. Behave you animals!
Japanese Breakfast Setlist
The Woman That Loves You
Everybody Wants to Love You
Dreams (Cranberries cover)
Emily Wells Setlist
Mama’s Gonna Give You Love
Pack of Nobodies
Symphony 6: Fare Thee Well & the Requiem Mix
Don’t Use Me Up
In For the New World