Tame Impala sows Beatles-esque pop vocals into a futuristic sound grid


Nick Allbrook, Kevin Parker, Julien Barbagallo and Jay Watson of Tame Impala perform at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C, Feb. 14, 2013. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)
February 21, 2013

For all of the futuristic flourishes, there’s an undeniably timeless and familiar force at the core of Tame Impala’s music. And most of the time, it’s the Beatles.

On Wednesday night, the Perth, Australia-based quintet delivered a set of echo-drenched ear candy at a sold-out 9:30 Club. The audience members bobbed and clapped but rarely sang along, if only because it’s tough to meet the pitch of singer Kevin Parker’s eerie and spaced-out vocals.

Led by Parker — who is the group’s frontman, guitarist, producer and principal songwriter — Tame Impala plays gauzy psychedelic pop that’s heavily indebted to the black-lit sounds of the ’60s and ’70s. It’s the vocals, mostly, that spur the Fab Four comparisons. Whether Parker’s hitting a high note, wheezing, growling or harmonizing with himself, he is a dead ringer for John Lennon.

The band’s retro flourishes are frequently spun off-center by futuristic production techniques. Parker approaches songwriting from a perspective that’s deeply informed by electronic dance music — he samples and chops the band’s rhythm section, couches his guitar leads in anachronistic synthesizer flourishes, and applies a bevy of heady digital effects.

Like producers Mark Ronson, who helmed Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” or Danger Mouse, who has helped out on the last several Black Keys records, Parker strives to splice vintage tones and modern technology.

The group’s debut album, “Innerspeaker,” and last year’s follow-up, “Lonerism,” are undeniably pleasant listens, full of lush and vibrant tones buoyed by ­sugar-smattered melodies. But the warped and gooey sounds that make the records distinctive are hard to replicate outside of the studio, and in concert, Parker and his bandmates can do only so much to reproduce them.

On Wednesday night, they delivered the goods, but mostly stuck to an established script — reproducing their hookiest songs note for note and warble for warble. Classic rock might make up a large chunk of Tame Impala’s sonic DNA, but the group hasn’t really absorbed that era’s sense of theatricality. Beyond a few bouncing hairdos and the undulating screen-saveresque projections, there wasn’t a lot of motion onstage. But Tame Impala’s music isn’t so much meant to grab your attention as it’s supposed to waft over your brain like so much incense through a New Age boutique.

The set was at its strongest when the band wandered off the grid. On the prog-tinged tune “Elephant,” the quintet stretched out a little, spinning off into abstract noodling and a reggae-inflected breakdown before finally ambling back to the song’s main riff.

During the encore, the band extended the coda of “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” for several minutes while drummer Julien Barbagallo pounded out endless inversions of the song’s beat. A flood of synthesizer chords sloshed through the PA, and Parker’s pitch-stretched guitar riffs squealed and sizzled, sounding, at times, like the Chipmunks covering Prince’s “Purple Rain.” In moments like this, the what and when that Tame Impala was attempting to conjure got a little harder to pin down.

Leitko is a freelance writer.

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