Music review: Chairlift at U Street Music Hall

April 22, 2012

Are the 1980s back? With some of the decade’s electronic-leaning bands, such New Order, Kraftwerk and Duran Duran, resurfacing at music festivals and museum retrospectives, and indie bands taking notes from their synthpop predecessors, the ’80s revival seems to have gone from tongue-in-cheek comparison to full-blown trend. But history doesn’t repeat itself letter for letter. It is re-imagined, reinvented and re-purposed. Contemporary crazes breed with old fads to birth new — yet kindred — spirits.

Consider Chairlift, the Brooklyn-based electronic-pop outfit that played a sold-out show at U Street Music Hall on Saturday. Ordinarily a duo consisting of vocalist Caroline Polachek and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Wimberly, the band was joined by three supporting musicians on stage. And although they didn’t dress the part of a new wave-era tribute band — no androgynous suits, shoulder pads or big hair — they did sound it, at times. As Polachek’s breathy bellows floated over sharp-edged synthesizers, one couldn’t help but hear echoes of Human League, Eurythmics and late-’80s Fleetwood Mac.

But Chairlift is also distinctly 2012. Polachek and Wimberly are quirky, laid-back and earnest, operating with a modest, recession-era sensibility. Polachek, in particular, played it cool, engaging with the audience just once to commend it for being “so psychedelic and beautiful.” The show was short but thorough. In less than an hour, Chairlift plowed through 13 songs, including its biggest hit, “Bruises,” a sugary-sweet love song made famous by a commercial for Apple’s iPod Nano. On Saturday, “Bruises” included a playful verse of Modern English’s “Melt With You.”

The band also has a dark side, and it’s a real treat. (It’s worth noting that when Chairlift formed in 2005, it aimed to make music for haunted houses.) During an extended version of “Guilty as Charged,” an eerie lullaby written from the perspective of a woman being tried for a crime she committed (“Angel in the courtroom, eagle on the ceiling, my baby’s sitting front row, witnessing my hearing”), electric drums thundered behind Polachek’s tender voice, which slithered between a high-pitched whisper and cracking moan.

These shadowy moments lend the band authenticity. This is Chairlift’s own territory, an upbeat yet understated destination for those seeking an ’80s-era daydream minus the flash.

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