Music Review: Cut Copy at 9:30 Club

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cut Copy's 9:30 club set can be summed up in one word: flashback.

The Australian dance-rock band is forever revisiting that totally awesome era when synthpop acts ruled the Earth -- or at least the dance floor.

Then, Euro-fantastic songs such as New Order's crossover hit "Blue Monday" were inescapable. Now, Cut Copy has become a minor international sensation -- with a large-enough following to sell out a Monday-night show weeks in advance -- by redoing the '80s for college kids who missed it the first time. This mostly involved deftly reviving the synthy new-wave sound favored by Depeche Mode, Yaz and the like, back when Molly Ringwald and Michael J. Fox were big, and towering hair sculptures were even bigger.

"With hearts on fire, I reach out to you tonight," Dan Whitford sang at the beginning of Cut Copy's set. His warm, effects-laden vocal floated over an arpeggiated synthesizer line, which was soon stacked atop a thudding bass groove and pulsating, programmed drum pattern. Then came the icy, Bernard Sumner-toned guitar riffs that sounded like something straight out of the New Order songbook. (Although it wasn't the most New Order-sounding song of the set. That would be "Out There on the Ice.")

Cut Copy's secret, such as it is, is that it's not an '80s cover or tribute band. Instead, the Melbourne-based musicians perform shimmering, sharply crafted disco-meets-rock originals that only sound as if they're little-known B-sides by the biggest bands of the "Just Can't Get Enough" era.

Cut Copy's euphoric show-closer, "Lights and Music," for instance, had the feel of a pulsating Pet Shop Boys outtake, albeit one on which Kurt Cobain contributed a few gratuitous guitar licks. Indeed, the indie-approved trio -- which tours as a quartet -- doesn't always adhere to a strict flashback-ready synthpop formula.

Standout "Feel the Love," from the band's celebrated 2008 album, "In Ghost Colours," began as a sunny, strummy pop song built on acoustic guitar riffs, bright harmony vocals and live drumming. But the song shifted dramatically after about 90 seconds, picking up a programmed disco beat and some icy synth vamps, along with an exotic, robotic vocoderized vocal. Then, just because, the band added a series of Human League-like synth riffs.

Sometimes, there were hardly any synthy flourishes: The rocker "So Haunted" sounded like a Rapture rip-off with Fleetwood Mac's tight harmonies. And the noisy, feedback-drenched "Unforgettable Season" was something like an Interpol song. The harshness of that number -- bleated vocals! guitar squalor! -- was jarring in the middle of an overwhelmingly joyous and exuberant 70-minute performance.

Although "performance" might not be the right word, exactly: Whitford's lead vocals were live, as was some of the drumming; but much of the music and some of the accompanying vocals seemed to be recorded. Like many of their antecedents, the members of Cut Copy are charisma-challenged, too, doing very little of interest onstage, aside from thrusting the occasional hand in the air.

Not that this, or the data points, mattered much to the sweaty 9:30 club crowd. "Hey, Washington -- you guys ready to [expletive] dance?" Whitford shouted during the song "Saturday." He shot his bony arm skyward to cue a detonating bass drop. The synths swelled, the disco beat surged, the high-tech lights blinked, and the crowd roared approvingly.

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