Has the backing band become a relic of the analog age? Technological advances in both home recording and on-stage loops and effects have made it easier than ever for the talented multi-instrumentalist to eschew supporting bandmates and take the stage alone. Sure, singer-songwriters have performed solo for a long time, but this new sound is not your grandfather’s plaintive, acoustic warbling. Today, armed only with pedals, sequencers, samplers and a couple guitars, artists are creating a rich, complex sound with only a couple instruments and their own ingenuity. Bradford Cox, a.k.a. Atlas Sound, made a strong argument for the superfluity of the backing band last Saturday at Lincoln Hall. By his lonesome self he wove a rich, sensual web of psychedelic voodoo that enraptured the sold-out crowd.
The process of creating a rich live sound via looping pedals requires some patience on the crowd’s part, waiting for the artist to put all his notes in a row. Cox’s performance was like a “How-To” guide for an aspiring musician looking to follow in his footsteps. For the first song “Parallax” (also the title track from his latest album), Cox effortlessly built a swirling sonic stew, layer by delicious layer. That stew became source for an entire evening’s performance that made the entire performance seem like a single song as Cox drifted in and out of melodic structures.
Cox is also well known as the front man for indie-rock royalty Deerhunter. While Deerhunter may pay the bills, it’s unfair to term Atlas Sound as a “side-project.” In fact, Atlas Sound predates Deerhunter by a decade or so, as Cox began using the moniker Atlas Sound when he experimented with sound in his bedroom as a teenager. The term “side-project” would also demean the thought and quality of the music he produces. Atlas Sound is really the purest distillation of Cox’s creative mind. Cox has an easily identifiable songwriting touch: a good example being the sugar-sweet haziness of Deerhunter’s “Helicopter.” Atlas Sound takes that aesthetic to a logical extreme where lovely melodies float on a cotton-candy haze that blurs an undercurrent of personal loss or desperation.
Cox is amazingly at ease creating music in this solitary manner. He transitions effortlessly from one song to the next, taking his time getting the loops right before digging into the meat of the performance. He stuck mostly to songs from Parallax, and pointedly did not play any Deerhunter songs. Perhaps the only low point came during one of his certifiable indie hits “Walkabout.” On record, a catchy sample (taken from the Dovers’ “What Am I Going to Do?”) bears the light pop singing of Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear). The live version attempted to keep the jaunty beat sans sample or the higher-pitched singing of Lennox. Cox has a great voice, but he’s pretty limited in range. His attempt to sing the Lennox part fell flat. Fortunately he followed with a rousing version of “Sheila” that brought the crowd’s energy to a new height.
Cox’s gaunt frame (he suffers from Marfan syndrome) and shy on-stage demeanor had me convinced he was of the shrinking-violet school of performers. During the first hour of his set he barely acknowledged the audience at all, seemingly content brewing musical magic. But after the hour ended, the lights went up and Cox let his charming, affable personality shine through. He opened his comments with the remark “Last night I played ‘My Sharona’ for 55 minutes and the audience didn’t care for it, which is weird since they requested it.” From there he launched into a meandering speech that covered the shittiness of Aragon Ballroom, the prevalence of drugs in creating and enjoying 1970s rock and whether or not Cox himself was “avant-garde” (“I’m VERY avant-garde,” Cox remarked jokingly again and again). More than ranting diatribe, Cox questioned the audience and reacted with crafty aplomb to shouted responses. The sequence culminated later when a fan passed up a poster to be signed. Cox willingly accepted and upon sniffing the heavy-duty marker remarked, “This reminds me of middle-school. Let’s get fucked up and listen to the Ramones… in a Volvo.”
I was a little reluctant to see Atlas Sound because I feared Cox’s solo performance might be boring and self-indulgent. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I (and presumably the rest of the quiet, attentive crowd) was pulled in from the very first song. The music was beautiful in a glacial, ambient way. The compositions were more engaging when I could watch Cox create the soundscapes rather than while listening passively on record. He varied the pace of songs and kept the show interesting throughout. Time flew by and Cox’s hilarious stage banter as the show closed was the icing on the cake of an altogether excellent performance.