In a recent interview, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton dropped a hint that Alt-J was more a studio band than a live act, noting that they were from the shoegazer school.
He was on to something.
At Mr. Smalls Monday night before an excited, sold-out crowd, the British quartet from Leeds University replicated its Mercury Prize-winning debut album, “An Awesome Wave,” almost to a note.
The problem is, they could have just played the record loud and replaced the band members with cardboard cut-outs. Shoegazers can be interesting to watch, too, if we’re going to apply that label to the likes of My Bloody Valentine or Kurt Vile.
Not only did the members of Alt-J barely move, they didn’t even look all that cool brooding and, worse yet, added no extra kick or intensity to a song like “Fitzpleasure” that should have rattled the walls. Spontaneity and abandon were held thoroughly in check.
If you just wanted to hear “An Awesome Wave” played live and played well, you may have been happy with the show, as many people were. Alt-J recreated the album’s intricate layers — which fall in the sonic range somewhere between Radiohead and the Dave Matthews Band — while Unger-Hamilton and frontman Joe Newman also nailed the beautiful delicate-to-forceful vocal harmonies.
Newman was equally adept with the more pure melodic vocal style, as on “Tessellate,” and the weird, constricted one he applies to songs like “Fitzpleasure” and “Breezeblocks,” a nod to "Where the Wild Things Are." He does that with a gentle swaying motion that serves as Alt-J’s most tangible bit of stagecraft.
Coming from a town that produced Gang of Four, these guys need to work on being just a little wilder.
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