Maybe expectations were too high. Austra’s 2011 acclaimed debut Feel it Break is one of those rare albums I am always in the mood for. No matter the mood or activity – riding the metro to work, getting ready for a fun night out, cleaning the house, ruminating over ex-lovers, spontaneous solo dance parties in my living room – somehow, magically, Austra’s unique brand of electro-dance goth-pop seems to capture all.
Perhaps it was too soon. When I set out for their July 3rd show at Club Soda, I was still buzzing from seeing A Tribe Called Red there the night before. This was a show so good that, I realized as I scanned the audience, there wasn’t a single person not dancing. Even the security guard by the front of the stage was jamming out.
On Wednesday night I wanted to dance, which isn’t entirely fair since not all of Austra’s songs are dance-able. But I wanted to be carried away by Katie Stelmanis’s enormous, operatic voice, the supporting vocals of Romy and Sari Lightman, and the dark heavy beats of drummer Maya Postepski , bassist Dorian Wolf and keyboardist Ryan Wonsiak.
I was already impatient by the time the band took to the stage at around 11:30 pm, half an hour late. And Stelmanis , although still mesmerizing, seemed a bit unsure of herself, perhaps not yet comfortable with the new material from June’s release Olympia.
I’ve seen pictures, and read enough interviews to hear them classified as “hipster” and “avant-garde.” But aesthetically, it was hard not to be distracted by Wosniak’s Borat onesie, and by Sari Lightman’s circa 1994 floral one-piece shorts suit and Romy Lightman’s Enya-esque flowing diaphanous white skirt and puffy sleeves.
Now yes, I fully support one’s right to self-expression, and no, this is not a fashion piece. But with lyrics like “I came so hard/in your mouth” – so unapologetically sexual, with the kind of rawness that conjures up PJ Harvey (“lick my legs/I’m on fire”) – I wanted Stelmanis to belt it out. Instead, she seemed tentative, restrained.
I wanted ugly, raw power from the Lightman sisters, and instead got forest pixies delicately waving their arms overhead, sprinkling fairy dust. Stelmanis and Postepski have said they write their songs with the idea of performing them live in mind. Drawing on their riot grrrl punk roots could really strengthen their live performances.
The band may also have been affected by apparent sound problems. Sari and Romy Lightman’s vocals were sometimes drowned out by the music. One of their mikes went out altogether a few times, and the left speaker at the front of the stage seemed extra bass-heavy and crackly.
Austra did finally bring it, with the pulsating, synth-laden, moody yet highly dance-able “The Beat and The Pulse.” Unfortunately, it was the last song of the set, and was ultimately too little too late.
The audience, if they were also impatient, didn’t seem to mind. The energy level hovered low, but the young crowd was enthusiastic and appreciative – perhaps not carried away by the performance, but adoring and entranced by it nonetheless.
Austra performed as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. To consult the programming, visit the Festival website.