Indie rock can oftentimes be blunt, but that is not to say it lacks finesse; to the contrary, some of the best indie rock artists only achieve their blunt sound with a great deal of finesse. Mitski’s concert at the Urban Lounge proved just so, demonstrating the extent to which practice and finesse can take a band from good to great.
You don’t have to look hard to find where Mitski mustered such skills. As Carrie Battan brings to light in her article for The New Yorker, the singer-songwriter released her first two albums, LUSH and Retired from Sad, New Career in Business, while studying music composition at SUNNY Purchase. Since graduating, she has released another two albums, Bury Me at Makeout Creek and Puberty 2, both of which pushed her towards a more traditional, rock sound. Despite this, it’s evident that Mitski’s training in school has paid off; her command of her voice is impressive, and even within more traditional arrangments her attention to detail is difficult to match.
Overall, this gives Mitski a good amount of experience to work with, which stands in contrast to opener Stong Words. An up-and-coming act from Salt Lake City, Strong Words carry the sound of a band beginning to solidify their musical identity. At its best, their music conjures easy-going vibes with mellow vocals and an airy feel. At its worst, it feels too easy, collapsing in on the padding its mix overly relies upon. The sound balance at the concert didn’t help, rendering the guitar and the vocals indistinguishable, although out-of-tune harmonies in the vocals occasionally (and unfortunately) stuck out in the mix. All in all, these factors ultimately rendered Strong Words’ performance unsatisfactory.
Despite the luke-warm opening, Mitski quickly brought an air of excitement to the Urban Lounge. With a restless start, her band cut their teeth right away on newer material, including more raw cuts like “Dan the Dancer”. Contributing to the raw sound was their mix, which was both drier than Strong Words’ and better balanced. This change put the talent of Mitski and her band members front and center, and fortunately, they were more than able to impress; particularly noteworthy was the guitarist, whose adept use of effects turned the instrument into a jack-of-all-trades for the band.
Later in the set, Mitski took over duties on the guitar, dismissing her band members to play some songs by herself. The expectation at this point was to hear some of her quieter arrangements, but she began with one of her loudest, playing “My Body’s made of Crushed Little Stars”. It was the most intimate moment of the set; the space left behind by her band produced an atmosphere rawer than anywhere else in the set. It also gave her room to truly demonstrate the power of her vocals as she bellowed over the jagged-sounding guitar.
The use of space in her arrangements demonstrates just one of the ways Mitski puts time and thought into her craft. Strong Words does not lack thought when it comes to their music, but the difference in the quality of the performances demonstrates not just the importance of a good sound balance, but the extent to which practice and training can take a band from good to great.