SAN FRANCISCO — As danceable as the songs of Alice Merton are, starting with her first smash hit, “No Roots,” to subsequent tunes like “Holes,” “Lash Out” and “Hit the Ground Running,” the subject matter usually carries an undercurrent of pain, doubt or fear. That’s made Merton’s unique blend of theme and melody so interesting as she prepares for the release of her full-length debut record in January.
The German-based singer-songwriter performed what’s likely the majority of her forthcoming record at August Hall on Thursday. She sang about a wide range of emotions—from the anger of “Lash Out” to the self-doubt of “Holes” to a song actually called “Jealousy”—while dancing through them all.
Merton literally hit the ground running with the explosive single of the same name before exploring her lower vocal register on “Keeps Me Awake,” a disco-tinged tune. Between songs, she made time to tell stories. While most were about the inspirations of the songs themselves, there was a comedic re-telling of a previous San Francisco experience. She said someone offered her a bus tour ticket because she “looked lost,” she accepted compliments from people who, despite likely having no home, were being very welcoming, and she crossed the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Holes,” which she described as being about the record industry executives who tried to poke holes in her dreams by not taking her seriously as an artist, came next.
“How many holes will it take,” she pleaded—even though the heartbreak was set to a catchy melody. The power pop of “Learn To Live” came next, followed by the near-operatic heights of “Jealousy.” A couple of songs later, “PCH” proved to be one of the two most unique standouts of the night. The song is a heartfelt fingerpicked ballad a la Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay. “Honeymoon Heartbreak” also took a bit of a slower pace, and Merton sang about a past relationship.
While Alice Merton writes only about her own experiences, “Speak Your Mind,” could have been interpreted on multiple levels as an inspiration to others. The pop song swayed toward R&B at times and finally devolved into wailing guitar at the end. Following the anger of “Lash Out,” she explained the story of another new cut, “Grudge,” about a former friend who didn’t make time for her until she was successful.
“I don’t hold a grudge—but I do, sometimes,” she joked. The song’s bass line closely resembled Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” and Merton’s band, all of whom are friends from college, appeared to do an instrumental cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”
Following the anticipated “No Roots,” Merton concluded with her newest single, “Why So Serious”—another highlight. Besides having an engaging melody and hook, it was likely also the most hopeful song of the night. Alice Merton took a glass-half-full view of turning off negative thinking and enjoying the moment.
East Coast indie rock and synth pop band Foreign Air opened the show with a brief set that switched back and forth between anthemic dance pop and some songs akin to electronic bedroom pop.