REVIEW: Caroline Polachek balances brooding and bounce at The Independent

SAN FRANCISCO — The stage at The Independent was bare save for a small shrine lit by electric candles. Projected onto the back curtain was a blackened image of a wrought iron gate. A witchy, silent blonde stood at the shrine in a gold-sequined black jumpsuit, summoning long drones from a keyboard. The scene was set for the imminent emergence of Caroline Polachek.

To the first notes of “Pang,” the former Chairlift vocalist strode onto the stage wearing an all-black outfit that vaguely recalled a horse rider’s getup and smiled. Portals in the projection behind her lit up at random with the off-kilter beep-boop-bop of her 2019 album’s title track. Joined only by the one accompanist and backing tracks, Polachek was free to move around the stage, showing confidence and sweeping expressiveness.

“Hit Me Where It Hurts” began with low-key melodies underpinned by thumping bass and tricky hi-hat samples. Polachek’s voiced ranged from husky to fragile as she channeled grace and subtlety in the experiential lyrics.

Despite her wan face and emotive vocal maneuvers, the singer pierced any glum vibes with bright perceptiveness. Her emotional sincerity came through most strongly in her upbeat songs. Slower tunes featured strident accents to flesh out languid washes of minimal synth and bass. The entire set gained dimension via Polachek’s implied rebelliousness and attitude.

For the affecting “Look At Me Now,” Polachek took an acoustic guitar wearing a capo and strummed minor chords. Her singing here exposed a raw interior space unequaled elsewhere during the set. Her face reflected a weathered solemnity surprising in one so youthful.

The next few songs dwelt in moody subterranean ruminations. Though the pacing requested patience, this phase of the concert allowed Polachek to explore other facets of her creative range. She relocated to the left side of the stage for minimalist “Insomnia,” narrating ghost-like incantations. Her ethereal howls recalled the brooding atmospherics of Chelsea Wolfe on the groaning reflection “Ocean Of Tears.”

Perhaps Polachek’s unique triumph lay in the taut interplay of her dark-synth palette and her bubblegum pop sensibilities. Seeming to speak to the disgruntled teenager in everyone, she didn’t linger long in the depths. On a cover of The Corrs’ “Breathless” she used voice breaks and falsetto impressively, benefiting from the song’s discernible beat and melodic pop through-line. “Caroline Shut Up” made for a crowd-pleasing slow dance.

The biggest indication of Polachek’s lighter side came with set closer and dance-pop song “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings.” Dedicated to a belief in self, the bouncy, Cyndi-Lauper-ish single featured a tuneful chorus and energetic dancing by the singer. It was heartwarming to see Polachek break into this roller-rink anthem. Shedding her dark temptations, her arresting gaze betrayed the twinkling smile of her inner joy.

Polachek returned for a two-song encore, prefacing “Parachute” by describing the dream that inspired the song. The dream centered on a peaceful meta-vision of her imminent demise being repeatedly diverted by a benevolent fate. This context heightened the song’s effect, making for one of the most powerful moments of the night. The instinctive pop song “Door” closed things out, tapping into a long-form understanding of life.

British producer A.G. Cook opened the show with a lush and layered stutter-step mural of sound. This relative peace was soon shattered by ripping noise punctuation and arrhythmic synth wood-blocks over bone-rattling bass. “Bouncy” aptly describes his style, both visually and sonically. Wearing a half-grin and hoodie, Cook bobbed and weaved behind an array of synthesizers, mixers and effects.

A frequent collaborator of Charli XCX, Cook took the audience through an aural junkyard of sound. One could pick out canned Caribbean sounds, recycled snippets of melodic voices and dingy, disorienting heaps of percussion. Distorted re-imaginations of radio songs surfaced occasionally, replete with rampant pitch-bending. Abrupt interruptions of awful digital noise made Cook’s set edgy and unpredictable.

Follow writer Alexander Baechle at Follow photographer Onome Uyovbievbo at and

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