REVIEW: Charli XCX charts a new course at the Fox Theater

Charli XCX

Charli XCX performs at The Fox Theater in Oakland on Oct. 2, 2019. Photos: Joaquin Cabello.

OAKLAND — If Charli XCX wanted to make a point about where she is in her career, the alt-pop star made it at her sold-out show at the Fox Theater with a set that forsook the vast majority of her early career hits and collaborations in favor of her just-released self-titled album. The new avant-pop material, which consisted of melodic ballads, EDM freak-outs and hip-hop (the weakest part of the show), sounded like its was written by a different artist than “I Love It” (her 2012 co-write with Icona Pop) or even 2016 synth-pop gem “Boys.” She saved those two for the end of the show.

Charli XCX

Charli XCX performs at The Fox Theater in Oakland on Oct. 2, 2019.

This new Charli XCX was both empowered and full of regret, and that’s where some of the meaning may have been lost in translation. The new album, which includes appearances by HAIM, Lizzo, Clairo, Yaeji, Christine and the Queens, Big Freedia and a plethora of others—is essentially about massive regret over a breakup. They’re not happy songs. Though on stage, they were party-inciting. The other thing missing Wednesday was live music. Rather than a band, with which she’s performed in the past, Charli XCX was backed by two giant white cubes and two banks of LED lights. Presumably, someone was in the back pressing play on the songs. The lack of live music definitely took something away from the performance, as even the new songs sounded more muddled, from one to the next.

That’s not to say there weren’t highlights. After a pre-recorded intro of her thanking her collaborators on the album, Charli XCX appeared and opened with new cuts “Next Level Charli” and “Click.” The former was a hip-hop song that recalled Lady Sovereign. “Click” also leaned on hip-hop, but the new-school type, with her rapping in triplets over samples of thunder bursts and a grating industrial breakdown.

The first triptych of songs was topped off with guitar-led ballad, “I Don’t Wanna Know,” giving Charli XCX a chance to truly sing for the first time before briefly walking off stage as the cubes flashed and spacey music played. When she returned a minute later for the next set of songs, the mood was considerably more aggressive on the EDM-tinged “Vroom Vroom,” which had dissonant synths. “Cross You Out” had an anthemic mid-tempo rock groove, while “Warm” came across as a Caribbean-tinged pop tune. Both of these tunes have a feature—Sky Ferreira and HAIM, respectively—but like with all the other songs performed, the features were either not played or were drowned out by bass or crowd noise.

Charli XCX

Charli XCX performs at The Fox Theater in Oakland on Oct. 2, 2019.

After the next thumper, “February 2017,” she left the stage again as fog swallowed the performance space.

The next batch began with “Thoughts,” which Charli XCX sang partly in falsetto, with heartbreak on her voice. In fact, it was one of the key times in the show when the the performance matched what the song was about. “I’m driving ’round in Hollywood/ I can only think ’bout you,” she sang. The following “White Mercedes” was another highpoint. The ’80s-influenced ballad allowed her to sing. Charli XCX has a unique and beautiful voice that she didn’t fully take advantage of at the show. The three-song pop block concluded with “Official,” a synth-laden tune dripping in nostalgia amid rhythmic keyboard strikes.

Charli XCX

Charli XCX performs at The Fox Theater in Oakland on Oct. 2, 2019.

At this point Charli XCX invited some fan dancers, including a couple of drag queens, and opener Brooke Candy, on stage for what was essentially a twerk-off. That was fitting because the song that scored the scene was “Shake It,” which included contributions from Big Freedia, CupcakKe and Brooke Candy herself (more on her in a bit). Musically, it was a bit of a mess, with numerous people on stage screaming “Shake It” while shaking out of sync. Visually, it was a colorful experiment. Brooke Candy remained on stage to rap “I Got It” alongside the headliner.

The main set concluded with “Blame It on Your Love” and “Silver Cross”—two songs that like the other poppier material, allowed Charli XCX to sing the melody, and “2099.” The latter song seemed to blend all of her major current influences—hip-hop, industrial and synth hop—into one futuristic stew.

She returned to perform “Unlock It,” off 2017 EP Pop 2, 2016 single “Boys,” new cut “1999” and the previously mentioned “I Love It.”

“Are you ready to hear a song that wasn’t very big in Germany, but everyone else seems to love it?” she said by way of introduction.

Brooke Candy opened the show with a set of sexually explicit set of pop-leaning hip-hop. Like CupcakKe, many of her songs were about vaginas in various states of excitement or distress.

Brooke Candy

Brooke Candy performs at The Fox Theater in Oakland on Oct. 2, 2019.

The tattooed artist wore a glittery outfit with cloth wrapped around her in a spiral that was lined with safety pins, her hair fashioned into a cross between a troll doll and Beetlejuice. Her songs, like “Feel Yourself,” “I Wanna Fuck Right Now,” “Happy” and “XXXTC” were generally percussion-driven. Like Charli XCX she also performed alone on stage to backing tracks. There was a fun EDM-tinged cut in the mix, as well as the rock-influenced mid-tempo tune “Happy Days.”

At one point, Brooke Candy did a headstand, kicking her legs out to the delight of the fans in the front.

“I lived in San Francisco for five years,” she said toward the end. “The house parties in Oakland were better.”

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