We Know It’s Only Rock N’ Roll But We Like It

MIDAS TOUCH: Santogold, TLA, Tuesday Night [Photo by TIFFANY YOON]

MEcropped2.jpgBY JONATHAN VALANIA There is an old, cruel joke that goes: Those that can’t do, teach. The local version, factoring in Philadelphia’s Don’t-Call-Us-The-Sixth-Borough inferiority complex, goes something like: Those who can’t make it in New York settle for Philly. Well-worn from overuse, this canard tends to rub locals the wrong way, especially the city’s creative class, so it was an awkward moment when Philly native Santogold, AKA Santi White, daughter of John Street bundler Ron White, made a point of announcing to the near-capacity crowd at the TLA Tuesday night that she now calls Brooklyn home. It was preceded by a less than sincere sounding “It’s so great to be back here” — like she was on a mercy date, or something.

Ouch, babe.

I mention this faux pas because despite all the hype, not to mention Coldplay’s curious adulation, Santogold is still a cake that needs some baking, both as a live performer and as a recording artist. Her recently released self-titled debut is a hit-or-miss affair — the singles are tight and stirring, but more than half the record qualifies as filler that never rises above the sum of its influences: Missing Persons, The Motels, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Strokes.

Backed as she was Tuesday night, by just a DJ on a laptop and two dancer/back-up singers (who I remain unconvinced actually sang a note, although their choreography was fierce and crisp, alternating between the robotic and catatonic with great effect) Santogold was the center of attention, with her blonde bangs, citrus-colored wayfarers, floral print house dress and matching leggings. And her candied contralto cut through the steamy TLA air with the clarion enunciation of a playground skip rope rhyme, especially when paired with her recorded vocal on the choruses. The echoey dub-ed out pop of “Say Aha”  and “Unstoppable” set the dancefloor aflame. And both the electro-pagan hunch of “Creator” (recently playing in a Bud Light commercial near you) and the Banshee-ian howl at the moon that is “My Superman”  sounded just like the record.

And that was part of the problem. Minus a live band she is sometimes known to utilize for live performances, Santogold’s music all sounded, well, canned.

Which is just fine for 90% of hip-hop and dance music — in fact the canned-ness often makes it sound better. But too many of Santogold’s best songs  — “L.E.S. Artistes,” “You’ll Find A Way,” “Lights Out” — are straight up pop-rock circa the Ray Ban-ed dawn of MTV. And with  that kind of music, there is something mildly deflating about watching someone sing song after song backed not by actual people playing guitar, bass, and drums in the moment — right in front of us, right now —  but rather the freeze-dried perfection of a digital recording of people playing guitar, bass and drums, somewhere else, a long time ago.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: A different version of this review appears in today’s Inquirer.]

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