Thursday, January 15, 2009

all eyes on you now.

I’ve been gushing about Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Ivana XL for well over a year now, so I figured it was about time I haul my ass up to everyone’s favorite borough to see her play. Technically, Ivana played in the LES of Manhattan, at the uber-hip bar and venue Pianos, but I spent the majority of my three-day trip in good old BK (not Burger King) thanks to the hospitality of my dear friend John. Ivana was the opening act of a four-band line up, and she quietly took the stage at 9 and began playing without much introduction.

Her set opened with a new one, “Mud”, which is a dreamy little ditty about a forgotten friendship. I was immediately taken by the power of her voice, which is strong on recording but even better live. Her presence was quiet and unassuming, and she claimed to be nervous, but her the strength of voice suggested anything but. It's marked by a kind of wavering softness and intentional fluctuation that lend it a cooing quality (John gets the credit for that one). Friends have told me her voice reminds them of Mirah or Emiliana Torrini, but those comparisons still don’t quite capture it. It’s smooth and silky, but she delivers her lyrics with a punchy emphasis that keeps things interesting.

Ivana followed her opener with “Stelluh”, “Sundowner”, “2043” and “The King”, a few featuring additional lyrics from their demo versions (if this was a fancy review, I would have bothered to remember which). Ivana is rightfully applauded for her brevity and bucking of conventional verse-bridge-chorus-repeat song structure, but I appreciated the added length. Her songs always end before I’m ready, and I often listen to one on repeat several times before moving to the next.

Lyrically, Ivana is raw, biting, and self-deprecating. You generally get what she’s singing about, but that’s not to say her songs lack poetry. It’s just that they are supremely relatable, and, while there’s a time and a place for esoteric symbolism, the bluntness of her lyrics hits me in a way that most others don’t. In "Black Eye", she reveals her insecurity: "I dyed my hair black like the girl you first loved, now you're gonna love me too, you'll love me just as much." I love this. I love her honesty. She often sings about failed love but, rather than choose between the “Take me back” or “Why did I ever love you?” false dichotomy that too often exists, she recognizes a third, more realistic option: messy ambiguity. In “Sundowner”, about a guy who wants to “bang the whole wide world”, she teeters between claiming that a "look at what we have" could be enough and dismissing the whole thing with an “oh, fuck it, it was nothing”.

Ivana rounded out her set with a reworked version of “The News”, which contained the same lyrics but a slower, more intricate structure. Her latest songs, including “2043” and “Mud”, have a bit more complexity than the rough demos I first heard on her myspace. Her guitar skills have improved, her melodies are dreamier, and there’s a bit more polish to everything she puts out. That's not to say that her sound has become over-produced, as one of her greatest charms is the imperfection of her delivery, but there's a real maturity in her latest songs. She chooses emotion over slickness, which is apparent when she strikes a guitar chord with such power that you can hear it buzz. I liken it to listening to an LP, where the scratches provide an authenticity severely lacking from digital files.

All in all, it was a fantastic performance from one of my very favorite artists. My only disappointment was the modest showing. It’s clear that she has a lot of support from her friends and family, but it wasn’t the turnout I expected at all. Ivana is incredibly talented, but I guess her obscurity is symptomatic of our country's taste. (Two and a Half Men is one of the most watched sitcoms in America. 'Nuff said.) Ivana closed the show with these lyrics, from “Room with a View”: “It’s all for us, it’s all for us.” I just wish more people came to listen.

Ivana XL’s complete show schedule is available at her myspace.

{picture from her myspace}

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