Wye Oak Venue, Vancouver BC, July 16

Wye Oak Venue, Vancouver BC, July 16
Photo: Bev Davies
Coming into Vancouver midway through a North American tour, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack seemed understandably withdrawn this evening. Wasner made a couple references to how tired they were, noting that she was wearing the same shirt onstage that she'd slept in the previous night. But she also repeatedly mentioned how appreciative they were for the modest but enthusiastic Wednesday night crowd that gathered to hear them translate their latest release, Shriek, into the live setting.

The Baltimore duo made a dramatic change with this record, exploring the emotional depths of synth-pop as they drift away from the guitar-driven indie rock that defined their work leading up to their breakthrough 2011 album Civilian, so how their live show would fare was a pertinent question. While this wasn't the best night to thoroughly evaluate the success of that course change, you got the gist of it.

Andy Stack seemed to do the impossible on his hybrid digital-acoustic drum kit. He spent much of the set working a synth with his left hand and drumming with the rest of his limbs, a half soft mallet/half snare stick in his right hand, while Ableton Live purred away on a nearby laptop. Wasner played bass and electric guitar. She didn't display the most dexterous fretwork, but it was tastefully edited, and she rounded out her performance with a bit of piano for "Shriek" and "Logic of Color," the latter of which saw her most animated performing, dancing with only a mic in one hand.

In general, they seemed like reluctant pop stars, looking a little bit nerdy, unhurried though not entirely comfortable. With equal parts sass and groove, Wasner nodded her head from side to side as she sang, while Stack tended to stay in his shell, yet their music was quietly epic. Their thoughtful synth pop had a glacial chill running through it that kept the mood honest and heartfelt, punctuated by the odd bluesy folk-rock foray, like the righteous crescendo on "For Prayer," from their 2009 album The Knot.

They were definitely suffering from the touring doldrums, though. Wasner's vocals, which normally have the captivating quality of a narrator from a '80s childhood fantasy film, were difficult to discern, their effected tones ending up as a kind of falsetto scat at times. Stack kept his head down and did his job, which is admirable, but he didn't project much into the crowd, and seemed to wind down as the set progressed.

Ultimately, the duo was endearing, exchanging pleasantries and showing a decent sense of humour in their creative use of the Venue big screen. Having hosted an internet poll earlier in the day to source ideas, they performed their Adult Swim single "Spiral" with the winning words "Tater Tots" illuminated behind them in big capital letters, and brought the sign back for their cover of Kate Bush's "Running up That Hill" in the encore. If you caught these guys on an on-night, it could be transcendent.