After a decade of collaborations and alter egos, singer-songwriter Caroline Polachek is primed for solo success. Her recently released debut album, titled “Pang,” filled the air on the first stop of her nationwide tour at The Zebulon Oct. 24. Leading up to the record, Polachek released a flurry of addictive singles and created some of this year’s best music videos for them. She directed the visuals and used clever CGI to complement “Pang’s” earthy color tones. In “Door,” she flies through the sky, while “Ocean of Tears” is set on a ship in rocky waters. Polachek rounded out her elements by staging “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” in a burning cave. These videos previewed her sweet and sleek pop music with a cyborg twist.
Before reintroducing herself under her legal name, Polachek featured as the lead singer in the band Chairlift and released music using the moniker Ramona Lisa. When looking back at the last decade of indie-pop, her soaring vocals on songs like “I Belong in Your Arms“ and “Amanaemonesia” are exceptional. Chairlift’s best records struck both brain and body to deliver danceable and intelligent pop music. Polachek taps into those sensibilities to form a dynamic album of sharp and deliberate design in “Pang.”
The backroom concert hall at Zebulon was packed with a sold-out crowd. A stretched-out bar and a wall of bleachers enclose the space, while a disco ball hangs from the ceiling. The room’s features forced folks toward the stage to create an intimate venue. Behind the stage stood a large drawing of a black gothic gate projected onto a white sheet. It appeared three-dimensional and added visual depth between Polachek and the background action. The computerized setting resembled her music videos, and the images synced with her performance. As she walked to the stage, she was joined by “Pang” co-producer Danny L Harle. Together, their production and musical ideas are full of explosive and experimental detail.
Polachek began her performance with the title track. It plays on multiple functions of the word: she captures the duality of “pang” as both a noun and a sound. The opening beeps ricochet off of one another like an extraterrestrial transmission to make way for her almost R&B groove. Her voice is charged with frisson as it jumps out of the record to describe and embody “pang” as a burst of feeling. Within the lyrics, this rush is caused by a dramatic collision of energy between two people. On stage, she danced with her hands as drum claps spliced open the ecstatic chorus. Her vocals rebounded off the sudden surge in production. By pitch-shifting so freely, she creates diaphanous layers that come at you like waves in the ocean.
Song by song, she worked her way through the entire album. The sheet behind her acted as a green screen, and the projections corresponded to the general mood of certain records. During “New Normal,” she sang in front of a dreamlike sky, while “Insomnia” featured artificial stars to signal nightfall. As Polachek’s set snowballed toward its leading singles, the audience was treated to her synthesizing skills. When drawing comparisons, art-pop experimenters like Imogen Heap and Virginia Astley come to mind. Still, at times Polachek has a stronger feel for sticky melodies and one-liners. Her prior experiences have armed her with an understanding for what aesthetic buttons to push and when in order to tap into different musical forms. Chairlift’s sound was self-aware of its poptimist bent, and this gave it some spice. As Ramona Lisa, she was making glossy bedroom pop in 2014, before Clairo even had a computer. Polachek hovers near pop’s center but maintains complexity through her unique vocal range and production decisions.
As the projector beamed Polachek into a firelit cave, the crowd recognized what was next. Her fourth single, titled “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” should be surging up the charts: it is the sugar-rush song of the album. In the music video, she performs a choreographed river dance on a volcanic planet. Her live reenactment was charming, and its kitschy absurdity is a mark of genuine style. The humorous lyrics tell a story of lovelorn sulking mixed with drunken sensitivity. Doo-wop ad-libs reflect off the ping of a xylophone, and a slashing guitar rips its way through the chorus. Upon its conclusion, Polachek left the stage only to return minutes later for an encore. To close the evening, she performed “Door,” the very first single in her album rollout. It features the most tangled production on “Pang.” She captures this surreal sense of movement in form and content. Her voice glides through the icy chorus like the blade of an Olympic figure-skater. The live experience of “Pang” is in line with the delight of the full record itself. Caroline Polachek is stretching pop music’s electronic palette with a stinging mix of attitude and technique.