Indie-pop is that rare genre that tends to gain or lose nothing in the live setting. Think of Glasgow's Camera Obscura, who've played several well-attended shows in the Triangle over the past three years. Camera Obscura is a wonderful songwriting band who recreate their music with the utmost fidelity in concert. And that's the problem: Since mannered indie-pop (or twee, if you dare) doesn't lend itself to performative exuberance or structural tinkering, you could replicate the live Camera Obscura experience with nothing but a mixtape, a loud PA, an S.R.O. space and cardboard cut-outs of the band.
This isn't a problem if you go to concerts just to hear. But for music fans who crave physical and visual stimulation as well, the accurate and uninflected recreation of songs—even those songs we love—can be tinged with faint ennui.
On record, Brooklyn's Palomar is every inch the modern indie-pop band, with their sunny jangle, swooning four-part harmonies and general air of pluckiness. But they're also an indie-pop band who've found a few ways to spruce up their sound and, by extension, inject more excitement into their live set.
For one, Palomar like to rock. They started out as a fairly classical anorak band in the vein of Talulah Gosh, all hapless charm and ramshackle adorability, but this year's All Things, Forests finds them striking a deft balance between doe-eyed approachability and ursine muscle. Melody is king in indie-pop, and Palomar obliges. But most of the new material contains extended passages of guitar pyrotechnics remindful of Broken Social Scene—starry, romantic, decadently scaled. Minor-key creeper "Our Haunt" explodes into riotous squalls. "The Air Between Us" goes out in a conflagration that's perfect for an extended freak-out in the live setting.
"We have sort of graduated from pop to rock now," Palomar's Rachel Warren understates via e-mail, adding a playful "ha!" That rhetorical flourish appears several times in Warren's e-mail, appropriate for the leader of a band whose style is so heavily influenced by its own enthusiasm.
All Things, Forests finds Palomar broadening its sound palette, too: bucket drums, squeaky toys, ukuleles, synthesizers, "a backwards compressed snare" and various rattling things like eggs and tambourines are all apparent amid the music's peristaltic squiggle.
Warren understands live indie-pop's potential to be underwhelming when played too close to the hip, so Palomar—which has traditionally performed as a standard rock quartet—is starting to work more of these auxiliary instruments into its set. "It makes the songs more varied-sounding," she explains of the quirkier instrumentation, "but it also gives the audience more to look at than the same people playing the same instruments."
While the audiences surely appreciate the effort, adding variety without adding touring members does present some problems for the band. Electro-pop tune "Top Banana," for instance, is a recent addition to Palomar's set that Warren describes as "challenging, because there's a drum machine on that song as well as synths." To realize the song live, Palomar got a "stem" CD from All Things, Forests producer Britt Myers that contains the drum machine and synth tracks from "Top Banana." They play along with it.
Sure, the same purists who like their indie-pop clean, unfiltered and possibly boring might balk at this kind of solution, perceiving it as just a couple steps away from Ashlee Simpson lip-synching on Saturday Night Live. A less cynical perspective, though, finds it just fine that Palomar is doing whatever necessary to bypass the live doldrums of indie-pop.
Palomar plays Local 506 Monday, July 2, at 9 p.m. with Americans in France. Tickets are $8.