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Live review: Foreign Born and Warpaint at the Hammer Museum

July 17, 2009 |  5:59 pm

Foreignborn400 Was it the savanna on the Pacific last night? On one side of town at the Echoplex, The Very Best employed his scrambled-signals version of Afropop and the kitchen sink. But at the Hammer Museum, our own Foreign Born was weaving a more subtle strain of Afropop into its perma-vacation rock.

Los Angeles’ Foreign Born, whose excellent new disc, “Person to Person,” came out last month, lit up the museum’s lush courtyard last night with their exuberant, steam-locked jams of Ghana-meets-Redondo. Part of the Also I Like to Rock series running at the Hammer through July, it was hands down one of L.A.'s best nights in live music this year.

For all its friendly grooves, Afropop is one of the diciest influences to incorporate for the young American band. Pour too much college gin into that cocktail, a la Vampire Weekend, and you stand accusations of stripping the music of authenticity. If you copy by rote, not adding an individual take, you’ve only created a weaker facsimile of what loads of bands before have done better. Now, should a band stitch it deeply within the fabric – and it doesn’t stick out as gimmick, just a vibrant color – that might be the right touch.

“Welcome to paradise,” lead singer Matt Popieluch said, introducing their set. The sun had long since set but the courtyard did its best imitation, lightly washing the crowd in yellow, pink and blue lights. By the midpoint of “That Old Sun,” the crowd was grooving on one big blow-up raft together, proverbial umbrella drink in hand. But even in the heat-blistered stomp of “That Old Sun,” there’s a sense that paradise can get battered by the occasional storm.

Which makes it more exciting. In an interview with KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" on Wednesday, the band explained that the David Hockney painting on their MySpace page isn’t just something cool to look at – they hope to exemplify Los Angeles in a similar way to the blissful but unsettling piece. There is also a kindred spirit between Foreign Born and R.E.M.’s early jangle rock that explored the muggy secret spots of their kudzu-covered Georgia.

In “Vacationing People,” there is a riper sense of the wistfulness, the spoiled fruit of being somewhere beautiful for so long the magic wears off. It’s hard to make out the lyrics but words stand out: long days, dreams wasted, coldest river on the brightest day. The harmonies are Beach Boys on the days when the sun can barely warm the sand.

Opening act Warpaint was also a pleasure to behold, whipping up a slowly simmering maelstrom of spooky Cat Power and early Cure-inspired rock. Fronted by the dual vocal attacks of Theresa Wayman and Emily Kokal (with some assists from bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg), each singer offered something different – Wayman was more cerebral, Kokal was a natural force. If they work in a little more variety in mood – it’s almost always dark and yearning, which can tire after awhile – they should be able to build off their Manimal Vinyl EP quite nicely.

--Margaret Wappler

Photo of Foreign Born from Dim Mak.

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