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Live Review: The Big Pink at the El Rey Theater

November 19, 2009 |  2:19 pm

Bigpink300  Of all the instruments and sounds in a rock band's arsenal, the most difficult one to use well might be sheer noise. For a band like The Big Pink -- a UK duo that brilliantly grafts the synth textures of Underworld and old rave to druggy, unshowered shoegaze -- the tension between the loveliness of its melodies and its nastier sonic impulses needs a sure pair of studio hands to keep the peace. On the band's debut album "A Brief History of Love," they pull it off gracefully. But at their L.A. debut at the El Rey last night, things got a little overheated.

A four-piece touring concern, Milo Cordell and Robbie Furze's project had plenty of options for making sense of the many ephemeral, textured elements of "History" onstage. But they need a certain fidelity to make it all translate, and for whatever the reason -- the in-house mixer, the band's live arrangements -- clarity just wasn't there at the El Rey. I tried standing in every corner of the room: two feet from the stage, in front of the central mixing board, the very back of the theater, but the mix kept me wondering if this is what an errant seagull last hears before it gets sucked into a passing jet engine.

That's not necessarily a bad thing -- I'm a glutton for punishment when the right situation arises -- but The Big Pink's pleasures aren't in volume and tumult alone. They have a soft touch on their record, and as it turns out, it's what makes the whole thing work.

Furze has a marvelous voice for this band -- a leering disaffection tempered by the occasional real sweetness of his lyrics. But it just couldn't compete with the redlining gain of just about everything else around him. Pairing the low-end gut punch of techno with the mids and highs of a rock band is never easy, but save for all but the quietest moments, Cordell's noise gadgets and samples were just filetted into hisses and grumbles.

Drummer Akiko Matsuura did her able best to give everything a sturdy, urgent footing rhythmically (except for when her kit fell to very apropos rubble at the set's close), and the sheer undeniability of singles like "Dominoes" and "Velvet" cut through the fog and hit at something both brutal and beatific. Some of the most affecting moments came when Furze took the mic alone over ambient smears and sang plainly, a brave move for a band built around the idea of bigness. The Big Pink has absolutely every sonic tool they could ever want at their disposal, and they know how to wrangle beauty from every one. Now, it's just a question of knowing when -- and when not -- to use all of them at once.

--August Brown

Photo credit: Tim Scaccenti