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Live Review: Ellie Goulding at the Roxy

September 29, 2010 |  3:59 pm

"I love those T-shirts!," Ellie Goulding said to a small coterie of young girls up front at the Roxy for the U.K. singer's debut in Los Angeles. The shirts were emblazoned with declarations of devotion to their new nascent favorite pop singer. "Did you make them?"

They had, in fact, made them. And Goulding should probably expect a few more sparkle-pen tributes in the near future. The 23-year-old's disco-bolstered, folk-bedecked pop has already made her a beloved festival act in the U.K., where such left-field things are allowed in the mainstream. But last night at the Roxy, with pretty much zero traction to date in the U.S., she gave hints that a well-oiled career may be ramping up in the spirit of label- and country-mate La Roux.

Goulding's breakout single, "Starry Eyed," is a scintillant but strange thing, full of stops and starts and reversed vocals and a big, ravey, filtered synth lurking about in the back of the chorus. It veers toward the precious at the big falsetto points (and, well, throughout the entire sparkle-saturated video), but then whips back to weird just as quickly.

It would be a fine little foundling of a single in itself, but the better part of her Roxy set seemed to cement her pop bona fides. They are considerable: Goulding's almost too perfectly named -- she tosses her goldenrod hair like its own instrument during the big dance breaks -- but she can reel off some pretty powerful drum and guitar chops when the song calls for it. And her voice, while really stylized and delicate on record, is a serious and sure instrument in person.

This has left her in a pretty unusual place in the American major-label circuit. There were at least two or three other yet-to-be-uncorked singles (she only has an EP out in the U.S.) that felt absolutely huge -- "Your Biggest Mistake" has an elastic bounce to its chorus that recalls the work of a certain good Doctor, but leavened with a kind of super-earnest Hotel Cafe folk in the verses. It could make Nic Harcourt plow his car into a ditch in amazement if it came on during drive-time NPR. "Salt Skin" is a perfectly slithery bit of cold wave brightened up with Goulding's big, reaching melisma and sputtering drums. Money-shot ballad "The Writer" never got a chance to realize its fate as a closer on the "Hills," preferably a breakup sequence with helicopter shots of Laurel Canyon. It's sugar, but expertly refined sugar.

Yet she clearly wants to assert some more rarified influences. Goulding covered both Midlake's "Roscoe" and the Temper Trap's "Sweet Disposition" in her set, which was an oddly yupster way to make her American first impression but it seemed to go over well with her assembled throng of early-adopters. Goulding's exactly the kind of artist that used to get huge in England and just brick in America -- too weird for the radio, too savvy for the knives-out indie kids.

But if Little Boots can demolish a Coachella tent and La Roux can get play on Power 106, there's no reason "Starry Eyed" can't do the same by next summer, and she's got the presence to split the difference between those worlds handily. Maybe we're looking at a third way to make it in America: one where you can get written up on Discobelle and still have teens write your name in puff paint on their shirts.

--August Brown