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Live review: Nite Jewel at the Troubadour

September 3, 2010 |  2:56 pm


The fact that Nite Jewel titled their new e.p. “Am I Real?” seems apt.  This is a band touching on big ideas, but still implacably held by doubt.

Every piece is there for a truly devastating act – Ramona Gonzalez’s lilting voice has a wide reach and a knack for making sadness sound both icy and inviting at once. In her young career, she’s arrived at a fully-realized sound palette of soft-focus synthesizers, and this newest incarnation of her live band sports some high-wire instrumentalists. Her new e.p. is her most fidelity-focused and vigorously produced thing in her catalog and has maybe her best song yet on it.

And yet. At the release party for “Am I Real?” at the Troubadour last night, the band went back and forth between an intriguing sense of remove and just feeling distant and lax. They use obscurity to great effect on record, and like most problems in life, this can probably be solved live with lazers and fog machines.  But they need to figure out how to make their night-driving mood feel more definitely real in person.

The best part of Nite Jewel live is the exacting skill of the rhythm section – Cory Lee plays the record’s slap-bass samples with Bootsy Collins precision, and drummer Gavin Salmon manages to be both completely in pocket while breaking rhythms into tiny, sharp pieces. Gonzalez and her partner in Nite Jewel, Cole M. Grief-Neill,  are virtuoso synth wranglers, and even Julia Holter, the droll female backup singer with few responsibilities other than occasional high harmonies and a charming art-school-robot-dance, adds a certain languid mood to show.

But there’s practically no engagement with either the crowd or each other – there may be no band in existence who is this versed in funk and who exhibits less joy in playing it. Yes, that’s sort of their deal – using deep rhythms and disco tones to achieve their exact opposite effect, but it doesn’t necessarily make for an especially gripping live set.

That didn’t detract from the quality of the tunes – “Am I Real?” has a Daft Punk-ish bass swagger and girl-group gang harmonies that translate even better onstage; "White Lies" rides a lead guitar riff that borrows its mock-cockiness from no less than the "Top Gun" theme. “What Did He Say,” from her debut album “Good Evening” kept every ounce of its out-til-sunrise daze.  In a way, Nite Jewel's mystique may make for a more satisfying studio creation – their ambient, gossamer remix of Health’s “Die Slow” is a high point in that band’s recent smattering of edits. But if they’re going to be as fun to watch in person as they are to nod off to on the couch after a long night of bad decisions, they need to go for the throat and understand they’re very real -- and very capable of a little more vigor.

-August Brown

Photo by Graeme Flegenheimer / ForceField PR