Photos by Neil Van.
“I always love listening to music in the dark. I think it’s the best way to do it,” says The Paper Kites’ frontman Sam Bentley as the Opera House stage lights dim to black. It’s a fitting statement, since their most recent album, twelvefour, was written exclusively between the hours of midnight and four a.m. The restless crowd checks back in and the room goes eerily silent for the first few chords of “Bloom”, one of the band’s best-known tunes. A sing-along ensues, entirely in the dark, accompanied by a single acoustic guitar, and it becomes clear that this is the moment – if any – we will walk away remembering.
This show was a departure for the five piece folk group. Since their inception in 2010, the Melbourne natives have been known for their quiet, acoustic ballads and entrancing harmonies. Their early works – like “Bloom” – were Simon and Garfunkel-inspired lullabies, structured almost entirely by hook-heavy, fingerstyle guitar. But twelvefour sees them in a new light. That is, moonlight. And it’s awash with sounds straight from the 80’s.
Twelvefour actually feels like the hours it alludes to. It sounds like the inner workings of a true insomniac: sometimes sleepy, sometimes desperate, and constantly in a state of over-thought. Its lyrical content is honest and plain-stated. After all, it’s hard to sugar coat anything in the dark. And with just the right amount of sonic novelty, this Goldilocks of an album is a smooth and logical transition for the band.
Supported by synth and hints of 808, their Toronto set – the biggest one on their twelvefour promotional tour – was a fresh taste for old fans. But for the newly introduced, Saturday night might have felt slightly underwhelming. Each song was a carbon copy of their latest release, down to the rise or fall of a vocal run. Tracks like “Renegade” – a mellow, Fleetwood Mac- inspired number – and “I’m Lying to You Cause I’m Lost” – a matter-of-fact medley of steady strumming and harmonica – were duplicates of their twelvefour ancestors.
But it was those few intimate moments of magic – like the lights-out, stripped-down bit – that made the live version of The Paper Kites an experience worth having.
During “Bloom”, the energy of the room was at its most electric. Every person in The Opera House seemed to be simultaneously singing and holding their breath. Later in the show, the band’s cover of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” saw vocalist Christina Lacy take the lead, garnering a round of cheers for her stunning vocals, heard far too seldom during the show and hardly at all on twelvefour. And for their two-song encore, the band of Aussies crowded around a single microphone and offered a selection of intricate and ethereal acapella harmonies, complete with hand clapping and foot stomping. These flashes of distinction pulled the audience in, while the remaining Wall of Sound-styled production, although expertly performed, kept the crowd swaying from a comfortable distance.
I’m a sucker for moments. The kind that can only be created on a stage, in a room, standing in front of real people.
But if fans of The Paper Kites were craving a recreation of twelvefour, with a handful of allusions to what the band does best, then they got exactly what they paid for Saturday night. With an album that solid, and harmonies that beautiful, perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing at all.