Owl City dazzle with glittering hooks and teenybopper pop at the Warfield

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JULY 27, 2011

Bombast and spectacle were alive and well in San Francisco on July 19, as electro-lite teenyboppers Owl City played the Warfield last Tuesday night. Touring in support of their new album, All Things Bright and Beautiful, Owl City was in top form musically, with their techno-lite wafer of an album translating well into a drum-and-synth heavy instrumental assault. Jumping on the drums for opener “The Real World”, Owl City frontman and mastermind Adam Young bashed out a percussion-heavy intro before laying on the so-perfect-they-must-be-Autotuned vocals.Owl City’s recorded output has what one could call a dangerous lack of irony, or at least an overabundance of earnestness. Adam Young in person is just as ludicrously wide-eyed, being assaulted on stage by stuffed owls that he couldn’t help but fawn over. Yet his live music conveyed little message or emotion, coming off like the performed version of a smiley-faced Hallmark card. Young frequently introduced songs with a smile and a blunt statement: “This song is about stars/plants/fireflies”, like an over-excited kid at a middle school talent show. His backing band smiled benignly through the entire set, bopping their heads with the kind of soul-crushed enthusiasm that you see with your average Disneyland employee.

Young’s Disney-esque persona led to speculation that the majority of the audience would probably be 14-year-old girls dancing like they were on too much X. Instead, It ended up being a cross-section of SF hipsterdom, though once Adam Young hit the stage, the place sure sounded like it was full of a bunch of soon-to-be ODing tweensters. Hipsters filled out the GA floor, with the balcony carrying kids and their dragged-along parents. At least those parents had something interesting to see, as Owl City was armed with two percussionists, a backing vocalist/keyboard player and two string players, taking a baroque approach to 80s-style synth-pop. Though Young was playing to an excited house, there was a smattering of conspicuously empty seats at the back of the balcony that gave the proceedings the feeling of being dead on arrival, with the clock running out a career built on the Postal Service-ripping single, “Fireflies”.

“Lonely Lullaby” was Young’s solo on piano and would have been the one chance for an emotional connection to the music had it not been for a couple of 40-something-non-MILFs drunkenly dancing and mocking Young, screaming throughout the number, “this guy’s killing me!” Clearly, Young’s earnest nature was not shared by his total audience. The penultimate number of the main set, “Alligator Sky”, had the roadies trudging out a flat glass screen that projected a digital Shayne Chrystopher rapping over the track. “Fireflies” closed out the main set, opening with an ambiance of piped-in cricket chirps, before going into the lightweight hit.

Fan-wise, Owl City occupies a weird twilight zone. They are part spawn of the indie-electro revival, yet imbued with saccharine bubblegum straight from the Mickey Mouse club. Young is a Backstreet Boy in a sweater vest, indie enough for the Pitchfork crowd to shoot down, but tween enough that a million kids are someday going to be embarrassed about fessing up to owning his records. As a small-town kid in the big city, it could definitely be said that Young dreamed his way out of his Minnesotan existence. But it seems like his audience is ready to wake up.

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JULY 27, 2011