Live Review: Banks @ The Institute, Birmingham – 17/11/2014

Often enigmatic, California-born Banks has always used music as a form of therapy. Turning to songwriting to navigate an adolescence made harder by her parents’ divorce, her grown-up material, a menacing and shady take on the swoons and swirls of au courant trip-hop, still bares the fragility and anguish of a little girl lost. The recipient of much critical acclaim, tonight marks the beginning of the ethereal soul diva’s first headline UK tour and the consolidation of her move out of the bedroom (where, in her youth, she would compose songs on a toy keyboard) into the very real world of 21st century pop. Well, sort of…

Goose-stepping into view later than scheduled, she arrives on stage attired in black from head to toe clumsily jerking her body around to the flickering opening strains of Alibi. Clearly taking influence from St Vincent’s static choreography, the miscommunication between hips and feet present here marks a set that begins in turmoil. As an exponent of experimental vocal styles and multiple textures, it’d be extremely naive not to expect Banks to pepper her show with studio-assembled bleeps and gurgles. But on Goddess and This Is What It Feels Like, this heavily-treated air proves so thick that it’s often hard to tell where pre-recorded sonic trickery ends and live vocals begin. And these are not isolated incidents. There are times, notably during Fuck ‘Em Only We Know, that she slinks into the background and leaves the words free to pour forth from an unoccupied microphone.

Part and parcel of those who take influence from club-originating music perhaps, up until its mid-point, Banks’ set is not augmented, but tarnished, by an overly-polished production. Her skeletal and emotionally-fraught poetry smoothed over by the bells and whistles of modern technology.

But, as she retreats to the piano, her gateway instrument, in order to “share how all of the songs begin”, she regains some authenticity.  Fall Over exposes a hitherto unheard emaciated warble and the bluesy groove of Come Closer is delivered with previously non-existent intensity. It’s the cue for a complete overhaul in approach that does away with the studio gloss almost completely. Adept at inhabiting different characters, she adopts Lana Del Rey’s doting submissiveness on Change, wails like a petulant child as Bedroom Wall crackles to its climax and invites us into the bed sheets at spectator-point for a rousing encore of Stick.

On record, Banks’ songs contain the hallmarks of a first-class songstress. But her peculiar brand of moody and doe-eyed funk still needs to be perfected in a live setting. Is this possible? We’ll just have to play the waiting game.

Words: Dan Owens

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