“Trippy,” “hallucinogenic,” and most frequently “kaleidoscopic” are all words often deployed to describe the sound of Australian neo-psychedelic group Tame Impala. But reducing the band and their breakout album Lonerism to old stoner-music clichés misses the point. The vocabulary of psych rock alone won’t suffice. We’re not watching youtube videos of Woodstock or listening to dad’s Pink Floyd vinyls—this is uncharted territory. Tame Impala is remarkable for their embrace of contradictions and their refusal to let psychedelic music go stale. Lonerism is produced for technophiles who grew up listening to intricate electronic music, but it builds on nostalgic sounds–combining relaxed stoner pop and driving, danceable rock n’ roll grooves with an occasional venture into heady psych rock territory.
It revives psychadelia in a way that feels relevant to children of the 21st century, hitting a sweet spot between invention and nostalgia.
The charming Aussies of Tame Impala played to a sold out crowd in First Ave’s main room on Monday. Despite my reluctance to reduce Tame Impala to stoner music, the lighting and visuals were nothing but trippy. The projections on stage looked like a space voyage on acid, a waveform display on acid, or a sentient doodle on acid (use your imagination, as long as there’s acid). Endearingly uncomfortable on stage, front man Kevin Parker appeared every bit the stammering introvert his lyrics portray, in the best way possible. In his first attempt at stage banter, he rambled “I think we played here…one time…at some other place. We played our own show. Yeah, 7th street. Over there.” Smooth. But their musicianship more than made-up for the lack of conversational prowess.
Less skilled performers might take the jam-band psychedelia too far on stage and alienate fans that came to hear something resembling the album (a criticism which has befallen fellow neo-psych rockers Animal Collective) but Tame Impala found just the right balance of fidelity and experimentation. Favorites like “It Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” were performed mainly as recorded, but solos or extended outros gave the band space to flex their improvisational muscles. “Elephant” led into a jazz interlude that felt surprisingly at home in the set, before the final 20 seconds of the song (as recorded on Lonerism) were played. The band effortlessly traversed from pop to rock to jazz to psych and back again in a way that was strikingly fluid and easy to listen to. Guitar distortion and improvisation gave the impression of authentic yet progressive psych rock, but without forgoing the mesmerizing melodies that made Lonerism so infectious.
Tame Impala’s live act worked because they maintained the careful and almost paradoxical set of balances that was present in their recorded works, but still managed to leave room for the spontaneous potential that defines neo-psychedelic music. The show was was upbeat but laidback; wandering but not lost; rough but deliberate; melodic but experimental. Songs like Mind Mischief are at their best with a nice pair of headphones while the vivid Endors Toi needs a stage to seize its full potential. The band members themselves embodied these contradictions —as one of the most critically hyped and undeniably cool bands of 2012, they still seemed meek and shy with an adolescent naïveté reflected in their shaggy hair, polo shirts and uncomfortable monologues.