Waiting for Bat for Lashes to take the stage at NYC's Bowery Ballroom last night, I overheard one guy next to me counseling another: "Don't get your hopes up. What if she's not as good as you expect?" To which his friend responded, "It's Natasha! It's going to be amazing."
It was amusing -- and kind of awesome, at this early stage in her career -- to hear Natasha Khan, the warrior princess/Kate Bush acolyte/horse whisperer/singer/multi-instrumentalist who records and performs as Bat for Lashes, discussed with the first-name-basis-ness that accompanies a level of fame more suited for Stevie Nicks or Dolly Parton. The former nursery school teacher has only just released her exquisite second album (Two Suns, heartily endorsed by SPIN). And her 2007 debut was a spooky, melancholy affair of haunting slow songs drenched in animal imagery and replete with organs, tambourines, and harpsichords -- in short, it was beautiful though not wildly accessible.
It's music that's meant to be performed in caves, or even churches, but Khan's burgeoning fan base accepted this spectacularly un-mystical lower Manhattan venue anyway. Onstage, Khan marked her territory: Two dolls with flickering angel wings stood next to the drum kit, miniature statues of the Virgin Mary (like the kind stuffed with heroin on TV's Lost) lined the stage, a red lamp in the shape of a corseted bodice blinked behind the keyboards, and a cheesy poster of a wolf hung from a speaker. Basically, the stage was a manifestation of Bat for Lashes' most obvious themes (childhood, sensuality, the nobility of wild animals), and it was the perfect backdrop for her live show, which was vastly engaging (and only occasionally sleepy).
The Brighton, England, songstress was back in the city that provoked her to create an alter-ego-ish character named Pearl, a troubled blonde vixen to whom Two Suns is largely devoted. Khan looked a little nervous. She waved, she smiled -- and then she squatted to whisper the opening lines of the "Glass," the dramatic first track off of the new album: "I will rise now / and go about / the ciiity." When Khan arrived at the chorus, she howled like the wind around a skyscraper. It established the mood, and I almost expected someone to burn incense.
Next up was "Sleep Alone," a gothier number that allowed Khan to dance across the stage with a maraca, looking every bit the conjurer she is, grooving her shoulders and probably causing a few knees to weaken at the sight of her wiggling around in skin tight black leggings. (Sidenote: nobody could pull off the detachable ruffle that rested on her shoulders as magisterially as she did without looking like a clown).
Then Khan sat down and took to the keyboards for "Horse and I."It's a gorgeous song -- my favorite off of her debut -- and one rendered perfectly by her new backing band: They wielded bells and plucked away on the auto-harp and tweaked at various antique instruments that I would be hard-pressed to identify. But the energy felt prematurely hushed afterward, and when she followed it with, in Khan's words, "a low-fi version of 'Daniel,'" I felt a moment of panic that this was going to be the only version of "Daniel."
That song, with its danceable synth-pop rhythm and lovelorn lyrics, is Khan's most mainstream offering, but it's also her best. It's the anchor of the new album -- which is generally a more lively experience than the first -- so what was it doing four songs into the set list?This spare rendition of "Daniel," featuring a seated Khan and accompanied by what we at SPIN previously referred to as a "harpsichord thing-y" (a Marxophone, I believe), didn't do it justice, so I found myself distracted and worrying whether she would come back to it later. (She did -- as a second and final encore.)
Luckily, the audience seemed less preoccupied by the "Daniel" saga and seemed to be waiting for "What's a Girl to Do?," the 2007 single that put a spooky twist on a girl-group sound. Nobody clapped and hollered as much as they did for that song.
The real standout, though, was "Pearl's Dream," which Khan cheekily dedicated to her "homies in the house," including her ex-boyfriend (their split partially inspired the songs on the new album). It's an easy winner -- who isn't a sucker for a good tambourine breakdown? -- but more than that, the newer, more beat-driven songs allow Khan to fully embrace her frontwoman status. Sure, her quieter piano-driven fare, like "Moon and Moon" and "Siren Song," are nearly transporting when listened to at home or on the iPod, but it's when Khan witches around the stage like Steve Nicks that she truly mesmerizes.