It's rare to see a young band like the Manchester, England, quartet WU LYF build so much hype so quickly, and to do so in such compelling fashion. It's built upon clever, lo-fi branding and the strength of their stirring debut record, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain (out now digitally), which marries the chest-thumping hollering of singer-keyboardist Ellery "Elle Jaie" Roberts with post-punk guitars in an anthemic brew. It was a winning combination Friday night at a sold-out Mercury Lounge in New York City.
In one of the band's first American shows, Roberts -- who sauntered onstage wearing a WU LYF denim jacket embroidered with their logo, which resembles the symbol for the Japanese Yen -- came off like a brusque character from the gritty UK TV series Skins who'd been weaned on early-era Modest Mouse, especially his Isaac Brock-esque howl. And he applied this voice to lyrics that were nearly indecipherable, delivered in the band's own unique language, a vaguely hip-hop, slightly chav pidgin that permeates all of their communication, from their songs to their website and Facebook page.
But understanding Roberts had nothing to do with feeling him. Whether it was a tormented shout on the slow burning "14 Crowns for Me & Your Friends," with its "Yellow Ledbetter"-esque flair for drawn-out drama, or more gently reciting lines during the set highlight "Concrete Gold," he was as impossible to ignore as he was to translate. (It was only by consulting the band's website after the show that I discovered he was dropping pretty lines like "I'm so scared of all my dreams / I wish I could sleep tonight.")
Roberts was a focal point, but not the entire story. Guitar work from Evans Kati channeled a buffet of '80s influences, from the Cure's Porl Thompson on tracks like the show-opening "L Y F" to the Smiths' Johnny Marr on "Concrete Gold." Bassist Tom McClung's backing vocals added depth to Roberts' rasp, and drummer Joe Manning, positioned at the front of the stage, bashed and pounded in a tribal style befitting the material, which challenged the small room to contain its power.
Seeing WU LYF deliver live was reassuring, since so much of their press at home has focused on their aesthetic -- and for good reason. They're building an identity behind a somewhat anti-establishment mission, almost as a manifesto.
On their website, they invite followers to join a non-profit organization called the Lucifer Youth Foundation, whose dues are collected "to enable the baby boys of WU LYF total creative self-sufficiency, an independence free from the shackles of monetary driven interests, free from the lonesome kids game." LYF-ers get the band's music on vinyl, a custom "bandit flag of allegiance," discounted tickets, and "open armed involvement and a democratic input with all LYF activity." How this differs in practice from, say, the Paramore fan club remains to be seen, but it sure sounds a hell of a lot more vital, and could even help WU LYF resurrect an older acronym, one that many believed to be dead forever: DIY.