With her dark, synthesized vocals and often cynical lyrics, Amber Blain, frontwoman and mastermind behind indie-pop act The Japanese House, can make you forget she is 21 years old. At Washington, D.C.’s Rock & Roll Hotel last Friday, however, as Blain playfully stuck her tongue out at her drummer, or, with youthful frustration, stopped midsong to call out to the soundman that she sounded like she was in a bathtub, she fully displayed her age and naivete.
Given that Blain is a heavily produced indie artist with no acoustic songs or instruments, her natural and vocal imperfections were exactly what the show needed to maintain the air of authenticity and unexpected wonder that usually accompanies live music. Casual, soft-spoken and genuine, Blain demonstrated sincerity and strong musicianship, managing to turn the concert from a synth sing-along with prerecorded tracks into a captivating live show as she faced unforeseen technical complications.
The opening act for the concert, Blaise Moore, played an unnerving set filled with angry speak-singing backed by trap-like beats. The audience response was uneasy at best throughout the set, and there was an atmosphere of confused relief when she quickly exited the stage after her last song, “STUTTER,” without so much as a goodbye. The crowd at the Rock & Roll Hotel laughed nervously and pulsed with excitement as it awaited The Japanese House.
As Blain and her band ran onstage dressed in baggy T-shirts, jeans and easy smiles, the crowd remembered who they came to see. The dreamlike sounds of hit song “Clean” began to resonate with the crowd, and the mood of the room immediately lifted into a happy haze. Blain, who fingerpicked an electric guitar with practiced skill, began to sing through a voice-modulating microphone. Despite the electric drums, electric guitar, synthesizer backup tracks and electronic vocals, the raw musical talents of all three band members were undeniable, as was the carefully rehearsed translation of the album’s greatest hits into exciting stage performances.
The juxtaposition of thoughtfully curated production and live performance was most noticeable during technical difficulties in the hour long set. After starting off strong with “Clean” and the emotional ballad “Teeth,” Blain grew frustrated with her earpiece during “Cool Blue” and stopped singing midway through the song to talk to the soundman in the back through her microphone. The drummer and background guitarist continued to play, and Blain came back in and out, singing and shaking her head disappointedly each time. After finishing “Cool Blue,” she continued the rest of the show without an earpiece, receiving encouraging shouts from audience members, despite her apparent disappointment.
Blain performed well-known songs from her older extend plays, like “Sugar Pill,” “Sister” and “Pools to Bathe In,” as well as tracks from her newest EP, “Swim Against the Tide,” including “Face Like Thunder.” As she sang onstage, Blain seemed to forget the performance’s technical issues and began to genuinely enjoy singing, playing and dancing with her bandmates, as well as interacting playfully with the audience. The singer looked out to a crowd member just before starting a new song and said, “Did you give me a Diet Coke and a T-shirt and a pack of cigarettes once? It was really cute. I remember you.” She tried to hear his response but could not, and simply tapped her ear and moved on to the next song.
No encore followed the final song, the hit single “Still” that launched The Japanese House into fame on Zane Lowe’s BBC radio show in 2015. Blain struggled to stay on pitch throughout the emotional song, and judging by the look on her face, she was well aware that something was off. Although she most likely left the stage disappointed about the subpar final performance, the audience was anything but. The crowd cheered loudly, and fanfare for The Japanese House seemed at an all-time high. Blain’s talent and charisma shined through her quirks and imperfections more than they could have through any clean, calculated performance.
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