Owl City, Komedia, Brighton
A sugar shock of schmaltz
Tuesday 23 February 2010
The story of Owl City is the stuff that indie dreams are made of: a pathologically shy boy from Hicksville, Minnesota, makes music in his parents' basement to pass the time during a bout of insomnia. Said shy boy posts the fruits of his nocturnal labours online and before you can say "suitcase of cash" he's got a record deal and landed the No 1 spot in five countries.
Which would be all well and good if Adam Young – for he is Owl City – were the new Conor Oberst, all gritty realism and poetic angst. But listening to "Fireflies", the current chart-busting single, it turns out that Young is a peculiar collision of Zac Ephron and Donny Osmond. Far from positioning himself at the bleeding edge of alt rock, Young is a fan of shamelessly auto-tuned synth-pop and the kind of ghastly, life-affirming lyrics ("I'd get a thousand hugs from ten thousand lightning bugs") that would make Ronan Keating bring up his breakfast.
It's an unlikely crowd that turns up to see him play the first in a series of UK shows. Going on the music's sugar content, you might expect a roomful of screaming micro-Hannah Montanas, their parents waiting in their 4x4s outside. In the event it's mostly cool kids and twentysomethings in studded leather jackets and lumberjack shirts, and just as many boys as girls.
It's only when Young arrives on stage and opens his mouth to sing that it all begins to makes sense. For starters, there are his extraordinary vocals, which, even without the auto-tuning, might easily have featured in the latest instalment of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Then there's Young himself, a big, grinning goofball whose arms are permanently held aloft in a state of permanent wonder at, y'know, how great the world is.
Tonight Young has augmented his traditional one-man-and-his-keyboard set-up with a live band and a two-girl string section which, every now and then, downs tools and indulges in some jaunty choreographed dance moves. Meanwhile Young remains centre-stage, sporadically picking up a guitar and doing a clumsy, though rather touching, impersonation of a rock star.
If it all sounds dreadfully cheesy, that's because it is. But it's a joyless critic who wouldn't be just the slightest bit moved at such a display of wide-eyed, uncynical, let's-all-hug-a-tree emotion.
Granted, there are moments when the schmaltz-levels go seriously off the scale. Young's lyrics don't so much make your toes curl as make your whole body go into spasms of embarrassment. There are songs about swimming, trips to the dentist (this is the first time that I've seen toothbrushes being held aloft at a gig) and the obligatory numbers about the redemptive power of love.
But in an age of economic and political turmoil, when irony is surely dead, perhaps we should give in to our inner kidult. This is music for the Glee generation. It may be just what we need.
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