Tame Impala is a big deal, and it’s a big deal that they are a big deal.
When the Australian psychedelic rock outfit released its sophomore full-length Lonerism back in 2012, they encountered a level of hype that, in hindsight, sort of mirrored Arcade Fire’s ascension to the top 15 years ago. After earning a highly coveted 9.0 score and “Best New Music” label from Pitchfork, Lonerism made Tame Impala the “it” act of the indie-sphere, and a 2013 North American tour that made its way through Granada Theater proved so successful that the band never played venues of that size in years since.
Even then, nobody thought the band would headline Coachella or perform on Saturday Night Live. Did you know that they not only got booked at Madison Square Garden, but sold it out so quickly that they arranged a second show to accommodate the demand? The Flaming Lips and MGMT didn’t even rise to an echelon this high.
What makes all of this so astonishing is that the band’s psychedelic and experimental sound defies conventional mainstream wisdom. Whether fans of such music want to admit it or not, Tame Impala is an arena rock band, but as evidenced by their Wednesday night show at The Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory, they neither sound nor act the part.
For one, their music is reinventing a wheel (psychedelic rock) that has so many patented reinventions as is. Tame Impala’s set reached its generic nadir on the third song, “Lucidity,” but even that track has distinctive qualities going for it. Sure, its worship of The Beatles’ White Album is on-the-nose, but it also integrates the style of Black Sabbath, right down to the Tony Iommi-esque guitar riffs and Bill Ward’s signature sputtering double-kicks.
About halfway through the set, they played what's arguably their biggest hit, “The Less I Know, The Better,” and sure, it’s one of the most pristine tracks in their entire catalog, but it still makes a compelling case for the band’s versatility. Between its Bee Gees-influenced disco style and use of synthetic instrumentation, it would actually sound like an Ariel Pink song if vocalist Kevin Parker’s voice was lower, and if the song was just a tad bit grittier.
Six songs into the set, Parker asked the crowd, “Are you ready to take this up a notch?” and immediately dove into the production-heavy track “Elephant,” which sounded far more distorted in a live setting than in the studio rendering. Another one of the set’s heavier cuts, “Eventually,” takes a wall-of-sound approach in delivering a contrast between blistering guitar chords and skeletal, modulating synth instrumentals.
What’s perhaps most impressive about Tame Impala’s sound is its tendency to abruptly pivot in tempo and rhythm at points where a normal resolution is expected. Moreover, their sound is incredibly layered both sonically and stylistically. There was a wide spectrum of dynamic change over the course of the set, and whether they’re channeling Daft Punk or Devendra Banhart, there’s an inexplicably distinct, cohesive sound that makes Tame Impala, well … Tame Impala.
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So yes, going back to my earlier point, they didn’t sound the part of an arena rock band, and in ways both good and bad, they didn’t act it either. On one hand, Parker and his bandmates had a rather humble demeanor and gave the impression that they don’t treat a crowd of thousands any differently than a crowd of dozens. On the other hand, their light show was so vivacious that it made the band seem torpid and sluggish in comparison.
And don’t get me wrong — stellar showmanship is more than possible without panache and effervescence, but when you integrate alluring visuals in the form of lights, lasers and confetti cannons into your performance, it should be a goal of yours to be part of that presentation. These integrations on their own would be mind-blowing to people on acid trips or to newly apostate Amish teenagers, but here in the music industry, there are decades-long precedents that completely deprive them of their intended luster.
Still, it’s encouraging that Tame Impala is playing venues of such a caliber as Toyota Music Factory, and the fact remains that they are one of rock music’s most inventive and electrifying bands of late. They may not have the chops to command a packed amphitheater or stadium, but we should just be grateful that they have countless opportunities to try.