Neon Trees Brushed Off the Haters But Were Short on Substance at Granada

Neon Trees
With Alex Winston and Yes You Are
Granada Theater, Dallas
Thursday, June 18, 2015

Last night, Neon Trees made me feel like a dad. Or at least feel for them. It wasn't just when they closed the evening out with a limp cover of Dexy's Midnight Runners' "Come On Eileen" (which, yes, I recognized). We've all been there before, likely with the roles reversed — dragging your old man to see whatever forgettable-indie-pop band you obsessed over as an eighth grader and complaining when he put in ear plugs after the opening song. And it was hard not to imagine just that scenario taking place throughout Granada Theater on Thursday.

Not that the place was full exclusively of kids, although there were a few scattered in the various crevices of the Granada clapping and singing along to "Everybody Talks" and the rest. But if you're gonna get into Neon Trees, better to do it in the pre-teen years, because there's just no excuse for a grown adult deriving pleasure from a song like "Love in the 21st Century", a crowd-pleaser so vacuous that it makes Jason Derulo's formidable booty-anthems seem insightful by comparison.

To their credit, Neon Trees sounded better last night than they do on record, the gravel in Tyler Glenn's voice lending some much-needed grit to their sterile neo-new wave, even if it wasn't exactly Julian Casablancas-level. Unless it's "Four-Five Seconds" mixing folky strums and Auto-Tune, pop in 2015 tends to segregate into fully computerized beats or full-on country guitars, and the Trees' Pop Psychology from last year sounds pre-programmed even when it's six-strings doing the heavy lifting. But hearing these songs performed live was a reminder that the folks who don't want the "organic" feel to disappear completely from their "rock" music aren't just being curmudgeonly, even though the terminology's stupid.
While most of the noise comes from elsewhere, Glenn is the obvious and unavoidable center of everything. He possesses an androgynous sort of charm, physically speaking, emphasized by his assortment of well-trained ballet movements (and the occasional pelvic thrust), all of which grants him full custody of center stage— and thank God for that, because the rest of the band really does just stand there. Even with limited support, Glenn provided spectacle enough to keep the evening reasonably afloat.

But to steal a line straight from the dad-joke handbook, George Costanza's insistence (in a rather famous Seinfeld moment) that people will watch his show about nothing simply "because it's on TV" shouldn't make sense when applied analogously to music in the age of Internet, but it's as good an explanation as any for Neon Trees' popularity. Despite Spotify, despite Pandora, despite the Strokes' and Phoenix's discographies sitting just a click away, America has made this band a recognizable name.

Having completely outed myself as one of the "naysayers," a group Glenn dismissed last night in a speech expressing appreciation for the band's faithful fans, I should clarify with emphasis that it could certainly be worse, and the general trend in quality is upward. Especially in a live setting but also more generally, Neon Trees come off markedly better than their more popular commercial competition, Fun. (and that's not even taking frontman Nate Ruess' recent solo venture into account). As a general rule, I find Glenn's choruses grating and his verses promising, which is a weird place to be in popular music, but at least it's finally something weird and noticeable to latch onto.
Every generation needs some dorky music to grow regrettable attachments to, and maybe one day Neon Trees will be somebody's Coldplay: simple, no doubt, but admirably so on their best days. Glenn's band isn't there yet. And until then, I'd suggest bringing those ear plugs to any future attendees, just in case your inner dad makes an unexpected appearance.

To Trees' credit, they also picked good (dad-friendly) openers in Yes You Are and Alex Winston, a complementary pair that featured energetic and convincing female vocalists, both of whom conquered the stage almost as convincingly as the Trees frontman. After Yes You Are's"brief set established a throwback radio vibe, like an alternate universe Jack FM, Winston caught my attention with four straight winners that were only let down by the single ("Careless") she ended with. If there's any way to endorse a live show, it's to say I'll be giving her next album a listen, which she mentioned being scheduled for August.

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