WASHINGTON, January 20, 2015 – When you step into the U Street Music Hall, the space always has a bit of an eclectic air about it. The venue never quite feels like it really exists in this decade, or even this century. That doesn’t mean it reflects some antiquated notion of a concert hall, since it doesn’t really reflect any identifiably earlier time. It actually seems to exist outside of any identifiable time frame, which is precisely why it’s able to reliably host the variety of shows it does.
That’s more or less why the French psyche-punk band La Femme can play there and feel like they’re completely at home, as they did here recently. This is a band that feels as if they should be playing basement clubs that host DJ sets after the band finishes and packs up.
The inherently smoky vibe of the venue – which seems conjured into existence via their lighting system, regardless of whether the fog machine is on or not – fits La Femme perfectly. It gives them an aura of mystery that suits so well that it almost feels manufactured. But this sensation goes hand in hand with the band offered here by bringing their Francophile night to D.C.
In any ensemble, it’s typical to focus on the front man or soloist. The byproduct of this is that people pay the most attention to a vocalist’s most tangible work—not just their singing, but what they are singing, even if the current track doesn’t make much sense.
Because the international music industry tends to be Anglo-centric – especially when it comes to Europe or South and Central America – numerous bands tend to ignore their native language in favor of singing in English. This doesn’t necessarily change their songs that much or the general feeling that’s usually associated with their country. But it is a conscious effort to reach the widest audience they possibly can by using today’s effective lingua franca, if you will.
Listening to La Femme at U Hall, however, one immediately gets the sense that its members are almost defiant when it comes to basic, Anglo-centric pop music culture. That’s because this band sings entirely in French.
La Femme sticks out as genuine individualists, because they are a band that’s gained widespread attention – or at least enough to be touring in the US – without feeling the need to sing any songs in English. This gives them an authentic air of rebelliousness, even though they don’t have a single rebellious note in their music.
One of the most obvious things about La Femme is just how atmospheric and ethereal their live sound is. Only after a few songs is it possible to really get a grasp on them as an ensemble. Initially, many of their songs feel like they’re lost in the mist by dint of focusing so heavily on their keyboard, synths, and bass. The dual and overlapping vocals add to this atmosphere even more. They string together verses with a haunting soulfulness that at no point feels like it’s grounded in any recognizable reality.
But then, creating an atmosphere is what La Femme’s sound is all about. With their sparse use of guitars and the misty lighting effects blurring everyone on stage, this is a band wants the audience’s focus, if not their attention, completely fixed on the motion. At any point during their set, attempting to get to a fixed point within their sound from an audience perspective is as successful as chasing a ghost. They would be the perfect background music for a Steven Soderbergh caper film where the viewer is trying to keep track of all the different cons going on at once.
La Femme probably deserves something of a bigger physical and metaphorical stage. Yet that would likely displace a lot of their current mystique. Allowing the audience to see what’s happening too clearly might cause their most impressive atmospherics to suddenly vanish.
Playing shows at U Street Music Hall and similar venues serves to keep the band at a vaguely haunting distance from the audience, keeping them tantalizingly close, but just far enough out of reach that no member of the audience can precisely latch on to anything La Femme might provide.