Concert Review: The Japanese House

The Japanese House embodied bare emotion and intimacy with opener Art School Girlfriend at the Voodoo Room.

Featuring high ceilings, eclectic decor, and a maximum capacity of 250 people, the Voodoo Room at the House of Blues was easily the smallest venue I’ve ever attended. However, the upcoming show wasn’t held back by the minimal amount of space — it only enhanced the experience. With barely any distance between the stage and barricade, and the stage itself lifted only a few feet above the floor, the setup eliminated any barrier between artist and audience. Already, the staging of the venue created an intimate atmosphere perfect for Art School Girlfriend and The Japanese House, both performers known for their introspective music.

The opener, Art School Girlfriend, sauntered onto the stage casually and set up her materials. Soloist Polly Mackey manned the mic with a bass guitar, standing on the stage alone with only a MacBook producing her electronic beats. In “Bending Back,” synth beats maintained a constant pulse while Mackey’s husky vocals filled the Voodoo Room.

Already, I could tell that Art School Girlfriend had a full aesthetic established: slow, gothic melancholy. This was particularly felt in “Come Back to Me,” a song that’s a little sad, yet nearly lusty in its desperation with its haunting refrain, “I feel the rain / Come back to me.” Slow but not too slow, Art School Girlfriend acted as the perfect opener for The Japanese House. Cool, laid-back, and just like her aptly-named moniker suggests, you would want her to be your art school girlfriend.

Nearly half an hour after Art School Girlfriend’s set, The Japanese House came on stage with calmness and composure. Like Art School Girlfriend, The Japanese House also consists of a solo artist, Amber Bain, who is characterized by interesting vocals. As a singer, Bain utilizes voice modulation in order to achieve an androgynous sound.

As a listener, I was curious to hear how well this would translate live and if Bain would opt for a more stripped-down sound for live performances. To my pleasant surprise, she didn’t. Bain kept the effects, featuring female and male background vocalists to cover the higher and lower ranges, fully rounding out her voice to preserve her distinctive sound.

She sounds just as good live as she does in the studio versions, which is impressive considering all the layering and pitch shifts that must occur during production. Particularly noteworthy was “Still,” a track shifting through different timbres and synth textures. Stacked with harmonies, the song is drenched with feeling, featuring emotional sweeps and swells as Bain tells the tale of trying to work things out with her lover.

Nearly every song in The Japanese House’s discography is as personal and intimate as “Still” — some songs even more so. A diverse range of tracks formed the set list, all the way from her first 2015 EP “Pools to Bathe In” to her most recent debut album “Good At Falling,” which created a cohesive, musical narrative ranging from the past to the present.

The song that garnered the most excitement was “Maybe You’re the Reason,” a track about depression and feeling that nothing has meaning. But as the title suggests, maybe the reason can be found in a lover. An ultimately somber track, it describes the discography of The Japanese House well: bittersweet, brooding, and bare-bones.

“Saw You In A Dream,” arguably The Japanese House’s most popular song, is about Bain seeing someone close to her, who had passed away, in a dream. Even without knowing this context, the song epitomizes the feeling of loss and heartbreak. Groups of friends in front of me crowded closer together, swaying to the beat as they mouthed the lyrics.

The Japanese House played 16 tracks nonstop for the next hour with minimal conversation with the audience other than a spare “thank you” here and there. This seemed a bit strange to me; considering the stories behind her music, I assumed Bain would provide some commentary or at least verbally engage with the audience more. However, as the night progressed, I realized that Bain didn’t have to say anything more. Closing her eyes during particularly emotional lyrics, making eye contact with the audience, and throwing soft smiles towards particularly passionate fans was enough. Soft and dreamy, her performance played less like a typical concert and more like a confessional. For The Japanese House, the music says it all.

Grade: B
Date: May 14th, 2019
Venue: The Voodoo Room at the House of Blues

Image courtesy of McKenna Johnson.