It’s almost a crime against humanity that the music of Veronica Falls is not nestled securely at the top of the Billboard charts, selling a gazillion copies and inducing the kind of fever usually triggered by Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga. Almost, because there are real crimes against humanity that are far more serious, like genocide, ethnic cleansing and the music of Lionel Richie. But in a perfect world, bullets wouldn’t be used to kill people, bullets would only be used to illustrate the speed with which bands like Veronica Falls ascended to the toppermost of the poppermost of the pop charts.
Touring to promote their sophomore release, Waiting For Something To Happen (Slumberland), the London quartet packed a crowd into The Empty Bottle for a late night show on a cold Thursday night in mid-March. It was almost 13 months ago that they graced the same stage, but tonight they played a longer set, given they had twice as much recorded material from which to draw, in addition to their eponymous self-titled 2011 debut. Although the group is still relatively new as a band, three-quarters are veterans. Lead singer and guitarist Roxanne Clifford and drummer Patrick Doyle hail from the aptly named Sexy Kids and singer and guitarist James Hoare was formerly in Your Twenties (which may also be apt, but irrelevant). Clifford and Doyle famously met Hoare at a concert by UK twee-pop pioneers Comet Gain, and bassist Marion Herbain was a longtime friend of Clifford’s, recruited when they hatched the plan to form a band.
As one might guess, tonight’s setlist featured cuts from the new album prominently, but the group did not shy away from sharing highlights of their debut as well, and by the end of the night, the selections worked out to an even split. Veronica Falls specialize in three-part harmonies led by Clifford’s darling honey-soaked soprano delivery, Hoare’s prominent baritone backing and Doyle’s tenor (and at times falsetto) accents from behind his drum kit. Hoare and Doyle echo their nominal “lead singer” vocally throughout their songs, occasionally even antiphonally, so much so that Clifford doesn’t really seem like a “lead singer” at all, and that’s one of the most engaging charms of the Veronica Falls sound. With the addition of their vigorously chiming and rhyming guitars and Herbain’s muscular-but-never-showy bass strumming, the foursome conjure the ghosts of power pop past while somehow crafting something not necessarily completely new, but entirely enjoyable.
Their set began the same way the new record begins, with Clifford strumming the red Fender hollow body that almost dwarfs her and singing “Tell Me,” a delightful entreaty to “tell me everything” and “follow me, there’s no reason to stray.” The song brings to mind what The Pastels might sound like if they did a cover of 10,000 Maniacs’ “Trouble Me.” On the first few spins, the song seems a tad cloying, but it grows on you once you hear the sincerity of their delivery, and the same should be said for the next song of their set, “My Heart Beats.” True, this is tried and true subject matter, but the proof is in the pudding, and this pudding is rich with beguiling flavor and sweetness. “Our hearts beat so slowly, our hearts beat on and on,” Clifford and Hoare sang together.
In a phone interview last year, Doyle was quick to dismiss the easy critical crutch of seeing Veronica Falls as nothing more than mid-’80s twee-pop C-86 reconstructionists, and indicated that they draw more of their inspiration from American indie pop, and nowhere is that more clear than on the last single from their first record, “Beachy Head,” which was next in their set and clearly owes an allegiance to Beat Happening’s “Bad Seeds.”
Next up was what should, by all rights, be the next single from Waiting, “Broken Toy.” It has tight harmonies and dynamic pacing, followed by their rendition of the title track. “Everybody’s crazy, what’s your excuse, baby?” Clifford crooned slyly as Doyle pounded the drums in rat-a-tat fashion. This song illuminated the vocal imbalance between Clifford’s lead and Hoare’s backing tenor most egregiously. Her vocals should have been turned up, and his down, but, despite Empty Bottle being one of Chicago’s best live music venues, words and vocals are never the point of emphasis there. What mattered more in tonight’s show was the speedily strumming guitars and bounciness of their songs, and that was not lacking.
Highlights “Bad Feeling” and their classic first single “Found Love In A Graveyard,” both from their debut, followed, and were also well received by the rapt crowd. Somehow echoing the vibe from Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” “If You Still Want Me,” followed, and although it’s not without its charms, it’s neither the strongest song on the record, nor the best part of the show. “Buried Alive” again exhibited the band’s dark sense of humor, which many misinterpreted as a Gothic alignment. “Tell the tide not to bring me in,” Clifford sang with glee at the conclusion.
Last February’s live rendition of “Wedding Day” featured a lovely a capella introduction, but tonight they just launched right into it, a shame, but if anything Clifford’s sarcasm and bitterness was even more palpable (Hint: she’s not really “so sorry” she “missed” his wedding day).
The new single “Teenage” was a definite strong point in their set, with a lovely retro feel to it. To wit: “Driving late at night, I let you listen to the music you like.” The lyrics are so simplistic, but at the same time reveal so much, and they never pass the threshold of cliché, thankfully. Veronica Falls concluded their main set with the last track from their debut, “Come On Over,” a pulsing and rousing performance that underscored their debt to The Velvet Underground, The Beach Boys, and Tommy James and The Shondells, and led to a pummeling climax.
Their encore featured “Stephen,” which Clifford said they rarely play live, and may have been requested by someone in the crowd, and “Right Side Of My Brain,” a should-have-been single from their first release, which features Veronica Falls at their most Mamas and Papas-like. With a band that virtually farms earworms, it’s hard to pick favorites, and it would have been icing on the cake to hear “The Fountain” or the new song “Everybody’s Changing,” or even one of the covers that they’ve recorded for selling on tour (including songs originally done by The La’s, Ween and Bob Dylan), but time is finite, unfortunately, and given they didn’t take the stage until 11:45, it was almost 1 a.m. by the time they all politely thanked the crowd, picked up their drinks and left the stage.
Veronica Falls may never be at the “top of the pops,” but no one can dispute the claim that they craft perfect “pop” songs, and if they can graduate to slightly larger venues and have a rewarding career in music, that will have to be good enough. But with songs this good, and music so lovely, it’s a shame that not everyone will fall victim to the wily ways of Veronica Falls.
Veronica Falls at the Empty Bottle on March 14, 2013 Set list:
- “Tell Me”
- “My Heart Beats”
- “Beachy Head”
- “Broken Toy”
- “Waiting For Something To Happen”
- “Bad Feeling”
- “Found Love In A Graveyard”
- “If You Still Want Me”
- “Buried Alive”
- “Wedding Day”
- “Come On Over”
- “Right Side Of My Brain”