In a parallel universe, Catey Shaw would have been a protagonist in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Her 2014 track “Brooklyn Girls” received a lion’s share of horrible press, being slammed by the likes of Vice and other hip publications, describing it as a “gentrification” anthem and deriding Shaw for even thinking of writing a track like it. To be fair, “Brooklyn Girls” isn’t a totally horrible song; her voice manages to make up for the terrible lyrics, and the melody is catchy enough to distract from its glaring flaws as a piece of pop music. But it’s a song a 22-year-old would have written, and perhaps should have been judged by the standards that we typically hold the work of 22-year-olds to. On Thursday night (February 4) at Great Scott in Allston, Shaw took the stage to prove her doubters wrong, and did so with mixed results. On one hand, her voice is suited for the kind of music that her backing band, dressed in mod uniform, might suggest; on the other, she can’t seem to stay away from the kind of cookie-cutter modern synthpop that so many of her peers have found success with.
Local opener Florio found themselves in a similar position, albeit one that helped them achieve a great deal more in-the-moment success. They seemed to find themselves constantly at odds with their genres; on one hand, they wanted to be a post-rock group in the vein of something like Explosions in the Sky, though with vocals and capped under three minutes, and on the other, they seemed to want to be the epitome of a modern new wave group, full of synths and falsetto vocals. Their opener, a quick post-rock jam, led the audience to believe that they might be playing clear-eyed, full-hearted instrumentals, and it seemed that opener kept the crowd a good three feet away from the stage.
But as they moved on and got deeper into their set, the crowd opened up and started to dance. There’s lots of little bits to like about the Boston group — singer/songwriter Dominic Florio’s voice and manner on stage are charming and deeply charismatic, and he’s surrounded himself with great musicians, who can keep a steady beat and run a great, steady bassline — and every time they announced that they were going to perform a single, one knew that they were in for a crowd-pleasing delight. Tracks like “Night Falls” and “Want You” drove home the fact that Florio himself is a great pop stylist, and if he continues down the path that he’s currently on, he might make some truly amazing tunes, as long as he can abandon some of his more Icelandic indulgences. Regardless, by the end of his set, the crowd was dancing, as if they were entranced by an experienced showman.
When Shaw took the stage, she didn’t make any attempt to disguise her inexperience playing in front of this kind of crowd. After the second song, she asked the audience to toast along with her, to celebrate the fact that this was her first tour in the traditional sense. This manifested itself in a variety of ways, most obvious of all being that she couldn’t stop talking between songs, and sometimes even during them. Her anecdotes about the white suit she wore in some of her videos (like “Human Contact”, amongst others) were fun and almost endearing, but showed a real need to be appreciated at all times by the crowd around her. She didn’t simply want to entertain, she wanted to overwhelm. It wasn’t like she needed to — almost all of the 70 people there were jamming and taking selfies and making out at various points in her set all along with the groove of the night — but she might have felt that she needed to do more.
That said, when the music started, the nerves seemed to disappear. Shaw has an excellent voice, and the stripped-down approach really benefited it, allowing her to sing at a normal register rather than shout over the synthesizers that dominate songs like “The Ransom”. Her best bits came when she and the band slowed down enough to emphasize the soul, especially with her cover of Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” a cover pretty enough to make one reconsider Wheelchair Jimmy’s talent as a pop star. They slowed it down just enough, and Shaw acted as her own backing vocal, stepping away from the mic to howl the echo parts. Nothing in her set was better, and it’s hard not to wonder what a set of Shaw covers would look like, and how it would compare to the one she performed at Great Scott.
Authenticity, which Shaw’s PR people have built her reputation upon, is slightly overrated, and it almost ensures that her cover record will be a must-buy in the next few years. But as it stands, her performance was full of fun and energy that her recordings don’t typically seem to get across. Yes, even “Brooklyn Girls,” that much-maligned disaster, revealed itself to be a fun slice of pure pop, especially with the lyrics obscured by the room’s acoustics. Hell, even Bowie had “The Laughing Gnome”. Why hold Brooklyn against her?
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured photo by Johnston for Vanyaland.