In concert: Cut Copy (Toronto; April 7, 2011)

Maybe it’s a mental hangover from the marketing behind the Sydney Olympics – maybe it’s Elle Macpherson – but I’ve got this impression of Australians as outdoorsy, sun-kissed beach volleyballers, and neither Cut Copy‘s music nor the ballistic audience reaction to their songs are quashing the impression. Even the latest video is stuffed with sporty imagery. The songs are vigorously athletic; the choruses are lung-busters.

Cut Copy’s oft-tapped as a contender for the dance-rock belt now that James Murphy’s mothballed LCD. Oh, maybe. They’re certainly building momentum in textbook fashion: a plum opening slot for Franz Ferdinand in ’05; hooking the blogosphere with that phenomenal In Ghost Colours LP in ’08, mainstream inroading with this winter’s Zonoscope (#46 U.S.). Heavy on classic pop structures and light on pastiche, Cut Copy’s best songs also tend to make great singles, a gateway to wider acclaim without a hint of hipster irony to despoil their innocent sheen. I said it earlier this winter: Cut Copy’s three albums into creating one of the great dance-rock mixtapes.

Cut Copy’s only being practical when they schedule all-ages gigs, but in Toronto’s case that means the Sound Academy, a venue no one admits to liking, although they keep cabbing down Cherry St. way nonetheless. I don’t like the joint any more than you do, but the last CC Academy gig (September ’08; Presets opening) was amazeballs, so I gathered my glow sticks and left my heavy outerwear at home for last Thursday’s (April 7) show. Would magic repeat?

Enhh. Well…

Don’t blame the crowd for anything that went amiss, unless you’re a hater. This bunch must’ve come straight from last Friday’s Blue Jays season opener, an arm-waving, chorus-belting, smartphone-clicking, rump-bumping gang fixated on starting summer early. If Cut Copy’s mandate was to ensure everybody shed a little winter weight, they succeeded. The heavily coupled-up crowd was as smiley and animated as you’re likely to see for any indie buzz band passing through town. I started looking around for American Bandstand‘s crane cams after a while. Dick Clark would’ve loved this scene.

Cut Copy’s sky-high vibe is something to behold. Every pre-chorus comes across as a well-drilled exercise in tension release, the throng pogoing in place before each monster chorus evokes requisite whoops and devil’s horns. I had sweaty forearms smashing into me all night long. Head Cutter Dan Whitford coaches the crowd: “Okay Toronto, now this is the breakdown. When we get to the chorus, we want you to go absolutely crazy.” And they do. He’s probably cheerleading by rote rather than necessity, but the result is Cut Copy appear incapable of dullness: even the 13-minute “Sun God,” which capped the main set, kept heads a-bobbing and feet a-shuffling. You should see my shoes, by the way.

On performance merit, Cut Copy’s getting there. There are a helluva lot of vocal tracks built into the songs, and as they bring more live vocals into the program, Cut Copy risk harmony misfires. There were a few. And Whitford’s voice was pushed way out front a few times, but that’s more of a mixing error. And speaking of the mix, it wasn’t great: the mid-range frequently disappeared, burying detail beneath Mitchell Scott‘s drums and Tim Hoey‘s guitar. It was a noticeable distraction.

The In Ghost Colours songs shone. As Who’s Next or Rio or Funeral tunes are to Who or Duran or Arcade fans, they’re pedigree songs from a beloved band’s high-water mark. From the first giveaway notes, each of “Nobody Lost, Nobody Found,” “Lights & Music” and “Hearts On Fire” sparked singalongs. It’ll be the same 10 years from now. Happily, most of the newer songs kept pace. “Where I’m Going” was amazing, a stomping mid-tempo bit of merriment with an endless supply of vocal hooks. The aforementioned “Sun God” matched the promise (and running time, thank you very much) of the trance-inducing album version, with Whitfield and Ben Browning frenetically working their synths while Hoey did a lot of potentially destructive things to his guitar. “Need You Now” seems to have emerged as the fan favourite, and its build-release theme worked especially well in the encore.

The curmudgeonly plaint comes down to the feeling Cut Copy are poised to level up but don’t seem entirely sure of how to go about it. Paradoxes abound: are they dancer or are they human? They’ve stripped back the remix elements and segues that featured in earlier live shows. There’s greater emphasis on live instrumentation, but in spite of the supposed increased flexibility, the songs are now tethered to their studio arrangements. The setlist was similarly unsettled: whither “Unforgettable Season” and “Alisa,” both heaven-sent rock tunes? Hell, whither first album Bright Like Neon Love? It’s got a batch of dance singles, but only “Saturdays” made the cut. I think they’re hedging bets by passing on songs from both camps, to be honest. At 73 minutes, the Sound Academy show was a mite short and a little lacking in creative fortitude. I’ve seen Cut Copy deliver a gold medal performance before. Cast this one in bronze.

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