Japanese Breakfast takes a playful approach to sad songs at The Sinclair

Japanese Breakfast, the solo musical project of Michelle Zauner of Little Big League, take the stage at The Sinclair, Cambridge, MA, on Oct. 5, 2016. Last week was Zauner's first time performing as the headliner at The Sinclair. (Courtesy Jay Breitling / Flickr)

On Oct. 11, indie act Japanese Breakfast took the stage at The Sinclair at the tail end of their first-ever headlining tour to promote their sophomore album, “Soft Sounds from Another Planet” (2017). The solo project of Little Big League’s Michelle Zauner, Japanese Breakfast has performed twice at the venue as a supporting act, but never before as the main attraction. Zauner emphatically thanked The Sinclair throughout her sold-out show, emphasizing her love of the venue and the significance of the city of Boston to her husband and bandmate Peter Bradley, a Berklee School of Music alumnus.

Philadelphia-based opening acts Mannequin Pussy and the spirit of the beehive were each met with real energy by the growing crowd, although their musical styles and performance approaches couldn’t be more different. While spirit of the beehive jammed slowly and steadily through their guitar-heavy indie rock set, Mannequin Pussy brought the noise, piling shoegaze on top of punk and death metal songs to jolt the audience awake. Wearing a loose silver dress and her Joan Jett shag, lead singer Marisa Dabice made loops around the stage while alternatingly screaming and shredding on her guitar. The band’s sound is wildly different from the experimental indie rock/pop of Japanese Breakfast, but the audience didn’t seem to mind. Even after experiencing a difficult mic malfunction, Mannequin Pussy brought the in-your-face showmanship and quality punk sound promised by its name.

Despite the success of the show’s openers, the audience was audibly thrilled to see Zauner and co. finally make their way onto the stage around 9 p.m., taking their positions at the orange Japanese Breakfast-branded equipment. Almost immediately the twangy, sci-fi sounds of “Planetary Ambiance” (2017) filled the theater. Wearing the light-up sneakers from her “Machinist” (2017) music video and a white two-piece that she later joked was ripping because of her “giant cans,” Zauner greeted the audience and dove directly into “Diving Woman,” the opening track off “Soft Sounds from Another Planet.”

For those expecting a moody, dark show to match Japanese Breakfast’s more mature second album, Zauner’s playful energy must have come as a surprise. The artist bopped around the stage, her sneakers flashing a rainbow of colors, with a soft smile on her face as she crooned highlights from both “Psychopomp” (2016) and “Soft Sounds.” But this hopeful, playful approach to music, even music that deals explicitly with pain and trauma, has always been characteristic of Japanese Breakfast. With lyrics like “I can’t get you off my mind / I can’t get you off in general” in “Boyish” (2017), an adaptation of an earlier Little Big League song, Zauner acknowledges how funny and sad life can be at the same time.

Zauner wrote “Psychopomp” in the weeks after her mother died of cancer, and all her music since has used aspects of fantasy, humor or disassociation to confront trauma and grief. “Soft Sounds” uses sci-fi elements to explore these experiences in songs like “Machinist” and the titular “Soft Sounds from Another Planet,” and its namesake tour and promotion haven’t abandoned Zauner’s characteristic humor and spirit. In September, Zauner even unveiled an 8-bit online RPG called “Japanese BreakQuest,” where players must assume the roles of her bandmates to battle aliens aboard a spaceship. The game, complete with a soundtrack of 8-bit MIDI versions of every song from “Soft Sounds,” complements the album the same way Zauner’s light-up shoes do: by complicating sadness and pain with childhood nostalgia and fantasy.

Through the course of the performance, Japanese Breakfast moved from more up-tempo songs like “Road Head” (2017) and “Heft” (2016) into the slower “tenderoni” tracks, as Zauner called them, including “This House” (2017) and the emotional “Till Death” (2017). She closed the show with their indie pop hit “Everybody Want to Love You” (2016) and the artfully robotic, half-spoken “Machinist” (2017). Beaming, Zauner thanked the supporting bands, The Sinclair and the audience before bouncing off stage. The 14-song set seemed to come and go too quickly, but held an undeniable power over the half smiling, half teary-eyed audience nonetheless.


Summary

Japanese Breakfast brought her characteristic playfulness to The Sinclair, even while tackling grief and trauma through her music.

4 stars
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