The Los Angeles-based, Dirty Hit signee Wallice brings her glitzy, angsty bedroom hooks overseas to YES, Manchester, for a memorable night of intimate fan-girling, bittersweet musings and deafening, grunge-inspired distortion.
The NME have called Wallice Hana Watanabe, better known as Wallice, a ‘future alt-pop hero with dark wit and cinematic ambition’. In the tin-can-sized YES basement, the 25-year-old singer/songwriter is given the perfect opportunity to validate this acclaim – all within a few inches of her audiences’ eyes. Part Madonna, part Nirvana-devotee, part Scott Pilgrim character, Wallice glides onto stage as if spawned in some 90’s alt-star laboratory. Delivering her fizzy, beguiling new single ‘Loser at Best’ with animated, statuesque effervescence, it seems that the NME might just be right.
The first thing to note about Wallice is that, whilst her collection of EP’s and singles are undoubtedly satisfying enough in their own right, her live performance transforms good material into great material. Vaguely underwhelming EP deep-cuts such as the shamelessly materialistic, sardonic ‘Rich Wallice’ is granted a newfound vigour: the cynical drawling is more cartoonish, the distorted guitar wails more feverishly and the bass cuts right through the mix into the ribcage.
Throughout the set, I couldn’t help but notice the enthusiasm and precision of drummer Mac Wav. Looking similarly pasty, under-fed and in dire need of a cigarette, watching his playing style reminded me of watching Joy Division’s Steven Morris for the first time on Granada TV’s Something Else show. Each song was brought to life by this percussive post-punk tenacity, verses and choruses alike jumping with a nervous, yet hypnotic, disposition that wasn’t quite present on her studio recordings.
Wallice’s guitar soundscapes, like her insistent backbeat, also sparkle, crackle and pop with greater radiance when heard live. She seems to subscribe to the Pixies’ ethos of loud, quiet, loud – an ethos that always feels more at home in a sweaty basement than it does a music studio. Her set is characterised by grunge-like polarities: a verse led by a steadfast bass line, sparse enough to sew lyrical insinuations over without being drowned out, followed by a barrage of grainy, distorted power chords over which the singer/songwriter has no choice than attempt to scream over if she’s to be heard. It worked for Nevermind, it worked for Surfer Rosa, and it certainly works here too – the recent B-side ‘Best Friend’ a perfect example of such. A contrast of melancholy, spidering guitar lines, reaching out in a coy embrace, and a frustrated, cathartic noise-rock chorus seem the perfect way to illustrate a relationship stuck somewhere between friendship, romance and complete alienation. Never before have the words ‘you were my best friend’ been delivered with such a palpable mix of regret, affection and disgust. Like label-mate Beabadoobee, Wallice’s live performance consistently blurs the line between the radio-friendly and the left-field.
Despite the vaguely awkward atmosphere of a basement not-quite-full, Wallice maintains an involving connection between artist and audience. Frequent technical issues make her set feel a little disjointed and rough around the edges, but whenever the artist is singing into a microphone (that works) or playing a guitar (which works), she is simply radiant: an artist that surely would’ve been on the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack if she was only born a decade or so earlier. Her set somersaults between beloved past singles (the jangle-pop jitter of ‘Punching Bag’), mournful reflections (the down-tempo, hopeless search for identity in ‘Japan’) and the promising, tantalising sounds of both a soon-to-be-released new EP and a future debut LP.
I’ve always thought that the best indie-pop/alt-pop songwriters marry the beautiful with the ugly – after all, the genre is based on the fusion of commercial appeal and alternative, less-explored avenues. If pure pop is a lemon, then indie-pop ought to be a lemon a day out of date: still sweet enough to eat, but with a noticeable sourness. Wallice, like the giants of the genre (whether it be The Smiths or the self-proclaimed “every Smiths fans’ second favourite band”, The Wedding Present), writes songs with a promising mastery of the sweet and the sour. Every pop hook is tainted by a bitter reflection, every bitter reflection elevated via a pop hook. If nothing else, Wallice proves at YES that it is on stage, not in the studio, where she belongs: it is here that her sound can truly flourish, and her promising, emotionally-complicated songwriting can truly run amok.
On her previous EP, Wallice asserts that she wishes to be a “90s American superstar” – watching her at YES is watching her live out this wish. She may not be one, but for the hour and half that she stands on stage, flip-flopping between a nervous beam and a convicted frustration, she is inarguably a 90s American superstar – and one who stays behind to sign posters and chat to fans about Quentin Tarantino films at that.