Jenny Hval’s brand of experimental music is marked by its subversive nature and a tight grip over all aspects of the sound. Her latest album, Innocence Is Kinky, utilizes so many different sounds and techniques that are surely impossible to recreate outside of a studio, a notion that I was comfortable with because I’m the sort of person who appreciates albums more than shows and because the prospects of Hval touring in the United States seemed slim. As the title of this article hinted at, though, Hval is not only on tour, her first stop was in the city of Boston, where I’ve lived within ninety minutes of for most of my life, and as Innocence Is Kinky is my second-favorite album of 2013, there really wasn’t any way that I could pass up the opportunity to see Jenny Hval live. If nothing else, I needed to see how this sound would translate to a live atmosphere.
I walked into Café 939 just as the opening act, White Hinterland, was getting started. White Hinterland is a lone singer/songwriter from Massachusetts, and she did a solid job at keeping the crowd of maybe thirty people engaged in spite of a lack of a larger sound and her tendency to not bring her songs to a definitive end. After a set that lasted about half an hour, she thanked the crowd and struck up a game conversation with everyone who approached her table. It’s the little things, you know? I bought an album.
Then Hval came out for a sound check. It consisted of making weird, discordant sounds, to which she appeared satisfied. Then she retreated to the back and came back fifteen minutes later, claiming that she and her two band mates were “the Late Norwegians”, then shook her head and claimed that sounded like the name for a bad band. The joke was especially strange because it was 9:05.
Then things got weird and awesome and I’m not sure how to do the next hour justice. The drummer switched between using sticks to using his fingers to using a rock at times, the guitarist started off by playing his guitar with a violin bow, and Hval’s tendency to slam from soft vocals to screaming at the top of her lungs was in full force here. At least half of Innocence Is Kinky was represented, and many of the songs actually sounded better on stage—“Oslo Oedipus” gains a new layer when the backing music at the end is cranked up, the keyboards on “Mephisto In the Water” were even more playful, and “I’ve Got No Strings” was played almost like a straight rock song. For the most part, though, Hval warmly embraced that her and her cohorts were the art-pop kids, and they decided to fucking own it. That the crowd wasn’t bumping for most of it is likely due to most of them wondering if the person next to them were getting as much out of it as they were (or maybe that was just me).
At 10:05, Hval bowed her head and walked to the back, leaving the crowd to reflect on what they had just experienced. This was certainly the strangest concert experience I have ever had, and I’ve seen Deerhoof. Would I go and see another show? Absolutely, if she plays in my area again. If you don’t like her music or are unfamiliar with Hval’s style, I doubt that her live show will change your mind, but that Hval’s music translates at all to the stage is a small miracle.