Music Review: Savages Brings Its Intellectual Punk to Webster Hall

July 12th, 2013

Chad Batka for The New York Times

Savages The British post-punk band, featuring the singer Jehnny Beth, performing at Webster Hall on Thursday evening.

It’s now a standard practice of pop, if not a law, to loop back one or two or three generations and use indirect memory to find new sparks. But some new bands, in some circumstances, might have actually sounded better 30 years ago. Savages, the British quartet, is one.

On Thursday at Webster Hall, Savages played for about an hour, keeping up its invisible wall of skepticism. Its withholding of an encore felt doctrinal. This is a post-punk band, not in the general sense but in the anachronistically literal one, as if the first wave of punk had just happened and needed an answer. It’s also a band made up of four women, and its foundation is the tense and severe music from Britain and New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s, particularly in groups involving women: the Bush Tetras and the Slits, for example, who made music for dancing and critical thinking, as if it were understood that punk had blasted down pop, and their jobs were to build it up again from scratch, rather than sliding into received wisdom about normative professionalism.

Savages made an intermittently exciting first record, “Silence Yourself” (Matador), and the benefit of hearing it at home in a controlled environment is the context the group has given it: the thudding and ringing and ropy sound of the recording; the lyrics — published in capital letters on the band’s Web site, about primal energies and living in the present and gender roles scrutinized from a distance — and the manifestoes, streaked with uppercase letters.

“SAVAGES is not trying to give you something you didn’t have already,” reads the group’s second manifesto, “it is calling within yourself something you buried ages ago, it is an attempt to reveal and reconnect your PHYSICAL and EMOTIONAL self and give you the urge to experience your life differently, your girlfriends, your husbands, your jobs, your erotic life and the place music occupies in your life.”

The problem, which is already surfacing in this review, is that the context outweighed the music. Thursday’s set might have been powerful in a smaller club, with a lower ceiling to compress the psychodrama: this is a band whose intellectual ambitions aren’t on the same scale as the group’s sound. The singer Jehnny Beth managed her movements, never smiling; she has an authoritative howl and a carefully modulated screech, used two or three times in the right places; and her key lines — “Did you tell me to shut up?,” “Husbands! Husbands!,” “She will! She will!,” “I am here!” — rang out beautifully.

But the playing lagged. The guitarist Gemma Thompson, making eighth-note patterns, oblique and ringing chords, and waves of agitated noise, didn’t quite bring the elegant presence that you hear on the record. And the drummer, Fay Milton, working with the bassist, Ayse Hassan, played with some unsteadiness in tempo that deflated a few songs.

That unsteadiness could be fine: this is a band with a message about being alive to what life is, not what it’s supposed to be. But there’s some musical cohering, in lowercase, that still needs to be done.

Savages will play Saturday at the Rock & Roll Hotel in Washington, and Sunday at Union Transfer in Philadelphia;

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