Review: Water From Your Eyes, Squid at 9:30 Club, 2/9

Water From Your Eyes and Squid delivered a knock-out show at 9:30 Club last Thursday. Headliners Squid, born out of the U.K.’s exploding post-punk and art-rock scene of the past few years, assured a show frequented by music-nerds and hipsters from some of the smelliest corners of internet—r/mu, Pitchfork, The Needle Drop, etc. But disgust with the number of insultingly small beanies and a conversation at intermission on Pavement’s definitive ranking in the top American bands of all time failed to leave a relevant stain on the night. Both acts masterfully held the audience in rapt attention during their performances.

Water From Your Eyes started, in typical Water From Your Eyes fashion, with an ending. The closer to their 2023 album Everyone’s Crushed, “Buy My Product,” barreled out a pummeling wall of bass feedback as Rachel Brown and Nate Amos, who constitute the band, sauntered carelessly onto stage with a touring drummer and second guitarist. They all slowly took their places, Amos on lead guitar and Brown at the mic, seemingly unbothered by the cacophony. Then, out of the brooding, industrial noise, the band slowly stacked the discernible elements of “Buy My Product,” a song bluntly about selling music. The irony of the song was perhaps not lost on an audience largely unfamiliar with the band and there for Squid.

Those familiar with this oddball duo would know that Water From Your Eyes has, over the past seven years, accumulated a substantial resumé of experimental pop records and was a mainstay in the Brooklyn DIY scene for most of that time. Their 2021 album Structure finally distilled the sound that Amos and Brown had long endeavored for, and its success launched them into the spotlight. They signed to Matador Records and secured opening gigs for Interpol, Spoon, and (what our two scholars at the show didn’t know) Pavement. Despite more mainstream success, Water From Your Eyes have adopted none of the consummate professionalism that a record deal might suggest. They stuck to their humorous slacker/stoner posture on Everyone’s Crushed and managed to make one of the best records of the year.

If the music sucked, such an offhand attitude brought to their live performances would be infuriating for the audience. Thankfully, each song works like a magic trick. Brown’s deliberately off-key, spoken word style of singing and Amos’s tendency to open each song with little more than distorted loops of a random instruments don’t sound promising for the first-time listener. Yet, each song manages to assert itself slowly and surely until a complex arrangement forms from the mess of parts, creating beautiful passages of harmony out of disparate chaos. Each song comes together under totally different circumstances and travels in different directions. After the blunt and rapid-fire “Buy My Product,” Water From Your Eyes launched into the bouncy and synth backed “Track Five” off of Structure. The set saw them rotate between various tracks. Aided by the live assortment of instruments, operating not as replacements but additions to the instrumentals, they jammed-out to songs like “Barley,” “True Life,” and the face-melting “Open.” Inserted between these tracks were more melodic and softer songs like the winsome “When You’re Around” and the mesmerizing ““Quotations”” (not—or maybe meant—to be confused with the “Quotations,” also off Structure, which is the same song with different instrumentals).

Amos and Brown ended their set without the other two bandmates, performing the minimalist penultimate track to Everyone’s Crushed, “14.” Though Brown’s vocals are often sardonic and indolent, “14” is a much more intimate song. Opened by a swirling loop of orchestral strings punctuated by what sounds like a plucked viola, Brown expresses feelings of dissociation with their lyrics, singing “When did it start to loop?” over and over. Though oblique, there’s a feeling that Brown is addressing the troubling past when they sing “How many is fourteen?” and “I’m ready to throw you up,” but the song, intentionally, leaves the listener equally lost and with profound feelings of anguish and alienation.

Water From Your Eyes completed a killer set. Part of me worried it would be one of those shows where the headliner can’t deliver to the same level. Marinating in the dark between sets, the audience’s anticipation grew for an achingly long time. Like Water From Your Eyes, Squid walked out to a formidable loop of static feedback, which did not immediately boost the audience’s confidence. But gradually, plucked guitar strings and drumbeats tapped out of a percussion pad announced the opener to Squid’s 2023 album O Monolith, “Swing (In A Dream),” and all the worried anticipation dissolved.

O Monolith is Squid’s sophomore album, following the hot success of Bright Green Field, released in 2021. It’s a fusion of the squawking freak-out guitar sound from Bright Green Field and various influences in folk, jazz, and synth-driven pop and rock. Songs tend to be maximalist collages of instruments. Though a quintet, band members juggle instruments throughout songs so that the number of instruments incorporated regularly reaches into the double digits. Drummer and main vocalist Ollie Judge had the fewest responsibilities on each song, having only to sing and drum. By comparison, on each song bandmate Arthur Leadbetter ricocheted inside a stack of keyboards, synthesizers, tambourines, gongs, a cowbell or two, and various unidentifiable objects. Louis Borlase, lead guitar for much of the night, also contributed to keys, bass, backup vocals, and lead vocals for “Siphon Song” —though distorted through a vocoder. Multiple songs saw Laurie Nankivell and Anton Pearson swap bass and guitar, while the former also contributed trumpet and extra percussion, and the latter backup vocals and looped guitar distortion on top of his harmonies. Each member displayed an adept mastery of multiple instruments and an impeccable ability to multitask. Even if nothing resembling a song came out of the speaker, the physical display was impressive enough.

Not only through their juggling act were they able to engineer every element the studio versions of their songs live, even manually starting the sample of birdsong that begins “Green Light,” they exhibited a virtuosic ability more than once to play transitions between songs instead of breaking. On the first of these instances, they pulled the high-strung guitar loops from the twinkling outro of “Undergrowth” and, in the time it took to switch instruments and sip some water, they were ready to launch into aggressively into “G.S.K.,” one of the biggest hits off Bright Green Field. The familiarity of one of Squid’s classics sent much of the crowd into a frenzy of headbanging, jumping, and screaming-along.

Squid also forayed into recent material, playing “Fugue (Bin Song),” released in January, and an unreleased song. Yet the crowd was more than content to see live almost all the material from O Monolith, and displayed an impressive familiarity with the tracks, singing along at subdued passages and breaking into jerky dance-movements as each song reached its anticipated, euphoric crescendo. Perhaps the best example of Squid’s song-formula, though always fresh and various, is “Narrator,” one of the hits from Bright Green Field. After another masterful instrumental between songs, Squid announced to a veritable fever of excitement the flat cymbal and kick drum that open “Narrator.” Everyone knew already the climax to come. Interposing opening and ending though is a jangly, upbeat, nearly 5-minute-long passage where Judge’s lyrics wander and question his own reality, feeling like it’s not real but imagined, making him the narrator of someone else’s story. He returns to the line “I’ll play my part” again and again throughout the first section as the instruments swell in a subterfuge of squiggling bass and crisp guitars. At first, they thwart climax, dying down from a rising pulse of keyboard, bass and sharp guitar. In the lull, Judge suddenly jumps again into action, repeating “I’ll play my, I’ll play my, I’ll play my” until it reaches a full-blown hysterical explosion, with him crashing down on the cymbals and all the other band members letting their wailing instruments go off in all directions.

Squid kept the energy going for one more song after “Narrator,” playing “The Blades.” The song starts with a regular lineup of double guitars, bass, drums, and keys. Slowly, the players shift about the floor, sprinkling looped drums, swirling static harmony, and blaring trumpet that get swept away just as they reach a boiling point, leaving Judge to whisper into the mic the breathless last verse and thank the crowd for coming. Though a quiet ending, it finalized a consummate performance by Squid and another terrific concert inside the hallowed walls of 9:30 Club.

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