By Gabriel Mathews
I’ll say this up front — The thing that excited me most when I heard Torres was coming out with a new album was the list of her collaborators. Sprinter features Rob Ellis and Ian Olliver of the PJ Harvey trio on drums/production and bass, respectively, and Portishead’s Adrian Utley on guitar. While McKenzie Scott’s debut as Torres featured a few near-perfect songs, it also tended to blur together and featured some really ham-fisted lyrics. My hope was that this band of luminaries (which, by the way, how the hell did a twenty-two year-old with a single self-released album to her name get these guys on board?) would help elevate her music to the rocking levels their names connote. I had heard they were touring with her, and was incredibly excited to see what this band could do together.
Sadly, after a strange set from Aero Flynn, who aside from having one of the worst pun names I’ve ever heard, are also awkwardly derivative of In Rainbows and In Rainbows alone, I had to face the fact that this band on stage with Torres was not the one I’d been expecting.
Once I got over the tragedy of not seeing Rob Ellis, I got pretty into Torres’ set. Coming out on stage, Scott lit a match and blessed her band, exhibiting the flair for the theatrical already evident in her lyrics. She then started into the calm, spooky “Son, You Are No Island,” which is easily one of the best songs she’s ever written. It showcases the awesome range of her voice, and features one of her better lyrics. I lost a bit of my enthusiasm, though, as the band moved through Sprinter’s obvious lead-off tracks “New Skin,” “Strange Hellos,” and “Sprinter.” While the fill-in band was actually really impressive—the guitarist expertly texturing the songs with e-bow and tone-knob twiddling, the drummer thundering on some huge floor toms—these songs display Torres’ biggest weakness, which somehow no one ever points out: Most of her songs are the same. She sticks to the same general chord progressions (“Major, major, minor,” my companion quipped), she strums exclusively on downbeats, and when she fingerpicks she fingerpicks in one pattern and one pattern only. And a lot of the lyrics are still pretty ham-fisted—“Strange Hellos” goes in particularly cringeworthy directions with phrases like “I was all for being real” and “strange hellos are not my bag.”
All that said, the sameyness of her catalog didn’t ruin Scott’s set for me, because she can still get by on her pipes and her ear for melody. The ever-incredible “Honey,” Torres’ breakout song, gave me just as many spine chills as it always has, particularly in the accenting of “ashing in your caw-fee.” “Cowboy Guilt” was more fun live than on record, feeling less like a weird toy-shop tune and more like a rough-eged piece of twisted pop. And the way Scott screamed on “Strange Hellos” was a righteous calling out of the assholes being loud in the back of the room.
As she closed the set with Torres’ gorgeous “November Baby,” I felt the criticisms leaving me. As she says on “New Skin,” “In January I’ll just be twenty-three.” Scott is young, and she has a lot of time to grow into the promise of her best songs.