Trevor Powers exudes an unmistakable air of onstage sincerity. In between songs, he thanks the crowd with a nervous smile and tries to make small talk just as he would with a new acquaintance. “I bought this sweatshirt at the Salvation Army around the corner for four dollars… and it’s still keeping me warm. What keeps you guys warm?” he asks to little response. Like the greatest of earnest hipsters, he is charmingly awkward.
It’s comforting to see Powers exhibit the exact sort of behavior, presence, and understated energy as the music he makes would suggest. After all, Year of Hibernation, Powers’ full-length debut as Youth Lagoon, is filled with some of the most honest, heartbreaking, and, somehow, “nod-able” pop songs to be heard last year. Powers is appropriately unpretentious, calm, and collected when not crying his heart out into reverb-soaked microphones.
Powers makes arguably modest music: bedroom indie-pop with the underlying anguish of a singer-songwriter at a piano bench. Some might call its live interpretation–a two-person, minor explosion of organ synths, programmed drum & bass hits, and languid, yet funky, guitar phrases–slightly half-cooked, as many did of Powers’ SXSW sets. I’m here to argue that, for all intents and purposes, half-cooked is just right for Youth Lagoon’s content. Any more oven time and the whole thing would burn under the weight of distracting and competing instrumentation.
The interesting thing about Youth Lagoon is that Powers’ songs feel like they’re constantly capturing the sound of depression-addled ambition–the sound of striving for more, but never actually getting here. They address a longing for more emotionally gratifying experiences–the sound and substance of bittersweet nostalgia linked with downright painful memories.
From that angle, Powers and friend/accompanying guitarist Logan Hyde are trying to make music that sounds like it’s trying to be greater than the sum of its parts. The key point, however, is that it’s not actually trying to be any bigger than it is. This is the grand illusion that Powers so expertly orchestrates. His music is modesty feigning a grab at grandiosity, but being comfortable with–or rather, accepting of–an implausible ideal. At Youth Lagoon’s core, Powers is hibernating under a fort of sounds that doesn’t quite protect him from his worst memories. He’s aware of it, too.
All that being said, the sound that these two produced at the Rock and Roll hotel on Saturday night shook the ground. It was loud and penetrating, albeit minimal. A song like “17” began with a skeleton built of curling organ synth before blowing up like a firecracker, with a programmed beat as a backdrop for Hyde’s precise, simple lick-ery.
Powers’ voice is exceptional live, and it’s interesting to see how much wind it requires of him. His jugular strains as his Daniel Johnston-y howl fills whatever space is left in the room. His passion was instantly recognizable as he shuddered with every word, eyes closed, keyed into the emotions and memories his songs exercise. When Powers howled the final lyrics to Year of Hibernation standout “July'”, it sent shivers down my spine:
If I had never let go, then only God knows where I would be now
I made a bridge between us then I slowly burned it
Five years ago, in my backyard I sang love away
Little did I know that real love had not quite yet found me
If the intense applause following Youth Lagoon’s final song of the night was any indication, true love might be lurking right around the corner for Trevor Powers.
Photography by Drew Litowitz.