Lights took more than three years between the release of Siberia, her second album, and Little Machines, her third. The Canadian electropop songwriter did not abandon her Jersey fans: She brought her band to the Stone Pony in Asbury Park winter 2012, and played the main stage of Skate and Surf in 2013. At those shows — particularly the synthesizer freakout at the Pony — Lights demonstrated that she could rock far harder than the average pop artist. She’s got a great understanding of the expressive power of analog synthesizers, and she goes where most modern pop producers fear to tread. Prog-rockers knew that turning knobs and flipping switches can generate sonic effects as exciting as any that can be produced by a six-string. Lights ought to remind her audience of that on Halloween, when she is, once again, the main attraction at the Stone Pony.
Or maybe she won’t. Little Machines isn’t quite the outlier that Siberia was — it feels more like a tentative handshake with mainstream pop. The songwriting is still strong, but the endearing, nervy awkwardness that has always been a hallmark of Lights’ music is missing this time around. The Listening, Lights’ marvelous 2009 debut record, was a proudly geeky record; Lights did almost all of it herself, and she clearly reveled in its out-of-style synthesizer sounds and her not-so-subtle Christian message. The Listening played like a companion piece to Owl City’s wonderfully uncool Ocean Eyes, and just like Adam Young, Lights seemed to realize that she could get away with being subversively square as long as her chorus melodies and beats were firmly in place. On Siberia, Lights set aside some of her pop ambitions in favor of experiments in texture. That included a pivot toward dubstep, and the integration of a bunch of electro-hijinx into her songs. Predictably, it wasn’t seamless — but it was never less than imaginative, and it was often fascinating, too.
Little Machines is the first Lights album that sounds like it was composed in compliance with a larger commercial strategy, which isn’t to say that it was. Perhaps Lights is now tuned in to the world around her, rather than the colorful one inside her head. But some of Machines undeniably echoes the work of other adventurous synthpop artists who’ve made the transition from niche appreciation to wider success. “Same Sea,” for instance, sounds very much like the productions on the most recent Tegan & Sara album, and “Speeding,” which could be the best song on the new set, echoes the throwback synth stutter of CHVRCHES. It remains to be seen whether Lights’ move away from idiosyncrasy will have repercussions for her live show. I’m guessing she’ll be the same frantic electro-hellion she’s always been, but you never know, do you?
A singer-songwriter with far less to prove takes the stage at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank on Sunday. Yet just like Lights, Chrissie Hynde is touring behind an album that, no matter how well-written it is, feels like a compromise. Stockholm, Hynde’s first album under her own name, was almost entirely co-written by Bjorn Yttling of Swedish pop act Peter Bjorn and John, and doesn’t quite have the bite that we’ve come to expect from the former Pretenders frontwoman. There are good songs on the set (“Down The Wrong Way,” in particular), but they’ve been polished to a very un-Pretenders-like gleam by producer Yttling, a master of inoffensiveness. She’s been standing behind the Stockholm material at her shows, and I’d wager she’s roughing it up, too. She’s also be devoting more than half of her setlists to old Pretenders songs that still scald three decades after they were first committed to tape.
Unfortunately, two of the best options for catching good local bands in concert this weekend conflict: both the fundraiser for Riverview Jazz and the album release party for the new set by The Porchistas are happening on Saturday night. Riverview Jazz throws an annual festival in a Jersey City Heights park that overlooks the Hudson River and the New York City skyline. This weekend’s event, which is headlined by Beninghove’s Hangmen, will take place in another picturesque setting: Grace Church Van Vorst, an Episcopalian house of worship with a gorgeous interior. The organization is charging a $10 cover, but all that money goes to keeping Hudson County’s only jazz festival going. As for the Porchistas, well, they’re something of a jazz festival themselves. Shoot It At The Sun, the Montclair folk-rock quartet’s latest, is eclectic, funny, political, inspired and consistently hummable; you can expect a lengthy review from me next week. The Porchistas will be joined at Tierney’s Tavern in Montclair by the Defending Champions, a playful ska-punk band from Caldwell that always brings the party.