Cameron Pollack / Sun Senior Photographer

September 21, 2015

‘Everything Going to the Beat’: Passion Pit at Barton

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Cameron Pollack / Sun Senior Photographer

Cameron Pollack / Sun Senior Photographer

Amidst the bacchanalia and school spirit, between the darties and the parties, waited Passion Pit. At first blush, the Cornell Concert Commission selected the perfect headliner. Taking into account their buzzing, adrenaline-stimulating synths, pulsing beats and frontman Michael Angelakos’ trademark falsetto, there are few better bands to get shamelessly sweaty to in a cavernous gymnasium than Passion Pit. The group tempers their serious indie roots (Angelakos first recorded Passion Pit songs as a Valentine Day’s gift E.P. for his girlfriend) with widespread listenability and chart success to boot.

Yet, Passion Pit stood to potentially exceed already-soaring expectations amongst the student body. In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone’s Dan Hyman, Angelakos stated, “I’ve always loved smaller shows… like 2,500 people.” The Cornell Concert Commission sold over 5,000 tickets for the sold-out show, doubling Angelakos’ target, but still creating a relatively intimate crowd for a band that has played Madison Square Garden. Passion Pit is not a polarizing group (save for those who cannot bear Angelakos’ twee falsetto and melodramatic lyrics). As Larry Fitzmaurice writes for Pitchfork, Passion Pit creates music “perfect for placement in a cell phone commercial.” But how well would Passion Pit’s meticulous and heavily-produced indie pop translate to a live performance?

Enthusiastic Californian opener Robert DeLong jump-started the night with his all-systems-go EDM. DeLong expertly sidestepped the perennial challenge for electronic musicians — figuring out how to physically do enough on stage. DeLong tilted both of his MIDI controllers towards the audience and, even when he pranced around the stage to pre-recorded riffs, always carried a modded Wii remote, a simple prop that screamed “I am always in control.” Even when Delong moved to his drum set (the instrument he studied at Azusa State University), slightly delayed cameras transmitted his every move.

DeLong anchored his set with the first four tracks off of In The Cards, an album he released just three days ago. “In The Cards,” “Don’t Wait Up” and “Long Way Down” all evidence DeLong’s signature melodic, compelling EDM, but “Jealousy” excelled beyond his other tracks as a song that packs in creative chord changes and electronic innovation in less than four minutes. DeLong’s set lagged slightly at the middle, and he failed to fully execute his final drop, instead pausing to walk to the drum set, but delivered an otherwise unflagging set for a one man band-and-entertainer package.  

Passion Pit kicked off their set with “Little Secrets,” a song driven by twangy synths up top and a bubbling, synced bass line and, as Passion Pit tracks go, light lyrical subject matter. The band then rushed into new material: “Lifted Up (1985),” the opening track from 2015’s Kindred. The track does not feature a signature, unique synth riff like so many Passion Pit songs, but rather a simple, bass-heavy beat still drove in an absorbing chorus. Throughout their set, Passion Pit touched on most of their hits from Manners and Gossamer to a consistently pleased crowd, pounding out “Make Light,” “Moth’s Wings,” “The Reeling,” “Let Your Love Grow Tall” and “Cry Like A Ghost” among others during their approximately ninety-minute long set.

Matthew Angelakos currently lists himself as the only member of Passion Pit, but performs with two utility men who trade-off between keyboards and guitars, and a steady bass and rhythm section. Chris Hartz, Passion Pit’s current touring drummer, contributed exceptionally to the band’s performance, oscillating between stolid chorus beats and intricate fills. The current touring permutation of Passion Pit is best described as a crew of professionals. The group lacked some of the fraternal goofiness and gleeful audience interaction of groups that have been together for longer than a half-tour, but when the audio lapsed for a few seconds coming out of a break during their smash hit “Take A Walk,” the band was unfazed.

Angelakos provided a requisite amount of on-stage chatter. He noted how hot Barton was, he told everyone to get louder; he acknowledged that he’d been to Cornell before. For Passion Pit, the minimal chatter worked — the group performs viscerally, pacing from end-to-end as Angelakos soaks through his button-down (with matching loosely-knotted tie) and pounds through falsetto after falsetto. Without fail, Passion Pit filled Barton Hall with sound on every track without becoming cacophonous (I’m looking at you, Modest Mouse). Angelakos nails his soaring falsetto riffs so consistently that it feels ridiculous to slam him for not doing anything but singing. Passion Pit didn’t torture the encore process, either. The band played out the ritual of walking offstage (They didn’t play their biggest hit or turn the house lights on? Strange), and returned to electrify a seemingly even more energetic crowd with a hit that originated on larval, Valentine’s Day-era Passion Pit’s E.P. Chunk of Change — “Sleepyhead.”

In Ian Cohen’s review of Passion Pit’s 2009 Manners, he writes, “if you like one Passion Pit song, you’ll probably like them all.” Cohen’s statement does not necessarily mean that once you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. Passion Pit excels at writing and arranging room-filling tracks that sound catchy, but not cheesy. During Angelakos’ four-album career he has yet to mail in a dud. If a group made, say, metal as consistently excellently as Passion Pit makes pop, they would be getting a lot more critical hype. Passion Pit’s inoffensive sheen, however, covers an arduous writing and performing process, and matching band member frustrations.

Angelakos has garnered positive but unwanted attention following his description of dealing with bipolar disorder while writing and performing. When he discusses touring, he speaks in a notably detached manner. “I need to make a living… This is what I do,” he told Rolling Stone’s Dan Hyman manner-of-factly. When he opened up later in the interview, he projected the stress to others: “Most people shouldn’t really be touring.” Angelakos’ reserved manner glosses over months of mental and physical pain that forced him to suspend recording and tour dates. Former Passion Pit touring keyboard and guitar player Ian Hultquist spoke more emphatically on the topic: “That lifestyle is not made for [Angelakos]. You can see it on his face when he’s not doing well.” Such is the contradiction — despite personal and band strife and, at times, utterly tragic lyrics, you can’t help but enter the throes of the bubblegum pop sugar rush.

While Angelakos’ lyrics tend to evaporate as his falsetto blends in with synthesizers, his words plumb the depths of depression, substance abuse and suicide. Fitzmaurice reports that Gossamer’s “I’ll Be Alright” and “Constant Conversations” so well evoke a period of his most painful mania that his fiancée Kristy Mucci “finds the tracks hard to listen to.” How strange it is then, to jam and scream along as Angelakos croons in “Sylvia:” “No one’s going to tell you enough’s enough / Enough’s always too tough.”

Passion Pit delivered a performance that reached towards a borderline-transcendent realm of great pop. Critics often describe Passion Pit’s aura in terms of visceral joy and exultation, a notion that is especially strange given the intensity of many of Angelakos’ lyrics. Therein lies the beauty and power of Passion Pit’s performance: the feeling of empowerment as Angelakos’ sings about his family’s financial struggles (“Take A Walk”) or his suicide attempt (“Where We Belong”), not in terms of despair, but rather power, confidence and utter joie-de-vivre. Few people exited Barton Hall at the end of Passion Pit’s set (which they concluded by facing the audience, hands clasped in a humble display of gratitude) looking exhausted, but rather like the awake, energetic listeners Passion Pit attracts.