At Thekla tonight, on the first show of Poliça’s world tour to promote their new album When We Stay Alive, there’s not even a hint that Channy Leaneagh spent most of 2018 recovering from a broken vertebra. In leggings and a dog collar, she’s constantly moving, swathed in swirling pinpoints of light, now and then a foot reaching out to nudge one of the switches at her feet. She apologises after a couple of songs for being a bit breathless and out of shape and vows that in a couple of days it will all be different. If this is her having an off night, it’s hard to credit.
Encased in the bowels of this old cargo ship on Bristol’s Harbourside their music takes on an even more intimate, reflective tone. They’re interesting to watch live – there’s Channy herself, two drummers, Drew Christopherson and Ben Ivascu, and bassist Chris Bierden – and it’s a challenge to peer between the electronic textures and see where the samples end and the live musicianship begins. Not that it matters. Poliça have one of those perfect things going on, everything built around the openness of Leaneagh’s searching vocals. She’s a beguiling singer and comes across like the sort of person you’d always like to run into down the farmer’s market.
There’s a good mix of old and new. ‘Driving’ is the first of the songs from the new album to make a big impression. Syncopated and menacing, there’s a graffiti-covered, Bristolian spookiness about it. Then they’re into ‘Tiff’, with the melody led by the bass guitar. It’s one of many little moments Beirden has this evening that put me in mind of Japan’s Mick Karn. But then a great wave of electronic percussion pulls everything off into territory a bit harder and more intense where they can lose themselves in an avalanche of sound.
Although the album is only out today, you never get a sense that people are off to the bar when they hear something they don’t know. It’s not just because their fans are awesome – the new songs are an interesting and diverse bunch. There’s the ballad-like ‘Steady’, in which Leaneagh wrestles with her family responsibilities. ‘TATA’ bangs along like a great big party, as well it should when you consider that it’s inspired by Channy’s community activism in her native Minneapolis, where steel mills are causing problems with pollution. The reverb-drenched mantra of ‘Be Again’ takes us through a process of reversing and re-claiming trauma and ‘Forget Me Now’ feels so big and inspirational you could slip it into The Lion King without much fuss.
‘Dark Star’ is apparently a bit of an anthem. A young woman with a nose-ring by me shouts out a request for it, and Poliça serendipitously oblige. I’d always had that one pegged as a bit too thoughtful to get a crowd moving, and it’s nice to be mistaken. It’s such a beautiful song, full of loss and longing. This band have a pretty cool fanbase, bopping away to all the sad songs in the hold of a boat.
They’re back for an encore and end on ‘Wandering Star’. Live, they build on that unsettling noise that rises up, please don’t ask me how, and echoes around the room just before the second turn of the chorus. This is mysterious and intense music, with a lot going on beneath it’s entrancing surface. Poliça are back, the fire is lit, and they’re coming to a venue near you. Go see, go see.