By Madeleine Fellows
An old man in a neon red tank top, jorts, and a fanny pack stands front row at the Japanese Breakfast show on Sept. 27 at the Wonder Ballroom. He and a crowd half his age bob along with the opening post-punk band, Ought, whose frontman Tim Darcy has a voice so deep it sounds like he’s yawning. Darcy’s dance moves begin and end at finger wagging, which seems to be his signature thing. During Ought’s final song, a cluster of fans point their fingers to the beat of the drums. The crowd is small yet buzzing for Ought. But as Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast glides onstage, bodies pack together in the small venue, elbows knocking. We all wish we had left our coats at home.
Japanese Breakfast is Zauner’s solo project, though she is accompanied by a band of three: a sturdy bassist, a goofy guitarist, and a drummer with a mullet who moves to the keyboard later for the few songs in which Zauner trades her electric guitar for a classical acoustic. The band also employs synths to produce an otherworldly sound that categorizes Japanese Breakfast as “dream pop” or “shoegazing.”
Zauner has a contagious smile as she belts out cathartic lyrics about love, rejection, and her mother’s passing. Even her most joyful songs seem tinged with sadness. On slower songs like “Til Death,” her pure soprano pierces above the distorted instrumentation. Only when she belts like this are the lyrics comprehensible. Otherwise, Zauner’s enunciation is intentionally lazy, which heightens the dreamy quality of her music. Her voice floats above the spacey band like a lone and vulnerable astronaut. The band’s energy fills the Wonder to the brim during “Everybody Wants To Love You,” the best known song off of Zauner’s debut album. Their sweeping cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams” feels like the original song through a filter of sleep-deprivation and nostalgia.
After a couple of songs, Zauner confides in the audience that she’s shy to be in Portland as someone with an “Eugene inferiority complex.” Growing up two hours away, Zauner says she drove into Portland for her formative concert experiences. She cites Death Cab for Cutie and Built to Spill among the bands she saw in Portland as a teenager. She guiltily admits to seeing and loving Kings of Leon as well. Years later, Zauner’s “rowdy” bachelorette party took place in Portland, in which she and friends were kicked out of a handful of bars. She laments our city’s strict rules, and the crowd hollers in agreement.
Japanese Breakfast’s sound is more distorted and muddled live, as opposed to the more polished haze of the recording. On her most recent album, there are a couple instrumental transitions, but Zauner chose not to play these at the live show. These tracks are remnants of Zauner’s idea to release a concept album about space.
Seeing Japanese Breakfast live is wildly cathartic for me, as someone who has danced, belted along with and cried to her music.