Charlene Kaye & the Brilliant Eyes brought a party to the Mercury Lounge Wednesday night with a too-brief set that was as quirky and fun as it was surreal, blending equal parts psychedelic funk, new wave and postpunk. She had not one but two drummers onstage, playing full kits: how cool is that? Kaye has jumped nimbly from style to style in recent years, from pensively jangly rock to more oldtime-flavored sounds, but lately she’s put a lot more muscle into the rhythm. Since this band had no bass, the low notes were supplied by keyboardist Jason Wexler, whose fat, woozy synth basslines drew a straight line back to Bernie Worrell. And this guy is FAST – he played his one solo of the night, a machinegunning series of spirals down from the upper registers, with just his right hand. It was Kaye’s bad luck to follow that big crowd-pleaser with one of her own, firing off nimble funk and blues licks. She’s a connoisseur of guitars – last time this blog caught her onstage, she had a Les Paul, this time it was a Jazzmaster – and has serious chops to match. And an ear for assimilating the sounds of a particular era and then spinning them back with her own stamp on them.
The night’s second number began with acidic sheets of noise from the keyb – which drove the sound guy crazy – and blippy 80s synth grounded by Kaye’s solid, minimalist, funky riffage. The slinky, vintage P-Funk-tinged number after that, Kaye said, she’d written to pick herself up after a particularly bad summer. From there she led the band into oldschool 70s disco updated with wry 80s synth voicings. She reinvented a Drake song as classic disco, building from minimalist postpunk guitar on the verse to a big lingering chorus over fuzzy, sustained synth bass and echoey electric piano.
One of several brand-new songs, simply titled You, set an anthemic 80s Britpop tune to the cleverly orchestrated thump of the two drums – this was the number with the back-to-back high-voltage solos. Another song brought back the classic disco groove and then morphed into an anthemic new wave hit that evoked the Motels at the peak of that band’s mid-80s popularity. Years go by and people still dance to these sounds – and Kaye seems determined to capitalize on that. There were a couple of songs that missed the mark – the opener, which had a cloying, Vampire Weekend-ish sweaterboy Afropop feel, and the closer, with its singsongey ah-OOH-ah backing vocals, which veered toward the studied awkwardness of corporate emo. But the crowd was into it. It would have been more fun if Kaye’d had the chance to do a longer set and cut loose more on guitar. To let off steam, she sometimes plays in an all-female Guns & Roses cover band called Guns & Hoses (no joke) and is reputedly fierce in that one as well.