On record, the Los Angeles band Line and Circle come across as melancholy romantics. The fistful of songs they’ve released to date pair elegant, silvery guitars with Brian Cohen’s low, sonorous baritone and have titles like “Beauty is Exhausting” and “Wounded Desire.” The net effect is something similar to the cover of Drake’s Take Care: a brooding poet in black surrounded by opulence, but caring about none of it.
In person, the Los Angeles band Line and Circle are altogether different. Cohen — pin-thin and boyishly attractive — spins and leaps in time with the guitars’ pointillist arpeggios, and ends lyrics with a flourish of his hand, giving them an air of stateliness. Last night at Mercury Lounge, he used the spaces between the songs to thank the crowd — genuinely, enthusiastically — for coming, and at one point told the audience en masse to come talk with the band after the show. If their recordings cast them as sighing sad-sacks, in person they’re like generous party hosts, making sure everyone has enough scotch and that conversation is relaxed and comfortable.
That warm persona has a surprising effect on their music, drawing out certain details while de-emphasizing others. It’s like turning the contrast knob on an old television set. The songs they’ve released to date mostly follow similar structure: they open with nimble, scurrying guitars and Cohen’s plummy voice sinking deep into each note. When they hit each chorus, everything goes skyward. Cohen stretches and sustains notes as the guitars go off like sparklers around him. It’s a simple formula, but it works to thrilling effect. Last night, “Wounded Desire” started tense and coiled but its chorus was one giant, joyous exhale — like the relief that comes with running into an old friend in a strange city. “Roman Ruins,” the group’s strongest song to date, opened with chapel-chime guitars before cruising into a refrain that cradled like an embrace.
Much has been made of the group’s similarity to early R.E.M. — specifically Murmur and Reckoning — and the comparison is hard to deny. Cohen’s voice, particularly on the song’s verses, is a dead ringer for Michael Stipe’s early, indistinct mumble, and Eric Neujahr’s shattered-glass guitar playing mirrors the loose, counterintuitive style of early Peter Buck. The thing is: early R.E.M. is really, really good. Any equivalencies made between the two bands should be taken as flattery.