Live Review: Mitski Kills 'em Softly at the Starline in Oakland

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Mitski performs at the Starline Social Club in Oakland, July 8, 2016. (Gabe Meline)

"Do you know how many hours I've spent," the girl behind me exclaimed to her friend, "laying on the floor listening to this song, like AAAHHHHHHHHHHH!"

"It's floor music," her friend replied, "for sure."

Onstage at the Starline Social Club on Friday night, Mitski had begun "Francis Forever," singing about the usual themes: trying to get over somebody, staying up all night, searching for sunlight when everything feels dark. All 400 people in the former ballroom stood in rapt silence, pierced only by the occasional rumble of a truck outside.

Mitski is a 25-year-old Japanese-born songwriter who's quickly becoming 2016's breakout indie star. Her sophomore album Puberty 2 is the type of inventive confessional collection of personal odes that both old critics and young fans can love, with frank allusions to the fleeting nature of sex and the delicacy of emotions. It is, to be sure, floor music, the type that resonates deepest when absorbed alone.


Such was apparent by the crowd, which cheered loudly for songs but stood docile and attentive throughout the night. Not that Mitski doesn't have loud, agitating rock songs -- "Your Best American Girl" is the sort of huge-sounding liberation of spirit that wouldn't feel out of place covered by, say, Bleachers -- but the spare instrumentation and quieter sound levels at the Starline focused her songs on the mind and heart instead of the body.

That push-pull, of emotional gigantism and singer-songwriter intimacy, toyed throughout Mitski's set. Like a folksinger in a cafe, she told stories of getting ox bone soup before the show, of being sick ("not in the head," she joked, "but physically"), and of her nomadic upbringing in China, Taiwan, Malaysia and Turkey. Joined by just guitar and drums, her band sounded far more like the gentle float of the Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf Mix)" than "Debaser" (which was how her previous, louder band sometimes came off). When she sang plaintively about crying like a tall child, during "First Love/Late Spring," generations of "confessional" female singers from Joni Mitchell to Liz Phair to Angel Olsen felt present.

Mitski performs at the Starline Social Club in Oakland, July 8, 2016.
Mitski performs at the Starline Social Club in Oakland, July 8, 2016. (Gabe Meline)

And yet how massive is Mitski? (I don't just mean in the way she easily sold out two nights in the Bay Area, with people begging for tickets.) When the chorus kicked in on her cover of Calvin Harris' "How Deep is Your Love," or the way she drew out a pained wail at the end of "Drunk Walk Home," she channeled largesse in near-cosmic ways.

It contracted for a three-song closing block played solo, and after her final song, "Last Words of a Shooting Star," the crowd filed out under the art-deco lighting fixtures, Mitski's last lyrics still rolling in the air:

I always wanted to die clean and pretty
But I'd be too busy on working days
So I am relieved that the turbulence wasn't forecasted
I couldn't have changed anyways
I am relieved that I'd left my room tidy