Ryland Bouchard's voice is something to behold: childish, ethereal, and extremely vulnerable.
Musical artist Ryland Bouchard graced Madison Friday evening with a small and intimate performance at The Project Lodge. No longer releasing albums as The Robot Ate Me, the one-man experimental music project that made him known, Bouchard seemed more balanced in his manner, more mature since the last time I had seen him play at Club 770 in 2006. Rather than hiding behind a myriad of looping pedals and instruments including guitars, keyboards, and a clarinet as The Robot Ate Me, Bouchard chose to express himself unfiltered: with only a guitar and his unique singing voice.
Since casting off the anonymity of a band name, it is clear that Bouchard has been making more of an effort to show himself to the world. He sat more or less alone behind the small crowd and clapped politely during the opening performance, a singer-songwriter with a 12-string guitar who called himself Alethio whose wailing and aimless musical performance unfortunately fell a little short. Alethio kept fiddling with his hopelessly-out-of-tune guitar in an attempt to rectify his initially-damaged songwriting. Though he had a 12-string, he played it as one would play a 6-string which made me wonder why he had chosen to perform with an instrument he couldn't even handle. The simultaneous video projection by Thrilled Train of Thought was a little more interesting, mostly consisting of found footage from the '50s with a little social commentary thrown in the mix.
For the main performance, everyone sat on the cold wooden floor of the small art space, including Bouchard who simply started playing without any introduction. His natural showmanship captivated the small audience immediately and he kept us entranced throughout his entire set. I was immediately struck by Bouchard's skill as a guitarist. He played softly, but with such expression that his guitar took on a voice of its own. He showed absolute control of his instrument's dynamics, playing both forcefully and gently as the songs dictated.
Bouchard's voice is something to behold: childish, ethereal, and extremely vulnerable. Yet, his vocal control is just as powerful as his mastery of the guitar. He rarely strayed from a gentle falsetto flourished with an Antony Hegarty-like tremolo throughout his set. Every breath he drew between musical phrases seemed as if it had been written into the song, and his sighs augmented the melancholy mood. Bouchard's lyrics were dark and loaded with unusual imagery, and the main subjects he explored were strained relationships and death.
Eventually, the shy Bouchard opened up just a little bit and talked with his small audience in a voice even more reticent than in his songs. He had recently been utilizing Spanish in his lyrics, and jokingly explained that because of this his songs could be considered "international." He eventually prompted the audience in a Spanish sing-along, translated from The Robot Ate Me song "This Love is Waiting," that started quietly and then reached echoing majesty as his voice rang out over the rest of us struggling to bridge the language barrier: "Este amor está esperando para ti."
Bouchard's set did not last long, but he managed to play a surprising number of songs that spanned his amorphous career. He had come out from the mold he built with The Robot Ate Me and exposed a bit more of his true self, a humble young musician with talent for expressing true and often melancholy sentiment. His earnest new musical project has certainly succeeded in retaining the hearts of his long-time fans, while still appealing to a wider audience.