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Hozier takes a worshipful L.A. to an actual church

Hozier takes a worshipful L.A. to an actual church
Irish singer-songwriter Hozier performs at an intimate gathering at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

It was almost too easy, booking Hozier in a church.

The project, led by 24-year-old Irish singer-songwriter Andrew Hozier-Byrne, broke through with a single called "Take Me to Church." The lusty, acerbic song needles Ireland's most contentious institution, using religious imagery to evoke forbidden pleasures of the flesh (with an accompanying gay rights-themed video that went viral this fall).

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Hozier's voice was perfectly tuned to the gothic interiors of Koreatown's Immanuel Presbyterian, which carried his high, sweet notes to the rafters on Thursday night. His sound is rooted in blues and soul with a gospel flourish, and as his recent, very early-in-career "Saturday Night Live" performance indicated, American fans regard this young talent with a certain reverence.

When Hozier’s at his best, he can translate the eerie dread of old-time religion into a modern rock setting. In his less successful moments, there’s just a thin wall of hipness (and a truly magnificent haircut) separating him from mewly balladeers like John Mayer or Ray LaMontagne. Hozier's set showed that he had the sacred part down pat. But he could have benefitted from a little more of the profane.

To Hozier's credit, there might not be a more death-obsessed songwriter on the Billboard charts right now. When he took the church stage in a haze of blue backlights, he opened with "Like Real People Do," where he asks a lover "Why were you digging? What did you bury?" before imploring, "I will not ask you where you came from ... and neither should you." Later, on his duet "In a Week," he traded suicide-pact promises with a bandmate: "They'd find us in a week when the weather gets hot / After the insects have made their claim, I'll be home with you."

If there's a new morbid-teenage-folkie market after Conor Oberst's turn to respectable Americana adulthood, Hozier's locked it down. His mix of GQ-ready looks, instrumental virtuosity and a touch of incendiary politics has resonated over just a few EPs and a September major-label debut LP, and pop is better for that.

But for a songwriter who draws a through-line between Delta blues, sad Irish ballads and contemporary alt-folk, he needs to see that vision through. That means no more songs like “Someone New,” a saccharine little breakup ditty that was a disservice to his more serious songwriter goals. Blues artists have a long tradition of riffing off their peers’ styles, but the Black Keys should probably check their pockets after Hozier's heavy-fuzz take on his “To Be Alone.”

Hozier already has the solution in his repertoire, though. When he spread out the arrangements across his large backing band on "Work Song," the mix of spare, wide-open handclaps and precise vocal harmonies did the concert's sacred setting justice. They gave a simple song an air of something much deeper and older. When he ditched his microphone and amp to cover the Mississippi blues legend Skip James from the middle of the pew aisle, his reverence for this old music resonated even louder (and the crowd responded in kind).

He closed the main set with "Take Me to Church," and if the audience appreciated the irony of lyrics like "I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies" in this setting, it wasn't evident in the sea of cellphones recording him.

Hozier's show proved that there is beauty to be wrung from troubled old things, though, and his surprise stardom affirms that. But maybe for his next Bible-themed single, he should spend some time reading the Song of Solomon -- there's some really sexy stuff in there.

Follow @AugustBrown for breaking music news.

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