Ellie Goulding described herself as "just a country girl" at her sold-out Hollywood Palladium show Tuesday night. That's a curious self-image for a 26-year-old English electro-pop vixen with a one-quarter shaved head and a quiver of ravey, chart-topping singles.
But then she followed that quip with "Anything Could Happen," the first single off her most recent album, "Halcyon," and it made more sense. On record, that tune is a throb of synthesizers and pitch-tweaked vocals. But live, Goulding sang it as a pretty, simple story about skinny-dipping in a creek and feeling a sense of endless potential. You could easily imagine an actual country artist like Miranda Lambert covering it.
Maybe that's what's separated Goulding from the pack of EDM's young female singers and what's elevated her to actual pop stardom in America. She's got a singer-songwriter's heart and a lyrical way with storytelling. Sure, she's dated Skrillex and worked with neo-rave staples such as Calvin Harris and Zedd. But it's also apropos that her hometown village of Lyonshall in Herefordshire is, as England goes, about as country and western as it gets.
Goulding had a slow burn to the top of the U.S. singles charts, first making waves in dance blog-land with her glitchy, dreamy single "Starry Eyed." But her major-label debut album, "Lights," unexpectedly leaned on angsty, electronics-augmented folk-pop, which was probably meant to showcase her voice and songwriting chops but instead bogged her down in the maw of indie soundtracks.
The album did, however, have an unexpected late-cycle hit in the title track, and Goulding proved a quick study in marrying EDM sonics with her Kate Bush-indebted songwriting.
Tuesday's set showed how a good song can shine through grandiose productions, and how electronic witchcraft can highlight delicate, lyrical detail.
An early run of newer tracks set the pace for the night. Goulding and her band reconfigured the digital jitters of "Halcyon's" title tune and "Figure 8" into something almost headbangable. Goulding makes a point of keeping a bank of drums up front to bash in accompaniment, and the first half of Tuesday's show took the hummingbird-ish qualities of her voice and balanced them with tribal synth-rock. That approach helped make some older, lightweight songs such as "Under the Sheets" and "Salt Skin" feel a little more arterial and lusty.
The late-middle of the set, which revisited her acoustic-troubadour impulses, dragged a little by comparison. Her piano-ballad cover of Elton John's "Your Song" was convincing (even with a post-Grammys Elton hangover, it's hard to sully that classic). But compared to her earlier spare-to-vanishing takes on "Guns and Horses" and "I Know You Care," it felt as if the band needed to pad her set out a bit.
She quickly regrouped to close out the night, however, with cosmic, regal takes on "Anything Could Happen" and her clubbier hits, including "Starry Eyed," the Harris collab "I Need Your Love" and "Lights." This is where she sounded best -- her high, light voice bolstered by big electro pulses and instantly sticky melodies.
Goulding may have come up alongside the EDM tide in America, but she's one of the few artists to have translated that scene's bylaws into her own vision. You can take the girl out of the country and put her in the festival dance tent, but that doesn't mean you've entirely taken the country out of her.
The night opened with a brash set by the New York outfit St. Lucia, which played its indie-friendly club tracks with unexpected muscle and emotion. The act's still hunting for a breakout pop hit, but its members clearly have the prowess to join the Passion Pits of the world if they write one.