This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.
Michael Milosh and Robin Hannibal of Rhye are believers in mystery at a moment of enforced accessibility.
Last year, the L.A.-based pop-soul duo worked to create an air of uncertainty around its exquisite debut album, “Woman,” on which Milosh sings in a breathy, high-pitched croon that many took to be female; Rhye’s infrequent concerts and photo shoots -- and its relatively low profile on social media -- allowed that fantasy to flourish.
When pressed, though, Milosh has been nothing but straightforward about what inspired the deeply sensual (if scrupulously gender-neutral) love songs on “Woman.” They’re about his wife, actress Alexa Nikolas, whom the singer describes as his “muse” in the album’s liner notes and whom he’s put front and center in a number of disarmingly intimate music videos.
So it seemed natural that Nikolas played as visible a role as she did in Rhye’s performance Saturday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Twice Milosh bent down from the stage to kiss Nikolas, seated in the front row; at another point, he asked the audience to join in singing “Happy Birthday” to her.
“Here’s another one I wrote about my wife,” he said before the band eased into Rhye’s song “Open,” in which he admits, “I’m a fool for that shake in your thighs.”
An expression of gratitude from a devoted husband? Sure. But Milosh’s display was also a demonstration before a hometown crowd of his uncommon sensitivity; he was separating himself from other boudoir specialists, particularly the male ones, who are more interested in conquest than submission.
He didn’t need to, really: Soft-edged R&B with placid funk rhythms reminiscent of mid-'80s hits by Sade and Everything But the Girl, Rhye’s music effectively communicates the singer’s distinct point of view. “Make love to me one more time before you go away,” he pleads in “The Fall,” an exceedingly rare instance in current pop where a man is asking to be vanquished rather than laying out some sexual battle plan.
In its Disney Hall show, one of only a handful the band has scheduled this year, Rhye maintained that tenderness as Milosh and seven additional players – on guitar, bass, keyboards, horns and strings -- moved slowly and attentively through most of the material from “Woman.” (Hannibal, who also serves as one half of L.A.’s Quadron, doesn’t play live with the group.)
Surrounded by several glowing orbs that barely illuminated the stage, Milosh floated his falsetto over a lightly percussive groove in “Shed Some Blood,” then stepped back in “Last Dance” to allow Claire Courchene a delicate trombone solo. And the musicians kept “Verse” to such a hush that Milosh could easily be heard snapping his fingers when he stepped away from his microphone.
“This is a crazy space,” he said after “The Fall,” adding that the acoustics in the Frank Gehry-designed venue were “overwhelming” – another example in which Milosh was happily in thrall to a force outside himself.
Yet Rhye could summon more intensity when it wanted to, as in the up-tempo disco number “Hunger” and “Major Minor Love,” which erupted -- OK, gently escalated -- into a kind of noisy synth jam, with Ben Schwier drawing the evening’s harshest textures from his bank of keyboards.
“Open,” too, worked up a sweat worthy of its body-conscious lyrics. Driving the song beyond the cool shuffle in which it began, drummer Zach Morillo laid into a throbbing military beat that recalled Sade’s “Soldier of Love.”
But for Milosh -- a lover, not a fighter -- these were exceptions to the rule, isolated advances in a campaign defined by surrender.
[For the Record, 2:35 p.m. April 6: An earlier version of this post misidentified Rhye's drummer. He was Zach Morillo, not Jake Jamieson.]
Twitter: @mikaelwoodCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times