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Review | Japanese Breakfast’s ethereal pop cools a humid night at Wolf Trap


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Japanese Breakfast, led by budding superstar Michelle Zauner, turns personal longing, torment, love and confusion into ethereal indie pop songs. During the band’s charming but uneven set at Wolf Trap on Wednesday evening, Zauner’s singing and dancing were mesmerizing. But some of those songs proved too fragile for the sweeping outdoor space and perhaps too intimate for some of the crowd, which was split between her fans and those of the more seasoned co-headliners Belle and Sebastian.

In some ways, Zauner has already moved beyond her introspective indie music roots. She’s directed music videos, created video game soundtracks and written an acclaimed memoir, “Crying in H-Mart,” which is being turned into a major motion picture. Coming off a galvanizing appearance on the season finale of “Saturday Night Live” last month, she’s making the leap from adored indie icon to mainstream star.

Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner is fighting for joy through grief

The most recent Japanese Breakfast album, 2021′s Jubilee, is the group’s most fully realized, and its tracks are a perfect match for a humid, early-summer evening. The opening “Paprika” was punctuated by Zauner smashing a gong, while the lilting “Kokomo, IN” sizzled like a sparkler on Peter Bradley’s slide guitar lines. “Posing For Cars” was the highlight of the 15-song set. It began with Zauner onstage alone with her guitar, her band returning one-by-one, adding tone and building to a brawny climax.

Zauner’s earlier songs are marvels of contemplation, best experienced through close, repeated listening. When Japanese Breakfast played some of those Wednesday — “In Heaven” and “The Body is a Blade” specifically — they were too wispy and diminutive for the setting and didn’t connect. Much better was the set-closing “Diving Woman” from 2017′s Soft Sounds From Another Planet, which is built on snarling guitars.

As Zauner brings her art to a wider audience, it will be fascinating to see whether her music grows bigger and bolder or heads deeper into introspection.

Venerable Scottish ensemble Belle and Sebastian closed out the evening with a delightful set that had their die-hard fans dancing, shouting and sweating under the suburban stars. Stuart Murdoch led the band through a kaleidoscopic selection of songs pulled from every facet of their career, including their new album, “A Bit of Previous,” and their 1996 masterpiece, “If You’re Feeling Sinister.”

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