Twisted sisters (and brothers)
At the Yo La Tengo gig a couple of weeks back, I mooted the concept of a Cardiff Indie Scene I-Spy game. Well, tonight would be even more ideal for trying it out.
It's hardly surprising, though. After all, this is the launch gig for a new CD, This Town Ain't Big Enough For The 22 Of Us, featuring 22 representatives of the city's burgeoning music scene, compiled by the scene's spiritual godfather Gary of Twisted By Design and enthusiastically endorsed by Spillers Records and Radio 1's Bethan and Huw amongst others. In honour of the occasion, no fewer than eight of the featured bands are performing, and it's a complete sell-out.
Doors having opened at 5pm, we don't arrive until 6pm, by which time things are already running well behind schedule. Not a bad thing, though, when it means we're fortuitous enough to catch the tail end of the opening set from Little My (And Friends) - the "friends" on this occasion being members of fellow This Town... bands Hornby Pylons and Silence At Sea (plus Tom and Neil of Los Campesinos!), whose songs are also aired. No Guess Who? board percussion this time (at least, not that we're here to witness), and no tell-tale Vaselines cover, but the delicately shambolic songs and kids-in-a-music-shop attitude to composition charm all the same. In any case, you can hardly fault a ten-plus strong band sporting a variety of animal headdresses, can you?
By contrast, The Stray Borders (formerly Tetsuo) come across as rather earnest - not necessarily something I'd normally react against, but it goes against the grain of the playful mood set by Little My And Friends. There's some neat guitar interplay and powerful drumming in their dark predominantly instrumental rock, but not a great deal to get genuinely excited about. Personally speaking, a bit of a disappointment on the night, all told, but there's more than enough on their MySpace page - the list of influences and the recorded version of set- and compilation-closer 'In Case Of Emergency Break Glass' in particular - to suggest that on another day I might be rather more taken by them.
There can't be many guitar / drums / keyboards / viola combos around, and that's enough to arouse my interest in Threatmantics. And unlike many of the other bands on the compilation, the three members are all Welsh born and bred. The trio specialise in a purely visceral in-your-face gypsy punk, showcased to best effect on 'Get Outta Town'. If I have a criticism, it's that, impressive as it is for Huw Alan Davies to combine drumming and keyboard duties simultaneously, the beat becomes a bit wayward at times.
By contrast, there's nothing ragged about The Loves - as might be expected of an outfit who have already released an album with Track & Field and recent single 'Xs And Os' on Fortuna Pop, and recorded a live session for Radio 6 at Marc Riley's request at the beginning of the week. Seven members strong, they describe their influences as "The Velvet Underground and The Monkees. That's it". I'd go for 60s garage rock and psychedelia as seen through a bifocal lens of American power pop and quintessentially English bedroom indie. They may have their critics here in Cardiff (see this review of debut LP Love and ensuing comments from the BBC Wales site), and too often they stray towards shameless thievery ('Louie Louie', 'Wild Thing' and 'Twentieth Century Boy' are all more than suggested during the course of the set) - but there's still an irresistible (for me, at least) swagger about the songs that reminds me of an uptempo Spiritualized on the happy pills.
I've attributed my disappointment with The Stray Borders to their being out of sync with the bands around them. But then how to explain my permagrin during Gindrinker's set, given that - in terms of their performance, at least - they spit in the face of the whole loved-up matey vibe? Violence, anger and misanthropy are the orders of the day. First song? That'd be 'Covered In Bugs', the one about being chopped up and left in bin bags, then. Their contribution to the compilation is impassioned rant 'Hey Greengrocer', nearly as apoplectic as 'Tax Exiles' (about taking baseball bats to the likes of Paul McCartney and Bono), but for my money Jim Bowen tribute 'God Of Darts' is the stand-out. Guitarist Graf launches himself offstage and into the crowd with the very first note of the set, and later sends vocalist and part-time Lesson No.1 quizmaster D C Gates' whisky and soda flying. Gates, meanwhile, looks witheringly down at those sat at the front saying "Stand up you swine", and later replies to a question from the crowd, "What are you going to ask Father Christmas for?", with "World peace, man ... or maybe some socks". And yet he is generous in his thanks to Gary for the whole project. Big softies at heart, perhaps?
Even still, The Wave Pictures can't help but come across as unfeasibly nice. They've got significant form (as associates of Herman Dune and The Jeffrey Lewis Band and one-time backing musicians for John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats), the songs (particularly the last one about sculptures made of marmalade) are pleasant enough in their own melodically chipper way and frontman David Tattersall has a great voice, but I just can't get into it. And what's with all the incongruous Iron Maiden style soloing?
Attack + Defend's songs are like short sharp spasms, twitchy and agitated. At times I'm concerned that, with the matching outfits and predominant disco-punk vibe, they're Johnny-Come-Lately zeitgeist followers (albeit good ones), but then they throw something unexpected into the mix (an element of early Coral-style knees-up, some You & The Atom Bomb off-kilter oddness, a heavy dose of keyboards). Their 'Lucky Dawg' it is that kicks off the compilation, and is dedicated to recently deceased pet dog Biff. Actually, they have a thing for animals, having named their February EP Owl. That'd be why there are T-shirts with pictures of owls on for sale at the merchandise stall, then.
And so, with the time gone 11pm and our legs aching, the evening comes to a head with a performance from Cardiff's undisputed band of the moment, finally signed to Wichita following an A&R feeding frenzy. The group huddle gives the impression of closeness and togetherness - but then so does everything that follows. Los Campesinos! are now a band exuding confidence - and so they should be, given the formidable armoury of songs they have at their disposal.
'Death To Los Campesinos!', 'Please Don't Tell Me To Do The Math', 'It Started With A Mix', 'We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives' – fantastic tunes one and all. ‘Infinite Lives’ is dispensed with tonight to make way for a couple of high quality newies, one (the set opener) featuring a shouted chorus about the “international tweepop underground” and the other described a little ingenuously by Gareth as “a ballad”. There’s also room for a quick Hendrix-esque rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ – just as there was last time I found myself upstairs in Clwb. The best is naturally saved till last – and with Los Campesinos! that means ‘You Me Dancing!’ with added fists aloft for the line about Twisted By Design and then ‘Sweet Dreams Sweet Cheeks’. Most (myself included) are induced into vigorous bobbing and jigging, and happy grins adorn the faces of everyone else.
The man of the hour takes to the stage for one last time to the chants of "Gary, Gary!", thanking all those involved in the evening and the production of the CD - and us, too. Humble to the last. Gareth Campesinos is right - there IS something special going on in Cardiff at the moment, and this gig (and the compilation) has gone a long way toward proving it. Not all of the bands have quite been to my taste, but that's as it should be - there's no stylistic straitjacket, no rigid uniformity to which bands must adhere. And that can only be a very good thing.
On a tangential note, both Gareth and Tom Campesinos have contributed to the Songs To Learn And Sing feature that has been running on Sweeping The Nation all this month, raving about Bikini Kill's 'In Accordance To Natural Law' and Yo La Tengo's 'Blue Line Swinger' respectively. Read, listen and learn.