Saturday, February 24, 2007

Sheer Khan

Bat For Lashes/Mechanical Bride, 23rd February 2007, Leicester Y Theatre

The Y Theatre, which looks like a scaled down and modernised version of a classic music hall, didn't often put on pop concerts, for want of a better word, until very recently. Until recently I'd only seen Cat Power there in 2001, a pleasingly odd diversion from its usual intimate jazz and blues events, stand-up nights and local theatre; now they're putting on two quality shows on successive Fridays. (You'll have to wait to find out who's on next week)

The first pleasant surprise of the evening comes when, having been expecting some local acoustic chancer after reading various reviews of the tour to date, we instead get Lauren Doss, AKA much touted Transgressive Records signing and occasional Larrikin Love backing vocalist Mechanical Bride. Regular readers of my own blog will be aware that I have a natural affinity to anyone whose CV includes the phrase "has supported Jeremy Warmsley", and her fragile folkiness, accompanied by someone on violin and glockenspiel, is reminiscent of a less cutting version of his occasional compadre Emmy The Great. What she lacks thus far in stage presence her voice makes up for, not least in starting with a stunning version of Chapel accompanied only by a choral backing tape. Even in this year of an upswing in talented female singer-songwriters, she's very much one to watch.

Speaking of which, why did it take me so long to catch on to Bat For Lashes? If I'd concentrated at the time Fur And Gold would have been in the running for my top 20 albums of 2006, such is the beguiling nature of Natasha Khan's songwriting, yet it's not until seeing the live show that her aims fall into place. Emerging in her trademark shimmering gold headband and face glitter, if somewhat offset by a yellow T-shirt and jeans, she starts by singing in French accompanied only by wind chimes, which is different but at least instantly marks her territory out. Opener proper Trophy, in a version that soars and uncovers its previously subtly hidden PJ Harvey elements, demonstrates the treatment meted out to much of the album in its live setting - more visceral, a lot more atmospheric, bringing out the character in the songs. Khan spends the set either up front gallantly working her shakers or behind a keyboard while her three female bandmates switch between everything from drums to autoharp, zither and whatever else was to hand. Khan is an engaging stage presence, grinning between songs at the appreciation shown and attempting to encourage everyone else to join the two girls sitting on their own at the front. When she requests we help her out on wolf noises to open I Saw A Light a good portion of the audience is all too willing to help. Such theatrics can turn out for the worse, but here it's all in keeping with the spooked setting.

The most common point of comparison is Bjork, who Khan does sound more than a little like when hitting her top note wail (think Play Dead), but other comparisons come to mind throughout, whether Tori Amos' wide eyed worldview and emotional fragility, Patrick Wolf's blend of traditonal instruments and the electronic era, even the icy demeanour of Black Box Recorder's Sarah Nixey on the partly spoken What's A Girl To Do? This, however, is very much Khan's own world that takes in fairytale imagination, oddly romanticised character narratives and quasi-pagan mysticism, and while that lyrical path has been well trodden you can see the emotional cross-referencing to quoted influences David Lynch and Donnie Darko. Some songs are reworked, especially well in the case of a "voodoo style" Sarah which features Khan on big stick percussion, while an unlikely on the face of it cover of Bruce Springsteen's I'm On Fire is made her own, slowed down and having its masculine bravado removed. By the closer, new song Moon & Moon sounding like a haunted version of Moon Pix-era Cat Power, it's clear something is at work within Bat For Lashes that's beyond plausible accusations of art-school singer-songwriter kookiness. Gig of the year contender? Too early to really tell, but it's a very high water mark to set in February.


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