Friday, November 30, 2007

Spirit medium


So, this is how it's going to be, is it? A second trip to the Academy and the same result - I arrive shortly after 8.15pm to catch the first support band's last two songs.

Merseyside's Man From Michael, aside from having a dreadful name, deal in melodic pop-rock that they'd probably like to think sounds like Grandaddy but that actually falls far short, something no amount of vocal woos can change. What else to say? Well, the guitarist sports a most impressive moustache, while the lead singer has a passing resemblance to Julian Rhind-Tutt (you know, the shaggy-haired posh one off of 'Green Wing' and the Barclaycard adverts).

It's probably fair to say that Creepy Morons are best experienced in a small room on a Friday night when the beer's been flowing freely, rather than in a soulless corporate club on a freezing cold Monday in front of the sort of so-polite-it's-uptight crowd bands playing in Oxford routinely seem to have to suffer. It's not that blistering gutter-punk blues duos like this are an alien concept here - after all, it's not so long ago that the city of dreaming spires spawned Winnebago Deal.

Creepy Morons' music is so primeval it's still covered in a slick of slime and hasn't yet learned how to wash. Never mind that the same drum beat and riffs appear to be constantly recycled - the impact isn't ever lost, and the thwack of new single 'Piece Of Mind' is a clip around the ear with a brick. What's perhaps most unsettling, though, on a night of lookalikes, is my realisation of the extent to which guitarist Nick resembles an extremely unelegantly wasted Johnny Borrell.

After a prolonged intermission made bearable only by 'Chinese Rocks' by Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers featuring on the DJ's looped CD and the sight of the roadie who clearly thought he should dress like he's in the band (military chic waistcoat, shirt, flat hat, calf-high boots), headliners The Duke Spirit take to the stage. Continuing the lookalikes theme, we have a generically gorgeous blonde-haired 60s film star (singer Liela Moss, possessor of the most hand-held percussive instruments I've ever seen), the tousle-haired brothers Reid circa 1986 and the Darklands album (guitarist Dan Higgins and drummer Olly Betts) and Ronnie O'Sullivan if he steered clear of the pies for a while (guitarist Luke Ford). And bearded bassist Toby Butler.

The parallels between the quintet before me and the last band I saw headlining at the Zodiac, Sons & Daughters, are striking. Despite having worked with producer Chris Goss of Masters Of Reality (and sometime Queens Of The Stone Age member) for recent EP Ex-Voto, of which the excellent 'Lassoo' is the pick, most of the material from forthcoming second album Neptune showcased tonight suggests a band collectively taking files to the rough edges that attracted me in the first place. 'The Step And The Walk', for instance, lollops along with a poppy gait, while the piano-led 'My Sunken Treasure' reaches for a chorus that is simultaneously anthemic and Strokes-esque. A bit harsh, perhaps, but these days it seems to be less Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and more Black On-The-Straight-And-Narrow Scooter Club.

Not that the scratchier 'Send A Little Love Token' grabs me more; of all the new songs, ballad 'Souvenir' and the slow-burning mid-set beast called (I think) 'A Ship Was Built To Last' are the most impressive, but nevertheless pale in comparison to the likes of the shimmering majesty of 'Hello To The Floor' from first LP Cuts Across The Land. 'Red Weather', meanwhile, despite being deposed from its customary place at the conclusion of the set, still manages to upstage 'Love Is An Unfamiliar Name' - the band failing to heed the cardinal rule that wig-outs should be left until last unless you want to create a sense of anti-climax.

Love parade

Ever wondered what Eddie Chacon of Charles & Eddie fame did after 'Would I Lie To You'? (Well, 15 years after, to be precise.) He recorded an album of sleazy electro-pop inspired by Roxy Music, The Velvet Underground, Roman Polanski and "retro German porn" with someone called Sissy he met "on a late night chat line". The lyrics to 'WWIII' are particularly worth hearing...

Ever wondered what Bon Scott did before fronting hard rock titans AC/DC? He sung and danced very badly in a late 60s teen-pop combo from Perth, Australia, who were one of countless bands to cover The Temptations' 'Build Me Up Buttercup'.

The name of both outfits? The Valentines.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Burns night


No Motion Picture, so we have to make do with just the one support band - and we nearly miss Nomad 67's entire set due to the lateness of my train. Not that that would have been any great loss.

Earlier this year, over on The Art Of Noise, I successfully defended Nirvana from the charges brought against them by the prosecution aka Pete, and bands like Nomad 67 were one of the reasons that defending them was tricky. Perhaps by the time they've sprouted their first facial hairs they'll have abandoned the McFly-does-Nine-Black-Alps schtick in favour of something more interesting.

If my understanding of irony was on a par with that of your average football commentator, I'd claim that there's an irony in the Worcestershire trio supporting Brooklyn's The Fiery Furnaces, who stuff more ideas into a single song than have occurred to Nomad 67 in their collective years on this earth.

It's rather fortuitous that our passing visit to Birmingham should have afforded me the opportunity to renew my acquaintance with Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger - we missed their instore appearance at Sound Fix Records in Williamsburg when we were over in New York, and having just seen Sons & Daughters, it feels fitting watching the band I first saw them support.

Back then, Blueberry Boat was on the verge of being unleashed - since when the duo have released an EP collecting together their singles (amongst other things), recorded an album featuring guest vocals from their grandmother Olga Sarantos (Rehearsing My Choir) and followed it up last year with a record inspired by Devo (Bitter Tea). And now they're in the UK in support of their latest release, Widow City, their first for Thrill Jockey and in some ways their most readily comprehensible and linear album to date.

But, with The Fiery Furnaces, everything's relative - and that's why the album and tonight's set kick off with 'The Philadelphia Grand Jury', seven minutes of strangeness in which plinked keyboard sections rub up against oddball funk and strutting rock, changing direction without the merest hint of a warning. It's that passion for the incongruous which is both most likely to alienate their listener and make them come back for more, to try to catch sight of the thread of string that will lead the way out of each labyrinthine song so it can be viewed from the outside.

On this evidence, two of Widow City's strongest moments are 'Clear Signal From Cairo' and 'Navy Nurse', both of which find the Friedbergers - currently accompanied by Bob D'Amico on drums and Sebadoh's Jason Loewenstein on bass - foraging fruitfully for inspiration amid the annals of garage and 70s rock. By virtue of avoiding deviation, meanwhile, 'My Egyptian Grammar' comes closest to being their most conventional pop song yet, albeit one that has the magnificently befringed Eleanor singing a chorus of "Now, that clearly didn't happen, I consulted my Egyptian Grammar / On p.333 was the hieroglyph for motorcycle helmet". And it has rivals, in the shape of brilliant former singles 'Tropical Ice Land' and 'Single Again'.

It's not an unmitigated triumph, though. For a start, though the snippets of 'Evergreen' are genius, there's no 'My Dog Was Lost But Now He's Found', 'Blueberry Boat' or 'Chris Michaels'. And it's an unpleasant distraction to realise that the goosebumps on my arms are less the result of the Fiery Furnaces' performance and more the consequence of the venue being cold and significantly less than half full. OK, so Acid Mothers Temple are playing a sold-out Capsule show at the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath, but surely the second city could have mustered up more enthusiasm for a band as bewilderingly original as this? Brummies, you should be ashamed of yourselves. The Fiery Furnaces blew hot, and you blew cold.

(Read Kenny's Parallax View review of the gig here.)

Monday, November 19, 2007


Paul Vickers & The Leg.
Farringdon Betsey Trotwood. 15nov07.

Taking time out for a little diversion after eleven years stoking the fires of the Dawn of the Replicants engine, Paul Vickers has Jake-the-Pegged into a new collaboration, strapping on an extra one for some recording and a live workout refresher. An album ‘Tropical Favourites’ will be released in February but in the meantime they’re off on a brief tour of the UK to build a reputation for gonzoid pop, glaze-eyed DaDa and, well, clearing rooms.

Tonight, they are the quintessential ‘fire-alarm band’. People, mostly here to support the comparatively conservative country-rock types playing prior to, look at each other quizzically before ultimately deciding, on feeling an unfamiliar heat, “yeah, I think we’d better get out”. Only a hardy group of about seven – the eager; the brave; the foolish – remain, comfortable with the risks associated.

Mind you, The Leg in full get-up do appear to be a band content with the idea of people fleeing in a blind panic. In ensemble with dinner-jacket, straw hat and electric cello, Pete Harvey’s full-face balaclava gives him the appearance of a homicidal Sad Sack trapped in a life of black and white minstrelsy. Guitarist Dan Mutch’s facial covering is similar, yet different, less schlock horror and more like an amiable terrorist making some year-out cash by working the Mexican wrestling circuit. Drummer Alun Thomas is the cuddliest of the lot, a pants-headed panda crashing around at the back.

‘Fire-alarm band’ they may be then but that’s not to say Paul Vickers’ voice is a siren or anything. It is utterly distinctive though, like a motorbike revving in a gravel trap or ripping a blue plaster off of sunburnt skin. He is always a genial, if eccentric, stage presence as well, wearing a permanent look of gleeful befuddlement as he links songs with meandering part-improvised stories, such as the Barbara Bananas saga, a tale of a murderous monkey attempting to make her way, by considerable force, to a meeting with Hollywood executives. He also makes the most of the space at the front of the stage to perform a physical theatre routine during their closing number that is part goose-step, part conga-line, part-Frogger and part jig.

These are diversions though from a pretty arresting set of songs such as the desert punk scorcher ‘Umbrella Propeller’; the Eastern European lullaby for real hardcore kickers and screamers ‘When the Wand is Wild’; and the vaudeville banjo/Weddoes jangle/Theremin-tweaked country sway of ‘Bess Houdini’. The fact that they should write a song about the latter’s decision to end her participation in séances a decade after the death of her husband and give it the lyric “ten years is long enough to wait for any man” is a neat indication of what they do best; re-tooling Bizarre magazine enigmas and grotesques for a pie and peas crowd.

Paul Vickers & The Leg @ MySpace


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Filial respect


Bloody students. There's little so likely to excite my curmudgeonly ire these days as that particular species. They're responsible for the early start to tonight's gig which scuppers my best intentions to get immersed in the local Oxford scene quickly - as it is, I only catch the tail end of the first support band's set.

International Jetsetters are aptly named, it turns out, what with guitarist / vocalist Mark Crozer and ex-Ride drummer Loz Colbert having recently seen the globe as part of the resurrected Jesus & Mary Chain line-up. Given that shoegaze is very definitely flavour of the month round these 'ere parts at the moment, they couldn't have picked a much better time to introduce themselves to my ears.

Even that doesn't quite guarantee them a favourable reception, though. What I hear is a bit polite, perhaps even rather banal, much like the material on their MySpace site - fuzzed-up pop that's more the polish of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club than the spit of the Mary Chain. But no doubt they'll get another chance to impress before long, and I'm open to persuasion.

Pass up or miss so many chances to see one of Cardiff's most recent exports in what is nominally their hometown that I've lost count, and what happens? They turn up, unexpectedly, on someone else's bill. In Oxford. As well as flying in the face of grammar, The Victorian English Gentlemens Club - like the latest band to break out of the Welsh capital, Los Campesinos! - are musical mavericks, every song a curveball, though by contrast they sport the scars of the city's love affair with the lurching basslines and scabrous guitar of Shellac rather more obviously.

Guitarist / vocalist Adam Taylor's sailor's shirt suggests the discovery of a child's dressing-up box, as do the sparkling dresses modelled by bassist Louise Mason and drummmer Emma Danan. But the box marked "Tunes" seemingly remains elusive, and despite witnessing a commendable display of elbow grease, tub-thumping, bell-beating and semi-strangulated choral yelping, I'm not really won over - not even by the bizarre punk-skiffle of trademark song 'Ban The Gin'.

It's safe to say that last time I saw Sons & Daughters (or "Sons & Dauters", as the front of tonight's venue proclaims in big red letters - did they run out or are they economising, or something?), at Glastonbury two years ago - the circumstances weren't exactly conducive to their dark-hearted art: they were hidden away in the gloom of the John Peel Tent when outside, in the hot sunshine and blue skies (the Friday's biblical downpour a distant memory), and in front of a huge Pyramid Stage crowd, Brian Wilson was kicking off one of the best sets I've ever seen. But this is more like it - or should be, at least.

Associates of Arab Strap and championed by Franz Ferdinand and The Delgados, the Glaswegians couldn't possibly feel aggrieved at a lack of support in their hometown, but here in the heart of England they're greeted by restrained if warm applause and between-song silences that an unnerved Scott Paterson tries to fill. Perhaps it's the city, or perhaps it's the new material from their second full-length album This Gift, due out in January, which appears to signify (if only subtly) a simultaneous sanding-down of the rambunctious punkabilly of their past and branching out into poppier territory. Thus the sneering twitch of new single 'Gilt Complex' is counterbalanced by two songs that are cinematic in inspiration if not in sound: 'The Nest' takes Ken Loach's 'Cathy Come Home' as its starting point, while 'Darling' flutters its eyelashes coyly in the direction of 60s girl groups as well as the 1965 Julie Christie film of the same name, its fingernails impeccably manicured rather than bitten ragged.

Whether it's a reflection of the quality of the new material only time will tell, but whereas 'Rebel With The Ghost' and 'House In My Head' pass by without making much lasting impression, hearing the likes of 'Taste The Last Girl', 'Medicine' ("This one's about suicide. Yay!") and 'Dance Me In' again is enough to convince me to revisit last album The Repulsion Box. Even then, though, the two best songs of the night are bone-rattling debut single 'Johnny Cash' from first EP Love The Cup, which morphs improbably into 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' halfway through, and 'The War On Love Song', their collaboration with Scottish writer A L Kennedy for the 'Ballad Of The Book' musical / literary crossover project co-ordinated by Sons & Daughters bassist Ailidh Lennon's husband, Idlewild frontman Roddy Woomble, for which Adele Bethel stalks the stage in as menacing a fashion as someone wearing Kylie-style gold hotpants possibly can.

By 10.20pm, and without an encore, it's all over, the club night for which the gaggle of swaying, braying toerags dressed as golfers are outside queueing having prematurely curtailed the evening's entertainment. Bloody students.

* Sadly, the Academy was just as I'd feared from my experiences in Birmingham: characterless, soulless, poor bar service and even worse beer. There's just too much going on there to boycott it all together, unfortunately, but I'll be doing my best to patronise other venues around the city in preference, while the old name will stick here, at least.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Steady the Bobs

The Bobby McGee’s.
Whitechapel Art Gallery. 02nov07.

So there’s Jimmy, right, stood by the door. He’s quite easy to spot. He’s the one with the ukulele. And the sailor’s cap. And the jeans held up by braces. And the kind of low-hanging beard you could wire a piano with. And the thick blue jumper that, as part of this ensemble, gives him the look of a Tennant’s-fuelled North Sea trawlerman.

Next to Jimmy, almost incongruously so, is the polite and demure Eleanor, dressed like it’s a 40’s barn-dance, whose apple-cheeked vocals lilt away while Jimmy stalks around like a tramp shouting at a post-box for stealing his thoughts, yet lyrically coming across like a toddler tugging on his scrotum. Together, and they are down to a bare bones as a duo tonight, they write songs of love, songs like ‘Ivor Cutler’s Dead’ (“I’ve got noh friends, nut wun, ahm just a sad and lonely little boy”), and songs about unloved Star Wars characters. The latter opens the set, Eleanor breathing softly and sparsely through a melodica whilst Jimmy addresses the audience through a rabbit hand-puppet (“and I dain’t wahnna be Jah-Jah Binks a’more.”)

As the unsettling rubber wallpaper lyrics, the skifflingtwee-kick-at-the-ankles-of-Prolapse that is their sound and Jimmy’s rough speak-singing brogue cause the audience to take a step or two back towards the wall, he attempts to gain their trust by throwing party poppers, glow bracelets and even the bunny glove into the crowd. Not like a football mascot distributing blackjacks to the family section mind, more like a baseball pitcher attempting a stone-skimming record despite a bracing wind.

In the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s café/bar space there is no stage as such and tonight’s acts have shuffled gradually nearer and nearer the open archway leading to the vestibule, the gallery and the exit. As a result, those wishing to make good their escape need first traverse the chicken run of fear, past Jimmy’s Venus fly-trap-choking-on-a-marble eyeballs. Some don’t make it, as he virtually chases them out of the room with the zeal of a man who quite fancies giving cannibalism a try. He shouts after them: “run…run…tell your friends…run…tell your children…you’ve just seen the best fucken band in the world.”

As their set closes, the rabbit glove puppet is returned at speed to Jimmy’s feet, the audiences appreciation held within the rabbit’s paws in the form of a single rose.

Bobby McGee’s @ MySpace


Saturday, November 03, 2007

Tying cymbals to their knees

Max Tundra, Rarely Seen Above Ground.
Whitechapel Art Gallery. 26oct07.

I guess the precedent of Rarely Seen Above Ground’s stage set-up is those arena shows where Elvis’ old band knock out the cobwebbed chops, while the spectral King phones it in from the big screen. Well, almost, if instead you had the band on screen, and Elvis on the stage, with Elvis singing from behind a drum set, and with a David Byrne kinda cadence. That’d be the precedent. Well, no, you’d also need the band on screen to be decked out not in faded crushed velvet or weary leather, but in fur-lined playground hoods, and in noir-ish yet psychedelic black and white, and you’d have to suspect that all of them were Elvis, filmed from a variety of angles.

Thinking about it now, I’ve painted a bit of a nightmarish vision there, so let’s take the sideburns and jumpsuits out of it, and just place in an unassuming Kilkenny sticksman in t-shirt and jeans. The hoods remain the same. That, you might think is the hook of Rarely Seen Above Ground, a.k.a. Jeremy Hickey, the fact that rather than just sing and crash away to a backing tape, he has a projection of the ‘band’ (as ‘twere) going throughout. Not just a half-arsed four-bodies-in-silhouette black and white image either. Instead, it’s done like a music video, albeit a particularly enigmatic one, with cuts, angles, swoops and production effects.

However, it is ultimately the distraction to the main event, and that is Hickey himself to the left of the screen, with his dexterous, inventive, gleeful drumming, and the strangled soul of his voice. It is a kind of distant, hollow vibrato that appears as though to be coming through the walls from two rooms over, but yet at the same time sharp and arresting.

Max Tundra is also a man who flies solo. However, while he might equally be described as a ‘one-man-band’, rather than surround himself with 2-D clones, he cocoons himself within a variety of synths, samplers, toys and an old faithful, but sporadically used, guitar. In an hour long set, he croons like Ben Folds given to brash but cheeky electronica, fires out a re-appropriated cover-version or two, before following the expected show-closer, a version of ‘So Long Farewell’, with an eleven-minute epic that tinkers with the notion of a climax-focused build.

Max Tundra’s music allows for miles of smiles, but he faces competition in that respect from three young teens who stagger to the front of the tightly packed Gallery space encircling Tundra’s musical fort to engage in frenzied skitz-dancing, occasionally pawing at each others faces like fairground grabber-arms sliding off the ear of a poorly stitched Winnie the Pooh. They carry wisdom on their young shoulders for there is no better way I can think of to get the most from a Max Tundra show.

Max Tundra @ MySpace
Rarely Seen Above Ground @ MySpace