Sunday, February 17, 2008

Brand needs, sales needs, whatever

The Cribs/Joe Lean And The Jing Jang Jong/Does It Offend You, Yeah?/The Ting Tings, Leicester University, 16th February 2008

So this is the New Musical Express' constituency in 2008. A venue plastered in posters - and who wouldn't want a five foot tall representation of him from The Enemy - and populated by people who think looking like a member of the Skins cast is something to live up to. Maybe I'm getting old, or maybe they're getting thick. And no, bloke at the door with a clipboard, I don't want to sign up to the Joe Lean And The Jing Jang Jong mailing list quite yet, cheers.

As well as being the worst named line-up in its history, this year's NME awards tie-in tour - sponsored by Shockwaves for that extra style consciousness over all - hasn't as yet captured the popular imagination in the way these often do. It's not that difficult to see why - whereas in previous years the whole bill has featured bands with a well received album out or at least a large amount of anticipation around their early releases, this year's lineup features a band still not quite breaking out of cult interest supported by three bands with various levels of hype-based genuine interest, none of whom have as yet put out a full scale single. 2001's Amen/JJ72/Alfie/Starsailor bill notwithstanding, it speaks more of this being a transitional phase for British alternative music, searching for something to grab on to, running mostly on late Britpop-esque hope than Conor McNicholas would ever publicly admit.

The Ting Tings take what now almost legally has to be referred to as The Famous Opening Spot. For every Franz, Kaisers and Coldplay there's been a Llama Farmers and last year Mumm-Ra, and those that did come off were bands who through timing more than anything were perched on the edge of something big regardless. And so it may be with this Radio 1 playlisted, heavily promoted for a good half a year duo: she, Katie White, a gregarious blonde in hat and short dress with not quite piercing vocals, scrappy guitar playing and when required giving the name branded big bass drum behind her a thorough whack; he, Jules de Martino, in permashades behind the drums adding occasional vocals and cueing up the backing tapes. Reviews thus far are all over the place trying to find a comparative foothold to describe their sound, most lazily settling for the White Stripes on the basis of their setup, but that's far wide of the mark. At their best they're a less skeletal cousin to the Gossip's glam declamations and a hint of the Karen Os, and while sometimes it touches the dread spectacle of Republica it's closer than many of their supporters would admit to the subtle inventions of the best Xenomania productions. A couple of songs which rely less on the taped synths and more in duo vocal interaction only serve to remind how so far better Blood Red Shoes are at that sort of thing, but White has plenty of presence and their big songs are smartly first and last in the set, Great DJ fitting neatly into the post-CSS/New Young Pony Club lanscape, while with White's exultations (she puts the mike out to an audience a good proportion of which had earlier feral howled when she first came to the lip of the stage, only to find nobody really knew the lyric) and the backing whipping up an electro storm That's Not My Name comes to life far better than the recorded version. Therein lies the issue - while at their best there's quite a bit notable about them, it's reflective of a problem the industry have have had of late where while bands used to have a full album's worth of recorded demos, now producers find they only really have four songs because that's the amount that looks best on a Myspace page, and you wonder whether the Ting Tings could carry off a full album or set much longer than 25 minutes.

Does It Offend You, Yeah? are fairly modish as well, but in a different sense despite their reliance on samples and slotting into one of the many tentacles of nu-rave. They're another of those bands trying to make dance music translate to the stage with a full band setup, but a substantial amount of their set comes off much like an era a lot of those going mad at the front won't remember, ten years ago when bands like Bedlam A Go Go and Lunatic Calm briefly rose in the wake of the Prodigy on a mission to fuse dance and rock with frenzied MCing and guitars. On this occasion our excitable host is the splendidly named Morgan Quaintance, who uses most opportunities to will on a crowd that doesn't really need any further geeing up at all, at various points attempting to play guitar behind his head, breaking into frenzied cowbell hammering and later crowdsurfing while attempting to replicate fellow travellers MSTRKRFT's Sebastian Grainger's vocals on Let's Make Out while the band sound like they've done their Homework, as in approximating Daft Punk's early work developing this sound. That looming zeitgeist break casts a shadow over what they do and for all the joy they're clearly having on stage it doesn't translate to anything as euphoric as Justice and Simian Mobile Disco have done in less dayglo areas, but what they do have is closer We Are Rockstars, a great big jackhammer of a thing that nearly tears the roof off and does manage to collapse the keyboard stand.

It occurs to me at this point that, while these bands are much written up for their very newness, they come out of people who've tellingly been around the block already. Katie and Jules emerged from Dear Eskiimo, a post-Scissor Sisters trio who were signed to Mercury and played a MTV Hits event without, as far as can be told, ever releasing anything for them; all of DIOYY? were involved with session playing and soundtracks (Morgan was in the touted at the turn of the century Dimestars, whose singer was Kim Wilde's sister Roxanne), while Joe Lean, titular fulcrum of Joe Lean And The Jing Jang Jong, used to drum (and write - Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me is reputedly his) for never pushed into priority act status but definite cult concern the Pipettes. In a lot of their interviews, that band's frontwomen often claim the band and its attendant stylistic add-ons formed out of a disenchantment with the post-Libertines music scene the country's indie nights had got themselves into. In that case, JLATJJJ must be some act of subterfuge on Joe's part, or possibly a mainstream indie-appropriating pisstake project of a magnitude and construct that would cause Bill Drummond to retire hurt, artfully styled as they are in sloppy ties, skinny trousers, big jackets and volume-enhanced hair. They start without Joe on stage, a surf-scuzz instrumental reminiscent of a jet propelled Cecilia Ann from Pixies' Bossanova. The second song is much the same, only with vocals and leaving Joe already out of breath. And that's about where the inventive dynamism concludes as they settle into the kind of post-Libertines, jumping about a bit with twin guitarists scree that's long been played out elsewhere, albeit not helped by an amorphous blob of a mix. Some readers may be aware of Rise Above, last year's album by the Dirty Projectors wherein their leader David Longstreth attempted to reimagine Black Flag's seminal hardcore punk debut Damaged from memory in the band's own obtuse style. This, you imagine, is what the Pigeon Detectives doing the same with Singles Going Steady would sound like. The frustrating thing is buried somewhere under the carefully ruffled lines is a kernel of something exciting that's never allowed to develop, while for a frontman noted by some of the press for charisma Lean dances like I do, and I make a point of never dancing in public, and his banter is of a language construction entirely of his own volition, the rest of the band tuning up over and around it regardless. What does it say about a bill, then, that JLATJJJ's tech, Marc Beatty of Brakes, is in what looks like being the best act represented here tonight?

Not that many people here would... well, know who Brakes are, in all likelihood, but that this is an underwhelming set of bands to hold up to the light of alternative modernity isn't an opinion you'd want to spread among many fans of The Cribs. It's interesting in itself that a band three albums to the good are headlining the traditional new bands tour, and even more so that the Jarman brothers, who have often spoken of their love for the American alternative underground and Riot Grrl ahead of the mainstream mores, Ryan once famously claiming that 'commercial indie' was a bigger threat than global warming, are playing an NME tie-in tour sponsored by a hair product company. Still, we've all got to pay the bills. The Cribs clearly have cachet - Edwyn Collins, Alex Kapranos and Chicago cult oddball Bobby Conn have produced them, they're good friends with the Kaiser Chiefs and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth provides a spoken word counterpoint on a track on their current album. And yet there's not a lot actually there in their music - it's student indie disco fare, jagged riffs against an unshowy rhythm section and the odd big chorus for people to punch the air while singing along to in between hurling their pints around (which this crowd do between bands), if refracted through Dinosaur Jr without the solos and American college power-pop. At these moments they come across as a terrace anthem band for people who like to think they're too smart for modish terrace anthem bands. (A good game to play is the Cribs Lyrical Reversion Exercise, in which you merely take the chorus of any well known pop song and add "woah-oh uh-ohh!") In fairness they give it plenty on stage and you can see why their live following is so rampant, as Ryan knocks his mic stand over twice within the first three songs, Our Bovine Public in particular a compacted box of energy and interplay even if the sound man never quite manages to make both his and Gary's vocals loud enough at the same time. A cover of the Replacements' Bastards Of Young demonstrates one angle of where they're coming from, and it's personally pleasing that while reminiscing about previous visits to the city they namedrop the Dirty Backbeats (see reviews passim) to a decent cheer, but for the most part they power through everything with barely a moment's pause. The Wrong Way To Be sees Ryan's ritual T-shirt off dive into the crowd, Gary attempting to play both instruments in his stead, before Ranaldo himself appears on the big screens to add his unfortunately only vaguely audible words to closer Be Safe. A full-bodied summit of the evening, then, but what it all tells us about the healthiness of NME music in early 2008 is less clear.

Hopefully it didn't escape your attention that the first three bands were all featured when promising unsigned acts on 5x5 last May


Blogger Ben said...

Don't suppose it escaped your attention that the first three bands all featured in the 5x5 feature - certainly didn't escape Swiss Toni, who went to the Nottingham leg of the tour.

Unlike Messrs Ranaldo, Kapranos and Conn I remain utterly bemused as to what's supposedly so good about The Cribs. Don't hear that "American alternative underground" influence - if I did I might be interested...

Nice to see a reference to Llama Farmers (even if a mocking one!) - they were my first ever interviewees when the 1999 tour came to De Montford University. Very friendly too, as I recall - and as yet uncorrupted...

12:09 am  
Blogger Simon said...

I meant to mention 5x5 (and indeed just have by editing) but it got lost along with a few other details I left out so as not to make it too long, the best of which was the mid-50s couple dancing wildly throughout the Cribs set in the sound desk area. And I think I saw Serge from Kasabian (and definitely saw Kate Nash, as hinted at on STN).

I liked the Llama Farmers at the time, actually, but in retrospect they were too in thrall to grunge to succeed in Britain in 1999. The Warm Jets were on the tour a year earlier, though.

5:28 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home