Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Smoke and mirrors


Open any music publication or click on any music website in January and it's likely you will have encountered a list of 2008's Most Likely To. By the end of February, Oxford will have played host to three of the most hotly-tipped in the space of less than a month. Black Kids determinedly refused to teach a sold-out Jericho Tavern's boyfriend how to dance with you at the tail end of January, Vampire Weekend will be showing off their NYC take on Afrobeat at a sold-out Zodiac on 23rd February (and probably including 'Oxford Comma' in their set) and tonight Glasvegas are - you guessed it - playing a sell-out gig at the Jericho Tavern.

But first - after I've been cornered by the bright-eyed girl who's harvesting email addresses but who clearly knows nothing more about the headliners than that "they're going to be the Next Big Thing", despite the fact that I've been trying to radiate a "I'll make my mind up once I've seen them, thankyouverymuch" aura - it's International Jetsetters. Either they were a member light when I first saw them, supporting Sons & Daughters in November, or vocalist Fi McCall was yet to join. As you might expect from a fivesome of whom more have performed with the reformed Jesus & Mary Chain than haven't, hazy narcotic pop is their stock-in-trade. 'Inside Out' is the stand-out track, reminiscent of Six By Seven at their zippiest and most direct, but after that my attention begins to wander and I find myself pondering when Frank Gallagher found the time to learn the bass.

Now don't get me wrong - I'm quite glad that The Half Rabbits don't live up to the excruciating zaniness their name implies, but they could at least crack a smile. Frontman Michael Weatherburn in particular only lets his poker face slip when breaking into a violent new riff. Perhaps it's because they're on camera tonight, being filmed for their first appearance on MTV. Pitched somewhat awkwardly between Muse and Interpol both in terms of their music and their on-stage demeanour (Exhibit A: 'Man Down'), I struggle to see what's induced Jetplane Landing to include them on not one but two Smalltown America compilations. Aside from the moderately explosive crowd favourite 'This Changes Everything', it's all a bit polite and pedestrian.

And so to the second band Alan McGee's seen third on the bill at King Tut's in Glasgow and gone stark raving mad about (no prizes for guessing the first). Just in case you need me to rehearse what the fuss is all about: 50s doo-wop songs lathered in reverb and feedback and performed by a band who look like The Clash if they'd been styled by James Dean. By rights, it SHOULD be absolutely fucking brilliant. But - tonight, at least - it just isn't.

The set doesn't get off to a particularly auspicious start. The band are making their grand entrance through the crowd as the intro music plays when the fug of dry ice sets off the smoke alarm. Even when they do make it onto the stage and start playing, still shrouded in dry ice and bathed in red light, there's a nervous tension in the air. 'Flowers And Football Tops' and splendid new single 'It's My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry' go a long way to dispelling it, only for the bass amp to blow immediately afterwards and the dark clouds to return. An edgy James Allan tries to rescue the situation by playing an unheard-before solo track, but 'The Ice Cream Van' is a lame duck and we're treated to the unedifying spectacle of a slim Ricky Gervais snapping at the sound man.

'Geraldine' and in particular debut release 'Daddy's Gone' stage a recovery, but their take on The Ronettes' 'Be My Baby', enjoyable though it is, not only turns out to bring a short encoreless set to a premature end but is also a rather clumsily heavy-handed and unnecessary underlining of what they're doing with their own material: namely, teasing out the timeless pop songs which underlie the guitar scree on The Jesus & Mary Chain's Psychocandy.

Yes, the Next Big Thing, as is so often the case, is actually steeped deep in tradition - Elvis, Phil Spector, Johnny Cash. McGee has claimed on the Guardian's music blog that 'It's My Own Cheating Heart...' is "an utterly unique proposition and totally soulful" - but, speaking as a huge fan of The Raveonettes and bristling with indignation as a result, that's simply not true. Take a listen to pretty much anything from their three full-length albums (Chain Gang Of Love, Pretty In Black and Lust Lust Lust) and tell me that Glasvegas are doing anything much different, let alone much better.

Of course, that I'm left disappointed is probably inevitable. After all, Glasvegas have only released two singles and still need time to grow - time that's being denied them as more and more expectation and hype is heaped upon them. And perhaps it would have been worth remembering that just because Alan McGee says something's amazing doesn't necessarily make it so. Legend has it that the spiralling recording costs of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless brought Creation to its knees, but what eventually killed it off was some bloody awful signings on the part of its founder.

Let's not overstate things here, though - Glasvegas are far from awful, and in time I suspect I'll be won over. But tonight I can't help but feel I should have stuck to my original plan and gone to see Bletchley no-wavers Action Beat and their four drummers instead...

Link: Del's review of the Barfly gig, before Camden burned down

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

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The joy of Polysics


They say there's a fine line between genius and insanity, and, when it comes to music, there's also sometimes a fine line between genius and shit. Take Cutting Pink With Knives. What might sound at least potentially interesting on paper - Napalm Death for Klaxons fans - turns out to be pretty darn dreadful.

Their minute-long songs, propelled by pounding electronic drums reminiscent of Wolf Eyes, are like fistfuls of needles to the face, and not in a good way. It doesn't help that in Chris Abitbol they have a frontman whose inane goofing and motormouth very soon become enormously irritating. Still, Holy Roar might yet turn out to be vindicated in pinning their hopes on CPWK's Nintendoid gabba metal, especially if the Kids grow tired of Hadouken! and start hunting around for a harder, heavier fix.

The subsequent music mix - a smattering of gutter punk and Bow Wow Wow's 'C30 C60 C90' interspersed with 'Don't You Want Me', 'Take On Me' and (in the words of that esteemed rock critic Alan Partridge) The Police's "gibberish classic" 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da' - serves as a helpful forewarning about what to expect from the headliners.

Judging by their uniform - orange boiler suits emblazoned with the band name - Japanese loons Polysics are well aware that Fun House isn't just the name of a Stooges album; it was also the kids' TV programme hosted by mulleted legend Pat Sharp on which boiler-suited contestants competed against each other in the slowest karting race in the world. They also all wear wraparound sunglasses, but in case you're wondering they don't model themselves so much on Geordi La Forge of 'Star Trek' as on Devo.

That the Americans are band founder and leader Hiroyuki Hayashi's heroes is as evident from Polysics's jerking and twitching new-wave punk as from their sartorial stylings - though it's not just an exercise in karaoke. On the contrary, for fascinating glimpses of how certain strands of Western musical tradition can be reworked, recycled and reinvigorated and then sold back to us as something simultaneously alien and familiar, look no further than bleeping, furious recent single 'Rocket', the sweet electro-pop of encore-closer 'Black Out Fall Out' or the wonderfully idiosyncratic take on The Knack's 'My Sharona', which sounds like The Cardiacs fronted by Johnny Five. Not so much lost in translation, then, as found afresh.

While keyboardist and robot vocalist Kayo adopts the rigid pose of a Kraftwerkian mannequin, Hayashi is by contrast an explosion of energy - screaming in Engrish, clapping, leaping and bounding, scissor-kicking and, at one point, trying to lead the crowd in what seems to be a bizarre exercise video routine. We of course oblige. So now you know who to call when Mr Motivator finally goes off to the great gym in the sky...

Polysics Or Die - so goes the title of their recent compilation. There are harder orders to obey, it has to be said.

Monday, February 04, 2008

There will be Blood

Blood Red Shoes/Make Model/The Screening, Leicester Charlotte, 29th January 2008

There seems to be a three-line whip for the local music scene tonight, possibly due to the presence of The Screening opening the bill, chanting fans in tow. Like the Displacements (see Summer Sundae review passim) they're a local band with a big future, NME cuttings and a deal in place. And like the Displacements... well, they're much like the Displacements without the harmonies, in that there's nothing you've not heard before here, trading as they do in big hooky anthemry a la a less smart We Are Scientists or a less overtly cocksure Courteeners. They're trying to fit in with the prevailing dancefloor indie trend (of 2004) but apart from finding some Bloc Party fractured rhythms on their last song there's nothing here that leaps out as anything but the thought that they have too much of an eye on the immediately commercial.

Passing by on the other side in another way, unfortunately, are Glasgow's Make Model, who are gradually taking over from tonight's headliners as the support band du jour. Their own aim seems to be the streamlined choral leftfield melodies of Broken Social Scene circa You Forgot It In People fed through the Scotpop filter of the Delgados, My Late Novel and a little Franz Ferdinand and with EMI support and plenty of touring ahead they certainly have the potential to be something special given time, but tonight nothing really takes off and faced with an apathetic crowd much of it feels one-paced and underpowered.

Underpowered certainly isn't something you can accuse Blood Red Shoes of. "Last time we played here 25 people came - what the fuck's happened?" Steven Ansell rhetorically wonders aloud as he and Laura-Mary Carter take the stage for the beginning of hostilities. What happened was a couple of years' non-stop gigging and refinement to a tee of their powerfully direct two-piece all-action guttural garage punk. While more than the sum of their parts the pair, finally on the road towards promoting April's debut album Box Of Secrets a good two and a half years on from their debut single, both bring something of themselves to the party, Carter the misleadingly sweet girl who once the guitar is strapped on unleashes torrents of pre-grunge American underground riffing - I suspect an influence from Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein - Ansell somehow not missing a beat of the sometimes whirlwind drumming while simultaneously singing. The chemistry in their playing and onstage interaction is such that it'd clearly fall apart if either were giving anything less, and as it is it's virtually relentless and louder and grittier than any two-piece has the right to be, especially when I Wish I Was Someone Better is played at virtual warp speed, Ansell passing immediate comment afterwards with the only words that seem apposite at the time: "fucking hell! Fucking hell!" And after 45 minutes of high energy melody meltdown he still has enough left about him to make for the entrance with stickers to give away. In all ways, they're clearly unstoppable.