Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Gutter snipes


You sense that this may just be Carina Round’s big break. Long talked up by the West Midlands blogging fraternity (well, RussL and Phill, at least) as well as a good friend of Jenni’s, the Doon Mackichan lookalike makes a big impression, judging by the fact that she manages to coax a backing chorus out of the crowd in a city where attempting to elicit even enthusiastic applause usually meets with as much success as trying to extract blood from a particularly bloodless stone.

The PJ Harvey comparisons are both obvious and justified (albeit the spiky, leather-trousered, Steve Albini-produced confrontationalist of Rid Of Me, rather than the ethereal, quietly vulnerable, diaphanously-dressed faerie of White Chalk). Rather like Derek Meins, she’s a boldly flamboyant performer of songs that are self-consciously indulgent but remarkably compelling because of (rather than despite) their schizophrenia and histrionics. The only time her confidence and self-belief waver is when she interrupts her final song, embarrassed to have forgotten to thank the headliners.

Back in the summer of 1996, on holiday in Yorkshire, I was leafing through a copy of now long defunct music mag Select when I came across a reviewer claiming the three best records to have come out of America that year were Rocket From The Crypt’s Scream Dracula Scream, Afghan Whigs’ Black Love and Screaming Trees’ Dust. Being an impressionable young teenager with an instinctive aversion to anything British that wasn’t Radiohead, I went out and bought all three albums as soon as I got home. Little did I know then that twelve years later, the leading lights of two of those bands would have forged a black-hearted alliance as The Gutter Twins, and that I’d be about to witness their first UK gig.

I’m not alone. The occasion has drawn lots of balding blokes of a certain age out of the woodwork – the sort of blokes who’ve only been to one gig so far this year, and that a trip to see Bob Mould in Manchester – and the room’s full of expectant faces.

When the duo finally make their entrance, some time after their rent-a-band have got into position, they’re dressed in classic prince of darkness chic – no Hawaiian shirts or Bermuda shorts, Mark Lanegan’s blue jeans the only concession to colour (and that could still be a trick of the light and my eyes). The wiry and gnarled Lanegan adopts his characteristic pose, his right hand clasping the mic stand tight as he uses it as a crutch. Next to him stands Greg Dulli, who after lengthy deliberation (David Mitchell? Crystal Palace chairman Simon Jordan?) I decide is the figure who would emerge if Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet was to be accidentally locked in a pie factory over a Bank Holiday weekend.

Others might be here purely for the opportunity to wallow in nostalgia and catch up with a pair of grunge survivors, but I’m hoping that this will see them more than just trading on former glories and that they’ll be able to bring debut LP Saturnalia to majestic life.

As it turns out, sadly, they aren’t.

Things start off well enough with the album’s opening salvo of ‘The Stations’ and ‘God’s Children’, and other tracks do seem more potent live, most notably ‘Bete Noire’ but also ‘Idle Hands’, which I’d previously thought little more than a stodgy crumb to have fallen from Queens Of The Stone Age’s table. But there’s no room in the set for what is probably my favourite song, Dulli’s slow-burning ‘I Was In Love With You’, and most of what is accommodated sounds – as it does on record – too straight, too conventional, too safe, too ponderous, too filled-out and comfortable to be anything more than mildly diverting.

Part of the problem is that Lanegan, possessor of arguably the most distinctive voice in rock, is too low in the mix – in league with his other recent collaborator, Isobel Campbell, his gravelly growl would probably still rumble through, but here it’s too often buried beneath guitars and keyboards. It feels like being disrespectful, but I can’t help but wish there was less Dulli.

In the encore they tease the crowd into a game of ‘Name That Tune’ by segueing from a passage of ‘Papillon’ by Dulli’s post-Whigs outfit The Twilight Singers into the closing segment of Screaming Trees’ ‘Shadow Of The Season’, before playing Lanegan’s ‘Hit The City’ in its electrifying entirety. That it’s the only moment that inspires genuine excitement speaks volumes about a live show that never really catches fire – and an album that, while solid enough, doesn’t come close to matching up to initial expectations of the intoxicating darkness the unholy union might be capable of conjuring up.

Monday, September 15, 2008

...the seabear diet...

Seabear, Starving Weirdos.
Tufnell Park Dome. 12sep08.

California’s Starving Weirdo’s begin their debut UK show all in a state of genuflection, all at their knees tinkering with their scattered instruments. It starts ornately, a gentle clang and jangle of bells, before it ramps up to scarg atmospherics, the tones abrasive up-top but oscillating down below, yet on an ambient keel around the middle. It is not a one-note post-rock performance however, as beats come in and crag, as though chiselling at headstones. Violins scrape and slalom, sax and bugle open like imploding chasms as it grows haka-like with rumbling intensity. Their half and hour is like peace and chaos undertaking an epic arm-wrestle, with peace putting up an untypically stoic resistance.

Seabear (above) are far less stark a prospect, their occasional interchange of instruments largely more conventional even with a child’s glockenspiel and an autoharp on their inventory. From Reykjavik they might be, but their folkish-bent spreads it arms beyond their immediate locale, even having a Gram Parsons-like swagger despite their obvious humility. Even their tattoos seem unpretentiously non-sequital and gleeful. When someone heckles that a previous tune had been “too depressing”, singer and guitarist Sindri Mar Sigfusson looks both baffled and concerned that they may have negatively tilted someone’s spirit with their songs. They needn’t worry as, in the most part, while the brass might add a little melancholy, and the overall effect is that of country music for a winterscape, the combination of their instruments act as a big blanket of warmth and charm to protect us from any chill.

Seabear @ MySpace
Starving Weirdos @ MySpace


...I dance-ah for money...

Blectum from Blechdom, Kuupuu
Kilburn Luminaire. 10sep08.

On record, Jonna Karanka alone is Kuupuu, but to flesh out the live possibilities Jakko Tolvi of Kemialliset Ystävät joins her on stage. They face off over a table like chess grand-masters, each knowing what the other is going to do many moves ahead. Their bells toll like that of a church two towns over on a peaceful autumnal Sunday, whilst they scritch, scratch, shuffle and sweep for thirty minutes of naturalistic and becalmed green-field music.

In 2002, Kevin Blechdom and Blevin Blectum went their separate ways after four years of collaboration. Six years on and they have reunited once more to combine Blechdom’s frenzied lo-fi technocrash sounds with Blectum’s benevolently nightmarish DaDa-bounce visuals. The two ladies sit to the side of the screen hunched over their lap-tops (see above), call-centre headsets capturing their private giggly banter, which proves just as beguiling as the hamsters with clapper boards and other recurring motifs that appear behind them.

Their glitch-pop has a skippy daytime dance at its core that occasionally collapses over its own legs. The sonic motifs and rhythms here are hooped, as though spinning around a torso. As it goes on they weave in their warped baritone version of ‘Private Dancer’, yelp-punkish harmonies and gradually warp it up to a neon barrage of jerk-pop sturm und drang.

Blectum from Blechdom @ MySpace
Kuupuu @ MySpace


Saturday, September 06, 2008

Larks in the park


When I said Glastonbury would be my one and only festival of the summer, I hadn’t quite counted on Woodstick, a free charity shindig organised by Cardiff indie scenesters that’s not so much a micro-festival as a picnic with a wealth of musical entertainment to accompany the cocktail sausages and homemade carrot cake. Bute Park was the scene of this year’s Eisteddfod, which finished yesterday, and so it’s fitting that it should now be playing host to some of the capital’s best English language acts.

The blow of arriving too late for Silence At Sea is softened by the fact that they’ve now been joined by assorted friends and accomplices for a Little My set. Barely all managing to fit under the gazebo canopy which forms the improvised stage, the indiepop collective are their usual charming, gentle, cheek-caressing selves. With its stylophone intro veering briefly off into the ‘Happy Birthday’ demo and subsequent ace recorder solo, ‘Sellotape My Hands’ is the inevitable climax and highlight. Comedian Michael McIntyre has observed that books for teaching the alphabet to kids (“A is for apple, B is for …”) imply that “xylophone” is one of the 26 most important words in the English language; for Little My, you suspect, it really is.

Judging by the thick wodge of supplements stuffed under Spencer McGarry’s arm when he arrives, Woodstick has rudely intruded upon the traditional Sunday pastime of digesting the papers. His solo set is rudely intruded upon in turn by the elements, the fine drizzle sent down from above interpreted by the man himself as God’s vengeance on an atheist, or perhaps just as a commentary on the music. If the latter, then the likes of ‘Leader Of The Chain Gang’ suggest that the Big Fella’s got very poor taste. It’s not every festival where the main stage performer wets his whistle between songs with a swig of Pimms and invites his audience to invade the stage to avoid from getting too damp.

On an afternoon when most of the featured acts have already received the official SWSL seal of approval, Broken Leaf aka Rhodri Viney is one of the few exceptions. Despite being rather more traditional in tone and style than his fellow performers, and attempting one tricksy cover which he himself concedes is overambitious, he impresses, largely by virtue of a fast, impassioned playing style and unflinching lyrical honesty, both of which are suggestive of what The Wedding Present might sound like if David Gedge pared them back to the bare bones. Little wonder, then, that he has the seal of approval from Cardiff's indie royalty, namely Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and Super Furry Animals.

We may be in the midst of the summer holidays, but The School are still open for business – that business being to banish dark clouds whether metaphorical and literal. The Parallax View sponsored popsters’ set is certainly short, comprising just four songs – but it’s also beautifully sweet. ‘Valentine’ in particular is unaffected and cute-as-a-button, cheerily heralding the return of sunshine and blue skies. Surely Ken’s right and it won’t be long before everyone wants to get themselves educated.

Is it just a quirk of scheduling that the festival’s nominal headliners “Gindrinker are able to get closer to a School than their restraining orders usually permit? DC prefaces twenty minutes of typically misanthropic malevolence that’s magnificently contrary to everything that’s gone before by pointing out: “This is a free show, so you can’t get your money back”. As if it’s likely anyone would ask. The fact that this is an acoustic performance doesn’t blunt the duo’s bite one jot. Savage opener ‘Delia’ is evidence that Graf’s recovered sufficiently from a torn nail when they supported Times New Viking, while a half-remembered version of ‘Iron Man’ winds up as an acidic tirade against Ozzy for destroying his band’s reputation by agreeing to the filming of ‘The Osbournes’. Only they could conclude a festival as generally smiley and mild-mannered as this with a slouching, bilious anthem called ‘Hanging Is Too Good For These Bastards’, the chorus to which is screamed out for the benefit of the park’s passing dogwalkers and scampering pre-teens.