Saturday, September 26, 2009

So much for your highbrow Marxist ways…

White Town, Arthur & Martha.
Brixton Jamm. 24sep09.

Adam Cresswell and Alice Hubley line up behind their Moog and Korg synths as Arthur and Martha, with the confidence that comes with knowing they’ve got a triumphantly strong opening three. They put the same three at the start of their album Navigation so their ability to hook-in for the look-in comes as no accident. This is tried and tested sequencing.

Autovia, announced tonight as “I’ve Been Driving In My Car”, is a sauntering daydreamscape that evokes the open road; of late night journeys in icy climes. Musicforhairproducts, which follows, has a similarly reflective swish like, say, Kraftwerk’s Spacelab or Saloon’s Girls Are The New Boys. Cresswell’s vocals aren’t quite as successful in the live environment as Hubley’s, who often brings to mind Amelia Fletcher with her melodic cadence.

Third tune Kasparov is introduced by Cresswell by his asking “Has anyone been watching the chess? How’s Kasparov getting on? … seamless link there” which flags up Arthur & Martha’s innate sense of fun, yet doesn’t detract from the grandeur of their music.

There is also something beautiful about White Town’s sound as well, not that it immediately reveals itself, but there is something plaintive within Jyoti Mishra’s voice that give his songs an extra, subtle hook. Admittedly he looks quite incongruous as a perfomer, a long winter jacket worn on stage over a plaid shirt that billows over his paunch, whilst his face often breaks into a toothy grin as wide as all space.

Yet, and let’s not beat around the bush here, this man has had a bone-fide #1 hit which, in the old money anyway, makes him a pop-star. Not just any old hit either, Jyoti having taken bedroom indie-pop, the kind that usually got no further than the pages of a badly photo-copied fanzine, to the tip of the tip-top pop charse back in 1997 in the weeks between the Tori Amos Professional Widow remix and Blur’s Beetlebum.

You could argue that Baby Bird came from similar roots but he had stalled at #3 with You’re Gorgeous three months prior. White Town’ s Your Woman seemed to come from so far out of nowhere that copies of the single had snow on them. I grant you, it couldn’t have happened without Mark Radcliffe’s eager patronage (back in the great ‘Graveyard Shift’ days with the Boy Lard) or the work of Chrysalis records but the air brush wasn’t taken to it – no Fatboy Slim remix was required to seal the deal.

For many, it will be a long-forgotten one-hit wonder, for others the best #1 of the 1990’s, and what a treat it is to hear it again tonight, sung beautifully and greeted with the kind of cheer that goes beyond nostalgia, revealing a genuine and keenly felt affection for a significant moment in indie-pop history. I won’t crank up the hyperbole to say it’s the most significant #1 ever (to my mind that would be Ghost Town, anyway) but the Your Woman video being played out on TOTP? Thems were good times for the fanzine-writers, tape-compilers and charity-shop threads wearers of my vintage.

Frankly, it’s a treat to hear anything by Jyoti live, considering this is, apparently, his first live performance in London in White Town’s twenty-year history, and appearances anywhere are quite rare. Most of the other material tonight is taken from his most recent album Don’t Mention The War, and considering the live set-up is just Jyoti and his acoustic guitar along with a backing track, they remain compelling, especially Make The World Go Away and Whenever I Say Hello.

These are not the songs of a man chasing the zeitgeist, desperately trying for the burning attention of the spotlight once more. Instead, they show a man happy with his work and to appear at the fringe of the fringes as and when it suits.

White Town @ MySpace
Arthur & Martha @ MySpace


Monday, September 21, 2009

Feisty night

Future Islands, Ear Pwr, Shield Your Eyes.
Brighton Freebutt. 15sep09.

Judging by their opening couple of numbers it might be easy to cast Shield Your Eyes as just another run-of-the-mill post-punk/hardcore band. However, little bits of Hendrix-like magic squeeze out amidst the only-vaguely-in-control scream of vocalist/guitarist Stef Ketteringham. The guitar work and the bass are lithe and intense, but it is drummer Henri George that is in charge here. Usually all eyes are on whoever has got their mouth to the mic but this evening it is the man with the sticks that demands the attention with his percussive dexterity. He raises the bar and Ketteringham and bassist Tobias Hayes come to meet his challenge.

A solid foundation for the evening having been laid, Ear Pwr then come on and immediately own the dance floor, if for no other reason than they set up their table-top operation in the middle of it. Devin Booze flails around the arc of punters to the point where the stale sweat of the sleeping-in-the-van-and-travelling-light-clothing-wise US-band-on-tour becomes all too evident. He ensnares several front-rowers with the loop of the mic cord, whilst Sarah J. Reynolds hops up onto the stage for a short visit, before collapsing to the commandeered dance-floor singing into her partner’s mic now dangling down by her face. The songs such as I Like Waterslide and Future Eyes swirl around, all echo and pulsating electro, morphing together into one long, chaotically exhilarating performance.

Baltimore’s Future Islands are returning to the UK not long after their long-stint travelling around as part of the Wham City collective with Dan Deacon, and continue to offer more bounce and durability than an inflatable castle at Fat Camp. A Future Islands show is all about the fling, both in terms of Sam Herring’s infectious physicality, and the way the playschool chirp of J. Gerrit Welmers’ synth lines and William Cashion’s bass collide with Herring’s lyrical melancholy and arresting vocal performance that veers from a Rex Harrison-like waspishness to a Joe Cocker-esque dry growl.

Welmers and Cashion are studious behind their instruments whilst Herring bounds around like an uncaged ape, a ball of energy dripping with a quota of sweat usually attributable to a nelson of wrestlers after a particularly rigorous battle royale. They require two attempts at single Pinocchio after the bass amp switches off mid-way through take one, Herring quipping, “if it doesn’t happen next time, that’s it for Pinocchio. That song will be dead to me.” Happily, the amp plays ball when the eventually return to it, as it is, along with Tin Man, a clear highlight of their set.

They finish with their haunting ballad, Little Dreamer but are then requested to return for “one more…and make it a feisty one” from a particularly demanding audience member. Clearly a giving band, Future Islands were more than happy to oblige.

More gig pictures at SongKick
Future Islands @ MySpace
Ear Pwr @ MySpace
Shield Your Eyes @ MySpace


Friday, September 18, 2009

Repeat to defeat


Oh the perils of a lack of prior research. You'd have thought that by this stage in my gig-going career I might have appreciated its merits - whether that's so as to familiarise myself with the bands' latest releases or simply to be able to know who the hell's on stage.

But no, here I am puzzling at a bunch of kids playing overly fiddly mathy guitar pop with only a rudimentary grasp of the importance of being in sync, fronted by a girl who belongs to another type of band altogether, and thinking they don't sound much like I imagined they might. Only later do I realise that I've been watching From Here We Run and not fellow Oxford types and local post-rock supergroup From Light To Sound. Doh. Well, if they will both choose four-word-long monikers beginning with "From"...

And next, I suppose, are the headliners. Not so - the foursome (they must have recently shed a member) before us are actually One Unique Signal. The name is rather misleading in implying originality - they're clearly deeply familiar with the works of Spacemen 3, Mogwai and My Bloody Valentine amongst others - but the suggestion of a singularity of focus does ring true.

It turns out my companion and I aren't alone in being transported to pedal heaven by their narcotic and massively amped instrumental rock (well, it might as well be instrumental, the vocals being as lost amidst the chords as a small child in a dark forest) - their three-track LP Villains To A Man was recently selected as Album Of The Month on the Unsung site by someone who certainly knows his psychedelic onions, Julian Cope.

The arch drude's review finds him enthusiastically and in characteristic fashion extolling the virtues of repetition: "Many modern albums that contain almost all of the required elements for Inner Travel are let down simply by the brevity of the songs, and the indiscriminate manner in which half-hour jams stop dead, projecting the unsuspecting listener into a gargantuan (and highly useless) silence." I suspect, then, that Einstellung - yes, it's definitely them - might receive an even greater seal of approval than One Unique Signal.

To describe them as "interminable" would be to suggest negativity and criticism, but quite the contrary. Over the course of their three-song, near-hour-long set I find myself drifting from being impressed to being bored to being seriously amazed by what is a distinctively Brummie take on the Krautrock of Neu! and the like in that it's seen through the Sabbath-tinted glasses of a band who unashamedly hail from the Home of Metal. Of course, it's not to everyone's tastes or patience - my gig-going accomplice, for instance, votes with his feet and leaves mid-set - but for me there's something captivating about the way they shift ever so gradually from sounding like Yo La Tengo gently working themselves up a head of steam to resembling a stuck record round at Steve Albini's house.

It's readily apparent why they've been talked up by friends and acquaintances (Brum blogger RussL and Cardiff's Lesson No. 1 promoter Noel Gardner, who reviewed their latest record Wings Of Desire for Drowned In Sound, to name but two) and found a home on the label set up by Capsule, esteemed promoters of the Second City's annual Supersonic shindig.

(Incidentally, to say they've got a bit of an obsession with Wings Of Desire would be a gross understatement - not only is that the name of the aforementioned recent release, the Wim Wenders film is also where they take their name from and what's being projected, complete with subtitles, onto the bass drum for the duration of the set.)

When the set ends, I track down to the guy who was wandering about before the set trying to sell Einstellung merchandise. "What's on this one?", I ask, fingering a CD entitled 'Sleep Easy Mr Parker'. "That's one half-hour-long song - it's a tribute to the guitarist's father", comes the reply. "Ah, so it's the song they finished with." "Er, no, actually - that's a different half-hour-long song, but this one's just as good..." And so it proves.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A little bit of prehistory repeating


Last time I was here, the choice of support act was unfathomable. Tonight, it most definitely is not. Dead Confederate boast a guitarist called Walker Howle and a sound that could only possibly be made by hairy men.

The Athens, Georgia outfit are currently enjoying the patronage not only of tonight's headliners but also fellow early 90s luminaries Meat Puppets, with whom they're about to tour the US, but their dense stew of grungey riffage - largely instrumental, as the vocals seem deliberately obscured - is a tad too mild-mannered and pedestrian to really excite, the moment at which critical mass would be achieved never quite arriving.

While the scientific debate over how the dinosaurs died out rages on, what caused the extinction of the original Dinosaur Jr line-up is well known and well documented: a sharp cooling-off of relations between bassist Lou Barlow and dictatorial songwriting genius J Mascis. So the announcement in 2005, sixteen long years later after Barlow got the boot, that the ice age was over and that the pair and drummer Murph were back from the dead was met with surprise as well as cries of "Jurassic Park!".

Four years on, and they've chosen Oxford to open their European tour in support of second comeback album Farm - a decision they might be forgiven for regretting early on. It seems rather churlish to complain about Dinosaur Jr sounding sludgy - it's like complaining about a bear having a dump in the woods - but the Academy's set-up is doing them no favours whatsoever. The crowd - overwhelmingly male, wider of waist and thinner of hair than in the band's heyday, filling the sweltering venue with a thick fug of stale sweat and farts - shuffles uncomfortably.

A few songs in, though, and things improve, it all starting to come together with 'I Want You To Know' from the new record. The bespectacled Lou - shirt sleeves rolled up and a little hesitant like a nervy supply teacher - begins to relax, while Murph appears as untroubled by the perpetual loss of drumsticks as he is by the loss of his hair. Meanwhile J - who a couple of hours earlier wandered into Cycloanalysts to enquire about fold-up bikes in that voice that never seems to be able to bear dragging itself out of bed - stands to the left of the stage flanked by an imposing trio of Marshall stacks resembling no-necked bouncers, a plump wizard widdling his way through the herculean solo of 'I Don't Wanna Go There' as his long straight grey hair is buffeted by a fan.

No snoozy proggy noodling here, though - not for a band who are perfectly equal parts Black Sabbath, Neil Young and hardcore punk. That the tensions of the past are behind them seems clear from the fact that, to our delight, they not only mix classic early singles 'Freak Scene' and encore-closing Cure cover 'Just Like Heaven' in with recent highlights like the snarling rifferama of 'It's Me' from 2007's Beyond, but also a clutch of fantastic tracks from the non-Lou period including 'The Wagon', 'Out There' and (best of all) 'Feel The Pain'.

Sure they aren't winning many new fans - I'd bet those rushing to the merch stall at the end are mostly buying the iconic cow T-shirt to replace one that's been through the wash so many times it looks leprous, like mine - and sure Farm suggests that evolution is beyond them. But bollocks to that - having come back from extinction is enough.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Messin’ about on the river

Lisa Knapp & Leafcutter John
London Canal Museum. 09sep09.

The programme for the evening’s entertainment describes tonight’s performance as a world premiere which, whilst undoubtedly true, seems a bit hyperbolical given this tour neither plans, nor often will be able, to stray far from the banks of the Grand Union Canal.

So, this is ‘Canal Music’, a collaboration between folk singer and instrumentalist Lisa Knapp, folktronic laptop hero Leafcutter John and a narrow boat called ‘The Chiswick’. It begins here tonight on the first floor of the London Canal Museum, situated on the Battlebridge basin near King’s Cross. It is certainly appropriate for them to begin surrounded by all these artefacts of history given that the two artists have saturated their recent lives with canal water.

This has involved listening to oral history recordings of ‘bargies’, meeting with surviving horse drivers from the early 50’s, truffling for canal songs in the Vaughan Williams folk song library at Cecil Sharp House (albeit largely fruitlessly) and sampling the sounds of the watery thoroughfares of today.

Tonight’s hour long performance is, as world premiere might have suggested to you, the first airing of their combined work which combines live sampling, improvisation and sonic manipulation with folk sung in a traditional style but with a contemporary edge, a kind of spoken word scat being played out by both performers at times. Vocal and sound loops are created live and cycled via pedals and the computer.

They blow air into a tank of water sat at the front of the stage, to loop the bubbles, trickle, clicks and dribbles. The sounds are recorded using a submersed hydrophone which was made by Leafcutter John from a discarded can of chick peas [see how to make your own here]. “Is that actual canal water?” shouts one audience member, dryly given the transparency of the H2Oand the fact that both performers are willing to dip into it. “Its actual drinking water” deadpans the Leafcutter in response.

There are great crashes as they accidentally touch the sides of the tank which are quickly edited out, and this opening gambit has rather the effect of sounding like an orchestra tuning up, only in full-view and as part of the performance.

Aside from manipulating these sounds on the lap-top, John often uses one hand to tap out some percussion or strap on a squeeze-box, whilst Knapp picks and bows at violin, banjo and autoharp. The pieces are gradually built layer-upon-layer, cool and metallic elements such as a sound like motors revving mixing with a fresh, flowing swish. Knapp’s ethereal voice adds at once both barrenness and a world-is-our-oyster troubadour calmness. Later in the set, singing wine glasses are also incorporated into a tune inspired by the ice pit within the museum building that was built in 1860 to store ice imported from Norway. Particularly haunting when fed through a subtle echo filter.

The performers and the Chiswick now move on, in probably the slowest tour since Moses led a Wallace Arnold package group around the Midian desert. The boat will essentially be a floating stage from here on in, pitching up bankside in Berkhamsted, Milton Keynes, Stoke Bruere, Hatton Locks and finally Birmingham.

That open-air bank-side setting will bring the best from this project I think, as I’m not sure what hardcore folkies turning up will make of it given the very modern, experimental approach to the concept which is sometimes unengaging, but often enrapturing. Indeed, this show is less about folk tradition and more of evoking an atmosphere of place, both geographically and historically, and the performers achieve that with some aplomb.

Leafcutter John website
Leafcutter John @ MySpace
Lisa Knapp @ MySpace


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Rockin' all over the world UK

OK, so I went to a couple of festivals this summer and then wrote about them. Extensively. Here are the links:

Breeders-curated ATP (15th-17th May)
Friday (Giant Sand / The Bronx / Throwing Muses / Yann Tiersen / Bon Iver)
Saturday (CSS / Wire / Shellac / The Breeders / Tricky / Mariachi El Bronx / Holy Fuck)
Sunday (Times New Viking / The Soft Pack / Melt-Banana / Deerhunter / Gang Of Four / Shellac / Foals / Distortion Felix / X / DJ J. Rocc & Madlib)

Glastonbury (24th-29th June)
Friday (Bjorn Again / Gabriella Cilmi / The Rumble Strips / Fucked Up / The Virgins / N.E.R.D. / Fleet Foxes / Lily Allen / The Specials / Neil Young / Animal Collective)
Saturday (Peter Bjorn And John / Eagles Of Death Metal / Spinal Tap / Broken Records / Dizzee Rascal / Crosby, Stills & Nash / Maximo Park / Bruce Springsteen / Jarvis Cocker / 2 Many DJs)
Sunday (Micachu & The Shapes / Status Quo / Brand New / Enter Shikari / Yeah Yeah Yeahs / Bat For Lashes / Tony Christie / Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds / Blur / The Prodigy)

Saturday, September 05, 2009

All hail the partystarters


The last time Torontonian firewall-botherers Holy Fuck played in Oxford, back in October, watching the support band Kelpe was like being served a starter-sized portion of the main course before the main course proper arrived. By contrast, It Hugs Back are a bewildering choice, having very little in common with the headliners - except, that is, for the fact that they're really rather good.

Fans of Yo La Tengo circa Electr-O-Pura in particular will find much to love in the way songs like 'Q' unfold like a languid late Sunday morning stretch beneath a comfortingly snug duvet of fuzz, jangle and drone. Even when they get a bit louder, they could hardly be described as in-your-face - more tickle-you-under-the-chin.

The unassuming foursome look as though they might blush with shame at the mere mention of Holy Fuck's name, and afterwards, when I approach the merch stall and ask bassist Paul Michael for a copy of the album, he automatically assumes I'm referring to the headliners' LP, looking quite bewildered when I insist it's his band's debut Inside Your Guitar I'm after. Aww bless etc.

Kent isn't often associated with musical wondrousness, but 4AD is, and with the label also currently boasting the likes of Deerhunter, TV On The Radio, The National and Bon Iver, It Hugs Back are in good company - but company in which they can quietly hold their own.

This is a Friday night, though, and it's time for the band Friday nights were invented for.

Brian Borcherdt and Graham Walsh aka Holy Fuck are experimental and innovative but high-brow only in the sense that your brows are guaranteed to be raised skywards for the duration of their set. They should market themselves as an alternative to plastic surgery - not to mention ecstasy and Viagra.

Avant-garde electronica, funk, rave, Krautrock and punk are all grist to the mill of an outfit equally comfortable touring with Do Make Say Think and MIA, the disparate styles fashioned into aural smartbombs that target your pleasure centres and detonate to maximum effect. There are casualties all around me - a bloke in a panama hat, another in a pair of horizontally-barred red Klaxons glasses, a curly-haired first-time pillhead - leaping around unself-consciously, all self-control joyously offered up and surrendered to the band on stage. Getting an Oxford crowd to respond (let alone to dance) is so often like getting blood from a stone, but Holy Fuck appear capable of slashing open a vein.

While the majority of the material is drawn from LP - the pick being 'Super Inuit' and 'Lovely Allen' (their "ballad", they claim, not entirely disingenuously) which close the main set and a whiplash-fast 'Safari' which brings the curtain down - there are also a handful of unfamiliar, presumably new songs that up the funk, particularly via groovesome disco basslines and drums that suggest the rhythm section is becoming ever more integral to their sound.

A week later Holy Fuck will be playing the Breeders-curated ATP. To refer to tonight's show as a warm-up would be to imply that they can be anything other than positively molten. And that, frankly, would be very wrong indeed.