Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dispatches from the tweeastern front

Allo Darlin’, This Many Boyfriends, Of Mice And Mental Arithmetic, King And The Olive Fields.
Brixton Jamm. 26nov09.

Phillip Serfaty is the King amongst his Olive Fields, wearing a stately moustache worthy of a regent. Around him is his band of players; his occasional issuing of a musical direction between songs indicating the fact that they are constantly shape-shifting moons twirling around his gravitational pull. They take folk-pop at a gentle pace, allowing Serfaty’s captivating lyricism to be the main attraction. His voice is also one that demands attention, pitched between Jeffrey Lewis’s thirsty drawl and Calvin Johnson’s drowsy bass. Their final song, in particular, sounds like a Hidden Cameras 7” might if you pressed ever so gently upon it with a finger, reducing it’s r.p.m. to 38/39ish.

Following Serfaty’s bounder’s mo, Of Mice and Mental Arithmetic’s Tom manages to round out the full facial hair set by sporting an Eavis-style chin beard every bit as ramshackle and frothy as his band’s brash pop style. They wear their influences, such as Arcade Fire and Architecture in Helsinki, on their sleeves, but with those sleeves moving around the stage constantly switching instruments, it all blurs into something distinctly English (one song appearing to rather sweetly segue from a mention of “racism” to discussing the benefits of “a cup of tea” within a couple of lines) and very much theirs.

Coming in from Leeds, This Many Boyfriends are on only their seventh gig, and yet their third guitarist. Despite this they appear to have come a long way from their first gig, where two of their three songs were Ballboy covers. Thankfully, while taking on the spirit of Gordon McIntyre’s outfit, they have developed far beyond being a copyist turn. They retain a greenness, but charmingly so, singer Richard exuding nerves prior to their first number, stating how they weren’t confident of being able to follow OMAMA, nor of being the only band on the bill without a ukulele in their arsenal.

Yet that first number, I Don’t Like You Cos You Don’t Like The Pastels, is as powerful a statement as the heftily underlined “WE ARE NOT TWEE” that ends their online biography. All five players line up across the front of the stage, with the simple, effective rhythms from stand up drummer Lauren married to a cascading jangle, potent harmonies and the occasional performance ruse, such as Richard reading a random page of Marx during What I Know About Communism. A terrific performance on the road, three points away from home without doubt.

Yet if This Many Boyfriends win the battle, Allo Darlin’ have probably won the indie-pop wars in 2009. Not that indie-pop types have wars, the flowery and twee not exactly making for the most imposing battalion. If the genre had it’s own awards, then Allo Darlin’ would be a shoo-in for best newcomer, with best single also wrapped up. Henry Rollins Don’t Dance, about a punk rock boyfriend who refuses to get amongst it to Dancing Queen or the Grease megamix, attracted attention from newspapers, big radio and the fanzine community, and they are now signed up to the always excellent Fortuna Pop label. Rough Trade’s recently released ‘Indie Pop 09’ compilation is frankly incomplete without it.

For sure, the lyrics occasionally dip towards the trite (“when my baby holds my hand, it’s like heaven on land”) but it is all in keeping with their heartily sunlit demeanour. “I don’t know when we turned into a party band” says group leader Elizabeth Darling after several high-tempo numbers leave her blowing air off her bottom-lip up towards her facial glow. Thing is, they only really have a couple of slower numbers, and neither are exactly giving Low a, err, traipse for their money. Bands should play to their strengths though, and Allo, Darlin’s is, quite clearly, to give their joyous, guiltless veneer a Shangri-La shimmer.

Allo, Darlin' @ MySpace
This Many Boyfriends @ MySpace
Of Mice And Mental Arithmetic @ MySpace
King & The Olive Fields @ MySpace


Cool for cats


By way of a prologue, a general observation: the Jericho Tavern - or at least promoters You! Me Dancing! - have a serious love affair with the Japandroids album. Not that I'm complaining, of course - it's entirely understandable, gawd bless 'em.

"Like Bob Marley forcing out a 4am shitwank after a night on the smash with Lightning Bolt at Blackout Crew's pad"? Self-penned descriptions on MySpace sites don't come much better than that. So kudos to Balls Deep, the genetically malformed offspring of the late Prefontaine and Twat Trot Tra La. Ed Bates, last seen drumming for the former in an Oxford Utd goalkeeping top, is on bass duties but still looks like a lost archaeologist. Their kit set up on the floor in front of the stage Lightning-Bolt-style (though more out of practicality than choice, I suspect), they subject us to the best part of half an hour's worth of songs like 'No Arms, No Qualms' - obtuse, freaky, brutalist fist-funk. Not pretty - no, definitely not pretty - but pretty effective.

Another pair of local noiseniks follow in the form of Elapse-O. It might just be my ears, but the duo appear to have undergone something of an evolution since last we met, well over a year ago. Largely gone is the Suicide-in-a-dungeon clang, clank and drone of yore - and with it, sadly, my favourite track, the single 'Sonny Liston' - and in its place, for the likes of 'Tinseltown', has come a greater sense of urgency. Singularity of purpose was always key, but now the narrowness of focus seems to give their music a weightier anchor where before it threatened to spiral off into the leftfield stratosphere.

If The Big Pink tended more towards abstraction than pop, they might sound like this. Elapse-O still aren't totally convincing live - cranking up the electronic drums so they can compete with the guitars would be a start - but if you like Fuck Buttons, then these two might push yours.

After the locals' padded-cell funk and shoegaze apocalypse, Cougar can't help but seem, ahem, tame. Not that the Wisconsin outfit are pussycats, though, you understand - far from it, as they prove on more than one occasion, suddenly and breathtakingly abandoning the intricate interplay and letting rip. But that's the point - if songs like 'Your Excellency' and 'Stay Famous' didn't slink seductively or prowl with quiet understated menace for long periods, then the moment at which they pounce wouldn't have such devastating effect.

Touring in support of their second album Patriot, released on Ninja Tune, the preppy-looking bunch could I suppose be best compared to Fridge, at the cleverer (though never too clever) rather than the more abrasive end of the post-rock spectrum. There's a dash of jazz thrown in too, largely thanks to drummer, conductor and nominal frontman David Henzie-Skogen. Also a member of the Youngblood Brass Band, the band's affable mouthpiece is a virtuoso who treats the rim of his drums as as much a part of the instrument as the skins and who has found a novel use for sweaty tour T-shirts, stretching one out over his snare drum to muffle the sound before whipping it off mid-song as those around him shift smoothly through the gears.

At first there's a slight tension in the room, one which is heightened when a patently off-her-face-on-something-that-probably-isn't-booze girl barges her way to the front, moshes vigorously even to the slower passages and heckles between songs. The rude interruption is thankfully only brief, though, and after she's forcibly ejected the tension completely dissipates. Henzie-Skogen recalls a promoter in Hamburg telling them he'd enjoyed them but that they'd never amount to anything as the kids can't dance to their songs. "I want to send him a video of that girl", he chuckles - though he and his band have already made a persuasive case for being better known.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Los leaders


Sparky Deathcap aka Robert Taylor describes his music as sounding like "ghosts in the night trying to get into a locked caravan" - which, in case you're lacking in imagination, sounds quite a bit like Jeffrey Lewis to most who’ve clapped ears on him. As you might expect from someone who's written a rock opera for ukelele composed in less than 24 hours and who draws cartoons to accompany his show (the headliners' frontman Gareth is performing PowerPoint duties tonight), he’s not your conventional singer-songwriter, possessed of deft and witty lyrical touches that illuminate deceptively simple songs like ‘Berlin Syndrome’. He begins another one about Halloween by claiming it’s the one night of the year you can go out on a date if you’re ugly. And less proves to be more, the gradual accumulation of Los Campesinos! members as the set progresses actually diluting rather than enhancing the quality of the performance.

Copy Haho take to the stage safe in the knowledge that they already have fans in Oxford, local label Big Scary Monsters having released their debut EP Bred For Skills & Magic. The Scots aren't exactly short of friends - they're named (along with the headliners) as being members of Johnny Foreigner's "family" in the sleevenotes to new album Grace And The Bigger Picture. Hook-heavy guitar pop with an abrasive underbelly is their modus operandi – comparing them to The Rakes wouldn’t be much of an endorsement, so let’s go for the neatly-turned-out offspring of The Wedding Present and Arctic Monkeys instead. Time will tell if the quartet have quite the skills and magic to become as famous as their home town Stonehaven’s other significant export, the deep-fried Mars Bar, but there’s no doubt which of them is the most nutritious.

As I'm sure you're all thoroughly bored of hearing, I’ve known Los Campesinos! since they were knee-high to a genuflecting grasshopper. So tonight is almost as surreal an experience for me as it is for them: some way from their birthplace of Cardiff, being pawed at by hordes of lust-eyed teenagers, playing the first birthday party for a promoter named after their signature song.

The fact that said song, ‘You! Me! Dancing!’, is sarcastically introduced as ‘Creep’ suggests (sadly) that it really has become the "embarrassing albatross around their collective necks" that I suspected a year ago - something that everyone wants to hear but that they’re increasingly reluctant to play. Nevertheless, party poopers Los Campesinos! are most certainly not (even despite having been officially diagnosed with swine flu, new vocalist/keyboard player Kim - a replacement for Aleks, who's returned to her studies - being equipped with a bucket in case of mid-set technicolour yawn). So play it they do and it’s met with the anticipated delirium. (No doubt delirium was also the order of the day when, a few nights previously, they curated a stage at Cardiff's Swn Festival, headlining a bill that also featured another member of Johnny Foreigner's "family", Dananananaykroyd.)

Los Campesinos! are no one-hit wonders, though – far from it. Debut album Hold On Now, Youngster continues to be well represented in the set ('Sweet Dreams Sweet Cheeks' remains the brilliant final act) and tracks like ‘Ways To Make It Through The Wall’ drawn from its darker, spikier successor We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed are really beginning to come into their own.

At the expense of some older gems (‘The International Tweexcore Underground’ is a particularly lamented omission) and others less fondly remembered by the band (a request for 'It Started With A Mixx' is met with a derisive "We're not playing our old shit songs"), there’s also room to showcase material from forthcoming LP Romance Is Boring, due out in the new year. The chorus of the title track has significant earworm potential, but 'The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future' - which finds Gareth muttering grimly about cutting off tongues and the fact that "she's not eating again" - hints heavily at a more contemplative, considered, grown-up future.

But – for the present, and especially given the circumstances – it’s the scatty, bratty, livewire Los Campesinos! we want, and that, largely, is what we’re delighted to get.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Shock and awe


When Lee Christian admits he's gutted about being "unable to show Electric Eel Shock our A game", you sense there's an apology for us in there too - and, in truth, so there should be. Fair enough, tonight Smilex - who once upon a time released a split single with The Young Knives, dontchaknow - may have been deprived of two members by circumstances beyond their control (illness, I think). But all the same, boiled down to a duo of vocalist Christian and guitarist Tom Sharp, they proceed to inflict on us soul-sappingly dreary acoustic renditions of their scuzz rock repertoire.

If the set serves any purpose, it's as a public service announcement allowing Christian to plug their forthcoming gig at the recently reopened Port Mahon. "Hope you think we're better than the stereo would have been", he ventures optimistically as they wrap up, our collective disinterested murmuring and awkward shuffling delivering a cruelly blunt answer.

Collective disinterested murmuring and awkward shuffling are, it's safe to say, simply not an option when it comes to the headliners. As a friend witnessing Japanese nutjobs Electric Eel Shock for the first time once memorably opined: "This is what happens when you spend two thousand years worshipping your head of state as a god".

Japan seems to be to music what Madagascar is to animals. There, species (or genres) that were once familiar evolve into rather different and unique creatures, but nevertheless still to a degree recognisable. Evidence? Envy's take on Mogwai and post-hardcore. Devo as filtered through the prism of Polysics. The schizoid assault of Melt-Banana. Nissenenmondai's startling convergence of Krautrock, post-rock and disco.

Electric Eel Shock are no different, though it would be a tad misleading to refer to them as the product of any kind of evolution. They're old school, you see, as old school as they come - making a grand entrance to Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man' wearing Ozzy T-shirts, their free hands almost permanently contorted into devil horns, foot-on-monitor stance and machine-gunning move borrowed from Iron Maiden. And that's just guitarist Aki Morimoto and bassist Kazuto Maekawa. Drummer Tomoharu 'Gian' Ito is naked apart from a two-foot-long white sock on his cock, the end of which he occasionally beats on the drums - when he's not battering them with his four sticks, two in each hand, that is...

The songs - called things like 'Suicide Rock 'N' Roll', 'Sex Noise' and 'Bastard' - are loud, joyously stupid, subtle-as-a-brieze-block garage metal romps which make Motley Crue seem sensitive and cerebral, between which Morimoto (who, bizarrely, features alongside Chelsea and England captain John Terry in the latest issue of Angler's Mail - yes, really) sticks his plectrum to his forehead to applaud the audience before addressing us in perfect Engrish. To one person shouting out a request he responds "I'm sorry, I don't speak English", and towards the end of the set asks "You want one more song? YOU WANT ONE MORE SONG?! OK, OK, we play two more song". And off they go again, outtrumping Tap once more.

And they say the Japanese are repressed...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

In the mix

Transglobal Underground.
Bethnal Green Rich Mix. 21nov09.

Possibly never has a band been better named, nor played in a more appropriate venue in terms of mirroring their themes, the Rich Mix being an East End cultural centre and cinema located between the heart of the Bangladeshi community in Spitalfields and the arts-hungry populations of Hoxton and Shoreditch. Like this part of the world, Transglobal Underground’s music showcases a variety of backgrounds and influences all at once.

Multi-cultural worthiness designed to annoy readers of the Daily Express this is not however as TGU are, first and foremost, a party band. This is kind of why this appearance beneath a permanent roof is a relative rarity, their live show usually taken out on the festival circuit, in open fields and beneath vast marquees.

Yet it works just as well in this environment, perhaps better for keeping their energy from drifting off over heads and into the clouds. Yet despite their fusion of western, eastern, African and Caribbean musics, there is certainly no lack of focus in their compositions, a tightness held together by founder members Hamilton Lee (aka Hamid Man Tu) and Tim Whelan (aka Alex Kasiek), responsible for drums and keyboards/guitar/programming respectively, taking a relatively low-key role at the back of the stage.

With the core of the group providing a firm hand on the tiller, Sheema Mukherjee (on swirling sitar and lively bass) and Dhol-drummer Johnny Kalsi are thus free to add their colourful shadings to the paintwork, in their more eye-catching stage roles.

Not that they eye is short of players to focus on, with Godfrey Duncan (aka The Unorthodox Unprecedented Preacher) issuing his captivating proclamations as lead vocalist and MC, pitching his contributions somewhere between a gospel-roaring evangelist and a dubplate sound system tour de force.

In a supporting role, Krupa Pattini’s vocal style, at the classic Bollywood heroine end of soul, displays an impressive range but never to steal the scene. It’s simply a great ensemble performance tonight, highlights of the set such as The Drums Of Navarone and Emotional Yo-Yo effortlessly whipping the crowd into a gleeful dance collective.

Transglobal Underground @ MySpace


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Scouting for drums

Foot Village, Blue Sabbath Black Fiji.
Dalston Trinity Centre. 14nov09.

There is a tall, raised stage at the Trinity Centre but neither band tonight bother to use it. Better, it seems, to be amongst ones public, when one is trying to bludgeon their senses.

For Blue Sabbath Black Fiji, this does appear to be the intention of their starkly apocalyptic, caterwauling, nihilistic noisecore. Frankly they make Fuck Buttons seem like Brian Conley playing Buttons in a production of Cinderella at the Runcorn Brindley.

With distorted guitars set to stun, distorted samplers keen to mutilate and distorted vocal mics ready to serve whatever meat is left hanging from you in a seeded bun, Blue Sabbath Black Fiji, as they say in their native Glasgow, set aboot ye.

It is brief but brutal stuff with Charles taking time out to charge into the crowd during his screams. Clearly he’s not noticed the “No Running! No Bullying!” sign pinned to the wall.

For this is, essentially, a scout hut we’ve been lured into, and with no lighting rig, a keen thinker improvises by crashing their open palm continually over the wall switches, the strobing of the tube lights continually flickering being perfectly in keeping with BSBF’s fractured din.

Foot Village are similarly stark and powerful, but with the focus much more on rhythm. It becomes clear we’re in for a lively old throwdown when all the players start to limber up with stretching exercises before they get amongst the four drum sets they have hunched into a tight central heart. Heart of beats, if you will. The pit of hit.

The Village aren’t the only band around doing the whole drums and vox thing, but while Wildbirds and Peacedrums are made ethereal flesh by Mariam Wallentin’s vocal patterns, Foot Village are all about the bones, big bones at that, and taking the concept to it’s arguably logical scream therapy conclusion.

They supplement the drums with two megaphones, like the liveliest picket line ever, and the odd off-‘mic’ roar. Frankly, though, they had me at the first collective thump of snares, as it’s hard not to give into the primal energy of ol’ Doctor Beat. Although tonight the good physician has arguably been replaced by his brother, PT instructor Beat, repeatedly lobbing medicine balls towards our face.

The band are pretty tight when they want to be, when they’re not chasing round the circle, hitting drums as they go, crashing into the opening row of bodies peering into their hectic, captivating workout. As such, their time with us passes all too quickly and, thankfully, before any of them pass out.

Foot Village @ MySpace
Blue Sabbath Black Fiji @ MySpace


Saturday, November 14, 2009

It's good, but is it as good as Phillip the Good?

Borderline. 12nov09.

At Shakespeare’s Globe, they always perform in period costume, and have a band of strolling players playing music evocative of the era as you assemble in your seats or shuffle into the Courtyard. This is ‘re-enactment’, with the expressed intention to present the culture of an age in as close to the original manner as is possible without forcing the assembled punterage out of their jeans and pac-a-macs and into doublets, trunk hose and cannions.

With Circulus, you are never quite sure what they are aiming for. For a start they’ve employed morris dancers ‘The Belles of London City’ to add their handkerchief-wielding, bells-on-toes frolicking at regular intervals during their set. Some members of the band are decked out in slightly too-tight renaissance shirts, green tights that act as a relief map of the knees and groin; or in conical hats and tunics.

Group leader Michael Tyack has stated that he “pretty much” models his look on Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy between 1419 and 1467. Others in the band, however, adopt slightly more modern, but aesthetically aligned, dress.

The awkward banter between the three vocalists betrays another slight mis-match, with Tyack’s hippie-ish wittering about spaceships and, err, flu-jabs, jarring with Holly Jane-Shears cheeky bluntness (“I’ve been for a wee…nothing else” are her opening remarks after arriving late on stage) and Antony Elvin’s fruity wit. “Think we’ve said the wrong thing again” says Shears to Elvin guiltily behind Tyack’s back on more than one occasion. Nonetheless, one cannot help but be amused by their time-filling antics, when strings break and an effects-pedal succumbs to the insidiousness of a spilt lager.

In terms of instrumentation, there are citterns, crumhorns, lutes and shawms, yet electric guitars and modern drum sets also feature. Furthermore, the words ‘progressive’ and ‘psychedelic’ are often bandied around to describe their sound. This is largely fair with regards each term, but theirs is a relatively understated take on both. Nowhere near freak-out squalling nor melodically overblown, Circulus are an entertaining folk spectacle that marries the early-music sense of harmony with an occasional gentle waft of dusty Woodstock rock.

Their final number features the titular phrase “within you is the sun” repeated as lifestyle mantra which, in a way, places them as an Anglo-Saxon Polyphonic Spree given to music hall tongue-poking silliness and historically mish-mashed minstrelling.

Circulus @ MySpace


Friday, November 13, 2009

Uneasy does it


Tiresomely convoluted songs? Cursory nods to Faith No More overshadowed by gothy bluster and Chili Peppers style slap bass? A theatrical frontman who looks like the Bee Gees' Robin Gibb, who has a distressing penchant for a maniacal laugh that Dr Evil would think too contrived, and who reads some of his lyrics from crib sheets, explaining "I've just got back from Suffolk and still have the thousand yard stare"? Yes, Drunkenstein are gruesome all right - just not, I imagine, in quite the way they intended.

Far more unsettling are Dr Slaggleberry. Midway through the set my gig-going accomplice leans over to say: "I'm enjoying this, but get the feeling we might be about to get murdered". You'd call for the men in white coats - if they weren't already on stage, wearing blank face masks. "We all have court summons we're avoiding so we try to keep under the radar", they've explained in an interview - probably a joke, though I wouldn't be sure.

There are no shortage of local types for whom the adjective "mathy" is appropriate, but Dr Slaggleberry are the only ones I've yet come across who also take their cue from jazz and metal - all detuned guitars, double-bass pedal battering and odd time signatures - to impressive effect (i.e. I'm discounting Eduard Soundingblock). Unusual rhythms are probably only to be expected given that all three members started out as drummers. If they were to ditch the vocals and between-song banter, and borrow a bit of Drunkenstein's theatricality and (for instance) freeze when the riffs grind to a stop midsong, the trio really would be a frightening prospect.

Once they've packed up, the stage sits empty for a while - until the headliners stride in as if just arrived, set up and start playing, to dropped jaws. After an appearance alongside the likes of Mogwai and Fuck Buttons at Invada Invasion, the one-day festival organised by Portishead's Geoff Barrow, Zu are on a low-key tour of the country - certainly, the Wheatsheaf is rather more low-key than Bristol's Colston Hall, the reopening of which Invada Invasion was organised to mark.

Like Dr Slaggleberry before them, the Italian trio aren't exactly easy listening - needless to say, really, of a band endorsed by John Zorn who have collaborated with Can's Damo Suzuki, Fugazi's Joe Lally, Melvins' Buzz Osbourne, Nobukazu Takemura and the evening's spiritual curator Mike Patton amongst others. Tonight there are no collaborators, and not much in the way of electronics or nuance - just Massimo Pupillo's bass, ultra-deep and laden with effects; Luca Mai's sax, rigged to pack a punch more fearsome than your average distorted guitar - he plays what has been described as a "death bassoon"; and Jacopo Battaglia's extraordinary drumming, which shreds sticks and sends splinters flying.

The music is jazz-influenced, though definitely wouldn't be described as "nice" by John Thomson's Jazz Club presenter in The Fast Show. It's as dense and heavy as it is complicated - hardly surprising, given that latest album Carboniferous (their 14th, put out on Patton's Ipecac imprint) has been acclaimed as perhaps their most downright aggressive release to date. The only respite from the feeling of being simultaneously disoriented and steamrollered comes when a misfiring PA heckles with some incidental music during a quiet section, Battaglia suddenly as open-mouthed as those of us in the audience.


Another review of the gig - we may not agree on the merits of the various bands, but it's good to stumble across another local blogger who chronicles his gig-going activities