Monday, December 21, 2009

Sine of the times


Having failed in my quest to see From Light To Sound once before, back at the tail end of August, tonight proves to be second time lucky - I've actually read the bill correctly...

I could legitimately describe From Light To Sound as a "supergroup" if you'd actually heard of all (or even any) of the various members' other projects. So, just a plain group, then. It's also potentially misleading to describe them as a mellowed Mogwai who've cribbed notes on Holy Fuck's more blissed-out moments (you know - 'Lovely Allen') because, although that's certainly what tracks like opener 'Heart And Electricity' hint hopefully at, there are a few missteps along the way, the songs often tend to sag slightly (sometimes seeming almost to lose interest in themselves) and I get the impression that too many guitarists are spoiling the broth.

But their set is a far from disagreeable first half of the evening's entertainment, and it's hard to dislike a band who declare that one of their instrumentals is about "an imaginary civil war between Swansea and Cardiff". To use a characteristically South Walian expression in its more widely understood sense, tidy.

It's also second time lucky with the headliners. Due to play this very venue in June, Wavves pulled the plug on their entire tour following the very public plug-pulling that took place at the Primavera Festival in Barcelona in May and Nathan Williams' subsequent grovelling apology for being drugged out of his mind, so it's a relief just to see him take to the Jericho Tavern stage.

Not that they haven't continued to be plagued by disaster and misfortune - Zach Hill of Hella and countless other projects was due to be behind the kit (something of which promoters You! Me Dancing! had understandably made much on the bill posters), only for him to break his wrist just days before the tour kicked off. Williams, in his characteristically bratty/"whatevs" way, rubs his eyes theatrically in a boo-hoo gesture. The show must go on - and it does, for all of about 25 minutes.

I think I've mentioned on here before (and if I haven't, I certainly should have) my conviction of there being a musical lineage spanning decades and generations that began in earnest with the Beach Boys in the 60s and then passed through the Ramones in the 70s and the Jesus & Mary Chain in the 80s - a lineage which has seen sweet pop harmonies gradually submerged deeper and deeper beneath fuzz. And Wavves - essentially No Age if they'd listened to less My Bloody Valentine and more Nirvana and 50s/60s girl groups - are arguably the tradition's current torch-holders (though "deep" isn't an appropriate adjective). All of which is to say that, unlike From Light To Sound, they're very definitely not tidy. On the contrary, they're as loose as hell, and either instantly likeable or instantly detestable depending on your preferences.

Wavves were born as Williams' bedroom project - something to pass the five-minute intervals between spliffs, is my guess - and that's exactly where slacker surf-punk anthems like 'So Bored' and 'No Hope Kids' transport you: an oddly odoured enclave where you might have to step gingerly around crusty socks on the floor, but also a place of joyous youthful abandon, a refuge from adulthood.

As they kick off their single-song encore - it's the only one the current bassist and drummer know that they haven't already played - and the youngsters in front of me gleefully grab one last opportunity to throw themselves around, I wonder briefly whether this is a guilty pleasure, and how undignified it might seem for a 32-year-old like me to still get high on the smell of teen spirit. But then I realise I really don't care.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Three feet high and rising


Being one of seemingly very few people in this godforsaken country who thinks Clinic are so criminally underrated that the record-buying public should be banged up for life (a kind of circular argument, that), I was always going to find my interest piqued by repeated comparisons between them and Cat Matador. In truth, though, with their de rigeur violin, the local hopefuls have more in common with those riding the recent wave of vaguely folk-influenced, fiery-eyed and epic indie from Scotland: My Latest Novel, Broken Records and The Twilight Sad.

A technical glitch which leaves them stumped for more than five minutes hardly helps their cause, while the rhythm section is too obtrusive at times, they're often somewhat disjointed and I'm not keen on Liam Martin's vocals. But that's certainly not to imply that they're not worth bothering with - on the contrary, there's enough going on to merit a confident tick in the column marked "Promising".

For The Gullivers, it's tempting just to put "See above". Certainly in terms of the flaws, the bass and drums again often force their way too far into the foreground, and while Mark Byrne may have the perfect frontman's stare (intense and permanently directed two foot above everyone's heads), sadly he doesn't possess the voice to match.

But, unlike Cat Matador, The Gullivers do at least have someone who CAN sing amongst their ranks, as keyboardist Sophie McGrath proves on 'Letters', her Bat For Lashes T-shirt giving some hint as to where their influences lie. What's impressive in a band so young is exactly what has struck critics and listeners alike as so remarkable about The XX - namely the careful and judicious restraint on volume and the beyond-their-years maturity and confidence to allow the different elements of the songs space to breathe.

Headliners We Were Promised Jetpacks, by contrast, are all about much broader, more aggressive brush-strokes within fairly familiar parameters - so their signing to FatCat (thanks largely to their association with two acts already on the roster, Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad) struck me as being a bit of a curious one.

The leftfield Brighton label has at various times been home to the likes of Vashti Bunyan, Black Dice, Mum, No Age, Animal Collective, Sigur Ros and post-rock supergroup Set Fire To Flames. Perhaps, then, the hope is that the Edinburgh quartet might turn out to be their Franz Ferdinand or Arctic Monkeys - both critically and commercially successful and thereby vital in underpinning some of the label's more esoteric releases.

Fierce dynamics and punchy post-hardcore guitars prevail (even when they reveal they've been bitten by the glockenspiel bug that's doing the rounds - it really doesn't suit them) but the secret weapon in their armoury, the thing that will really set the Jetpacks apart from the pack (if you will), is undoubtedly Adam Thompson. He's a vocalist of the vein-popping variety but never resorts to screaming, instead singing his lyrics with an almighty bellow, often delivering them stood well back from the mic.

Debut single 'Quiet Little Voices' - the oldest song still in their repertoire, the one with which most of us are familiar, and one that's patently not about Thompson - is fired off second, no longer the cornerstone of the set as I imagine it was in the early days. And that's because it's been displaced by the likes of 'Conductor' and 'It's Thunder And It's Lightning', the latter a recent single and the potent opening track on the LP, These Four Walls.

It's an apt album title - there's definitely a sense of the songs seething and raging within a confined space, like controlled explosions. Often a little too controlled for my liking, to be honest - I'd value less formula and a few more frayed edges - but, like set closer 'Short Bursts', undeniably explosive nonetheless. The modest foursome may be keeping their feet on the ground but, you sense, know that given the right conditions they might well take off.

Tuning into the future

2009 is still a fair few days from packing its bags and taking a hike (and the SWSL end-of-year lists are a lot further away than that, let me add), but the BBC have already posted their ones to watch for 2010. Good to see Stornoway getting a mention, but on first impressions the band/act that grabbed me the most were definitely The Drums. As suggested, featured song 'Let's Go Surfing' does indeed manage to sound both breezily surf-pop and effortlessly 70s Noo Yoik. Wavves for people who are precious about their ears, basically.

They've also assessed the impact of 2009's crop - unsurprisingly, most met with significant success, not least because they were already being pushed vigorously and steered calculatedly. Lady Gaga, Florence And The Machine, La Roux and Little Boots - I'm looking at you. But there were flops, including a lukewarm response for Passion Pit - it seems I was roughly in tune with the general public when it came to my thoughts on them back in February.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Chroesawa at Cymraeg

Clerkenwell Slaughtered Lamb. 07dec09.

“When I say mostly sung in Welsh, I mean only sung in Welsh” says Lisa Jen Brown as an early disclaimer; “[besides] they’re all Welsh folk songs, they’ll all be about death.” She eventually contradicts herself on this point, prefacing each song with a plot synopsis in lieu of subtitles.

As it turns out, while Yr Eneth Gadd Ei Gwrthod follows a morbid theme, other numbers, such as Pontypridd, are about farmers up on their luck, or people gossiping about the town drunk.

All traditional songs they might be, but 9Bach’s method is to give them a bit of a contemporary makeover. However, crucially, they don’t oversell their twist, nor do they shoehorn in too much modernity, and as such the spirit of the original songs remains. Their one concession to a big showpiece comes during Lisa Lân when it all goes a bit Mariachi before curtailing its excesses for a series of receding false finales.

In the most part though, their arrangements are economical; managing to be uncomplicated yet seem opulent through a display of well-practised craftsmanship, particularly by Esyllt Glyn Jones on harp. While they might not blow any amps, they do manage to blow a lamp, the tall upright at the back of the stage flickering and fizzing into darkness mid-set.

Bwthyn Fy Nain announces its arrival with Martin Hoyland’s Gilmour-like unhurried guitar flex and a great many of their pieces have the same attitude to deceleration and allowing tunes to breathe as post-Barrett Floyd (without the verbosity), Nina Nastasia or Low in their Things We Lost In The Fire / Trust era. If anything, the tempo dictated by Ali Byworth’s drumming and Dan Swain’s bass is indicative of a trip-hop influence, rather than traditionalist dirge.

They appear sensitive to being seen as desolate though, to the point where they apologise profusely when the slowest of their pieces is imminent, promising that more upbeat music will follow. They needn’t worry, of course, as their stall was set out quite clearly from set opener Cweiriwch Fy Ngwely. This piece, whilst hymnal, also has a nursery rhyme twinkle in its eye; Brown’s Liz Fraser-like crystalline vocal working itself into the instrumentation like spring waters glimmering at the heart of a thriving vale.

9Bach @ MySpace


Thursday, December 03, 2009

Know Your Enemy

"Like most creative musicians, Matt Friedberger is not a fan of Radiohead and most of their chart busters ... Matt has not heard the Radiohead song about Harry Patch, but if he did, he is sure he wouldn't like it. No doubt Radiohead and their fans can ignore his opinion of this matter and continue with their triumphant artistic interventions. Matt would have much preferred to insult Beck but he is too afraid of Scientologists".

Matthew Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces publicly reiterates his dislike for Oxford's finest, while talking about himself in the third person.

Although I haven't yet got into I'm Going Away, I'm a big fan of theirs, and so this all seems a bit silly and unsavoury.

(Thanks to Gareth for the link.)

(Field) music to my ears

Good news for all right-thinking fans of erudite British guitar pop: Field Music's hiatus is over - and how, with the release of a double album, Field Music (Measure), scheduled for 15th February.

Also spotted on recent perusals of Drowned In Sound: there's a new LCD Soundsystem album on the horizon ("spartan and muscular, the way LCD stuff often is", according to James Murphy), the obviously restless Animal Collective have followed up the end-of-year-list-conquering Merriweather Post Pavilion with a new EP, Fall Be Kind and Tom Campesinos talks about forthcoming third album Romance Is Boring (some samples of which were aired at their recent Oxford gig).

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The rise of the machines


Tell someone you're off to Madame Jojo's in Soho for the night and they'd be forgiven for thinking you'll be spending the evening naked and face down on a plastic-sheeted bed while a 50-something-year-old wench who looks like EastEnders' Mo Slater dressed up like Catwoman, with dinner lady arms and a fag hanging out of the corner of her mouth, slaps listlessly at your arse with a tawse for £20 an hour.

They'd be wrong, of course.

Madame Jojo's, on Brewer Street, may be surrounded by so many sex shops that its facade is bathed in a reflective neon glow, but it's actually a club, a gaudy underground lair much like the Rock Garden in Covent Garden which is far more kitsch and glitzy than seedy. Tonight, like every Tuesday, is a White Heat night. And tonight, unlike every Tuesday, all the bar staff (and some of the punters - not I nor Del, though, I should add) are in fancy dress and doused in fake blood. Something to do with Halloween, I presume.

William may sound like a bouffanted posho who's just stumbled in the wrong door and down the wrong stairs in search of somewhere to watch the rugger, but actually they're a ragged indie-rock combo beloved of XFM's John Kennedy who are among those Johnny Foreigner call "family", who have a split 7" with Calories lined up for release in the new year and whose debut album Self In Fiction features a track called 'Whoreditch' (woah - the knives are out!).

Think the Wedding Present, think the Strokes, think the Pixies - and then let your mind go blank, because William aren't as good as any of them. Their songs are largely unexceptional and often rather shapeless, 'South Of The Border' probably being as good as it gets.

Hey hey they're the Arctic Monkees, they like monkeeing around! Well, maybe not - Dan Ormsby of Brighton tykes 4 Or 5 Magicians may sing-talk his lines in a way that is pure Alex Turner, but tonight at least the lyrics aren't clear enough to judge whether he's as adept a wordsmith as the Steel City's Poet Laureate.

Simon of top-notch music blog Sweeping The Nation is so fond of them that he's decided endorsements on his site aren't enough and is actually putting them on in Leicester, while debut album Empty Derivative Pop Songs, out on Smalltown America, has garnered an impressive array of critical plaudits. A joke it may be, but it's certainly a very brave title - a little foolhardy, perhaps, as for me personally it has a ring of truth to it.

'Nice Little Earner' has hooks and melody but nothing much you couldn't find elsewhere, and there's none of the serrated edge you might expect from a band with their particular self-professed catalogue of US alternative rock idols. Not much magic either, disappointingly. What's more (and this is probably a sign of age), both Del and I instantly bristle at one track's insinuation that listening to Radio 4 is a crime. For that, sirs, I hereby sentence you to an eternity of being subjected to The Archers...

What Japandroids aren't: Japanese (they're Canadian) or droids (they're humans). What they are: an absolute fucking blast.

As a set-opener, 'The Boys Are Leaving Town' is perfect. The boys have indeed left town (you could say that two of Vancouver's 'droids are missing) and are a long way from home - this is the duo's first ever gig outside North America, and the beginning of a four-night residency in London which includes appearances at Rough Trade and in Hoxton. And what an introduction it is.

Guitarist/vocalist Brian King and drummer/vocalist David Prowse (no, not Darth Vader - though perhaps he could wear the outfit on stage?) list their influences as the Sonics, Mclusky and "your sister". If No Age reinvigorated punk rock in 2008 by cross-breeding it with My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, then this year Japandroids have stripped it down, roughed it up and smacked it out. The name of their album, Post-Nothing, says it all - this music brooks no journo's micro-classification, it spits in the face of those who would label and analyse, it renders any attempt to intellectualise it utterly futile. It just is. And it just rocks. (Their previous EP, incidentally, was christened Lullaby Death Jams.)

If you could take the one lyric that most succinctly sums up their raison d'etre, it would probably be from 'Young Hearts Spark Fire', the high point of both the album and tonight's gig: "I don't wanna worry about dying / I just wanna worry about the sunshine girls". Hedonism as a credo. Living in the moment. Fucking the future.

King leaps on his guitar case. He puts his foot up on the bass drum. He says dorky things between songs like "Can I get more English girls in my monitor?" and "I wanna go see Abbey Road - would anyone take us?". And he grins - as does Prowse. And as do we, from ear to ringing ear.