Friday, June 18, 2010

Come for the review, stay for the raffle

Gaggle, Viv Albertine, Fiction.
Bush Hall. 17jun10.

Following Fiction’s lively set where post-punk met 80’s sheen-pop head on, former Slit Viv Albertine ascended the stage got up in a dress that had the elegant sweep of something pulled from Pan’s People’s mothballed wardrobe. Stood alongside Viv as she played guitar, sang and waxed cheerily scornful, were a cellist and a player that moved between Theremin and cool sharp harp. A promising arsenal but one which proceeded to condense an apparent mid-life crisis into thirty minutes that was too often trite (see Couples Are Creepy, particularly) and too infrequently adventurous.

No such problems with Gaggle, who alighted upon the stage via a procession through the audience whilst bearing flags and a large standard that read “This is merely a distraction from the inevitable.” All in all it appeared to be some kind of anti- shuffling-on-from-behind-the-drum-set protest march.

Wearing face paint and outlandish colours, Gaggle are a colossal 40-legged voicebox aided an abetted by a live drummer, a laptop firing off low rumbles and euphoric blasts, and a choirmaster issuing important instructions like “sing louder!!”

What do they sound like? Well, the following options will be placed in the sweepstake beany for you to select from…

*A cyberpunk Gospel choir.

*A multi-tracked Lady Gaga having a live mash-up with Trash Kit and The Slits.

*An Afrobeat bonfire-side ceremonial.

*David Byrne putting on a for-the-community-by-the-community concert for women living in a Welsh mining village in the 60’s.

*A shamanistic Bananarama.

*Dull-arse bint-collective.

If you pick out the latter: llllll-loser. Any of the others, well, you are in possession of a winning ticket.

There will, of course be Polyphonic Spree comparisons but where Tim DeLaughter’s mob were more Branch-Davidian-cultish in spirit, Gaggle are much more vibrantly tribal.


Monday, June 14, 2010

Empty promises


Some people are natural born performers, and Matt Winkworth is without doubt one of them. Some people would be discomforted by the spartan crowd, but the silence suits his clever, theatrical, idiosyncratic compositions and he actually seems to revel in the circumstances.

He can do whimsical wordsmithery ('We Buy Your Gold'), but better are those songs - such as the one about discovering "a cure for death" - whose jovial smile seems to slip at times to reveal an altogether darker and more sobering insight. '4am' takes it further - it could, I suppose, be artfully affected artifice, but it certainly feels more like naked and heartfelt confessional, suggesting that this consummate performer also has the confidence to lay all of the masks to one side.

Hailing originally from the Isle of Wight and now resident in Norwich, Sennen must surely be used to splendid isolation by now - and yet, in contrast to their support, they're visibly dispirited by the turnout. I suppose it's their party - a tour to coincide with the launch of new single 'With You' - so they can sulk if they want to, but it strikes me as taking shoegaze a bit too literally and hardly does much to fire the enthusiasm of those of us who have bothered to come along.

What tempted me were the comparisons to Explosions In The Sky, but having reacted like one of Pavlov's dogs hearing a ding-a-ling, I'm disappointed to discover that they only really hold true for opening epic 'I Couldn't Tell You', with its neatly chiming guitars and blistering climax. In reality, they're far more akin to the dearly departed Six By Seven - aforementioned single 'With You' being a bristling, insistent case in point - but generally lack the spark and sparkle that would suggest they're capable of anything more than skulking along in the Nottingham band's shadow.

My overall impression of Sennen is much the same as it was for The Joy Formidable last year - they press some of the right buttons, but hamfistedness means that all too often they get the wrong number.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The soft beating


For the majority of her set, it's a case of being unable to see the forest for the twee with Heather Woods Broderick. Everything is couched in such slight, delicate terms that it feels like having your ear gently tickled with a feather - in theory faintly soothing, but in practice and over time mildly irritating. But her switch to keyboards, dulled beats and electronic fuzz for the finale signposts a welcome shift away from the well-trodden paths of singer-songwriterdom and into more interesting virgin territory, in which her actual and musical voice suddenly seem more distinctive.

Broderick's work isn't done there, though. She's followed in her brother Peter's footsteps in becoming a touring member of headliners Efterklang. Indeed, far from being a peripheral contributor, the "little lady" - as she's referred to by frontman Casper Clausen (but we'll excuse him on the grounds of being a non-native speaker) - has an integral role in bringing to life their latest album Magic Chairs.

The last time the Danish troupe found themselves in this parish, just down the road at the Bullingdon, they were on tour in support of second LP Parades, a record which they've noteably performed with their homeland's National Chamber Orchestra. Judging on the reception they get, that show obviously won them plenty of admirers - much to the evident joy of a group who describe themselves (accurately) as "nice and friendly people" and who spend the evening with faces fixed in permagrins. None more so than Clausen, who expresses his delight at achieving the lifelong ambition of having drumsticks with his band's name on them, which (he says) take him back to playing Guns 'N' Roses covers as an eight-year-old and which he subsequently raps against the over-stage scaffolding to supplement Thomas Husmer's percussion.

Magic Chairs, Efterklang's first release for the resurgent 4AD, finds them making a pitch for wider recognition - albeit very much on their own terms. Far from being muted or abandoned, experimentation and invention are actively harnessed in the service of songs which seem like organic and perfectly fused wholes, sufficiently linear to hold mainstream appeal but revelling in their own eccentricities. The whole album exudes an inviting warmth and humanity that flatly contradicts the convenient oft-regurgitated stereotype of Scandinavian music as chilly and austere. The closest touchstones, should you want some, would probably be Anathallo or Grizzly Bear, with whom they'll be performing a Serpentine Session in London at the end of June.

The occasional snatches of their leftfield electronica-with-a-heartbeat past (which present an opportunity to show off their new light blocks beneath synthesiser and laptop) are a close match for the new material, but set closer and album highlight 'The Soft Beating' says it all - Efterklang wield a cushioned clout that leaves you dazed. The name, incidentally, roughly translates as "resonance" - and resonate is exactly what their live show does, long after they've packed up and moved on to lay subtle waste to another town.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Sonic youth


Comprised of members of The Evenings and Sunnyvale Noise Sub-Element, and orchestrated by one chap with his back to the audience and arm outstretched in signal, Keyboard Choir are for the most part Fuck Buttons ransacking a Korg factory in search of a tune.

But then, at the very end, the ear-chafing electro terrorism gives way unexpectedly to expansive star-scuffed twinkliness, the tender caress of a robot whose setting has defaulted from angry to amorous. Though in all likelihood that'll probably be the song they've christened 'Death Wank In Toy Town'.

It seems perverse to talk about Winnebago Deal being quiet, but that's exactly what they've been of late - and, what with the demise of fellow two-strong noiseniks and Nightshift favourites 50 Ft Panda, Phantom Theory have clearly sensed a local situation vacant.

In between cranking out riff-roaring beasts that borrow from the weightier end of Nirvana's back catalogue as well as alluding to Kyuss and Queens Of The Stone Age, the duo have managed to find the time to reflect on how hard life must be for multi-millionaire twat Phil Collins, whose daily struggles they pay tribute to in a new song. 'Phil Collins Vs The World' they've called it, but 'Sympathy For The Devil' might have been more appropriate.

The Clash. Crass. Minor Threat. All "true" punk rock is political, right? Wrong. Canadians Japandroids are political only in the very loosest sense of vociferously proclaiming personal freedoms, and are far more emblematic of the real reasons why punk holds such appeal for teenagers in the first place. Namely, that it's fast, loud and as such has considerable potential for annoying parents and neighbours. There are slogans, sure - but they're all about going out, getting drunk and wanting to French kiss some French girls.

Neither, though, are they shallow squeaky-clean corporate-mall-punk dweebs. For a start, they're much too abrasive and loose - even more so live than on what is already a deliciously unrefined record, Post-Nothing. And there's a curious sort of naive but sincere profundity in lyrics like "I don't wanna worry about dying / I just wanna worry about those sunshine girls" ('Young Hearts Spark Fire') and "It's raining in Vancouver / And I don't give a fuck / 'Cos I'm in love with you tonight" ('Sovereignty').

So it's a terrible shame that this turns out to be a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Guitarist Brian King leaps around on his guitar case, blurs his face with head-shaking, thrashes through a meaty cover of Mclusky's 'To Hell With Good Intentions' but all to no real avail - most of those assembled seem to have come just to gawp. "Is this a school night?", he asks, visibly discouraged. "Every night's Friday night for us", chips in drummer David Prowse cheerily.

And so it is for these two garglers on the elixir of youth, this pair of apostles of the hedonist's credo, whose message does at least spark one not-so-young heart into flame tonight.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Many happy returns


(Forgive the laziness, but this is an unedited version of the review I've put together for the next issue of the local Oxford listings mag Nightshift.)

Before the homecoming heroes, the homecoming heroes. Just as folk has somehow fallen back into popular favour with Noah And The Whale and Mumford And Sons, Jonquil appear to have abandoned the idea of carving out a niche for themselves as a pastoral folk-indie troupe. Tonight the only real nod to their former incarnation as an Arcadian Arcade Fire is holler-along anthem ‘Lions’, received fittingly enough with the biggest roar of the set.

Not that the brighter, bolder Jonquil 2.0 – an unusually on-the-same-page Broken Social Scene merrily marching along to Afrobeat – could be said to be fleeing from fashion. There remain some constants: the strength of Hugo Manuel’s vocals; Kit Monteith’s fluid, loose-limbed drumming; the sextet’s status as one of the most accomplished and consistently fascinating bands Oxford has produced in recent years.

And so to another. Nightshift has long championed the various projects of Yannis Phillipakis, only for his latest to schedule (and sell out) a gig on the same night as our very own Punt. There’s gratitude for you…

Tongue removed from cheek, though, the timing couldn’t really be much neater. Not only have Foals graduated from the local scene in the same way that all those playing the Punt are aspiring to do, but as revered alumni they’ve also gone on to shape it. And you will know them by the trail of influence, and all that. Yannis takes time to express his thanks for our support along the way, even if he can’t quite bring himself to crack a smile.

So, what of the reason that’s brought them back home, second album Total Life Forever? Interviewed in the last issue, Yannis stated “We didn’t feel like we needed to repeat ourselves” and alluded to a new-found appreciation for “the traditional craft of song-writing” – both of which claims seem, on first impressions, to be borne out by the new material.

Every element feels as though it’s on a shorter leash, operating within itself, reined in in the service of a greater good. The portentous swell of ‘Spanish Sahara’ is typical of the album’s grander gestures, but compared to the songs that won them such a fervent fanbase – like tightly-coiled springs, compact but full of potentially explosive energy and force – the likes of ‘This Orient’ come across as (sacrilege alert!) a touch bland. Might ‘Big Big Love (Fig. 2)’, Antidotes’ tantalising toe-dip into electronica-of-sorts, not have signposted a more interesting alternative future?

Perhaps that’s yet to come. For tonight, though, as well-received as the new tracks are, Antidotes continues to supply the cornerstones of the set – the pinpoint rhythms of ‘The French Open’; the whipcrack snare and unexpectedly heavy guitar interchanges of ‘Cassius’ and ‘Two Step Twice’; the exhilarating drum-and-strobe frenzy of ‘Electric Bloom’ – and helps ensure that Foals end the night exactly as they started it: the Crown Princes of Cowley Road.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Lakes superior


An imposing stone building in a harbourside location? A selection of fine continental lagers and real ales? A gourmet bar menu that if you look hard enough must surely include the words "drizzle" and "jus"? The Arnolfini is certainly some way removed from your average Academy, and naturally all the better for it.

The stage, which occupies a generous proportion of what is a relatively intimate gig venue, first plays host to Erland & The Carnival. This unlikely-looking quintet feature a frontman (Erland Cooper) and bassist (Danny Wheeler) apparently on loan from a youthful haircut indie outfit straight from the pages of NME and, on guitar, a coolly bejacketed and slightly slimmed-down John Sessions who turns out to be Simon Tong, whose CV credits include The Verve (most famously) but also more recently Blur, Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad And The Queen.

Tong's latest vehicle's musical vision is a vaudevillian one which lurches rather uneasily between ponderous Pentangle goth-folkiness (at their worst) and mannered 60s psychpop (at their best), set closer 'You Don't Have To Be Lonely' pleasingly recalling something from The Coral's first record. More curious still is exactly why they've chosen to half-inch the chorus to The Connells' '74-75' for their own 'Trouble In Mind'...

The Besnard Lakes' last album, The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse, couldn't have been much more aptly named. They came from out of nowhere to steal up on the rails and - if you'll allow me to rewrite history as it should really have been written in the first place - claim the #1 spot in the SWSL Top 10 Albums Of 2007. From the instant the gentle strumming, violin and falsettoed opening couplet ("Baby, I've got some words for you / When you get up in the afternoon") of 'Disaster' hit my ears, I was utterly smitten and realised - not for the first time - that I'd forever owe a debt of gratitude to the esteemed blogger who'd pointed me in their direction.

Skip forward three years and there was no chance whatsoever that ... Dark Horse's successor The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night was going to catch me unawares. What could potentially have been a major let-down has turned out to be a triumph - another masterclass to all the current legions of lame chancers on how to take My Bloody Valentine's legacy and do something genuinely interesting and creative with it. Inclined almost as much to post-rock and baroque pop as to shimmering shoegaze guitar washes, Besnard Lakes songs are carefully textured, rich and enveloping, and seem to exist in their own universe, operating according to their own rules and at their own stately pace.

At the heart of the band are a husband and wife combo - guitarist/vocalist and Les-McQueen-gone-to-seed-in-a-cowboy-shirt Jace Lasek playing the Thurston Moore to woolly-hatted bassist Olga Goreas's Kim Gordon. At first Goreas isn't quite in sync with drummer Kevin Laing, and neither is the sound perfect, the dramatic shifts in opener 'Like The Ocean, Like The Innocent Pt 2: The Innocent' somewhat blurred.

Meanwhile, 'Devastation' - which on record gives The Arcade Fire's 'Wake Up' a run for its money in the sounding fucking ENORMOUS stakes - might have been expected to shake the walls and rip the roof off, but it comes across a little tame, shorn of the extra instrumentation and choir of the recorded version. Perhaps what we're witnessing is only going to underline the importance of the production craft of Lasek and Goreas? Perhaps, outside the studio, the band are the proverbial fish out of water?

But, as the set segues through recent single 'Albatross', 'Land Of Living Skies Pt 2: The Living Skies' and bobbing rocker 'And This Is What We Call Progress', there's a subtle but incremental improvement. And, by the time we arrive at the aforementioned 'Disaster' and its splendid and similarly epic cousin from ... Dark Horse 'And You Lied To Me', they're firing on considerably more than all four cylinders, the magnificence of their records replicated to awesome effect.

But - "thanks" to the fact that Tunng are to follow and so they've only got a short slot - that, sadly, is that. As if I needed another reason to dislike the headliners...

So we flee the Arnolfini before Tunng unleash their surfeit of wacky instruments on us, and I find myself wondering why. Why aren't The Besnard Lakes better known? Why has their genius largely only been recognised by the critics? Why the hell are they being forced to play second fiddle to Tunng? And then I'm reminded of the words of Lasek's alter ego: "It's a shit business". That it is, Les, that it is.