Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Proper Pop

It's been so long since the last update I'd almost forgotten my Blogger login details. Oops.

The highlights of the past week have been two very special gigs - The Hidden Cameras (with My Latest Novel and Piney Gir in support) at the Union Chapel, and The Lemonheads at The Forum.

It's great to see the Union Chapel back in business as it makes for a refreshing change from your regular London club or theatre venue. The sound is unsurprisingly full of natural reverb, and, as I remember from seeing Hot Chip support Smog there three years or so ago, particularly unforgiving on opening acts when many of the pews are still unoccupied. As a result, the otherwise excellent Piney Gir Country Roadshow suffered a little bit from this, with a good sound mix in terms of levels being rendered exceedingly muddy by the acoustics. Still, Piney transcended these problems with a characteristically amiable and entertaining performance, and I actually felt her singing was slightly superior to her performance at the Kings Head in Crouch End a few weeks ago. The band remain both supportive and full of vigour - and her songs capture the country idiom with instinctive humour and sensitivity.

My Latest Novel has setbacks galore, not least the lack of a functioning van and, therefore, any of their own equipment. So, it was an acoustic set on unfamiliar instruments, with persistent electrical problems with the bass guitar. This band, signed to Simon Raymonde's Bella Union label, have the elements of a great band - beautiful and carefully arranged harmonies, delicate but expressive melodies, and a wistful, mysterious sound. Yet somehow it initially didn't amount to much. The problem could not be explained simply by the absence of a bass, for when it worked, the lead singer/bassist didn't exactly play anything that added all that much. I think it's perhaps simply that they had a slightly dour demeanour - the female singer/violinist insisted on playing mostly with her back to the audience, and the singer mumbled all their introductions (there's nothing more annoying than a 'hello, we're 'something incomprehensible', and this is a song called 'something equally incomprehensibe'). Luckily, as the set went on it started to make more and more sense, and the elegiac, quietly touching music had some kind of cumulative impact. They are probably ones to watch - not yet fully formed, but with some grand ideas, and a lot of potential.

I've written enough about The Hidden Cameras for regular readers to know that I think they're great, but it's worth emphasising just how superb this set was. The whole performance seemed carefully plotted, beginning with 'the quiet songs', and gradually building to a deliriously entertaining climax. Wisely emphasising the new album, the brisker moments are delivered with real urgency (even to the extent of Joel Gibb breaking strings on both his guitars), whilst the tender songs at last display the subtlety and romantic candour that Gibb seems to have been striving for over the last few years. The opening 'Death Of A Tune' retains its melody and powerful string line, but it is radically transformed from a rollicking Buddy Holly meets Eddie Cochrane rumble into a mournful lament. It's stunningly beautiful, and immediately demonstrates just what a powerful instrument Joel Gibb's voice is in the live context. Elsewhere, there's plenty of fun and games involving, er, 'minimal' glockenspiel parts and unrepeatable punchlines. It's unusual that new songs strike such an immediate chord with audiences, but it's clear that the likes of 'Hump From Bending' and 'For Fun' are already established gems. The closing 'Ban Marriage' is a timely reminder of just what an excellent song it is. The only issues are the lack of an encore (enforced due to the stringent terms of the Union Chapel's license agreement) and the almost complete passing over of the 'Mississauga Goddamn' album. It's probably fair that this is the most inconsequential of their three albums proper, but there are a handful of songs here that would stand up with the best (the title track, 'Fear Is On' and perhaps 'Music Is My Boyfriend', although I prefer it in the less frenetic version on the CBC Sessions EP).

Could last Friday really have been the first time I've seen The Lemonheads, in any incarnation? I saw an amiable if largely unremarkable acoustic set from Evan Dando at one of the Fleadh Festivals, but I've never managed to see his band, a particular oversight given their undoubted importance during my formative years. This show at The Forum was much like going through adolescence all over again, only neatly compacted into the space of 90 minutes. I was slightly wary that we might get an obscurantist's set - the whole of the new album plus some pre-hits material or something like that. Hell, no! Ripping into 'Down About It', it's at least 20 minutes before we get anything at all from the new record, and all Evan Dando seems concerned with tonight is giving the crowd exactly what they want to hear. So the set encompasses a substantial portion of the classic 'It's A Shame About Ray' and 'Come On Feel The Lemonheads' albums, as well as a select few from the slightly overlooked 'Car Button Cloth'. The whole evening is a testament to just what a superb songwriter Dando is - far from the junkie layabout of popular mythology, he is warm and endearing, and a real master of melody.

This line-up of The Lemonheads is remarkably crisp, emphasising taut musicianship above the ragged glory of previous versions of the band. Bizarrely though, it's not the same line up that recorded the recent album, as it certainly wasn't Bill Stevenson on drums! Still, this latest period of the Lemonheads may be the first as notable for the quality of the playing as it is for the quality of the songs. The inevitable solo acoustic set is rapturously received, and notable not just for charming renditions of 'Being Around' and 'The Outdoor Type', but also a nimble medley of some of the more superior selections from the 'solo' album 'Baby I'm Bored'. The encore is slightly odd - just Dando acoustic again, and with no return from the rest of the band. After a few favourites provide a bit of a singalong, Dando asks for requests, before launching into an unpolished version of new song 'Steve's Boy'. He then appears to have had enough, and leaves the stage shambolically without any further word. Even without 'Big Gay Heart' or 'It's All True', he'd still managed to give us pretty much all we could have hoped for.

No comments: