Monday, March 19, 2007

Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun

Live: Tilly and The Wall, Broken Family Band, Piney Gir/Peter and The Wolf, Jay and The Pistolets, Noah and The Whale
On Disc: LCD Soundsystem, Grinderman, Herman Dune

Apologies for the lack of a new post here in the last couple of weeks – I’ve been somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer burden of activity in my life at the moment, particularly a brief concentration of gigs of my own. As a result, there’s a massive backlog of albums to comment on, and I’m not sure I’ve got the willpower to write about them all. Inevitably, this post is going to be a little lengthy, but I’ve summarised the contents above for clarity.

First of all, a few gigs need a brief mention. Tilly and The Wall were outstanding at the Scala, bristling with energy and sheer joie de vivre. The venue itself, small by London standards but significant on its own scale, was packed out, largely it would appear by balding middle-aged blokes singing along to every word – it’s quite extraordinary how some bands reach entirely unexpected audiences (or perhaps it’s just that the band features a trio of attractive young women). Tilly are defiantly whimsical but undoubtedly endearing, and whilst the tap-dancing is certainly a gimmick, it’s a pretty effective one. Their best songs (‘Rainbows In The Dark’, ‘Sing Songs Along’, ‘Bad Education’) are perhaps delivered a little too early, but the whole set is perfectly weighted (neither too long nor too short) and they wisely save the touching melancholy of ‘Lost Girls’ until the encore. It’s a spirited show, with the band visibly enjoying themselves. Whilst it’s occasionally slightly ragged around the edges, this probably only adds to the appeal, and it’s a joy to watch.

Have I written enough about the Broken Family Band? Surely not! It’s certainly worth noting that, much like Tilly (albeit it at a more sedate pace), this band have been carried largely by word-of-mouth into London’s grander venues. It’s immensely gratifying to see a band I remember well from tiny Cambridge pub venues suddenly entertaining the masses at Koko.

BFB always pull out the stops for their big shows (Steven Adams, with characteristic dry wit, dubs this one the ‘punching above our weight show’) and for this, they find a new way of organising what is essentially the same set they’ve been playing for the past year or so. Beginning with an increasingly rare outing for ‘The Perfect Gentlemen’, they cover their career so far in chronological order.

There are few real surprises, but rollicking versions of ‘At the Back of the Chapel’ and ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’, along with tender, musically involving renditions of ‘Poor Little Thing’ and ‘John Belushi’ maintain consistently high quality. Sadly, the subtleties of ‘John Belushi’ are destroyed by some inebriated morons talking loudly next to us, and the first few songs are rendered muddy by poor sound, with Gavin Johnson’s bass not just loud but utterly overwhelming. It’s always a bonus when the band utilise the multi-instrumental skills of Timothy Victor – a shame, then, that his keyboards and banjo couldn’t be heard for at least the first fifteen minutes of the show.

Bravely, the chronological structure means the brand new material is left until last. Regular BFB gig-goers will already be thoroughly familiar with the anthemic, noisy blast of ‘Love Your Man Love Your Woman’, and the ambitious, slightly surreal folk ballad meets sludge-rock song with lyrics about a captain was familiar from their show at the Scala last year. More encouraging still was that the two songs I didn’t recognise were outstanding, with ‘Leaps’ (a candid song about sex) proving both infectious and affecting. There’s plenty of evidence that Steven Adams is still maturing as a songwriter.

They encore with a delightfully restrained ‘Devil In The Details’ and an explosive ‘You’re Like A Woman’, during which Jay Williams takes the opportunity to introduce the band in hilarious style (‘You! You cannot play the bass like Gavin Johnson! You cannot play the drums like Mickey Roman! You cannot be Steven Adams!’). Adams defines the band tonight as ‘just a bunch of blokes playing music’. Well, that’s a bit self-deprecating isn’t it? Yes, ordinary blokes playing music – but with increasing musical ambition to match their playful humour, and a batch of songs so consistently excellent that there aren’t really any other UK guitar bands right now who can entertain at this level. It’s still broken, and there’s no need to fix it.

The Howdy Do club night at The Borderline, featuring Piney Gir, Peter and The Wolf, Jay and The Pistolets and Noah and The Whale, was one of the best multi-artist small venue shows I’ve seen in ages. At last, some sensitive and thoughtful programming created a complementary line-up of consistent quality that engaged me from start to finish!

Although I don’t really know any of them well, I can be connected to Noah and The Whale through three different people. They double as Emmy the Great’s backing band (and she joins them on vocals and what I think must have been a harmonium tonight) – Emmy of course regularly performs with my friend Jeremy Warmsley, for whom I briefly bashed the drums in an ill-feted group project. Outstanding young fiddle player Tom Hobden (only 19 years old and apparently already making a reasonable living through music, the lucky git) is friends with my good friend Tom Millar, the two of them having both performed in drunken, filthy, piss-taking ramshackle country ensemble Captain Kick and The Cowboy Ramblers. Drummer Doug Fink currently goes out with the sister of a good friend from school days. The cliché that it’s a small world sometimes holds true, particularly in musical circles! The band did not disappoint tonight, with an intriguing and novel set-up (fiddle, acoustic guitar or ukulele, harmonium, skeletal drum kit with no cymbals, no bassist) and a brief selection of involving and unusual songs. The lyrics straddle the line between quirky and pretentious, occasionally hitting on something rather special (‘last time I saw Mary she lied and said it was her birthday’), but occasionally sounding a little forced and verbose. Still, the songs are melodic and musically focussed, with an authentic feel for folk traditions. There’s something of the wide-eyed escapism of Patrick Wolf here too. It’s an inventive and appealing combination and this band should go far.

Jay and The Pistolets in fact proved to be a lone singer-songwriter. I initially found his voice a little earnest and mannered, but had warmed to him by the end of his brief set. There was one particular song of unrequited love you’d have to be extremely churlish not to find touching. Peter and The Wolf, I believe signed to a new record label set up by Guy Garvey from Elbow, were outstanding, characterised by warm vocal harmonies, rudimentary percussion and the always welcome presence of an upright bassist. These were good songs, perhaps with conventional indie rhythms and melodies, but delivered in a more traditional, acoustic arrangement. This proved quietly inventive and a real discovery.

Piney Gir is always a slightly shambolic performer, albeit in the best possible way, tonight suffering a little from a bad throat. Her outstanding Country Roadshow musicians remain more than supportive, creating a driving and vigorous accompaniment for her appealing songs. At just half an hour, it’s over far too quickly, but is tremendous fun nonetheless.

2007 is turning into a remarkable year for live music in London – I have tickets booked for Bob Dylan, Feist, Band of Horses, The Besnard Lakes, Wilco, Magnolia Electric Co., Al Green, Sonic Youth and Steely Dan!

As for new albums, there are a small clutch of releases currently bringing beams of pure joy into my world. ‘Sound Of Silver’, the second album from LCD Soundsystem, pretty much sounds exactly as expected, essentially further refining the formula James Murphy captured so well on his debut a couple of years ago. It might not break any radical new ground, but ‘Sound Of Silver’ is an excellent record, juxtaposing not just influences, but knowing references with palpable glee and excitement. It’s this real enthusiasm for the history of pop music that makes LCD Soundsystem such a thrilling and captivating project. The ‘songs’, such as they are, are minimal to the point of being threadbare, often depending entirely on just one pulsating, multi-layered chord. On the single ‘North American Scum’, Murphy stretches himself to three, but ‘Sound Of Silver’ will not be remembered for its ambitious harmony.

Instead, it’s all about a slavish devotion to a four-to-the-floor groove which, with added percussion and muted, scratchy guitar, is frequently irresistible. ‘Time To Get Away’ and ‘Us v Them’ will engage the dancing feet as much as the brain, whilst ‘Someone Great’ and ‘All My Friends’, offering a more electro-influenced and reflective sound, add some surprisingly touching lyrical ruminations.

Murphy’s chief concern remains the thorny problem of how to retain the credibility of a musical hipster whilst age advances, and for any musical obsessive from their mid-20s up will easily relate to this. His lyrics are mercilessly concise, and occasionally basic, but he also frequently finds a glimmer of truth (‘we set the controls for the heart of the sun, it’s one of the ways we show our age’ or ‘New York’s the greatest if you get someone to pay your rent/It’s just about the furthest you can live from the government’). He’s a little limited as a vocalist though, mostly sounding in need of a good decongestant, and even resorting to imitating Bowie on the otherwise excellent opener ‘Get Innocuous!’.

This matters little though when the music is so insistent and enjoyable, and the production so crisp and well-defined. There may be instantly recognisable influences all over this record, from Bowie to Arthur Russell, but Murphy has successfully subsumed these within a trademark sound that is very much his own, and his open acknowledgement of his musical heroes is refreshing and playful. It’s essentially club music for people who can no longer be bothered with the mostly horrendous experience of clubbing, and dance music with both head and heart.

Nick Cave has taken a rather different approach to the problem of ageing, raging spectacularly against the dying of the light with the Grinderman project, essentially a streamlined, noisier, more democratic version of The Bad Seeds. Much of the Grinderman album comes across like a musical version of a late-period Philip Roth novel, brimming as it is with bravado, elaborate language, real humour and aggressive sexuality.

Cave has always been that most masculine of performers, and some may balk at lines like ‘all we wanted was a little bit of consensual rape in the afternoon and maybe a bit more in the evening’. Still, most of this album retains the self-mocking and brilliantly constructed humour of his ‘Abbatoir Blues/Lyre Of Orpheus’ double set, and the already notorious ‘No Pussy Blues’ is a brilliant anthem of sexual frustration (‘I read her Keats, I read her Yeats/Even fixed the hinges on her gate/But still she just didn’t want to/She just never wants to….Damn!’). I wonder what Cave’s wife makes of it all…

Musically, Grinderman has been unhelpfully caricatured as a return to the savage brutality and confrontational poise of Cave’s days in The Birthday Party. It’s certainly noisy in places, and Cave’s own untutored guitar playing is appropriately abrasive. Yet, it’s not entirely avant-garde squall, and this is arguably the closest Cave has yet come to appropriating that most traditional and adaptable form of popular music – the blues. Brilliantly, ‘Depth Charge Ethel’ combines the gospel-meets-garage rock of Spiritualized with the lyrical approach of AC/DC. There’s also the call-and-response vocal of ‘Get It On’, the dirty brush drum groove of ‘Electric Alice’ and the slight gospel feel of ‘(I Don’t Need You) To Set Me Free’ as evidence for this. Indeed, for all its machismo and bravado, Grinderman has the kind of primal, feral intensity only recently achieved by female fronted bands – particularly some of the gritty, percussive energy of Sleater Kinney and the sleazy grind of Royal Trux.

Whilst Grinderman certainly eschews the spirituality and musical restraint Cave discovered with ‘The Boatman’s Call’ and extended less effectively to ‘No More Shall We Part’ and parts of ‘Nocturama’, there’s certainly some of the mordant, Leonard Cohen-inspired emotional cynicism we’ve come to expect from him, particularly on the fate-of-the-human-race ballad ‘Go Tell The Women’. I wonder whether Cave has heard Chairmen Of The Board’s awesome 70s funk track ‘Men Are Getting Scarce’?

It’s a matter of subjective judgment as to whether Grinderman really works – some may find it unconvincing from a Christian family man, others may simply see it as a grotesque indulgence. All that rather ignores the visceral energy and the humour of it all though – I don’t think this is in any way po-faced or presumptuous of its audience’s good will. It certainly delivers on its intentions, however dirty and dubious they may be. A guilty pleasure, perhaps.

A very different, but no less enjoyable album is ‘Giant’ from Swiss-American duo Herman Dune. This really does have all the makings of a winsome indie-pop classic. I saw Herman Dune live in a Cambridge pub once, and they brimmed with quirky charm and witty invention. Comfortably, they could have continued rewriting the same song – but for ‘Giant’ they have incorporated some wonderful cooing female backing vocals and an exuberant horn section. Even better are Andre Herman Dune’s brilliantly incongruous but surprisingly mellifluous saxophone solos.

The overall sound frequently reminds me of Aberfeldy’s underrated ‘Young Forever’ album, although it transcends that by virtue of some zesty and extravagant wordplay. ‘Giant’ may be more considered and elaborately arranged than its predecessors, but it doesn’t shy away from HD’s trademark oddball humour. These songs can bring a wide grin even to the face of a relentless depressive with lyrics like ‘And your name’s not Susan but I would call you Sue/To show you how bad I want to be with you’. It helps that the basic patterns underpinning the songs are unashamedly cheesy, with opener and lead single ‘I Wish That I Could See You Soon’ essentially remoulding the harmony from Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’.

There’s still a neat contrast between David and Andre’s songwriting styles, with the former more straightforwardly melodic and infectious, and the latter occasionally veering into more surreal, rambling, Stephen Malkmus-esque territory on the likes of ‘Nickel Chrome’ and ‘Bristol’. At 55 minutes, this is quite a lengthy collection by indie standards, but the quality control is remarkably consistent, and the overall mood is effectively and sensibly punctuated by two Morricone-inspired instrumentals. It’s also not all entirely goofy – ‘Take Him Back To New York City’, despite its peculiar spoken introduction, is delicate and touching, whilst ‘This Summer’ has some of the soulful sensitivity of Nick Lowe circa ‘The Convincer’.

This really is pure pop music that entertains, amuses and refuses to apologise for tugging the heart-strings. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that any of these wonderful songs will be topping the UK Top 40 any time soon, but it’s just possible that this record may elevate Herman Dune from unsung heroes to minor stars.

There's much more to come....

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