Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Dispensing With Subtlety

Magnolia Electric Co. and Guests, The Scala, 25th June 2007

Having praised Immaculate Machine’s embrace of detail and intricacy yesterday, it’s amusing that my next live music outing was to a gig with little command of subtlety whatsoever. I first raised this point in a rather negative review of the ‘Trials and Errors’ live album a couple of years ago, but there really is a massive gulf between the music Jason Molina and his group commit to record and the sound of the band when performing live. Admittedly, the group has been moving gradually away from the elegiac and mysterious moods of Songs:Ohia in favour of a more conventional rock direction, but even the most recent MEC studio material benefits greatly from light textures full of space and sensitive dynamic contrasts. When on tour, they obviously just like to rock out, and Molina lets his Neil Young fetish get out of control, bursting into exuberant guitar solos far more often than is strictly necessary (can the band’s keyboard player really not improvise?).

Although there were moments when last night’s show at the Scala was hugely enjoyable, I still maintain that this difference in approach to live performance is largely to the band’s detriment. On disc, much of Molina’s best material is difficult to classify, in that it moves well beyond the confines of conventional rock or country music, despite being well versed in the language of Americana (ghosts, moons and highways all feature prominently). Seeing them live, I now find it much less surprising that the group are frequently stereotyped as ‘working class work’. The songs are all played at a similar mid-tempo trudge, everything is loud and clamorous throughout and there are guitar solos disrupting the flow of the lyrics.

For a while, this is really quite thrilling. The opening ‘I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost’ gets a thunderous and compelling treatment, and when the two guitarists duel with each other it even begins to feel like fun. ‘The Dark Don’t Hide It’ sounds more confrontational and less reflective here and even the calmer, slower songs are given pretty remorseless treatments. The quality of the playing is mostly tremendous, and it’s rare to see rock guitar solos with this much shape and spirit, although they don’t ever stray much from pentatonic conventions. The bigger problem is perhaps with the rhythm section, specifically the drums, which thud along monotonously without any variation or control. I kept finding myself thinking that the performance would be so much more effective if some of the soloists were sometimes given more space, or if the drums could follow the changes in mood implied through Molina’s inventive vocal phrasing. I’m pretty sure the same drummer features on recent studio work though, where there is

Luckily, Molina has been an amazingly consistent songwriter, and these songs are of such quality that they could withstand even the most mundane arrangements. Vocally, Molina sounds confident and assured – so much so that he is able to breathe new life into the songs without wandering too far from the original melodies. It’s rather bizarre to think that Molina was once dismissed as Will Oldham’s poorer imitator – their voices are actually rather different, Molina’s lacking the shaky pitching and vulnerability that is rather unique to Oldham.

The music finally matches the quality of the writing at the show’s breathtaking conclusion. ‘Oh, Grace’ at last instigates some rhythmic invention and is powerfully moving as a result, whilst ‘Hold On Magnolia’ is notably softer and more restrained. We could have done with more of this in the main body of the set.

It’s worth taking the time to mention the supporting line up as this was an extremely well organised and thoughtful line-up (put together by the wonderful people who organise The Local Night For Local People at the King’s Head in Crouch End). Poor David Vandervelde was made to look rather conventional in the end, but he did an admirable job of playing his pleasant, amiable songs to a mostly empty venue, and looked like he was enjoying every minute of it.

David Thomas Broughton was, by dramatic contrast, completely bonkers. Seemingly afflicted with a severe case of Attention Defecit Disorder, he simply couldn’t stay still, and certainly couldn’t focus on one idea for any length of time. With a mannered vibrato voice slightly reminiscent of Anthony Hegarty, and a clear desire to smash all singer-songwriter conventions into the ground, he delivered a madcap performance that was both bizarre and fascinating. Lots of singer-songwriters are now using multi-effects units to turn themselves into one man bands and watching people prostate on the ground fiddling with machines can be incredibly boring. Broughton, whilst edgy and aloof onstage, was clearly aware of the audience, playing his unusual ukulele unamplified from within the crowd. Delivering mostly incomprehensible lyrics, layering inappropriate parts over each other with scant regard for conventional musicality and even smashing his own head against his guitar, Broughton’s unusual schtik may have been intensely serious or intentionally hilarious – it was hard to tell. I’m not sure it mattered either way.

Adjagas were an international group unafraid to combine disparate ideas into what turned out to be a compelling and satisfying melting pot. Sometimes they appeared to be singing in another language, at others with no language at all, combining elements of avant rock with country tinged riffing and what sounded like Middle Eastern scales. It all went rather odd at the end, with some histrionic shouting, but the rest of their set was both finely judged and brilliantly executed. It also seemed genuinely original.

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