Friday, June 06, 2008

Here Come The Drums, Here Come The Drums!

Two exciting gigs this week have been very much focused on the musical possibilities of drums and percussion. First up, The Dodos had little trouble in charming the uber-trendy Hoxton Bar and Kitchen with their endearingly childlike rhythmic pop. It’s a shame that Sound Engineers these days only have the ability to turn things up – rectifying the constantly inaudible vocals would have been best achieved by turning everything else *down*. Turning the vocals up merely resulted in unpleasant feedback. It would be unfair to argue that this had too great an impact on the quality of the gig though – particularly given the group’s energised and intense performance.

Listening to their latest album ‘Visiter’ (sic) had already given me a good sense of the group’s melodic prowess and sense of fun, but I had not quite expected them to be quite this versatile and technically adept. The percussion is arranged superbly – with ramshackle rattles on the rims of the drums, unpredictable and syncopated rhythms, and a very noisy giant metal dustbin positioned at the back of the stage.

There’s also a surprising amount of guttural blues in this music. This plus the minimal set-up suggests what The White Stripes might achieve should they ever opt to employ a really good drummer. Occasionally it sounds like they are trying to bludgeon us with a relentless energy, but then they veer off into a piece of saccharine bubblegum pop that reminds us that they can also be straightforwardly enjoyable. The crowd seem to love every minute of it – and prove more than happy to indulge the group’s substantial encore. This group are one of the discoveries of the year.

Over at the Luminaire last night, Joe Gideon and The Shark and the outstanding Wildbirds and Peacedrums proved a delightfully complementary double act. Joe Gideon and The Shark are a brother/sister guitar/drums duo formed from the ashes of Bikini Atoll. They are playful and theatrical in their onstage demeanour but unrepentantly intense and blackly comic in their accompanying poetry. It’s an occasionally difficult listen – especially the opening and closing tracks which are grounded too firmly by repetitive basic keyboard loops. The rest of the set is engaging and enjoyable though, with a mordant lyrical bent that proves inventive and stimulating. There’s more than a hint of Nick Cave both in the aggressive, noisy nature of the music and in the humour that dominates the words.

If Joe Gideon and The Shark are primal and brash, Wildbirds and Peacedrums are something else entirely. This is seriously exciting and original music. Mariam Wallentin’s vocals are even more expressive and versatile in live performance than they are on their impressive debut album ‘Heartcore’. Both in style and execution, she very much reminds me of Leslie Feist, but without the one eye on commercial concerns. Wallentin is far less refined and restrained, instead extemporising freely and passionately throughout the set.

Perhaps even more impressive is drummer Andreas Werliin, who single-handedly proves that the drum kit can be an expressive and emotive instrument. The range of sounds he can draw from a small kit is frankly breathtaking. At the risk of sounding clich├ęd, something this band certainly are not, he is playing music and not just drums. The technique borders on virtuosic, and the duo slip between passages of abstraction and fearlessly driving rhythm with consummate ease. I begin to see far closer connections with improvisation and jazz in their live set than is recognisable from their album – their victory in a recent Swedish Jazz Prize now makes a lot more sense.

Most of the time there is nothing else going on save for the drums and the vocals. The intelligence of this unsparing economy lies in the fact that the songs require nothing else. Wallentin’s voice has so much dexterity and soul that there is scant need for conventional harmony – and the songs have are living and breathing artefacts, demonstrating the duo’s incredible intuition and musical sensitivity. When Wallentin does deploy some of her acoustic string instruments, they are always made to merge silkily with Werliin's percussive gestures.

I keep coming back to ‘Heartcore’ – it’s an outstanding and original record, but it’s clear that it can’t compensate for seeing the band live. It’s rare to hear such skeletal music being delivered so powerfully and fearlessly. Even within its obvious self-imposed limitations, it is audacious, unpredictable, fiery and frequently moving music. There is real freedom here.