Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Eyes On The Prize

Look, Stranger! – EP (Self-released CDR, 2009) and live at 93 Feet East 22nd September 2009

Look, Stranger! are clearly a generous band. Having just recorded a meticulously arranged and pristine sounding EP with engineer Charles ‘Chicky’ Reeves, they’re now giving it away free at their first headline London show. This might well be something artists are compelled to do in the future, given the current devaluing of music as a product. Indeed, if Spotify ever does start to generate profit, the very concept of music ownership might be up for contention. For now though, it’s just a kind gesture to their burgeoning audience. I’m reminded of that great moment at Porchester Hall, when Arcade Fire’s Win Butler snuck two bemused ticketless fans in through the stage door. The bands that build through word of mouth share their experience with their audience.

Look, Stranger! radiate the same warm and ingratiating qualities onstage as well as off, inviting the audience further forward and engaging in jovial interaction. Whilst their songs are not without a small degree of youthful pretention, or at least a modest theatricality, there seems to be a determination not to incorporate this into their stage performance. They deliver their songs with commitment and charm, impressively faithful to their carefully plotted recorded counterparts.

There’s a sense that Look, Stranger! are venturing into what is now becoming a crowded marketplace. There is a substantial group of bands, from both sides of the Atlantic, including the likes of Battles, Dirty Projectors, Mew, and Three Trapped Tigers, who are reinjecting the virtues of arrangement and composition into rock music. Look, Stranger! seem to share these preoccupations, but with a greater deference to melody, harmony and the timeless impact of the human voice. There’s a palpable, widescreen ambition in songs like ‘She Will Not Rest’ and ‘Nova Zembla’ and the group are not averse to the occasional odd time signature.

If at times it threatens to get a little grandiose (Sheinman half-jokingly describes ‘Nova Zembla’ as the band’s response to the new Muse album), then there are moments of unashamed fun that dilute the danger. ‘She Will Not Rest’ unpredictably explodes into a careering, driving mix of heavy bass synths and stuttering drums. ‘Where Horses Roam’ could be the band’s finest moment, a three minute pop song with a nagging lyricless hook and an angular Grizzly Bear-go-to-studio-54 groove. It has the potential to really capture the imagination – surely it’s only a matter of time before large audiences are chanting ‘woah-hoah-hoah’ along with the band - and then quite possibly to become an albatross around the group’s collective neck.

Most impressive for me is ‘To The River’, where Sheinman’s voice is at its most personable and relaxed and the music is at its most evocative. The integration of electronic and acoustic drums in the rhythm track undoubtedly owes a debt to Radiohead, but the languorous melody also hints at the more emotional territory of Elbow or Sweet Billy Pilgrim. This lush, slow-building terrain, well crafted but also honest and direct is where the band are at their strongest.

This is the work of a sophisticated band. The most transparent evidence of this is in the well executed vocal arrangements and the group’s assured and sensitive handling of dynamics. The overall effect is also enhanced by an excellent rhythm section – bassist Ali Wedderburn and drummer Thom Hosken sit very tightly and play expressively but never contribute any more than is necessary for each particular song’s mood. Hosken is that rarest of things – a drummer with a very light touch who might just, at times, be too quiet! Crucially, Look, Stranger! sound like a real ensemble – there’s also much to enjoy in David Isaacs’ combination of Reichian minimalism and ornate flourish at the keys and in Tim Sheinman’s shimmering guitar lines.

At 93 Feet East the band bring out a more whimsical side to complement their ambition in songs like ‘Lady Godiva’ and also in the playful encore, which features a whistling solo from Wedderburn and sees band members depart from the stage one by one. That the band manage to marry their ambition with qualities of intimacy and immediacy is impressive. There are some minor kinks to be ironed out, some slightly tentative vocal pitching suggesting the group could yet grow in confidence – but this is clearly a band to watch.

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