Wednesday, May 31, 2006Dungeons and Dragons
Last Tuesday (shit - a week behind blogschedule!) was a night of avantgarde homosexual mutual affection. Oh yes, but not definitively. And so, so much more; Arcade Fire's string-dude, Owen Pallet, has a side-project called Final Fantasy, an arena for him to indulge his stringed fantasies and geeky weaknesses (hence the computer-game inspired name). Owen, the well-connected gent that he is, is also friend of James Stewart of the enigmatic and highly-esteemed band, Xiu Xiu (top). As both outfits were in Europe at the same time, they decided to hook up in Berlin to play the city's most avantgarde and beautiful venue, Volksbühne, a grand old theatre, built in the style of socialist realism and a long-time hotbed of left-field productions of all sorts.
The setting, then, was perfect for such an evening. Despite being a slightly bigger name, Xiu Xiu, were first on stage, perhaps due to Owen Pallett's more showy showmanship. James and Caralee took to the vast stage without as much as a "hello". They played an intense, but short set of songs, many from their forthcoming fifth album, The Air Force and last year's La Forêt. Despite only the two of them on stage, their sound was immense. Their music is generally a screw-you to the notion of genre - I've never heard anything like it - but for description's sake, the following adjectives: urgent, on the edge, sorrowful, terrifying, bleak, lush, hopeful, noisy, quiet, complex, sensitive, passionate, dark, difficult. But hugely impressive. Their array of instruments was also interesting - James had a whole tray of what appeared to be bicycle bells, all at slightly different pitches, and the harmonia and a zither. A short set was perfect - the Xiu Xiu live experience does not need to be any longer, all that needs to be expressed is expressed in 45 minutes. And that's fine.
Final Fantasy was an equally (but differently) impressive affair. Owen took to the stage with his violin and his friend, Steph, who would be our over-head-projection-animation-manager for the evening. Yes, indeed. While Owen was playing his violin into a sampler, looping it, layering it up and singing (and charming the whole crowd), Steph was animating the songs by moving layers of overhead projector sheets to animate the songs. In the days of power point presentations and DVDs and all that jazz, you realise how much more exciting things can be when you strip them right back down. Creativity and originality can be fostered to a much greater level, Steph was keen to show. The same can be said for Owen, his solitary violin making more luscious and beautiful music than any other indie band. At times it reminded me of Patrick Wolf, incidentally a long-time friend of Owen's - the arrangements, the libertarian, fey qualities. But comparisons between the two dapper violinists are pointless. Throughout the set I got lost in the music and the visuals, letting the two harmonious forms take me away to Owen's creative and curious world. Owen came back onto the stage after his set, admitting that he does encores because he is "classless" in comparison to Xiu Xiu. He started performing an album by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, a cult eighties band from the Wirral, but stopped after four or five songs. Not especially classy, but certainly entertaining.
You can find out all you ever wanted to know about Owen Pallett/Final Fantasy over at Shane's excellent blog. He has two interviews and a track-by-track review of the new album, He Poos Clouds!
Sunday, May 28, 2006Buckfast makes you fuck fast
I saw Belle and Sebastian again, this time in Berlin at the Columbiahalle, Berlin's "big touring bands" venue, which was happily a fraction of the size of the equivalent venues in Britain. The audience was noticeably younger (and more English speaking) than at the Hamburg show. Whether this was a factor in making the show more fun or not is subject to debate, but there was a really fun atmosphere in the hall that night, lots of audience interaction, Stuart Murdoch more candid than normal with his stories and remarks. There were even bandanas and sailor hats thrown on stage (see above). I think there's something particular about the intimacy of Belle and Sebastian's music which makes people do crazy things, like a sense of release and relief. One English girl, Alice, found herself on stage after being spontaneously gutsy enough to start telling a "Once upon a time" story about herself in a break between songs. I hope Alice realises how wide she made people grin with unadulterated happiness as shimmied nervously around the stage before dancing with Stuart and Stevie for the full course of a song. In any case, I think most people left that concert feeling in love with everyone and everything.
Thursday, May 25, 2006Automatic High
Just when you thought indie music was getting more exciting, you go to see the NME's New Music (TM) tour and realise that it's just a bit more hyped than it was three years ago, when everyone was trying to sound like Coldplay. Now they all want to be (a slightly emo-er version of) the Kaiser Chiefs (to get the important emo-teens on board), throwing insincere amounts of energy into meaningless songs with lyrics about monsters coming round mountains. Insincerity is something I cannot abide and I find it hard to stomach that many of the current over-yield of new band crop really mean it. That was certainly the impression I had with Forward Russia(below) and The Automatic(above), inexplicably above Long Blondes on the bill. Their music was indistinguishable from eachother, nothing new, nothing exciting aside from both singers jumping around on stage. Therefore I can't write anything more about them, which is a shame as I'd quite wanted to see them both beforehand. But maybe this is a product of this spoon-fed zeitgeist spotting band-culture, putting on a tour which specifically fulfils people's urges to see The Next Big Thing - the kids'll lap it up and average bands with good stage shows will do well. It's only glamorous indie rock'n'roll, but they like it.
Wednesday, May 24, 2006Weekend Without Make-up
I finally saw The Long Blondes again. The band, now signed to Rough Trade, have just finished the NME New Music Tour (I saw them in Norwich), where they were opening for emo-indie-popsters Forward Russia, The Automatic and Boy Kill Boy. It's so great to see how they have come on since I last saw them supporting Sons and Daughters last August, and moreso, since I saw them play at Holloway Road's Nambucca last June. Their stage show is stronger and more professional, their sound coming across better on better soundsystems, their songs are closer to their visionary visions. They seem truly set for stardom. They can already play a half hour set and miss out plenty of excellent songs, notably Autonomy Boy and Peterborough.
I spoke to the band after their set and they told me they were really happy with the reaction they'd been getting on the NME Tour (positive, but sadly a fraction of the enthusiasm that the shitty shouty bands above them on the bill are getting). With their first single on Rough Trade, Weekend Without Make-Up, due for release on 26th June and the album recording to start within the next two weeks, it looks like things really will be stepping up a gear for the Long Blondes. It's completely irrationally over-emotional but I feel really, really happy for the band. The moment I heard Giddy Stratospheres all that time ago I knew I would fall in love with them. Now they are ready to take on the world, and though I haven't done much more than blog about them every few months and convince as many people as I can to listen to them, I do feel very proud. I know that they have enough integrity and class to not compromise their ideals and ambitions and they will make an excellent debut album.
Thursday, May 18, 2006Miles, miles away
Last night was the final YYYs show at the Kentish Town Forum, and I had opted to stay at the back for the wellfare of my body. This was a mistake. The YYYs are a band best served hot. Their music is all about going crazy and letting yourself go. And when you are 25 metres away, the excitemenet and involvement that a YYYs concert entails is lost on you. The couples (it's all couples when you go that far back, myself included) were all talking to eachother during the quiet parts of the songs, clapping in to their plastic pint glasses, the house lights are still on, you might as well be watching a (very good) DVD. One real advantage is that the sound is much better there - the different parts, especially Nick's guitar, could be heard much more clearly and Karen's vocals were certainly more distinguishable. But, if you ever thought twice about standing at the front of a Yeah Yeah Yeahs show, think again. They are definitely one of the most exciting bands on the planet, inimitable, incomparable, and deserve your full attention. Just so you know.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006Yeah Yeah Yeah
18 months to the day since they last played London, Yeah Yeah Yeahs were back at the Kentish Town Forum for the fifth time, sold out, as ever. They wer eon absolutely top form - they always give a good show, but you can sometimes tell if they're not feeling it. A flick over to a diary Nick Zinner kept on their mini-tour at the beginning of the year shows clearly the band's perfectionist tendencies and their acute awareness of what constitutes a good performance. I reckon they will have been celebrating last night, although, each further YYYs show I see, the crazier the audience is = the more security they need, and the harder it is for the band to connect with the fans. Karen O is a warm performer - lots of eye contact, pointing, smiling, which isn;t quite as effective when there's 40 bouncers between you and the band. But it's certainly better that way, seeing as a lot of people who go to YYYs gigs in London are idiots with sharp elbows. Which is why I'm going to be standing at the side or the back at tonight's show, so I can just enjoy seeing my favourite band play, rather than worry about my life/camera/ribs/etc.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006I'd rather be in Tokyo
I'd been waiting what feels like years, and probably is, to see Belle and Sebastian live. An embarrassing admission considering I lived in Scotland from 1996 - 2003. Some bands you just have to be a little bit older to appreciate fully, to afford those student clichees of listening to the Smiths, Belle and Sebastian, wearing over-sized jumpers and drinking lots of sugary tea. The latter two, luckily, do not apply to me. The band played Hamburg's Grosse Freiheit 36, deep in the city's infamous red light district to an eager (and compared to Britain, small) crowd. The set comprised about 40% from this year's The Life Pursuit, and 60% from every other album, including quite a few rarities. With such a huge back-catalogue, you'd think it'd be hard to keep everyone satisfied, but the band are clear veterans of the road and know exactly where the balance lies. I'm already looking forward to the Berlin show on 21st May. But not as much as YYYs tonight in London, woop!
Monday, May 15, 2006Tap Tap Tap
Tilly and the Wall are no ordinary band, which is probably why Architecture in Helsinki invited them along for some of their European dates. Tilly and the Wall are from Omaha, Nebraska, home of Saddle-Creek records, Bright Eyes, The Faint, Rilo Kiley, etc etc etc. The sorrowful Mid-west, bang in the middle of the United States. And instead of drums, the rhythm section is rather comprised of a main tap-dancer, Jamie (female), with the two main singers, Kianna and Neely, providing additional (but not as complicated) tap rhythm. Their first album, Wild Like Children, was produced by Conor Oberst himself and is a lovely folky, quirky album with clear 60s girl groups and American Folk influences. It's all about being young and being alive and feeling like an outsider. To use modern vocabulary, it could be described as "a bit Emo", but certainly not in the screamo, horrible way. Just a little bit introspective and American sounding way. You know... the MySpace kids will like it! They have a new album coming out on 22nd May (UK) called Bottoms of Barrels, and if the new songs they played in Berlin and the crowd's reaction was anything to go by, we're in for a treat.
Sunday, May 14, 2006Do The Whirlwind
It's been a week of big bands for me. On Friday I saw Belle and Sebastian in Hamburg, nine people in total on stage. Which doesn't even compare at all to Architecture in Helsinku, hailing from Melbourne, who invited a further twenty people on stage at their gig at Maria am Ufer in Berlin last Monday. It was mad. With already seven members, the stage was a carnival of good vibrations and, erm, Finnish national anthems sung over old Architecture in Helsinki songs. The rest of the set was just as big-grin good, comprised mainly of last year's In Case We Die, one of the most uplifting and sense-of-purpose-giving albums I've heard in a long while. The band are a lovely pick'n'mix bunch, some bearded, some clean shaven, two of the boys in skimpy sports shorts, girls in dresses, girls with trombones, everyone getting a chance to sing, all creating a huge sound. They seem as much a collective as they do a band. They have just finished a European Tour and are off to do some North American dates. Head over to their MySpace for up-to-date infos.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006Chop Chop!
Euros Childs is the sometime singer in cult Welsh group, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, who have released an impressive nine albums since 1992, most of which have songs in both Welsh and English. Euros (pronounded Eehrros) wrote a solo album last year, titled Chops which was released this year through Wichita. He is currently on tour with Isobel Campbell (see below!) and I did an interview with him which will shortly be appearing over at Rockbeatstone.
Chops is an interesting affair - at some points it sounds like ancient folk music, the peculiar loveliness of the Welsh lyrics making them sound more interesting. Euros said of them: I’ve no problem with people not understanding completely what the song is about. When I listen to songs in other languages I don’t think “how dare they sing it in a language I don’t understand”, that’d be arrogant and ignorant. I don’t think it’s at all bad people are subjected to other languages and enjoying the songs. And quite right too. As a native English speaker you can quite easily take it for granted hearing songs and appreciating the subtelties of the English language which might not otherwise register with non-native or fluent speakers. So it's refreshing to be in this position.
There are other points in the album where Euros' notion of not making a record that sounded like one person really. I wasn’t into that. I just wanted to make it like a compilation can be clearly heard, most notably on Donkey Island and Hi Mewn Socasau, which sound like Scissor-Sisters-meets-Welsh-village-fête, in a good way. It was these songs which really got the Berlin crowd dancing, showing clearly that you don't have to understand what the songs are about to enjoy them, though he did tell a short story to explain what most songs meant. He got an altogether good reaction and should hopefully get many of those punters along to their performance at the Cooperative Music night at Berlin's British Music Week, when they play Lido on 19th May. You should go.
Saturday, May 06, 2006Like Tarantino In The Movies
I was slightly apprehensive about the Isobel Campbell gig. I'd read several cool reviews of her shows and heard negative responses from friends who'd been to see her on previous dates. I'd read that she doesn't like touring, I knew that Mark Lanegan would not be joining her on this tour for the album they made together, Ballad of Broken Seas...and she was in Belle and Sebastian (apparently the nicest of bands) and then LEFT! I love the new album so much. It's so dark and drama-filled, every moment feels 100% Tarantino, lush minor strings, surf guitars, Lanegan's gravelly sinister drawl and Campbell's haunting whisper, the drama occasionally making way for major-key moments of relief which have a similar effect to comparable moments on Nick Cave's Murderballads; that half-time, gritted teeth sigh. Buy the album and listen to it for yourself! Anyway, the prospect of even a glimmer of the drama being captured live was enough to get me to Magnet for the gig.
I'll be honest, the gig started badly. Isobel's vocals were barely noticable and she seemed quite disinterested in being there, unsure how to act on stage. After two songs a man called out, very politely in English with a very soft German accent "Isobel, we can hardly hear you". Isobel laughed and said "I know, but this is a rock club, right, so you know, go and speak to my manager about it", humour not quite apparent in her voice (even to a fellow Scot). After a while she seemed to loosen up a bit (or as a German friend put it, "aufgetaut" = thawed) and her voice could be heard stronger, whether that was a soundboard or personal change, we'll never know. By the end of her long set she was an altogether different performer, dancing, telling stories and feeding off the brilliant Eugene Kelly, formerly of the Vaselines and writer of Son of a Gun as covered by Nirvana, who sung Mark Lanegan's parts, bringing a much more Scottish flavour to the music, but with an equal level of sinsiter drama.
After the show I read a journal entry of hers to see her perspective on touring. It's important to remember that those who are creative and musical may not be also natural performers. And those who can perform are certainly not all creative masterminds. To a certain extent this makes you realise how lucky some people are to have it all, but it makes you appreciate more when people like Isobel Campbell take their album out on the road to give people what they want, when it's far from the easiest thing they could be doing. And when she got it right, it was so so good.
Tuesday, May 02, 2006We have got to take cover, brother
Some maths for you: 18% of the bands I've seen this year are Canadian. When you consider that Canada makes up 0.004% of the world's population, this is a very impressive figure. The Organ were the latest canucks to reach Berlin on their European tour, but let it be known, the Organ do not fit so easily with what is developing into a Canadian aesthetic and sound. Firstly they are all girls, they all look like they can't be much older than twenty-two, and well, they sound like the Smiths in the absolute best way possible. I noticed immediately on arriving at the gig the sheer quantity of Smiths t-shirts - this is what happens when you don't read reviews before you see a band, but I like to be surprised. While Morrissey is still going strong, failing in many ways to make music as affecting as that which he made with the Smiths, charging 55Â for tickets and boycotting Canada, the Organ have built up a reputation as great tunesmiths, an enigmatic and powerful live band, and a believable alternative to His Royal Petaness, without any cynical advertising campaigns, any major label backing, and certainly not adhering to a marketable aesthetic.
One of the most refreshing points of their show was their absolute engagement with their music. There was very little interaction, with eachother or the audience, all band members seemed to be each in their own world, knowing exactly their purpose on stage, feeling every bit of the music. It was, in many ways, understated and calm - the music could really speak for itself. At one point somebody called out "Talk about yourself", to which singer, Katie, said "Talk about myself? No thanks". This reminded me of Interpol, one of my favourite bands in the world. When they play live they are, essentially, anti-performance. They have the lights shining brightly behind them making them mere silhouettes. Paul Banks willoccasionallyy mutter something from underneath his hat, but other than that, nothing needs to be said - part of the whole appeal is the openness to interpretation, the mystique. There is, indeed, something to be said for saying nothing.
And this is perhaps where Morrissey has gone wrong. He says too much because he thinks what he has to say is important, relevant and poignant because it once was. If the Organ's brilliant debut album Grab That Gun is anything to go by, then we can expect much more music that speaks to people and speaks for itself from them. Hop over to their MySpace to listen for yourself.