Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Big Deal interview: "Any fool can make something complicated..."

Attempting to suss out the level of sexual tension that exists between two people can be a tricky business. A task made even harder when done down a telephone line. For all I knew, Kacey Underwood and Alice Costelloe, who together form boy-girl minimalist indie-rock duo Big Deal, were speaking to me whilst sat at opposite ends of the sofa. Alternatively, I could have just interrupted a great big spooning session.

This ‘are they/aren’t they’ dilemma is the enduring appeal of listening to Big Deal. With four basic ingredients to the songs - fuzzy electric guitar, Yank drawl, gentle acoustic guitar, and breathy female vocals – the up-front lyrics are given a prominence that makes the listening experience akin to being a fly-on-the-wall during one of those conversations. 

"You don't trust me to sit on my bed … Only want me for the songs I write about about how I like you … Don't you want that morning again/ I want to be your lover I don't want to be your friend" – confessional and revealing, the words are usually sung together by Underwood and Costelloe, often giving the impression that one is speaking to the other.

To keep the mystery of the lyrics alive, I don’t ask Kacey or Alice directly if they were, or had been, in a relationship together. Instead, I skirt around the topic awkwardly.

“Our lyrics are a dual process”, Alice says, with cards pressed firmly against her chest.

Then, as a subtle signal to suggest that this is a topic almost out of bounds, Kacey deadpans, “Sometimes we just start typing words on google and when google finishes the sentence we just use that…”

Finding myself down a conversational cul-de-sac, I assume the pair would prefer to talk more about their music, not their sleeping arrangements.

The pair met when Alice started taking guitar lessons after her Mum recommended a music teacher at the primary school where she worked. Kacey was that teacher.

"The first song I asked to be taught was Teenage Riot by Sonic Youth", remembers Alice.

So was being a duo a situation borne out of necessity or choice?

“It was a necessity that became a choice”, answers Kacey. “We like the fact we don’t have to rely on a bunch of people to get things done. The bigger something is the more things can go wrong.”

And how does the set-up shape the songs?

“Painting someone’s portrait, compared to painting a huge landscape, means there has to be much more detail”, begins Kacey’s analogy. “There’s so few sounds that you have to make sure they’re absolutely perfect”, Alice clarifies.

The Big Deal sound follows a 'too many cooks' ethos pretty strictly. But do they ever feel any pressure to add any more frills to the songs?

“Neither of us likes music that is really grandiose,” adds Kacey. “Even with a really complicated band like Arcade Fire, none of their parts are virtuoso. And some Strokes songs seem almost classically composed, the way all the parts fit together. But neither band is out to prove something – it’s about the song working.”

“There’s a really good quote from Woody Guthrie”, Kacey starts. “Ah, I know what you’re thinking of but you’re not going to remember it…”, interjects Alice.

“No - I’m gonna prove you wrong”, returns Kacey. “It goes ‘Any fool can make something complicated, but it takes a genius to make something simple’”.

“Not that I’m saying we’re geniuses”, Kacey says hastily, while Alice laughs.

How about the comparisons with other bands you’ve picked up in the press already, do they act as an encouragement or are they annoyingly predictable?

“It’s strange because everyone compares us to these bands that we don’t listen to. I’ve never actually even heard a Kills songs,” Alice says.  

“I guess it makes sense from an outside perspective because of the basic set up of having a boy and a girl”, Kacey chips in. “We sometimes stop ourselves because we’ll be writing and we’ll go, this is too much like such and such band.” 

“But not a single time has anyone compared us to one of those bands that we’re always worried about being compared to… and no I’m not going to tell you who those bands are.”

“We’re looking at it from the way we write and the themes we sing about”, begins Kacey, “but it’s bands that have been able to write with a similar kind of honesty to us that have been the biggest influence”, finishes Alice. 

Though, with so much baggage attached to the lyrics, how does it feel playing the songs live, night in, night out? 

There's a pause as Alice considers. "Playing live is draining for anyone because you’re giving so much of yourself just by standing there. But it can also be cathartic," she replies. 

"We sweat a lot", ends Kacey. 

Single 'Chair' is out now and their debut album 'Lights Out' is out on Mute Records on September 5th. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Jonathan Wilson - Gentle Spirit

Jonathan Wilson is clearly someone who appreciates that there’s a lot wrong with the world today. Gentle Spirit is, in his own words, an attempt to “give humanity some kind of reverence-laden soundtrack”. The North Carolinian shouldn’t be derided for his sincere efforts. However, championing a new respect for the world doesn’t necessarily have to sound so, well, respectful.

Sometimes, Wilson completely misfires in his valiant efforts to add some ‘big issue’ relevance to his writing. A protest song, only with a chorus written by Black Eyed Peas, ‘Can We Really Party Today?’ and its refrain of “with all that’s going on?” is, far from being a wake up call to Westerners with their heads in the sand, the low-point of the album. At least you can say Wilson is successful here; with the patronising rhetoric repeated for a dreary 6 minutes, it’s likely you’ll never want to party ever again.

However, after tripping up so monumentally early on in the album, there’s a lot of time for Wilson to regain some dignity. ‘Desert Raven’ takes America’s ‘Horse With No Name’ as a template and captures its mood to a tee, with the help of some woozy guitar lines. And, as Wilson’s lyrics fill with colour – reds, blues, greys, saffron – so too does the music.

Suddenly we go on a journey through various different offshoots of rock, from country to psychedelia. Often, as foot meets feedback pedal, and late-Beatles era McCartney basslines begin to throb above Wilson’s languid vocals and trippy drum rolls, echoing Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’, the listening experience is akin to being in a time-warp.

But far from being satisfyingly disorientating, everything here fits neatly in place, never threatening the listener. It’s very much easy listening throughout, while Wilson relies on the tried and tested hallmarks of rock. Wilson takes ‘risks’ in the sense that they’re risks already taken by previous artists, with the intermittent blasts of electric guitar seen on ‘The Way I Feel’ very much Neil Young’s trademark.

Wilson makes a relaxing sound but, in music, vital issues need to be raised by equally vital singer-songwriters. On the evidence of the 80 minutes here, Wilson is far too much a gentle spirit to ever become one.

Monday, 1 August 2011

PJ Harvey - Alexandra Palace, London 23.07.11

Riding yet another wave of critical acclaim, PJ Harvey is 
currently joint favourite to win this years Mercury Prize for her latest album, Let England Shake. Made up of songs that consider England’s national identity (with its brutal and bloody war history as well as the inherent conflict between humanity and nature) the album may have been PJ’s fastest selling to date but it’s not your typical, hands-in-the-air festival fare. However, this weekend’s I’ll Be Your Mirror Festival, curated by Portishead and ATP, is not your typical festival. Here, in the expansive main hall of the elegant Alexandra Palace, Harvey’s emotive tales find a fitting venue that’s the equal to the poignant and stirring songs.
Such is the respect that Harvey now commands from her audience, there’s little movement from the crowd in her set, even during the lively outpourings of ‘The Skies Lit Up’ or ‘The Pocket Knife’. Far from this being a reflection of apathy, the crowd is so engrossed by the sleek movements of the figure in black, it’s all they can do to try and take in as much of her performance as possible.
But this isn’t a one-woman show. Along with Harvey’s distinctive auto-harp, Mick Harvey, John Parish and Jean-Marc Butty’s instrumentation blends folk, rock, blues, and even reggae (thanks to the disorientating but brilliant sampling of ‘Blood and Fire’ on ‘Written on the Forehead’) so well that the boundaries blur to form a sound that belongs to Harvey and Harvey alone.
Plus, there’s a great deal of restraint shown towards the structure of every song, with the placement of each beat, strum and lyric clearly meticulously considered. This ensures that the songs never collapse under the weight of Harvey’s heavy lyrical themes, drenched in gory battle imagery and laden with dark reflections on the human psyche as they are, and instead allows them to blossom. ‘The Last Living Rose’s contagious brevity and unwavering hook encapsulates this. In fact, the whole set feels barely a tenth of the 60 minutes that it lasts.

*Originally published on The Line Of Best Fit