Sunday, 11 December 2011

St Vincent - Leeds

Written for Kicking Against The Pricks.

Brudenell Social Club, Leeds. November, 16th.
On more than one occasion this evening, Annie Clark (St. Vincent) manifests on stage as a bona fide Rock God. During countless almighty guitar solos that combine with the Brudenell’s apocalyptic stage lighting and dry ice, she evokes a time when all guitarists of her ilk had mullets and wore spandex. Famously, they would use their guitars as extensions of their penis. Here and now, however, Clark’s guitar merely serves as an extension of her brilliance.

The wide-eyed, Texan multi-instrumentalist single handedly blows to pieces all the pomp, cliché and chauvinism that have justifiably given that kind of posturing a bad name. What’s left is a performance as sincerely affecting as it is entertaining; songs with an intense emotional core that sound as satisfying sonically as the most OTT rock.

Set opener ‘Surgeon’ grows, with lyrics that recall bedbound recovery from panic attacks, to a climactic nervous breakdown of cataclysmic, fuzzy synths, scrambled guitar notes and pounding drums - typical of Clark’s ability to combine sensitivity with bombast.

Clark’s innovative guitar skills alone are worth the ticket. Hers is a unique style made possible by an ability to arch her fingers into spiders’ legs, which delicately crawl up and down the fret board to produce eccentric and singular riffs. It’s abrasive, but thrillingly so, as anyone who’s heard Strange Mercy, the band’s third and best album, would testify. Cuts from the incredible album form the bulk of the set, with every song but ‘Hysterical Strength’ getting an airing.

The awesome thump of ‘Cheerleader’, fleshed out by sample pads, and heightened drama of ‘Strange Mercy’, which uses Clark’s virtuous vocals as its axis, are the pinnacles of a set that will go down as one of the best the Brudenell has ever seen. The other members of the band deserve special praise too, as it’s their proficiency that ensures that the crystalline production of Strange Mercy is preserved in a live setting.

In terms of older songs, ‘Save Me From What I Want’, ‘Actor Out Of Work’ and ‘Marrow’ - all highlights from 2009’s Actor - benefit from the muscular songwriting prowess perfected on the band’s latest record. Old set against new, it’s clear that the band were merely warming up before the triumph that is Strange Mercy.

Later on, a rampant cover of The Pop Group’s ‘She Is Beyond Good And Evil’ gives a good indication of where the inspiration for Clarke’s convoluted pop songs comes from. This is mirrored in the demented aggression of ‘Northern Lights’, which also benefits from the expert use of a theremin as drinks table and high-pitched squeal machine. ‘Year Of The Tiger’ may have other, less obscure influences, but is just as idiosyncratic- if only for its repeated refrain of “Oh America, can I owe you one?” and its irresistible prog-rock grandeur.

‘Your Lips Are Red’ brings the night to a dramatic finish as Clark, intermittingly basking in bright neon light and pulling off another thorny solo, balances on the edge of the stage before wading straight into the middle of the audience for the song’s frantic conclusion. Clark may be a Saint in name, but in spirit she’s much, much more.

BBC Introducing with Tom Robinson

BBC Introducing with Tom Robinson on 6 music My pieces for the BBC Introducing with Tom Robinson blog

Connan Mockasin

Written for Kicking Against The Pricks.

You wouldn’t expect one of the year’s most exciting, forward-thinking and rewarding albums to have been made because the artist’s mum told them to make it. But that’s how Forever Dolphin Love, the debut long-player from New Zealander Connan Hosford, aka Connan Mockasin, came to exist.

Recorded at his Mother’s request in their tall, wooden beach house in Te Awanga, the album is a sprawling yet cohesive exercise in gentle but disconcerting psychedelia, with an irresistible spirit of weirdness running all the way through it. Doing away with traditional song structures, the album feels like an extended jam between bandmates, with exceptional nuggets of pop and blues rock appearing intermittingly.

Most distinctive are Connan’s vocals, which have an appealing brittleness to them; his Kiwi accent distorted to the point of eccentricity, a creepy style accentuated by his magical, otherworldly lyrical themes. Songs about unicorns, rat-snakes and other such jibberish highlight his childlike imagination which, coupled with his obvious musical talent, gives his debut a unique voice.

Talking over the phone, Connan’s voice suggests a childlike innocence, and he seems slightly uncomfortable with the whole interview process. He avoids talking about his music in terms of genre. This, I suspect, doesn’t stem from a diva-like refusal to talk about his art (in conversation he’s actually exceedingly polite), but more from the fact that talking about his strange music in a conventional way does it an injustice - unfairly bringing it down to the boring constraints of reality.

It’s hard to think of a word that sums him up. Calling his music ‘psychedelic’ seems clichéd, conjuring unwanted images of tie-dye t-shirts and tacky hallucinogenic visuals to mind. And comparisons to jazz, in reference to the breezy looseness that his compositions float around in, don’t fit for Connan - “one of the main things I’ve read about myself in the press is that I went to jazz school, which I didn’t.”

Nevertheless, it’s a credit to Connan that he remains so difficult to categorise. When major labels started showing interest in his previous project, blues-pop outfit Connan & The Mockasins, but tried to impose their own influence on the group, Connan was having none of it.

“I was very close to giving up at that point. Having no money and nowhere to live in London and sleeping in the park… and then getting label interest, which turned out to be a lot of rubbish. They wanted us to work with specific producers and were picking the songs to go on the album, which was a crap way of doing things,” he says pointedly.

“So I got quite stressed about it all, and was like, no, I’d rather work at a fish and chip shop. So that’s when I went home and my mum told me to make my own record.”

And how about New Zealand itself, how did that shape the album? “Well, first of all, not having to worry about what the labels wanted meant that making the album was easy and really good fun.”

“And being from a very relaxed little beach village really influenced it too. But I don’t play my music when I’m in New Zealand as such, because they don’t appreciate stuff there until it’s been proven overseas, unless it’s bad dub/reggae. They’re pretty narrow-minded over there.”

Releasing his music on Erol Alkan’s eclectic Phantasy label and returning to live in London, 2011 has also seen Connan tour Europe as well as complete various high-profile support slots. On stage, Connan again is a bit of a man-boy, shy but playful and revelling in the audience’s attention.

When I saw him as a support act for Warpaint, he giddily came on and off stage after his set time was up to play more songs, attracting pockets of dischord from some people in the audience who were perplexed as to why this Andy Warhol lookalike wouldn’t piss off. But the majority enjoyed seeing a genuinely interesting support act, one that clearly got off on the thrill of performing.

I ask him if he’s always been like that? “I’ve always loved and hated performing. I don’t always enjoy it, and sometimes when you’re not in the mood and it doesn’t go well, you just want to be in bed on your own. But that’s part of it - most of the time I really enjoy it.”

Connan’s overall aesthetic is pretty distinct too, as anyone who’s seen a few of his music videos, full of anthropomorphic dolphins and face-painted, cardboard-box-headed figures, would confirm. Is there any direct influence behind all these creations? “I don’t really get inspired by other stuff, as such. Things come to me when I’m just wandering around.” Are you a spiritual person? “I guess so. There’s definitely some weird stuff out there that we can’t explain - we don’t know everything. I’m open to lots of things.”

In an interview on BBC 6 Music last month, Connan told his interviewer, to their great shock, that he’d not heard much Syd Barrett or Pink Floyd. But he says he doesn’t feel any pressure to surround himself in the vast swaths of pop music’s heritage. “I’m really lazy at collecting music,” he states.

“Now, everyone copies each other just to sound popular, and I think that’s pretty boring. It brings the quality of the music down, and makes it less interesting. I don’t see it as me being in this strange world, I just see it as other people copying too much. They’ve lowered the game.”

Meanwhile, Connan is at the top of his. Forever Dolphin Love has seen various high-profile endorsements from the likes of Radiohead, Johnny Marr, and Guy Garvey of Elbow. Connan’s collaborated with Charlotte Gainsbourg on her next album, Stage Whisper (out 7th November on Because Music), and is set to release new material with Late of the Pier frontman Sam Eastgate next year.

How about his future as a solo artist? “I think the next [Connan Mockasin] record is going to be a lot better than the last one. It’s going to be quite a lot different. I’m just playing round with stuff to try to keep things interesting.”

Album | Real Estate – Days

3 November 2011
By Nico Franks for For Folk's Sake

The word ‘sunny’ rarely gets a look in around this time of the year, when daylight itself becomes a precious commodity. But Real Estate are a band that can’t avoid the word. Categorised as ‘surf-pop’, which essentially means they sound a bit like The Beach Boys, the New Jersey five piece have been intrinsically linked with summer since their debut Real Estate was released in 2009. And album number two, Days, doesn’t show any dramatic change in sound – instead showing more of a refinement. It’s very much the album expected of Real Estate- undemanding, romantic and, of course, summery.

Given that we’re now told to buy our vegetables seasonally, should we follow the same logic with our album purchases as we enter the winter months? A few of the lyrics to ‘Easy’, the breezy, reflective album opener, could indeed jar with your average winter commuter: “Floating on an inner tube, in the sun/Around the fields we run, with love for everyone”.

But as soon as the bouncy optimism of ‘It’s Real’ leaps out, it becomes clear that what Real Estate inspire is escapism, not seasonal jealously. Often the songs end hypnotically, with repeated bars of the same rolling basslines and woozy reverb, played at a rhythm that could relax the most agitated of commuters. Vocalist Martin Courtney, with a singing style bordering on comatose in terms of its lack of urgency, dictates the woozy tone of the album to a tee.

Yet the ease with which it’s possible to drift in and out of Days, almost as if in a perpetual daydream, could be seen as the album’s main weakness as well as its strength. The band lose focus after the halfway mark and songs instead start to ape styles bettered by their contemporaries, turning nonchalance to lethargy.

‘Wonder Years’ sounds similar to Yo La Tengo at their most sunny, but lacks the enticing threat of experimentation that won the latter cult following. And ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ carries the same classic rock sound of Springsteen and Neil Young that Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs have already nailed.

But Real Estate’s defining characteristic is their canny knack for melody, exemplified on the instrumental ‘Kinder Blumen’, spaced out single ‘Out Of Tune’ and the blissfully layered ‘Municipality’. Come the end of the winding, sedative album closing track ‘All The Same’, you’ll be ready to start daydreaming all over again.

Album | Cass McCombs – Humor Risk

18 November 2011
By Nico Franks for For Folk's Sake

Humor Risk, the second Cass McCombs album to be released this year, juxtaposes itself against April’s Wit’s End; where the first was harrowing and gloomy, this is, at times, surprisingly buoyant and hopeful. And as the album’s title suggests, Cass has stuck his neck out by adding a sense of lightness to his songs, resulting in a style that doesn’t always fit. ‘Robin Egg Blue’ has an appealing pastoral folk-rock spirit, but lacks a backbone, while the ‘The Living Word’ is drearily inoffensive.

The problem is that, though each song holds its own distinct and singular musical character, sometimes the hooks aren’t strong enough to drive a song anywhere special. The repeated riff of ‘Mystery Mail’ that signals a gear change to 70’s AOR rock is initially refreshing but soon drags, once the guitarist develops repetitive strain injury.

However, diehard doom-lovers need not fear. Despite a lack in quality control in this offering, the two albums are, to borrow Cass’s phrase, cut from different sides of the same cloth. And this being the work of a songwriter very much the heir to Elliott Smith’s misery throne, there are still plenty of moments laced with Cass’s characteristic melancholia as exemplified in one song’s refrain that “pain and love are the same thing”.

His attempts at comic relief won’t have you stifling the giggles, but there’s a definite smirk lying beneath some lyrics that exposes Cass’s gratifyingly dry wit. ‘To Every Man His Chimera’, which sustains a satisfying, linear morbidity throughout, much like Lennon’s ‘Mother’, sees Cass rile against his friends and his hometown: “California makes me sick / Like trying with a rattlesnake your teeth to pick”.

At it’s best, the album’s tone is musically more aggressive than the mid-tempo fare on Wit’s End. The muffled bassline on ‘Love Thine Enemy’ embellishes the distinctly vitriolic tone of Cass’s lyrics, as he puts the knife into insincere poseurs. Elsewhere, there’s a rolling, infectious optimism to ‘The Same Thing’.

‘Meet Me At The Mannequin Gallery’ is charmingly eccentric and the lo-fi hiss of ‘Mariah’ gradually grows into something beautiful, providing an ominous, disorientating end to the album. But by that point the album’s more lightweight moments have already instilled a nagging sense that, despite its admirable diversity in sound and mood, Humor Risk is nonetheless frustratingly inconsistent.