Sunday, 24 June 2012

White Denim @ HMV Forum, London 22/05/12

White Denim are relentless. Live, they exhibit all the restraint of an untrained Rottweiler that's caught the scent of raw meat in its nostrils. There's barely even a moment left vacant in tonight's set for the Texan four-piece to say a quick "hello"; instead they tear through their back-catalogue of disparate genres as if held to ransom.

Without any concept of boundaries and propelled by a sense of no-holds-barred adventurism, White Denim are a rare breed of modern rock band. D, their latest album, not only proved against all reason that prog, country and psychedelia could co-exist in harmony, but that they could live together in a veritable, albeit dysfunctional, state of marital bliss.

Playing live, the shackles of being constrained on record come loose and White Denim go all out. They take the opportunity greedily, resulting in songs that sometimes drag, lost in the midst of extended guitar jams and the venue's muddy PA system. 

Nevertheless, their ambitious approach also means moments of formidable greatness arise in amongst all the noodling. The segue between 'It's Him' and 'At The Farm' sees colossal riffs and time signature changes come at a thrilling speed, carried by the beat of a drummer who plays so fast you'd think it was an octopus possessed by the spirit of John Bonham up there on stage.

Only during the fragile 'Street Joy' is the band given the chance to catch its collective breath. The track, brokered by lead singer James Petralli's earthy howl and a perfect, Neil Young-esque guitar solo, is satisfyingly disarming sitting beside all the frenzied noise that has come before it.  

Photo: Sara Amroussi-Gilissen (stolen from TLOBF)

Cate Le Bon - CYRK (Onvi)

John Cale, improvisational viola player in The Velvet Underground and one of the finest musicians to ever hold a Welsh passport, has one daughter. Cate Le Bon, a singer-songwriter from Wales, is not that daughter. However, imagine for a moment Cale consummated his relationship with his stunning, icy-voiced Velvet Underground collaborator Nico. And that the resulting bambino grew up and recorded an album. You wouldn’t bet against it sounding something very much like Cate Le Bon’s sophomore album, CYRK.

With imaginary rock ‘n’ roll parents of that stature, you’d expect CYRK to be a dark album, complemented by a fair bit of musical experimentation, with a haunting, deep voiced singer melodically cooing about mad things. Pleasingly, CYRK is just that.

But, perhaps fittingly for an album that takes its title from the Polish word for ‘circus’, CYRK has a constant sense of mischief about it. Essentially, it is the soundtrack equivalent of a nautical-themed bric-a-brac shop, full of oddities and queer ragbag sounds.

Psychedelic pop songs in slow motion define the album’s beginning, with garage rock and scuzzy guitar notes rubbing up against Le Bon’s doomy tones on ‘Falcon Eyed’ and ‘CYRK’. Then Le Bon begins to sound increasingly and characteristically disconnected from reality, wistfully pondering “In the morning the universe shines from under her skin/A delicate pattern of places she’s been” on ‘Greta’, accompanied by peculiar art installation type hubbub.

Later, ‘Fold The Cloth’ moves things out of the garage and into a cosy living room, albeit one full of shrieking guitar solos and the lingering smell of sexual frustration and loneliness. Here, the influence of Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys, whose label the album has been released on, makes a welcome appearance.

Even backed by a band Le Bon sounds all alone, as if she’s recorded all the parts of ‘Ploughing Out’ separately; “On the last day of the year/I’m just happy to be here,” she muses. The album ends in a psych-pop cavalcade, as Le Bon sails out to sea with her weird and wonderful instruments, possibly on her own, which you suspect was her intention all along.

CYRK never sees Le Bon reach the musically dexterous heights of any of her fictitious parents’ output, but it’s still a raw, intimate and beautiful album.

Published on For Folk's Sake 

The Dø @ The Garage, London 12/4/12

The Do - Live At The Garage, London
The old adage that London gig audiences are hard to please has one very simple solution. Simply replace all the Londoners in the audience with French people. It's a tactic that gives tonight's gig, by Franco-Finnish hybrid The Dø (pronounced the same as 'dough'), an atmosphere akin to a homecoming show.
The boy/girl two-piece enjoy a hero’s welcome as they take to the stage, which is adorned with the kind of percussion instruments you'd associate more with an African tribal group, less with a quirky indie pop band from the continent.
But then again, The Dø are not your average quirky indie pop band from the continent, at least not anymore. Their debut went to number one in the French album chart and last year's follow up 'Both Ways Open Jaws' was an improved, more refined take on their scattershot sound.
They're even more of an uncategorisable prospect live, jumping from style to style as freely as if they were changing their socks. The placid musicians that open the set – with a sweeping song that showcases lead singer Olivia Bouyssou Merilahti's icy, childlike vocals - is virtually unrecognisable from the band a few songs down the line, who revel in pounding artificial drum beats and sustained guitar feedback.
On record, The Dø roughly occupy a space in the middle of a graph that has fellow Europeans Air and The Knife at either axis. But live, flanked by two other musicians, one in charge of the drum machine and the other a pony-tailed electric guitarist, the industrial rock grind of The Kills begins to creep in, albeit in a more polished, shiny form.
'The Bridge Is Broken', dispatched early on, has instant appeal. It's a catchy, fiery tale of betrayal that takes in a backwards guitar riff and electronic meanderings, as the lead singer wails "Boy you got nerve/it's all your fault/this stitch is open".
But The Dø are a hard band to predict. 'Dust It Off', a song that initially has a soft, hypnotic, swirling piano melody at its core, unravels at its climax, drum machine in overdrive and guitars entering cardiac arrest.
However, this chameleon-like approach to songwriting means not everything comes off. Sometimes, without a clear plan in mind, their songs are mere indulgent ideas, performed with the kitchen sink but without proper execution.
But you need only wait a bit untill something eventually connects. The topsy turvy groove and sweet melody of 'Gonna Be Sick' for example, the bhangra beat exuberance running through 'Slippery Slope', or the layered pop hooks on 'Smash Them All Night'.
Often, it's the vocals of frontwoman Olivia that hit the spot, with a Nordic twang similar to Bjork's, mixed with the same crystal clear delivery. Her voice is a recurrent centrepiece in the jigsaw puzzle that is The Dø's sound; not exactly edgy, but arrestingly unconventional all the same.

Published on
Photo by Helen F Kennedy

Weird Dreams @ The Others, London 08/04/12

Weird Dreams - Live At The Others, LondonThroughout tonight's gig, located in the "arse-end of East London" as one audience member puts it, a video is projected onto the wall behind Weird Dreams. It features two attractive girls laughing and doing strange things with test tubes and a Slinky, played backwards, on a loop. It could be, and probably is, an extract from some creation of subversive film director David Lynch, a cultural figure this rock four-piece with an ear for jangly 1960s melodies have been keen to associate themselves with.
But Weird Dreams are not weird enough to soundtrack any Lynch film. Rather, they do a decent enough job of exploring the same discordant suburbia in their lyrics as Lynch does in his films, and zoning in on certain musical traits that tend to crop up in most Lynch soundtracks. A few sinister lyrical themes here, and layers of shimmering guitar reverb there; it's a curious mix that guarantees the band will prick the ears of anyone who enjoys a dark side to their indie pop.
Tonight sees the band celebrating the release of their debut album, entitled ‘Choreography’, earlier this month. They open with 'Hurt So Bad', a track that's been available on the internet since 2010, but could well have been floating in the ether as a rip from the cassette tape demo of any number of pioneering indie guitar bands circa mid-1980s.
On it, lead singer Doran Edwards sings "I want to feel pushed around, I want to feel the back of your hand, I want to feel demoralised, I want you to force me to say it baby", sounding like a sexually unhinged Brian Wilson. Edwards' vocal melodies are the best thing about the band, and when his voice is allowed to rise above the action behind him, Weird Dreams suddenly wake up.
But, alas, the Beach Boys melodies all too often get lost at sea amongst the colossal drums unleashed from the back of the room. Daubed in tattoos up to his neck, this drummer seems to be singing from a different hymn sheet as the rest of the band, who gently sway while he aggressively gives his drum kit a thoroughly good smashing.
He calms down to provide a measured, marching-beat for '666.66', a song about satanic worship with glossy guitars and woozy melodies. Things quickly become prettily hypnotic, as the Lynch extract replays on a constant loop behind them, while the jangly guitars swirl and the word "six" is harmonised over and over.
In an interview with Clash, Weird Dreams spoke of toting a "progressive nostalgia", and the sleepy pop of 'Little Girl' embodies this entirely. It's seemingly built around three different choruses, each of them catchier than the last, and, like all great pop songs, has a timeless, ethereal quality to it.
But tonight, it's the guitar effects pedal that steals this short show, which serves as something of a taster of a Weird Dreams gig, rather than a full course. Soaking final track 'Suburban Coated Creatures' in retro-reverb, the Rickenbacker guitars again combine together in the melodic climax, and Weird Dreams' hip hypnosis begins all over again.

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Cymbals - Sideways Sometimes EP (Tough Love)

In 1976, Wild Cherry famously demanded that white boys across the world "played that funky music" till they died. 36 years later, in 2012, Cymbals are a new band very keen to satisfy the US band's somewhat unrealistic demands. 
Approaching the task with gusto, Cymbals - an East-London four-piece - are in good company. Bands like Metronomy, who continue to a give danceable indie a good name, and disco upstart Kindness show that there's a continued commitment to the cause. Hell, even Mark Lanegen is providing the world's most notorious funky white boys The Bee Gees with some of a cultural cred, recently telling the Quietus that they’re "his Beatles".
Sideways Sometimes, an EP that follows Cymbals' 2011 debut Unlearn (both released on Tough Love), has more than enough funk in its trunk to keep Wild Cherry happy. But there’s also an out-and-out indie-pop sensibility running through the EP that will prove incredibly persuasive to anyone who thinks the genre has lost its sense of fun. Fleshed out with three untitled ambient tracks, the EP breezes along with basslines that err on just the right side of slapped and impeccable synths that evoke 'Love Will Tear Us Apart', if it was written by a happy person.
Bright and confident,  Cymbals are a band with an ethos summed up by a line in 'Intense Kids': "If you're going to make a mix, keep it light mate, their feet want to move." And keep it light they do. 'It Makes Me Seriously' has a casual disco groove befitting of Hot Chip, while 'No Bad Decisions' is an ode to riding bikes set to harmonies and skittering guitars. 

But, for some, Cymbals' upbeat joviality and their lead singer's East London affectation will certainly begin to grate after the seventeenth shrieked 'Ow!'. This vocal quirk, most prevalent on 'The Norms', an agitated tribute to irregular sleep patterns, sees lines enunciated in a pitch that constantly vies to register above the guitarist’s spikey notes, which are played exclusively from the fretboard's nether regions.

However, the lead singer has toned it down a fair bit since the debut, which bears results, as the contagious ‘Candy Bar’ shows. It strikes a catchy balance between brisk guitar and vocal restraint; exactly the kind of song you want to hear as winter finally ebbs away and spring turns into summer.


We Are Augustines - Rise Ye Sunken Ships (Oxcart)

All the brawn of We Are Augustines’ instrumentation could easily mask the emotional clout that Rise Ye Sunken Ships contains. The opening gambit of a four-to-the-floor drum beat and the ensuing anthemic guitar chord progression in ‘Chapel Song’ immediately defines the band as the brazened, Springsteen-savvy rock band that the Brooklyn three-piece are.

What the band has successfully achieved on their debut, however, is to make the thunderous drums and big, festival conquering riffs act as pillars, not obstructions, for McCarthy’s impassioned and spirited outpourings.

McCarthy has had two family tragedies darken his life so far. His mother died when he was 19 and, in 2009, his brother committed suicide in hospital whilst bring treated for schizophrenia.

It would have been a real shame if McCarthy’s lyrics – refreshing in their naturalness but heavy in sentiment (note: not sentimentality) – had been drowned out. Instead, the contrast forces a beguiling contradiction to appear between Augustines’ brassy, bold instrumentation and McCarthy’s vulnerable vocals and deeply autobiographical lyrics.

It takes a heart of stone to not feel the harsh resonance behind lines such as “Keep your head up kid, I know you can swim, but ya gotta move your legs”, on ‘Augustine’, or the dismal way Billy cries “James” on ‘Patton State Hospital’.

Meanwhile, ‘Book Of James’, the song most will be familiar with after the modest airplay it received, is a tune that cannily evokes the heart of Americana. Hats off to a record that so adeptly transported people from listening to the radio, peeling potatoes in their kitchen, to speeding down a dusty Route 66 with dry lips and the sun in their eyes.

Nevertheless, the album’s unabashed fist-in-the-air rock sound will be a turn off for many. And there is a one-dimensionality to the band’s well-worn template that all the song writing power in McCarthy’s fists can’t shift. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of surprise – ‘Strange Days’ has an undeniable pop sensibility about it, so much so that it echoes The Kinks.

And, all in all, why wouldn’t McCarthy and his band prefer to face tragedy with the help of some almighty sun-scorched rock ‘n’ roll, rather than wallow in amongst some more fashionable lo-fi style instrumentation?

Rise Ye Sunken Ships won’t win any awards for pioneering a new sound anytime soon, but a more open, honest and spirited record you’re unlikely to hear in 2012.

Published on For Folk's Sake, 7 March 2012. 

Shearwater - Animal Joy (Sub Pop)

Named after a seabird, releasing an EP called The Snow Leopardalongside albums called Rook, Palo Santo and now Animal Joy, it’s safe to say Shearwater have always had nature at their core. Lead singer Jonathan Meiburg has long used it in his lyrics to serve as a parallel to his emotions, while Shearwater’s instrumentation, like the weather, is often calm, but poised to turn into a destructive force at any time. And on this, their eighth album, it’s as if all the previous emotion of the reclusive Texan three-piece’s albums has been amassed and then unleashed. This is first noticeable on the mighty and apocalyptic ‘Breaking The Yearlings’, a song which any self-respecting Mayan follower needs on their End Times Playlist 2012. “The river is blocked, the road is hot, the sky is blazing,” Meiburgh blasts, “black smoke on the rise, the weather rolls until it’s on you and suddenly breaks.” It’s rare for a song to sound so much like the atmosphere its lyrics describe.

Brooding and dark, but concise and tightly played, the songs have a more direct urgency than some fans will be used to. There’s brevity too, with a real economical use of melodies and hooks which ensures that, despite the territory, it never becomes a listen you get bogged down in. Instead, space is allowed for a song as spirited as ‘You As You Were’, with its hyperactive xylophone, to burst out, sounding like Sigur Rós on amphetamines. ‘Insolence’, however, is the album’s centrepiece, a gothic ballad that, by its climax, has all dials turned to ‘epic’ as Meiburg, in a juxtaposition of introversion and extroversion, cries “all your life inside a chrysalis writhing?.. One more time, it’s real.” Then, as the album changes gear again, ‘Immaculate’ injects a satisfying shot of breezy punk-rock into the rural-prog palate that’s gone before, proving that Meiburg doesn’t spend all of his time pouring over wildlife annuals. Or, at least, that while he does, he’s listening to Spoon records.

Meiburg has a vocal technique that is very much a ‘technique’. It’s developed over the years and is now a curious mix of falsetto and bravado, heavy with thought and conviction throughout. Coupled with the feisty but restrained instrumentation, the album maintains a dramatic sense of wilderness that is hard to ignore. A certain Hail To The Thief-era Radiohead aggression creeps into their songwriting at points too, and ‘Pushing The River’ is a case in point. Had there been a little more dynamism of sound on Animal Joy, it would be tempting to hypothesise that, should Thom Yorke have come to embrace ornithology rather than technology with Radiohead in recent years, the Oxford band’s latest album may not have sounded too dissimilar to these eleven songs.