Fifteen seconds. That’s just about all it took into the first song of Freelance Whales‘ set at The Borderline before the hairs on my arms stood up. Must be a record. Still, it’s kind of what I expected. Their album “Weathervanes” (out March 16th in the US, and not at all in the UK yet) has been on near-constant rotation on my iPhone for weeks now, so the main question about seeing them live was whether they could translate their slick recorded sound to a live stage. And the answer to that is: Yes they can (mostly).
First off, the support. Being a man of advanced years (ok, in my late thirties), seeing a bunch of young whippersnappers come on stage and play like they’ve been doing it for years can be somewhat annoying. Or at least, it would be if they weren’t any good, but they are. Melodica, Melody and Me (I would complain about the name, but I’m the guy who called his blog “Loft and Lost”, for Pete’s sake) make a wholeheartedly charming folky sound. They reminded me of a young Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, only not so Welsh, obviously. Or a less scruffy Band Of Holy Joy1. Send me an MP3 chaps, and I’ll happily chuck it up on here. The song about the fisherman or the last one, would be great, ta. Oh, and they got a great reception from crowd (some of whom really should have stayed around for what followed).
Anyway, back to the Whales. After setting up their instruments – an impressive collection of keyboards, guitars, a mandolin, a squeeze box, an ocelot and a drumkit, which they spent all night swapping with each other – they launch straight into “Generator^1st Floor”. With all the band singing their “Ah ah ah”‘s to a massed crescendo, you can see exactly where the Arcade Fire comparisions come in. It’s a sheer moment of pure joy, causing the aforementioned hairs on arm moment.
For “Hannah”, the band clump together on the stage, as if for comfort, bringing out the song’s delicacy. It’s one of the songs that show that this lot really are onto something. How many bands construct their songs so well, with lovely, graceful changes in tempo and tone, filled with great little hooks and riffs and charming opaque lyrics, like “Hannah takes the stairs because she can tell that it’s a winding spiralcase”? How many do it on their first album, after only being together for a year? I can remember being this stunned by bands like Broken Social Scene and Grizzly Bear, but they’d already recorded and released an album before their breakthrough; they certainly weren’t this sharp on their first attempt.
Sailing through their album “Weathervanes”, nearly in order too, these thoughts keep cropping up. The album is so well-made, so beautifully written and recorded, that I half-expected them to be some new manufactured act (*cough* Kings of Leon *cough*), manipulated with invisible strings by some shadowy svengali. But that’s so clearly not the case. They really do look like a bunch of folks from Brooklyn and Queens brought together by a shared love of the geek rock of REM, Weezer and Ween, inspired by the togetherness of Arcade Fire and nutured by the fertile Brooklyn music scene. Other than a missed beat here and a slightly out of tune harmony there, the songs worked well live and were less mannered and a touch rawer than on record.
And it’s on that note that I’ll come back to the “mostly” comment at the top. For all their songs and performance, there’s not the cohesiveness you’d expect of a band that have made such a great record at their first attempt. They’re lacking a bit of that togetherness, that tightness, that comes of playing together hundreds of times. They don’t quite feel like a full proper band yet; sure, they get along pretty well onstage (there’s some charming chats between them and they definitely gel well), but they need to get out on the road and become a fully-fledged band. Just like Arcade Fire did. Doh!
And this is exactly what they are doing, with a big tour of the US lined up and appearances at SXSW in March. Their happiness to come and meet their fans after the show bodes well too2. By the time they head back to the UK in July (or possibly later) I’d expect them to have taken over the world, and I’ll be able to proudly say, I was there at their second ever London gig.
The funny thing about last night is that they don’t even have a record label in the UK, let alone a release date. Pitchfork and their closest UK equivalent Drowned In Sound have hardly mentioned them at all, despite a whole bunch of people in the crowd who knew the lyrics to their songs. But anyone can clearly see this lot are hugely talented, with a killer debut album. Sure, it doesn’t have the same kind of strong theme as Arcade Fire’s “Funeral”3, but it’s a gobsmackingly fine album nonetheless, and one that could propel them to some kind of indie stardom once the world wakes up to them.
Pre-order the album here. Do it, and do it now. You have to listen to this album and you have to see them live, before they get so big that you can’t get a ticket to their shows for love nor money.
Just like the Arcade Fire, then.
Note on the title: I’m going to three gigs in four days; this, Beach House, and Midlake. So this is the first in three-part series, I suppose. A prize to the person who correctly identifies why the title is the way it is4.
1 Of whom I really should write a post about one day. Go and look up “Tactless” on YouTube, and if you’re not utterly charmed then you have no soul. You’ll probably be baffled by the appearance of Vic Reeves, who I believe was dating her from Transvision Vamp at the time.
2 I’d loved to have stayed longer and had a proper chat with the band, but we had to go and have a debauched all-night tequila and mescal session with some Mexican filmstars. Oh, ok, we had to go home and rescue the babysitter. So sadly I never got to ask them if they really do use autotune. Next time, maybe.
3 A comparison with Wolf Parade’s “Apologies to the Queen Mary” is probably more apt.
4 Don’t get excited.