Mogwai and The Twilight Sad Live

A man of my rapidly advancing years will, on his fourth consecutive night out (following on from, in order, Laura Veirs, football, stupid beer drinking), find himself feeling somewhat jaded. What better way of keeping awake than going to watch two of the finest purveyors of awfully loud Scottish post-indie-rock, Mogwai and The Twilight Sad? A more appropriate pairing of main act and support it would be harder to find; The Twilight Sad can safely be called “Mogwai Meets The Proclaimers”1, and have namechecked Mogwai in interviews and CD sleeves as not only a major influence, but as being friends, valued mentors, and general allround good buddies. Mogwai, in turn, seem to have been refreshed these last couple of years by having some younger bucks around.

After a frankly astonishing pizza at Franco Manca (the best pizza in London, fact and pizza fans), we wandered through the streets of Brixton to the Academy. I’ve fond memories of this place, with a personal gigging history going back 20 years (see? I don’t say “rapidly advancing years” as an idle threat). QOTSA, The Pixies reformation gig, the Elbow concert when we all – band included – realised this was the last time you’d easily be able to see them in a venue this size. Oh, happy memories.

Scottish Flyer

Long-term readers of this blog – all one of them (including me) – will recall me seeing The Twilight Sad a couple of years back and being mightily impressed. As well as deafened. So I was as happy to come and see them as Mogwai; probably a little more. Would they pay back this confidence? Damn, yes.

Because on this second time of seeing them, I’ve decided that they are one of those bands you just have to see live. Not so much because the songs work better live than on record; they don’t, not really. What makes them special is singer James Graham. Now I have a pretty low tolerance for the woe-is-me frontman, or spoilt-kid histrionics, but James is the kind of singer you just have to watch. Whether he’s staring up at the roof, jittering around the stage Ian Curtis-style, or shouting passionately, if soundlessly, off-mic, you feel that you can’t take your eyes off him. What’s more, he’s clearly nervous as hell. On one between-song section, he tries thanking Mogwai for letting them tour together, and nearly cracks, muttering “Calm down, calm down”. About half the women in the sizable crowd go “Ahh, sweet!”. Bet he wasn’t expecting that.

The songs themselves have also been tightened up. Last time, the wall of sound was overpowering and ended up drowning the songs. This time, guitarist Andy McFarlane has toned back the noise (a bit) and thanks to this newfound delicacy, they shine through. And thanks to this, you could hear James’s singing more clearly, and even (shock horror!) pick up some words. It’s all about the words. Few bands in recent years have written such finely honed elegies to broken teenage years. Songs like “Last Summer, At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy” nail that horrendous unloved feeling. Live, they are clearly some kind of catharsis for James, what with the yelling and all.

“I Became A Prostitute” (yeah, I know), swiftly followed by “Last Summer….” are noisy and hugely impressive, the former’s early Cocteaus churning, twisting guitar cutting through the squalls of sound, and the latter’s early explosion contrasting with the almost-gently sung lyrics. “Cold Days From The Birdhouse” starts with James singing solo until another explosion. This time, however, I was standing there thinking “Gosh, that guitar probably isn’t loud enough”. Bet that’s never happened at a Twilight Sad gig before. Closing with “And She Would Darken The Memory”, with its rabbit death lyrics, the band left the stage to a huge cheer. You can’t imagine that anyone here to see Mogwai could do anything other than love The Twilight Sad as well. Let’s hope so.

Mogwai released their first album in 1997. 1997! That’s pretty much a lifetime for some of the people here tonight. Accusations that they haven’t moved on much in those years fall wide of the mark when you listen to, say, Come On Die Young back to back with this year’s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. They could be made by totally different bands. Sure, not quite as big a difference as Ok Computer to The King Of Limbs, but I know which record I’d rather listen to2. They’ve risen far above being the Scottish Slint that they were in the ‘90’s to something more interesting, and more listenable. They rely far less on that quiet quiet LOUD dynamic, focussing instead on Krautrock-influenced grooves and, you know, tunes. Now this has its drawbacks as well as its benefits live. An early airing of “San Pedro” is slower than on record and as a result, loses that irresistible impetus of the original. It just didn’t have that stunning brutality of a juggernaut driving off a cliff. “Rano Pano”, by contrast, was simply awesome. A single riff, repeated on three guitars, with varying levels of dirty fucked-up noise, looping through octaves to the climax, works so much better live that you wonder what happened in the studio to rob the song of its undoubted power. If you ever wanted to hear Black Sabbath covering Tortoise, it’s “Rano Pano” live.

Other tracks off Hardcore worked pretty well too. Opener “White Noise” built gradually, layer upon layer of texture slowly whilst the impressive visuals showed a vector-space sphere slowly coalescing before, inevitably drifting apart. I can imagine that was what Greg Egan’s dreams look like. “How to be a Werewolf”, a more gentle-than-usual Mogwai number, again used stunning visuals to give us something to look at (no offence, lads, but you’re not exactly visually enthralling); this time, a lovely video of James Bowthorpe3 cycling round fjords.

This whole music-as-movement metaphor struck me repeatedly throughout the set; how Mogwai’s music is near-perfect driving music, songs that drift into your head, gelling together your neurons as you speed through any given landscape. Like the video during “Friend Of The Night”, in which a camera seemed to fly through the architectural plans of an impossible building, Mogwai’s music propels you to places of rare beauty. “You’re Lionel Richie” featured a video of the traffic intersection off the cover of Hardcore, speeding up and slowing down as various dusk to dawn cycles passed over. Lovely.

Earlier songs come off well too; Young Team’s “Christmas Steps” made a welcome, bass-heavy appearance; as for the closing pair of “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “Batcat” took anyone who thought Mogwai might be getting too melodic and threw them down the stairs, before picking them up, dusting them off, then giving them a kicking. Some lads next to me started a moshpit, before both a bouncer and Stuart Braithwaite himself came over to tell them to pack it in. Kids these days, eh? It was during the quiet middle section of “Mogwai Fear Satan” that the band turned to one another and started grinning, knowing the forces of hell (or rather, very, very loud guitars) were about to be unleashed. Lovely to see a band still enjoying their work after 14 long years.

But there’s a flaw to Mogwai’s music. Not a fatal flaw, as such, but after nearly two hours you start to miss the human connection that Twilight Sad are so good at building. That’s the difference between the two – the emotional touch. Even if you can’t hear largely what is being sung, you are left with no doubts that James is giving his all and probably using the stage as a theatre for catharsis. Mogwai, on the other hand, are lacking that bond. The music they make is frequently stunning, but doesn’t leave you feeling like you have seen something extraordinary.

When it comes down to it, the image that stuck with me on the ride home was of James Graham yelling at the distant ceiling. That, and traffic endlessly moving through a North American dusk. Both great bands, and great images, but I’d choose Twilight Sad over Mogwai any day. Still, both are great. Go see.

Oh, and a hello to the lovely teenagers who I’d last met at Godspeed. London really is a small place.

1 Wouldn’t say this to their faces though, as they’d probably kick my head in.

2 Contrarian Alert! Contrarian Alert!

3 Who cycled round the world, mad bastard that he is.

MP3: Cold Days From The Birdhouse by The Twilight Sad

MP3: San Pedro by Mogwai

Amazon’s Mogwai Store

Amazon’s Twilight Sad Store

Laura Veirs Live

Going to see an artist live that’s got a hefty back catalogue – you know, four or five highly acclaimed albums which are, as far as these things are worth these days, sort of commercially successful, and with a rabid, loving fanbase that sells out a thousand seater venue in the blink of an eye – live, when you’ve only heard a couple of said albums, even if one of those albums falls comfortably into your End Of Year List and has sent you off to your acoustic to bash out cover versions cackhandedly, torturing the neighbourhood cats and dogs, can be a proposition even more daunting than trawling through a ridiculously obtuse and longwinded and just out-and-out daft sentence like this one just here.

In short, and I can do “in short”, just not now: How can you sit there, enjoying everything, when you’ve only heard about 1/6th of the material played, when all around you are slavering, drooling fans, and outside are more slavering, drooling fans who’d take your right arm off like that for a momentary chance to watch their beloved perform live?

You stop being neurotic, I guess, and sit down, shut up, and enjoy the show.

Which is easy when you’re watching Laura Veirs. And even more easily when you are in the gorgeous Union Chapel, now safely ensconced as My Favourite Venue In The World Ever!, even more so than the marvellous Bush Hall or the summer outside stage at Rote Fabrik in Zürich. Look, you’ve got to love a place where they’ve got home-cooked food in the church hall next door. The venue totally suits the music tonight, with Laura’s intricate acoustic finger-picking style and warm, clear voice reverberating round the Chapel.

Laura’s songs of love and the woe love brings aren’t the kind to immediately grab you by the balls and force you to listen. Instead, they insinuate themselves on repeated listens, and before you realise it you’ve got “Sun Is King” whistling around your head at inopportune moments. Which, of course, makes for an interesting live show if you’ve only heard a couple of records. But contrary to expectations, the set list tonight consists of everything off July Flame, with a few other bits and bobs – like “Spelunking” and the closing “Ether Sings”, plus the obligatory covers thrown in for good measure. Which makes a new-found fan like myself. Though I can imagine there are some corners of the internet aflame with indignation as I type this, thanks to this newie-heavy setlist.

I Can See Your Setlist

Though, frankly, hearing her and her hugely talented sidekicks Tim Young and Alex Guy (who also doubled as one of the two support acts, more on which later) sing “Happy Birthday” would be a pleasure, which is lucky, as they sang it for Alex about halfway in, followed by an acapella version of a song titled “The Old Cow Is Dead”. That’s juxtaposition for you. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Following Alex Guy’s violin looping extravaganza, and a very nice chicken curry in the bar, on came Sam Amidon. Now, I’ve not heard of this fella before, but he’s a young fellow who’s worked with Nico Muhly and Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurðsson. Instead of taking the Bonnie “Prince” Billy and M Ward authenticity route by trying to make his songs sound old, he goes the whole hog by singing old songs. Very old songs. Some of these date back to the (US) Civil War1, all muskets and smoke and sons saying goodbye to their mother and father and beautiful sister. I was shocked that he didn’t play “Wayfaring Stranger”, but I guess that would be too obvious. Sam’s all about digging up lost gems and playing them gently and gracefully, with a fine voice, even amongst the scat-jazz section. A confident player too; you can just imagine him pitching up in your front room and singing these songs whilst chatting away. I bought his CD too, which is something I’ve not done in a while.

Back to Laura. Starting off with “Carol Kaye”, she seems slighty hesitant and, to be frank, her voice doesn’t always get the right notes at the right time. But no matter. A wonderful “Sun Is King” snaps her into life, beautiful harmonies on the lines “Did you see the ice in his eyes?/Did you see the dagger caught in his smile?” giving the song that transcendent beauty. This is where she really excels. Those little hooks, little lines, like the ascending chords underneath the lines “And my stampeding buffalo/Stops in her tracks and watches the snow”, or the “You’re halfway down to New Orleans” bit at the end of “I Can See Your Tracks”, catch your breath and drag you into her world, enraptured by the natural world and the intricacies of the human heart.

She’s clearly trying hard to entertain us too. At one point, her and Tim give a demonstration of how the 6-5-4 “Song Of Songs” chord progression (look it up) is responsible for everything from “Don’t You Want Me” to “Into The Groove”, with “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” in between. A discussion of the band’s tour troubles in France amuses and revolts in equal measure. And as the night goes on, Laura gets into her stride, gaining confidence, nailing those ambitious notes and generally making a damn good show. The band provide subtle backing, with Tim’s electric guitar filling out the fingerpicked lines by Laura, and Alex doubling up on violin and an old synth, with all three making some beautiful harmonies. The sprinkling of earlier songs get a big reception, but not as much as a resplendent “I Can See Your Tracks”, ending in a huge round of applause and cheers.

So, a good night. For all my worries that I wouldn’t know most of what was played, the opposite happened, and though that might annoy some diehard fans, it made for a wonderfully pleasant evening. Great support, too. Mark another one up for the Union Chapel.

Oh, and on the note of playing songs badly. I noticed that on the merchandise stand, they were selling the “July Flame Songbook”, featuring tabs, chords and lyrics for all the songs off July Flame, all for £5. What an absolute steal. I can imagine that, if you’re on a major, the whole Publishing thing would come and banjax this kind of deal, but you know what, artists: If you’re an indie, do a songbook for each of your albums and sell it at your gigs – I’d happily pay a fiver for most albums by M Ward, or Sufjan Stevens (!), or Cotton Jones, or, well, you get the idea.

MP3: Wedding Dress by Sam Amidon

MP3: I Can See Your Tracks by Laura Veirs

1 A quick historical note for any Americans reading. We had one first, you know, and it was bloody and harsh and started us down the road to turning our monarchy into the powerless figureheads they are now.

Amazon’s Laura Veirs Store

Buy Sam Amidon’s “All Is Well” (CD/MP3)

PJ And Yorke

Coincidences, eh? Just last night I was listening to PJ Harvey’s duet with uber-miserabalist multimillionaire Thom Yorke1 “This Mess We’re In” and wondering firstly what a great voice she’s got, and secondly wondering when those moany wonders Radiohead will get round to releasing another record2.

And lo! On Valentine’s Day, they’ve only gone and told us that the new record is out Saturday. Saturday! That’s this Saturday! You can do that when you’ve got no record label and gazillions of fans. ‘Tis called The King Of Limbs and it’s available for pre-sale now at the bargain price of £6 for a 320K MP3, with some more expensive options like double 10” vinyl and gubbins for £30. No word yet on what the thing sounds like. Guess you’ll just have to wait.

To keep you going, and also to celebrate PJ Harvey’s new record (which I will really, honestly, truly write about soon, once I’ve listened to it), here’s that lovely song. It’s almost appropriate for Valentine’s Day too, if your idea of romance is a torrid encounter in New York with someone you really shouldn’t be having a torrid encounter with.

1 The saying “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a better class of misery” springs to mind here.

2 And yes, whether it’d be any good or not. Let’s save that thought.

MP3: This Mess We’re In by PJ Harvey and Thom Yorke

And since we’re on this theme:

MP3: Ever Fallen In Love by The Buzzcocks

Heh. Happy Valentine’s!

Buy “Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea” (CD/MP3)

We’re New Here

If you’d said to me, a while ago, that grizzled old soul poet Gil Scott-Heron would cover a Bill “Smog” Callahan song on an album of covers, named after said Smogsong, I’d have likely assumed you were pulling my plonker. If you’d followed that up by saying that Jamie Whatsisface – the beats component of The Xx (as opposed to the echoey guitar bit or the looping bass bit) – would then do a remix of said covers album, I’d tell you do verily go and do one and stop wasting my time.

But lo, the music world of 2011 is a strange and wonderful place, and such a thing has come to pass. The song is “I’m New Here”, from 2005’s “A River Ain’t Too Much To Love”, a record that’s up there with Bill’s finest, even if “I’m New Here” does fit comfortably into the “decent album track but nothing outstanding” category. Gil grumbled all over his original cover in quite an endearing manner, giving the lines “Met a woman in a bar\Told her I was hard to get to know\And near impossible to forget” a whole new poignancy. And making them significantly less ominous than when Bill sings them, frankly.

And the remix adds a whole new layer of shimmering noise and the now obligatory Dubstep Speeded-Up Female Vocals. The effect is certainly interesting. Whether I’d want to listen to it more than a few times or not I’m not so sure about. Still, from time to time you need to have those cobwebs in your brain blown away, eh? And I have to say, from what I’ve heard of the record, it’s a damn sight better than James Blake.

If you’re curious about Bill “Smog” Callahan, see the article I wrote ages ago here. Gosh, I had loads more time back then. *sigh*

MP3: I’m New Here by Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX

MP3: I’m New Here by Smog

Buy We’re New Here (CD)

Buy Smog’s “A River Ain’t Too Much to Love”

The John Peel Moment

Music fans of a certain age will fondly remember listening to the John Peel show at 11 o’clock at night, either under the duvet, or with headphones, or were lucky enough to live in a house where they could listen to the radio at a decent enough volume to hear the music properly. And they will remember occasionally going “What the fucking hell is this?” as he happily played a song by some Uruguayan deathcore-folk-bagpipe-trance act, played at 45 rpm instead of 331. They will undoubtedly also hear something by a band they’d never heard of, who’d sent their record to to Peely with hardly any information, but he’d take a listen and decide he rather liked it and played it anyway.

In this day and age, it’s nearly impossible to get that same feeling. I sure as hell miss the randomness of a 50-something bloke just playing whatever he damned well felt like. Those days are gone, my friends. But I did get a tiny smidgeon running through my enormous inbox and stumbling across The Baxter Special. Well, I say The Baxter Special, I think the band call themselves Thank You Mr Keating and the record’s called The Baxter Special. I also think The Baxter Special is a better name for the band. Like Songs:Ohia and The Magnolia Electric Company. Where the hell am I going with this?

They sound a little like Dinosaur Jr locked in a cupboard with Thomas Pynchon, all noise and fuzz and words. This song’s called “Quite A Moustache”? What’s not to like?

You can find more about them at their site here, and buy the album and stuff. Maybe you’ll find out more about them than I did. I’ve just been sitting here listening to their songs and grinning like a bit of an idiot.

1 Younger readers, you don’t know what you’re missing.

MP3: Quite A Moustache by Thank You Mr Keating

I Guess This Is Goodbye (For Now)

So whilst I’ve been off dealing with Shitfest 2011, The White Stripes decided to call it a day, and according to The Grauniad, there’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Which, I have to say, surprises me a little bit.

First off, whilst the whole idea of White Stripes – the stripped down alt-blues-swamp-rock, the dress code (including bouncers), the vintage recording material, and all the rest – made for some great songs, a fantastic live experience and the rest, but when was the last time you listened to a White Stripes album all the way through? How many times did you ever listen to Get Behind Me Satan all the way through? Twice? Icky Thump? Once? Thought not. There’s one problem with restricting yourself to drums/guitars (and the occasional keyboard) – there’s only so far you can go. And that well was starting to run dry back in 2003.

Second, it isn’t like Jack White hasn’t telegraphed this for the last, what, five years? The Raconteurs. The Dead Weather. Albums with still great Country singers. Poor Meg must have been sitting at home bashing paint tins disconsolately.

Third, bands just don’t break up permanently any more. Every single band seems to be going through some eternal cycle of make records, stop making records, break up, get back together for a lucrative reunion tour a few years later. I can’t imagine The White Stripes will be any different, especially seeing as it’s just the two of them and they still seem to be Best Buddies.

So I’m not really that upset. Or at all upset, in any way, shape, or form. Still, nice to be reminded of great songs like this though:

Oh, what a song. What a video. And for a while, what a band. See you in 2014, JacknMeg.

MP3: Fell In Love With A Girl by The White Stripes

Buy all sorts of White Stripes goodies from Amazon’s White Stripes Store