Elizabeth Fraser at Royal Festival Hall

So be honest now. When you first heard that Liz Fraser was coming out of retirement and doing a one-off (ok, two-off) show at Anthony Hegarty’s Meltdown series, did you think:

a. OMG! It’s going to be amazing! She’ll do all old Cocteaus stuff and sound just like the records and everything!


b. Oh Christ. I hope it’s not a godawful mess.


Reading the comments about last night’s show on Drowned In Sound, The Grauniad and elsewhere, the consensus appeared to be mostly a. with a smattering of b’s. Which worried me a tad; after all, Cocteau Twins are a band that I’ve held close to my heart since my pre-teenage years and unlike almost everything else from then, I still hold very close to my heart now. Seeing Liz Fraser live again after so many years was an honour I simply couldn’t pass by, jetlag notwithstanding1, but seeing her live and not sound good would be heartbreaking enough for me – let alone how a bad show would make her undoubtably retreat back into her shell.

Plus there’s the fact that as a live band, Cocteau Twins were erratic at best. Early in their career, with the three of them and a reel-to-reel tape player providing the backing band, they weren’t bad, but as they expanded they could veer from sublime to hideously overblown, often within the space of a couple of songs (see bottom of this article for examples). One friend, who has played in bands for many years, recently said to me “I absolutely love the Cocteaus, but they were fucking awful when I saw them”. Given that they needed three guitarists onstage to replicate their songs, how would Liz get the sound right?

Happily enough, the answer to that is “quite well, really”. Old songs, of which there were more than a few, were performed deftly and respectfully by a band consisting of her current drummer partner (Liz, surely you know that’ll end in tears?), a bloke out of Coil2 with astonishing shoulderpads playing seven keyboards, and a guitarist (was that really Steve Hackett all the way through?) and bassist who tried to do the impossible and mimic two of the most distinctive players, well, ever. Neither managed it perfectly, both being low down in the mix and sounding somewhat muted. After all, one of the unusual aspects of the Cocteau Twins was that, despite their hippy-dippy sonic cathedrals of sound reputation, they could be quite a bruising affair, using the quiet-loud dynamic many years before Frank “Black” Black “Francis” picked up a Tele and started screaming for fun.

See? Loud. Got some balls there. So hearing “Donimo” live was stunning in many ways, but they didn’t quite capture that “Bloody hell, I wasn’t expecting that loud bit” dynamic. Likewise with “Blue Bell Knoll”; the climax was lacking the sheer power of Robin Guthrie’s playing. For a man who professed that he only used so many effects because he couldn’t play guitar properly, he certainly knew how to end a song with a whacking great big solo.

Then again, maybe Liz Fraser spent her many years in the Cocteaus inwardly screaming “WILL YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP ROBIN, I’M TRYING TO SING HERE”. Maybe she was sick and tired of him playing his beautiful, if somewhat intrusive guitar lines so high up the mix and this is her way of redressing the balance. Who can blame her? This is her gig now. Which brings me onto the other potential stumbling block for her return: Liz’s singing.

Now, in her day, Liz Fraser divided opinion into those who thought she was the voice of a choir of angels, and those who though she was a wibbly wibbly woo cobblers merchant who sang songs called Oomingmak because she wanted to be a happy little fairy prancing around Happyland3. With all this distance and the likes of Bjork and Joanna Newsom becoming far more successful with far more challenging voices, everyone looks back and realises that, you know what, she really could sing.

And she still can sing. Really, really sing. Like, proper voice of an angel stuff. I’m not being hyperbolic here, but the moment when, three songs in, during “Suckling The Mender”, she sang the “Rosa” bit (at 1:15 below), she hit the note absolutely perfectly, and sounded fucking astonishing.

For the first time in the best part of a year’s gig going, I had that amazing hairs-on-end feeling. Wasn’t the only time during the show either; “Athol-Brose” got me welling up, and “Cherry Coloured Funk”‘s chorus simply stunned. She is a far more controlled singer now; gone are the often distracting improvisations and warbles, and what is left is far more powerful as a result. It helped that the two backing singers were superb, dovetailing delicately without ever vanishing or dominating. They were less prevalent in the newer songs, with Liz clearly writing music purely for herself and her much older voice.

Yes, there were indeed new songs. Writing this review with the help of this marvellous set list (thank you, @adrianmasters84), I can at least hopefully name some, but Lord only knows if I’ve got them right:

Some of the songs were a little touched by the hand of later oh-doomy-bollocks Massive Attack, which was a tiny disappointment, but others – Underworker and possibly Make Lovely – were beautiful things. It’s nigh-on impossible to make a judgement on new material that you’ve never heard before, so I won’t, but let’s wait and see what the album is like when it finally makes its way to us, some time in 2022.

And anyway, if we’re being honest to ourselves, tonight was always going to be about Cocteau Twins. If my hunch is right, she wants the songs to sound this way now, and after the rubbish time she had for the last, ooh, seven years of the band’s existence, who’s to blame her? She’s publicly stated a number of times that she still doesn’t talk to Robin, and the wounds caused during their traumatic breakup remain unhealed.

One wonders if Simon and Robin were ensconsed in a box tonight, looking a little bit peeved that she’d reworked the songs to lessen the impact of their instruments4. Maybe it’ll lead to a reunion; it would be wonderful to hear them back in action, older and wiser and less prone to cocaine-influenced hissy fits. But I suspect she’ll be delighted with how these shows have gone, and surrounded by a band that whilst may not reach the heady heights the Cocteaus could reach, she’ll want to continue with a band that supports and nurtures her, as well as bringing out her confidence. Ironically, the shows could potentially make the prospects of a reunion even more distant; the mooted Coachella reunion of 2005 may remain unmooted.

So, mostly “a” then, the OMG option. Which pleases me intensely, and clearly pleased the mostly 40-plus crowd, who were so respectful and quiet during the songs, and so raucous with applause between the songs, that it nearly brought Liz to tears. We like having you back, Liz, and you know what? If it doesn’t ever work out with you and Robin and Simon then that’s just fine. Just don’t go away for 15 years again, ok?

MP3: Donimo by Cocteau Twins

MP3: Moses by Elizabeth Fraser

But the entire Cocteau Twins catalogue here. You are truly a fool if you do not.

1 Not an excuse, I know, but please excuse the rambling and non-sequitor laden nature of this post, but I’m knackered, and I’m writing this straight after the gig with a one-year old baby having a bit of a yell next door.

2 Of whom listen to this:

Ooh, takes me right back, that does.

3 Obviously I fall into the former camp, or I wouldn’t be writing this now. Sadly some influential people in the media and the music industry at large thought the latter, and they never seemed to get the kudos they so readily deserved. Cocteau Twins should have been huge.

4 It’s never been entirely clear who did the majority of the songwriting in the Cocteau Twins. All the tracks were credited to “Cocteau Twins”, and as far as I know, whilst Robin appeared to be the main writer of the music, Liz wrote all the vocal lines and the lyrics, and Simon had a major hand in the writing process too (it’s no shock that Victorialand, written without him, is the only weak point in their stunning 1984-1990 run of albums, EPs and singles). They are most likely as much Liz’s songs as the other two’s. If anyone knows anything more about this aspect of the Cocteaus, please comment!

A quick aside about live shows. See these examples:

1a. Orange Appled, recorded version:

1b. Orange Appled, live version (band, the bloke from Dif Juz & reel to reel):

See, bloody good isn’t it? The live version is fantastic.

2a. Summerhead, recorded version:

2b. Summerhead, live on Later (full band):

The live version, with three guitarists, a drummer and a percussionist, kicks ass. Properly. So much better than the recorded version that you realise that the studio was a deeply unhappy place for the band in 1993. Which leads me onto:

3a. Carolyn’s Fingers, record:

3b. Carolyn’s Fingers, live on Later (same session as 2b):

What a bloody mess. Just sounds awful; when they went wrong live, they really went wrong. Remember this is the same session in which they sounded so good doing “Summerhead”.

The Whole Love, Wilco – Review

Clattering, grinding. The sound of Garageband or ProTools or C-Lab being abused by a recalcitrant teenager. The sound of KidA refracted through ten years of crystalline experience. That’s the sound of “Art Of Almost”, opener of Wilco’s new album.

And then, and then. Palliative strings relieve the ache, soothe the clatter, oil the grinding. And you remember that Wilco have form, what with Kid A compatriot Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (and arguably, bits of predecessor Summerteeth). After all, they’ve been doing this whole rebirth thing as long as our maudlin, pale-faced Radioheaders. To my mind, a damn sight more effectively.

Tell me. Who would you rather listen to? Griper-In-Chief Thom Yorke with yet another of his apocalyptic millionaire rock star whines, or Jeff Tweedy, a painkiller-addicted, confused artist, who at least has the sense to try to connect to human souls beyond “We’re all doomed!!!”? And to try and make music that doesn’t just copy Warp Records circa 1993? I can’t remember the last time I listened to a Radiohead album all the way through, but Wilco albums still get a regular play round Casa L&L.

Lost In A Loft


So, another album. How do a band like Wilco keep things interesting, eight albums in? They’ve gone from pretty much inventing alt-country with A.M. and Being There, to Going Pop (of sorts) with Summerteeth, then wandering into a whole world of bizarre record company shenanigans and sonic adventurousness with YHF. Since then, there’s been krautrock, quietrock, and something of a return to their rocky, country, folky sound on Wilco (The Album)1. The Whole Love takes their more lively sound of The Album and adds a bit more pep, a bit more chunkiness, and takes away a little of the meandering Nels Cline guitar interludes. In some ways this is A Bad Thing, what with Nels Cline being the greatest living incarnation of the Tom Verlaine style of chiming guitar wondrousness. But then again, you don’t always want your songs to go on for hours on end2.

Indeed, only two songs out of twelve go on for more than four minutes. Fairly short and snappy is order of the day, and even songs like “Born Alone” which start reasonably tamely rapidly burst into life with guitar squalls and all that. The two longer songs, fittingly the opener and closer, both pass by far quicker than you’d expect, with “One Sunday Morning” feeling nothing like its 12 minutes. That number is right up there with gorgeous Wilco greats.

Sitting O

Other times, The Whole Love feels like it could be re-titled The Whole Of Wilco’s Career In One Record. “Born Alone” could happily sit on Summerteeth; with the scansion of “I have married broken spoke charging smoke wheels\Spit and swallowed opioids” reminiscent of “Bible-black pre-dawn” off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “Sunloathe” could fit on A Ghost Is Born; “Dawned On Me”, The Album; “Standing O” could be crowbarred onto Being There without anyone noticing too much was amiss. We could go on like this, but frankly I expect both you and I have better things to do with our time. This is in no way a bad thing, and the least you’d expect of a band with so many records under their belt is that it sounds like the last seven albums of theirs. But you do, to an extent, expect Wilco to do something new, even when that something new isn’t always as fantastically listenable as their six-year purple patch.

Combining the sounds of their previous records and throwing in a handful of new ideas works well. Helps too, that Jeff Tweedy’s voice is still on great form, with unexpected treats like “Whole Love” screwballing into falsetto; Nels Cline’s keeps on chucking curveballs your way, and the rest of the band are as tight as ever. Looks like that loft of theirs is a good place to be making albums then. Maybe recording in the place where they’ve been practising and writing records for all those years has brought ghosts to the surface?

In the grand scheme of things, The Whole Love is nowhere near the best thing they’ve done. Certainly a far more lovable record than anything they’ve done since YHF, The Whole Love at least makes you want to listen again, and again, unlike good chunks of The Album or A Ghost Is Born. Time will tell, of course, but slowly, slowly, the album’s been building up into one big earworm. A solid 7, going on 8.

The Whole Love is out today.

1 Still one of my favourite album titles ever.
2 Wilco are the only band I can recall seeing in the last ten years where I’ve gone to the bar during a song, what with me being a borderline neurotic freak that can’t walk away from a band I like whilst they are playing3.
3 On which note – I didn’t go to gigs for years for fear that they wouldn’t live up to my expectations. I’d only do festivals, as though that made it somehow better. Only a friend dragging me to see The Go Betweens reunion gigs got me to stop being such a dick4.
4 I’m still a dick in all sorts of other ways though.

(Photo courtesy of the marvellous LoftLife Magazine)

TWOAG Part Two – Sufjan Stevens

“So how was the gig?”
“I don’t know”
“What, you mean you didn’t go?”
“No, I just don’t know what to make of it. I’m confused”
“But it was three days ago!”

Such is the problem with trying to review a Sufjan Stevens gig these days. Years ago, it was easy. You’d just say “It was lovely. He’s this really sweet bloke who plays beautiful acoustic guitar and tells little stories about the songs and it was a great evening.”. Now, six years on, he’s up there with 11 other people, all dressed in neon, with strobes, visuals, balloons, costume changes that Lady Gaga would think was overkill, and confusing, multi-layered electronic orchestral numbers that go on for about 20 bloody minutes1.

Which makes writing this a right royal pain in the arse. There’s so much to say I don’t know where to start. The songs? They go on for ages. The dancing? Charmingly inept. The costumes? Mad. The intra-song soliloquies? Madder. How this show could well be a reflection of an artist’s descent into a parlous mental state, and how he is using the enormous stage of the Royal Festival Hall to exorcise his demons, along with ten clearly hugely talented musicians, bringing to life his vision of the impending End Of The World as much as the impending End Of Sufjan Steven’s Sanity (or his “love song to the Apocalypse”)?


Sufjan’s personal problems have been fairly well documented in recent months. There is always a danger with artists that you can read too much of their personal life into a new artistic direction, but in Sufjan’s case? Man, he has troubles. Whatever was the cause of his issues, he clearly is still working through them, and is doing it onstage, in full, brightly coloured view. As he points out himself, The Age Of Adz is one big solipsistic statement, all “I” and his obsessions with his confusion and the end of the world. Compared to the older material, which was fuelled with beautifully judged and delicate evocations of love, desire, religion and the invention of the Ferris wheel, and you can safely say that it’s lacking. Frankly, hearing him sing “I’m not fucking around” or “Boy, we can do much more together” a hundred times just starts to wear thin.

So anyway, to the gig. Starting off with a version of “Seven Swans” that starts off gentle but soon turns into pure U2 bombast, the view seems slightly odd. There’s angels on the stage, and people dressed in neon, and an organist, but everything seems kind of…fuzzy. Then an unseen (from the balcony) screen lifts and it is as though the scales have fallen from our eyes, and the full neon bedazzlement commences. Each band member is dressed head-to-toe in neon, there’s stuff all round the stage, big lights, and a huge video screen. Oh, and strobes. Lots of strobes. Then comes “Too Much”, kicking off the night’s main set, all taken from his last two records, which feels far more alive than on record. Yes, I know that sounds like a daft thing to say, but I was deeply concerned that such esoteric material, which isn’t exactly warm and lovely on record, might just be a step too far live, even for someone as extravagantly talented as our man Sufjan.

Mad x2

This isn’t to knock the new material. I haven’t been a massive fan of either All Delighted People or Adz, but I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised. In some cases, such as “Age Of Adz” or “Vesuvius”, they work superbly. The former featured a wonderful coda, with the words “It’s only that I still love you deeply\It’s all the love I got” reverberating around the huge space of the Royal Festival Hall, bringing a tear to our collective eye. The latter saw the deployment of the screen again, upon which flames were projected, rising higher and higher through the song until the band nearly vanished under the lava. The whole Bootsy Collins vibe appealed greatly, too.

Helps too that the sound is magnificent. I can’t remember a gig where there’s more than ten people on stage yet you can still pick out each and every instrument clearly. The visuals veered between the stunning – the dancing ones starting during “Too Much”, then reappearing, cut up and distorted during “Impossible Soul”; the geometric patterns; the screen behind which the band started the gig and made us worry our eyes were going funny – and the amateurish. In particular, I can’t say I’m a fan of Royal Robertson’s work, and though Sufjan made an impassioned plea, the evening failed to win me over to his charms. Let’s chalk this down to one damaged soul seeking another, shall we?

But “Impossible Soul” just went on, and on, and on. Yes, there was much dancing and rejoicing and balloons and the whole “Let’s All Party Because We Are Free! Oh And We’re All Going To Die” thing. Is it really worth hearing all 25 minutes when he could have played “John Wayne Gacy Jr”, “…Predatory Wasp of the Palisades…”, “That Dress Looks Nice On You”, “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!” and still had time for one of his baffling but entertaining chats with the crowd?

Sufjan Gives You Wings

For me, no. Whilst the evening was hugely entertaining, a ridiculous, baffling and extraordinary event, the best part was the encore. The band returning to a hastily cleared stage, still covered with the detritus of the climax, in jeans and t-shirts, and playing three songs from “Illinois”. During the second, “Casimir Pulaski Day”, the crowd ever so gently start singing along. For those songs, written at the peak of his powers, show us what he can be, how he can craft hugely ambitious songs that tell a tale other than his pain, with music that charts something other than the confusion in his soul, and speak to all of us, uniting us.

He’s a unique talent alright. For all its faults, this was a stunning evening, quite unlike pretty much anything I’ve ever seen before. Whilst there was more than a sniff of Rock Opera2 about the night, we were thoroughly amused, bemused, exasperated, and above all, entertained. And, it’s made me reassess The Age Of Adz and give it a few more listens, and I’m liking it a bit more. It’s still nowhere near his States albums, or Seven Swans, but at least now I can see where he’s coming from with it. Plus, listening to it reminds me of a truly mad bit of entertainment.

Mad, I tell you. But fun. My brain is still hurting.

And TWOAG? The Week Of American Greats. Keep up.

1 Prompting my friend S to comment that she very nearly threw herself off the balcony.

2 Thanks Mrs L&L!

MP3: I Walked by Sufjan Stevens

Note: Photos taken by PaulineLouise on Songkick.

Buy “The Age Of Adz”

TWOAG Part One – Bill Callahan at The Barbican

I think I’ve seen Bill Callahan, in one guise or another, play live more than anyone else. Whilst this may mark me out as some kind of strange stalker type figure (and indeed, I did once drive from Zurich to Strasbourg, via Luxembourg, to see him play, during his “Rain On Lens” phase), you do need to consider that this is a man who has been touring for close to 20 years. And I’ve loved his music – and I use the word “love” with absolute honesty – for a good 12. Indeed, I still think that one of my truly happy moments on this planet was driving in the Taunus mountains1 on a warm summer’s evening in a borrowed car listening to “Teenage Spaceship”. When an artist has been part of your life for so long, it’s foolish to not try and catch him live every few years.

This is starting to get a little hard now. When I saw him in Strasbourg it was to about 50 people. Now, playing in the hardly small Barbican, he’s selling out a venue that comfortably seats 2000 people, with the good seats selling out quickly. After all these years, he’s getting more press than ever before and even being covered by grizzled jazz poet Gil-Scott Heron. There is the distinct possibility that the world at large is waking up to this most talented musician. As I’ve posted before, he’s probably the finest lyricist of his generation, someone whose words are so cunningly crafted that you are teasing out new meanings after years of listening, or are still gobsmacked by the same interpretation ten years later. I, for one, cannot listen to “I Was A Stranger” or “Cold Blooded Old Times” without getting shivers.

Not that he’s exactly doing much to win over new fans. There’s no flash new live show, in which he interacts with the crowd, telling jokes and stories. No video backdrop. No choir of backing singers, no string quartet, no multi-instrumentalists. No guest spots, or celebrity friends joining him onstage for a duet. Nope, just him, resplendent in a dapper white suit, joined by a permanently-seated guitarist and a drummer who ably replaced Thor by tapping away on the drums with his hands, covering them with a blanket, and carrying out all sorts of jiggery-pokery that at one point Bill turns to him, as he’s rearranging his drumkit, and drolly mutters “Whilst we’re still young….”.

This is, of course, not quite the Bill Callahan who used to wander onto a barely-lit stage, and play his already doleful songs at half-speed with his back to the crowd2, but you’re left in no doubt that he is here to sing songs, songs which have multiple layers of meaning, need to be unwrapped, need to be misunderstood in haste and unravelled at leisure. Opener “Riding For The Feeling” appears to be telling us about his spoken word tour a few years ago and touring in general (“All this leaving is neverending”), and how it made him reassess what message he was trying to put across to us, dear listeners (“I realized I had said very little about ways or wheels/
Or riding for the feeling”) but at the back of your mind, you are more than slightly concerned at the use of the word “Riding”.

Or the stunning “Baby’s Breath”, which, on unravelling, shows the secret and dark history at its core. At least, the secret I think it’s got, the tale of an abortion – all that “living grave” and “she was not a weed, she was a flower” – and although Bill himself has said it’s about the American settlers spreading across the land, having a spotlight shine on my obviously pregnant wife, and with Bill staring at us through the performance of the song, makes me suspect he’s not being entirely truthful to us here. Plus, the final words “Or sing”, growled in that quite worrying bass, also used on “My Friend”, sent shivers down our collective spines.

All of Apocalypse gets an airing during the night. “Drover” and “America” both thundered out of the traps in a way you don’t quite expect of Mr Callahan. More surprising was a beefed up “Say Valley Maker”, during which his backing band were left free to make a stunning noise. Ok, not exactly Russian Circles, but all the more shocking for the unexpected nature of the noise. There’s still that disconcerting little dance he does, too, which he showed off to us a few times during the evening.

Don't Go

“Say Valley Maker” shows another of his little tricks; the repeated words, like “blooms blooms blooms” and “dew dew dew”. “The Well” has that marvellous “black black black”, “Riding For The Feeling”‘s “my my my apocalypse”. A great little trick that gets you to snap to attention. Focussing is of paramount importance seeing him live; watching and hearing him recite his marvellous words close-up brings a whole new layer of clarity. With Bill, it’s all about the words. Even backed by the most sympathetic band I’ve seen him with, your brain is working ten to the dozen to glean meaning, rather than being distracted by a beautiful tune here or there. “Our Anniversary” tells its tale amongst the backdrop of a humid Southern night, all chirping crickets and singing bullfrogs.

Even the addition of harmonica didn’t spoil the atmosphere, despite Bill’s concerns that “I had a nightmare that you would all walk out when I played this”. Only “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” didn’t work; the band seemingly playing a different time signature and possibly a different song entirely. As for the rest? Superb. Wonderful. Somewhat disturbing. He’s one of the finest living singer-songwriters doing the rounds, and you are a fool to yourself if you haven’t dived deep into his sizeable back catalogue. Or seen him live.

Harmonica, Melody, And Bill

Who are the others? Well, I’d put Sufjan Stevens and M Ward up there too, both of whom are visiting London this week. So, The Week Of American Greats it is then.

1 Without meaning to sound wanky. I lived abroad for many years.

2 See Ben Thompson’s marvellous “Seven Years Of Plenty” for a brutally apt description of his early shows.

MP3: Riding For The Feeling by Bill Callahan

Buy the wonderful “Apocalypse” (CD/MP3)

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)

Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Troxy, London

You know you’ve reached some exalted height of geekdom when you find yourself walking into a Godspeed You! Black Emperor gig with a David Foster Wallace book1. They are a band that have tended to attract the more cerebral end of the music-loving public; dense instrumental songs that can go on for tens of minutes and once got a somewhat overwrought NME front cover quoting their lyrics3.

"And On Next Week's Cover, It's Kylie!"

It is terribly easy to become overwrought when talking about Godspeed You! Black Emperor (who will be known as GY!BE for the rest of this post). That’s because GY!BE’s music is music for the end of the world. On 9/11, after the towers fell, there could be no other soundtrack to that horrendous, confusing day than GY!BE; no other music could so appropriately choreograph those billowing clouds of dust and smoke churning through a broken and deathly lower Manhattan (the voice at the start of “The Dead Flag Blues”, all broken metal rising upward4, pre-empts the event by a good four years). This music sound-tracked the opening sequence of “28 Days Later”, in probably the most appropriate movie/music tie-up ever5,. The whole of The Road could just have had a Godspeed playlist on shuffle; it’d all work.

They are the product of their backgrounds; clever, troubled kids, characterised by broken or failing homes, substance abuse, and general teenage/twenties rubbishness. Living in an old loft overlooking the railroad tracks and the wrecks of Montreal industry, this was the music that they came together to make. Clever, troubled music; slow-burning, dreadfully building to endless crescendos. A sense of a coming cataclysm seeps through all their music, with the ambient sections between each huge orchestral explosion ratcheting the tension further.

Where's That Band Gone?

And as is typical, I missed seeing them live first time round, so to see them reform is a huge joy6. Initially booked in at Troxy, in East London, for one night, overwhelming demand made them book two successive nights. Which is, as the Fast Show chap once said, nice. Good to see a genuinely pioneering band getting their props some ten years after their last London gig, and years of near obscurity. The fact that some 7,500 people want to see them warms the cockles of my shrivelled heart. Even better is that one of those people was a charming gentleman, well into middle age, chaperoning his teenage daughter and friends, turning to me and saying “Weren’t you at the Silver Mt Zion gig a few years ago?”. Am I really that recognisable? Sheesh7.

All this introductory guff is here for a reason. Scene setting, if you will. Because as I touched on before, writing about GY!BE’s music is tough. Some vocal samples aside, there are no lyrics, no singing, so there is little point in talking about how the singer (the normal focus of any gig) did this or that, or what the inter-song banter was like, or how the band engaged with the crowd. GY!BE do nothing of that. They mostly sit, in a semi-circle facing each other, with just enough red light to see what they are doing. Two drummer/percussionist/keyboardist/bugger-abouterers and two bassists do their stuff at the back, and the rest of the band – three guitarists and a violinist, play without hardly acknowledging our presence.

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

Not that I mind this, but it seems a touch odd when some of the people in this lovely, polite and most of all quiet crowd have been waiting a decade or so to see them live. And the sense that the band is a collective with no leader comes to the fore when, for all the thrill and wonderment of watching eight people create this sometimes astonishing and majestic music, something isn’t right. The band just aren’t precise enough to make that sort of visceral impact that Swans or Tortoise have managed in recent months.

Those two bands, whom GY!BE clearly adore, produced stunning live shows by clearly understanding how to make themselves heard. Yes, Swans played astonishingly loudly, and Tortoise’s musical chops are absurdly good, but there was a sense of both bands as finely-honed machines. Swans live rendition of “Jim” was stunning, beautifully paced, and played with utter, brutal discipline. And that’s what was missing from GY!BE’s live performance; that sense of clarity and purpose that marks out a truly great experience.

Of course, there were large parts that had me nodding my head in an appreciative manner, or smiling like an idiot, but nothing took my breath away. “Gathering Storm” suffered from muddy sound; apparently there had been a problem with the soundcheck and it was clear they hadn’t been entirely resolved, with the drums barely audible above the clamouring din. “Monheim” was better, opening with the voice of Murray Ostril, telling stories of Coney Island, backed with old footage of the archetypal run-down seaside resort. Indeed, the projections were by and large excellent, with one particular section showing sped-up footage of oil refineries at night, making them look like bizarre models. “World Police and Friendly Fire”‘s sudden acceleration was stunning and provided some necessary variety. After all, there’s only so many times you can start slow and quiet and build to a crescendo before things start getting tedious8.

You're Not So Bad Yourself, Mate

The set list was almost entirely taken from “Lift Yr. Skinny Fists…” and “Yanqui UXO”, along with the unrecorded “Albanian” (according to Songkick). The only older song was “BBF3”, the final song, which demonstrated to us all that for the real Godspeed Experience, you can’t beat “Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada”, the perfect distillation of their sound in an easily digestible 27 minute bite. After all, “Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls”, played tonight, was easily that length too. At the song’s culmination, the band left the stage to feedback and timid waves, and we called for more, but the lights came on and they weren’t to return.

I left Troxy confused. Yes, I’d enjoyed it, but there was something special lacking. They rarely reached the heights that I was expecting, and heard they were capable of. And the one, true test of a gig, that emotional reaction of arm hairs standing on end, never happened, not once, not even during “BBF3”. That’s a shame. I can’t fault their effort – two hours plus on-stage time – and they make truly wonderful records. Maybe this was a bit of an off-night. Maybe they need more time playing together. Maybe it’s just me. I’d love to see them again, though, as I get the distinct feeling they could be better than this. Don’t get me wrong, they are still an amazing band. Give them a try if you get the chance, as they’ll be gone before you know it.

1Everything and More“, since you ask. And since you ask, yes, I’m a fan, and yes, my reliance on footnotes is in part a homage to the sadly departed2 DFW. And yes, how strange it is to be reading a book about Infinity whilst listening to a band who called an album F#A#∞.

2 Or sadly self-departed, since the silly bugger topped himself last year. We miss you, DFW.

3 Not that I’m complaining. I’d rather they put something challenging and interesting on the cover than the next bunch of Oasis/Libertines aping The New Best Band Ever! embarrassment to British music goons.

4 “The skyline was beautiful on fire\All twisted metal stretching upwards\Everything washed in a thin orange haze”. I can imagine the band hate being referenced in this way, but sorry, folks, once you release your music it has a life of its own.

5 Danny Boyle states that the whole of 28 Days Later was inspired by GY!BE. So there you go, Godspeed – your go-to band for soundtracking terrorist atrocities and zombies.

6 Only Cocteaus and The Smiths are higher on my list, now, and neither are likely to get back together any time soon.

7 Maybe it was me shouting “FREEBIRD!” once between songs, that sparked off a huge discussion between crowd and band about cover versions and shitty racist bands, of all things. I did not repeat this tonight.

8 Which goes to show how well Swans have done to keep their sound fresh, and how post-rock contemporaries Mogwai have done well to still keep things varied.

Blaise Bailey Finnegan III by Godspeed You Black Emperor!

Monheim by Godspeed You Black Emperor!

Buy “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven” (CD/MP3)

Buy “Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada” (And You Must) (CD/MP3)

We Hate It When Our Bands Become Successful – Arcade Fire at the O2

God, I hate corporate venues. I hate Ticketmaster, and I hate the way fans of bands get screwed every time their band plays somewhere like the O2. Why? Because you get forced into trying to buy tickets in some horrendous BUY NOW LIMITED SALE frenzy, hopefully clicking “retry” as the web page times out, until you finally manage to get a pair of tickets somewhere up in the roof. This is pre-sale, mind, even before the full release. The event sells out quickly. Then, of course, a few days before showtime, “a limited additional number of tickets” goes on sale. And natch, these are nicer seats, closer to the stage and everything. All because the venue tried flogging the tickets to their corporate snollygosters, who, funnily enough, aren’t particularly interested in seeing a bunch of hairies from Montreal play hurdy-gurdies in 3/4 time.

Corporate gigs suck ass. Give me a “stand where you like” ticket, sold by someone reasonably nice, in a lovely venue like Bush Hall or Union Chapel any time of day. Maybe it’s good that I generally like bands that not all that many other people like, I suppose. Not for the band, of course – they probably want to sell tens of thousands of tickets somewhere like the O2, at £30+ a pop. Pays the rent, dunnit?

Moaning aside, I’d heard good things about the O2 Arena, previously known as the Horrendous White Elephant Situated On A Heavily Polluted Ex-Gasworks In A Not Very Nice Part Of London. The missus had even been there a few times and enjoyed it. And I can see it from my desk. And you know what, it’s….ok….ish.

Here to see those fine purveyors of anthemic Canadian rabble-rousing millennial angst uplifting doom merchants Arcade Fire, ably supported by hippy-dippy Pan impersonator, and all round horn-dog Devendra Banhart. At least, all the women I know hope he’s a horn-dog. Apparently he’s quite the attractive fellow. I can’t judge, frankly, as I can’t think of him without seeing this picture in my head:

Hello, Laydeez

Whatever floats your boat, I suppose, ladies.

In any case, would our Dev be able to fill out the cavernous interior of the O2 with his quirky freak-folk? No idea. None whatsoever. You see, by the time we got there, hunger reigned and by the time food had been eaten, he’d buggered off. Mind you, from our seats up in the Gods, I’d doubt we’d have been able to see if he was in a frock, a smock, or a diving costume. I hate arenas.

Arcade Fire have been touted as one of the few bands in recent decades to make the jump from Indie Stardom to genuine Arena fillers. And they’ve done so, as the charming Win Butler points out late in the show, without having had a hit record1. Arcade Fire have become BIG. Which, as you’d probably guessed from the title of this post, has its irksome qualities. Like having to traipse out to this big bloody tent. Whilst it is indeed a stunning place, the venue hasn’t seemed to work out that about a third of the crowd (at least) can’t see anything of the band, and the smallish video screen behind the band doesn’t help all that much. Come on O2, shell out on some proper screens either side of the stage so we can see the band.

After the dour Neon Bible, hopes were high for this year’s follow-up The Suburbs, which have been slightly dashed, as the record is overlong and hasn’t quite shrugged off that oppressive meh-ness of Neon Bible. Opener “Ready To Start” is fine, all that you’d expect from 2010 vintage Arcade Fire, and follow-up “Keep The Car Running” (featuring an imaginative video of a car driving along a highway) certainly has that propulsion and drive that have catapulted them to this level of stardom, but the sound is claggy, with little space for any delicacy or intricacy. That doesn’t matter so much when “Laika” is played. The first of the Funeral songs, you are reminded of why you – and anyone else with any sense – loved that album. Astonishing isn’t quite the right word. The hairs on my arms stood to attention, and looking down, we could see the standing hordes going mental to the clattering drums, frenetic violins and the nearly screamed vocals. You don’t often get huge crowds singing along to lines like “Our mother should have just named you Laika”.

Then we’re back down to earth with the U2-a-go-go “No Cars Go”, with “Haiti” following it, lacking the space that made it such a compelling song on Funeral. You know, folks, sometimes you need to be quiet to make the loudest noise. The next newie features Régine Chassagne dancing around with those twirly ribbony things (I have no idea what they are called). What’s next, a mime? Being stuck inside an invisible box? “Rococo” (their Smog tribute) is ok, “My Body Is A Cage” is doomy apocalyptic dullness personified, and “The Suburbs” was frankly a touch dull. “Crown Of Love” isn’t much cheerier than “My Body Is A Cage”, but demonstrates how their early restlessness – you know, that sudden tempo change – turn a reasonable album track into something far more interesting; a trick their last two albums seem to have forgotten. When, on listening to either Neon Bible or The Suburbs, have you been surprised?

And this problem gets thrown into sharp relief again with the “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)/Rebellion (Lies)” medley (segue). Like “Laika”, it’s stunning. Both songs are driven onward by crazy drumming; there’s a ridiculous amount of energy emanating from the band. Mad percussionist bloke runs around the stage like a hyperactive kid that’s been fed too many sweets. And the sound is better, the bass thumping out during “Power Out”, and the poor glockenspiel gets hugely, amusingly abused. The band seem to just enjoy playing the older stuff far more, and even from the dizzy heights of the upper tier it looks like they are having a dangerous amount of fun, whereas some of the newer songs appear to be something of a chore. For example, “Month Of May” just peters out at the end, as though the band themselves couldn’t think of anything better to do2.

As you’d expect, the end comes with “Wake Up”, finishing the night off marvellously. Peaks and troughs then, but in the end, it seemed like everyone was happy. As we traipsed out with the other 17,000 people, I made a comment to the missus about how it’d been all downhill since “Funeral”. She looked out over the massed crowds and just said “Some downhill”.

I’d love to meet the band and ask them – “How do you feel knowing that everything you do now is compared to your first record? And that you know that you’ll never better it, or even come close?”. And I’d expect the same response that the journalist got from Joseph Heller, who when asked, “Why haven’t you written as good as Catch 22?”, simply replied “Who has?”. Truth is, Funeral was a once in a decade record; utterly entrancing, bringing you into a hugely emotional world, as capable as bringing tears to your eyes as making you jump around, hug everyone in sight, and go a little bit mental3.

So maybe I shouldn’t complain. They seem like a lovely bunch; a bit earnest, maybe, but fundamentally decent, and genuinely try to make a difference4. They’ve tried lots of interesting ways to release and promote their records and work damn hard to treat their fans with respect. They throw an enviable amount of energy into their live performances and notwithstanding the venue and some of the material, it was a good night out. Shouldn’t that be enough?

1 Though their albums have sold well over a million copies worldwide, which is pretty good going.

2 Funnily enough, I’ve picked up comments here and there that this song is not exactly a fan favourite.

3 Even as I type this, listening to “Power Out”, tears are welling up and my heart is thumping. Not many records can do that.

4 For every ticket they sell on tour, £1/$1/€1 goes to the charity Partners In Health. Good stuff.

MP3: The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

MP3: Neighborhood #2 (Laika) by The Arcade Fire

MP3: Keep The Car Running by Arcade Fire

Visit Amazon’s Arcade Fire store here, and if you don’t buy Funeral, you are insane.


“Hey, were you at the Broken Social Scene gig last night? My boyfriend says he saw you there”

Oh dear. Please don’t say that you saw me yelling at anyone.

“Oh, did he say that for any particular reason?”

“No, just that you were there.”

Phew. Despite being one of the biggest cities in Europe, London is still fundamentally a small place. Go and see a certain type of band – your Nationals and your Elbows, your Bonnie Prince Billys and your Devendra Banharts – and you’ll start seeing a few familiar faces. It’s quite a nice thing really, knowing that there’s a big bunch of people with a similar taste in thoughtful indie-rock with a bit of alt-country/folk/soul/disco1 thrown in for good measure.

Spoon fall happily into that crowd. They’ve been around for donkeys years, long enough for singer and guitarist of Wye Oak Jenn Wasner to say that they were her favourite band when she was fifteen. Fifteen! How old are you, love? Being around for fifteen or so years makes that kind of statement kind of funny; especially from a personal perspective, given that they’ve been a highly touted indie-rock band for most of that time and I’ve completely ignored them until this year.

What got me interested was the buzz/hype/gossip/shamelessly overblown PR guff (delete as appropriate) about their new CD, Transference. Who were this mystery band, I wondered to myself? Curiosity piqued, I gave it a go, and quite enjoyed it. Sure, it’s hardly the most adventurous record (they ain’t Tortoise), but the precision and purity of their music was intriguing, and they seemed to delight in unsettling you by stopping their songs very sudd. A visit to a live show beckoned.

Sing! Guitar!

Better still, after getting the tickets the support act was confirmed as being Wye Oak. They are a band I’ve been fond of since I first started this blog and came across their first record If Children…. Since then, they’ve released a second CD (which I don’t have) and have been recording a third. Comes as a bit of a surprise then that the band don’t play any of the well-known material off their debut, which is a shame, as some of it (the title track, “Obituary” and “Warning” in particular) is excellent. Still, the new stuff sounds great, mixing Throwing Muses with a bit of dark country. And they are a musically great pair; Jenn playing some mean guitar, and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack somehow playing drums and keyboards simultaneously. Great trick, that. Charming folks too. Not quite in Tortoise/James Blackshaw Horrendously Good Support Act territory then, but good enough.

Drum! Keyboard!

Spoon themselves have the demeanour of a band that have been doing this for a loooong time. That utter confidence of just wandering onto stage and playing your songs and knowing that you’re going to rock. Helps too that their music doesn’t have a massive amount of embellishment on record, feeling like someone’s got them into a studio and recorded them live. What you see is what you get with Spoon – a Krautrock style drumbeat, mostly unchanged throughout the song; a bassline, sometimes with a touch of disco thrown in; guitar riffs that sit on top of this solid rhythm section foundation and muck about for a bit; obtuse lyrics; and songs that stop sudde.

Yes, I Know It's A Funny Angle

And on the whole this works pretty well. The songs don’t have the emotional edge that separate The National and Elbow from their peers; I doubt somehow that they would want that, anyway. The band are enviably tight, with little slack or flab. Noticeably their newer material seems sharper, more in-focus than their older songs, though whether that’s just me, I’m not sure. But the problem is that they don’t seem any more alive than they are on record. Yes, it’s fun to watch songs like “Is Love Forever?” and “Got Nuffin”, in all their tense joy, come to a sudden halt, but after a while the thrill starts to pall. Later on, a horn section comes on to parp away on a few songs, like “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” (or “Cherry Balm” as the set list has it), which at least adds a bit of variety to the drums/bass/guitar/keyboard sound.


There are, of course, highlights. “Who Makes Your Money” was surprisingly good; one of the songs that impressed more live than on record. “Cherry Bomb” is definitely enlivened by the parping, and “No-One Gets Me But You”‘s disco bassline (really) worked beautifully well.

A cover of Wolf Parade’s “Modern World” highlights their problem. On record, Wolf Parade’s original has a near-deranged air, the sound of a band on the edge of a nervous breakdown. You’re compelled to listen because you suspect, possibly correctly, that it’s all about to go horribly wrong. But Spoon’s version is precise, clear, and loses that dangerous feel.


I suppose there’s two types of bands you see live. The ones which are magical, that transcend their recorded output to produce something more vital, more thrilling, more alive (sorry) than captured in the billions of bytes of an MP3 file or CD. These one fundamentally change the relationship you have with them, forging a strong bond that keeps you going back to their records, re-evaluating them, and bringing you back for more (for me, in recent years, Tortoise, Sufjan Stevens, American Music Club, Mew and others have done this).

Then there are the ones that come on stage and play their songs, and their songs are perfectly pleasant, and they are played excellently, and the live experience gives you a little insight into the band’s inner lives, but they aren’t those strange mystical, transcendent events. And sad to say, this is where Spoon fell with me. “Expertly boring” said a friend of mine, and he’s hit the nail on the head. Don’t get me wrong; they’re a good band, and “Transference” is great, but live, they’re nothing that special. Or maybe I was just suffering from Gig Overload. Who knows?2

1 You’ll see.

2 And writing gig reviews two weeks after the event may not help either.

MP3: You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb by Spoon

Spoon’s Amazon Store

Broken Social Scene/Tortoise Live At Koko, 2010

Once you see a band live a few times, you know what you’re going to get. With Broken Social Scene, you know there will be about ten of them; you know they’ll play a selection of great songs, which groove along1 with about twenty guitars and keyboards and a trombone and all sorts of other gubbins, Kevin Drew will tell us how much he loves and appreciates us (gotta love these Canadians), and there will inevitably be a few newer songs that make you go “Hmmm, they definitely went downhill after You Forgot It In People”.

But with Tortoise, I didn’t know. I’d tried explaining them to the missus as “Free-Jazz meets Post-Rock, played by aliens”. Which, as it turns out, is actually rather accurate. Yes, I missed off the bits that sound like a theme tune for a ’70’s French Open University programme (dig that xylophone!), and the dubby bits, and the two drummers, and the strange, strange sounds, and all the bits that suddenly twist and turn you inside out, and the floorshaking bass, and, and, and…..in reality, The Tortoise Live Experience needs to be Experienced and not Written About.

I can try, I suppose. In a word? IMMENSE. In some more words, “fucking brilliant”. Or even “So thunderingly good you cannot stop grinning or shaking your head in a strange way”. You know that when you’re dealing with a band that called a rarities compilation A Lazarus Taxon2, you may well be dealing with people significantly cleverer than you, and you know when you first hear a song like “Seneca” or “Prepare Your Coffin” that this lot know how to play, but the intensity and power they bring to their horrendously clever, yet oddly catchy music has to be experienced. I’d always thought there was a ton of studio trickery going on, but no; it’s five guys who can play horrendously well. Just the skeltering double drumming alone was worth the price of admission.

We’d managed to miss the first twenty or so minutes thanks to a babysitting snafu, and so I tried to relax and just enjoy the music. Some songs went by and I thought “They must be finishing soon, that’s nearly an hours worth”, then looked at my watch and saw only 20 minutes had passed. The music is so rich and dense with detail that your mind ends up abandoning all hope of unravelling this music entirely and you find yourself in a strange head-bobbing world, surrounded by this bizarre and wonderful noise. I can’t believe I’ve managed to miss Tortoise the last few times they’ve played in London, but you can betcha bottom dollar I’ll be first in the queue when they return.

Choosing Tortoise as the support was a brave move for Broken Social Scene, as there’s nothing more embarrassing than being blown off stage by your support act. But BSS have been touring in this configuration for a good five years, so they are a pretty sharp outfit, and know how to work that crowd. At first though, they seem a bit nervous, the opening section to “Pacific Theme” was tentative and it wasn’t until the song settles into its groove that the band visibly relaxed. But the problems inherent in BSS come to the fore with just their second song, “Texico Bitches”. Problems? Ok, one problem. But it’s a biggie.

The new songs just aren’t good enough. Sorry to say it, but most of Forgiveness Rock Record and Broken Social Scene, plus the “BSS Presents…” duology, are just a bit…meh. They have all the usual BSS ingredients – a lovely groove, little drum fills, deft guitar interplay, obscure lyrics – but they just don’t work particularly well. So, during a live show, you’re constantly wondering where the BSS Dice will fall. Good song, like “7/4 (Shoreline)”, “Cause = Time”, even the rarely played “Churches Under The Stairs” (more on which later)? All is good. BSS are one of the finest bands you’ll ever see. Not so good song, like “Texico Bitches”, “Sweetest Kill” or “Fire Eye’d Boy”, and you’re left wondering how a band with such obvious talents and track record can produce something so underwhelming. And it has to be said, the performance of “Fire Eye’d Boy” was about as good as you could expect – Andrew Whiteman on particularly fine form, but the song itself defines the mark 5/10.

Maybe I’m just a bit jaded after seeing them a bunch of times. When you first see them, they are a hugely thrillsome band. Three guitars! Loads of vocalists! Suavity! Horns! And as I already said, when in full flow on one of their good songs, like “7/4 (Shoreline)”, they are untouchable. They move like a massive motorik beast, utterly compelling. “Cause = Time” started a bit dull but soon sparked into life. They are also charming hosts. Kevin Drew in particular seems like a man who thrives on stage, shooting the breeze with us, telling us how much he loves Tortoise and how huge an influence they were on him and Brendon (Canning) – songs like “KC Accidental” and “Tortoise Jam/Late Nineties Bedroom Rock for the Missionaries” make much more sense once you know that – and generally does everything to make us enjoy ourselves.

Part of that enjoyment was bringing on Johnny Marr’s son to play on “Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl” (he seemed to have some of his dad’s talent, you know) and to grab a guy from the crowd to hold the lyric sheet to “Churches Under The Stairs”. The poor chap did seem a little embarrassed by the whole thing, but he got a huge hug from Kevin at the end, and the whole thing made everyone go “Ahhh!” 3 And the little pre-encore of “Lovers Spit”, mostly played solo, was a lovely moment, once the people at the back shut the fuck up4. The rest of the band provide sterling backup, with the Apostle Of Hustle himself Andrew Whiteman looking particularly dapper (and disturbingly like my mate Suave), Brendan his usual avuncular self, and the rest merrily swapping instruments and generally looking like they love the whole thing. Except Lisa Lobsinger, who still doesn’t look any more comfortable than on her first gig in London with them, five long years ago. Feist or Emily Haines, she ain’t. Come on, love, cheer up, you’re in BSS for God’s sake.


And good too to hear some obscurities (relatively) such as the aforementioned “Late Nineties…” and “Churches…”, and the great “Major Label Debut”, in full chaos mode, and finding that “All to All” definitely stands alongside their best material. So maybe I am just being a bit fussy, and that I need to forget BSS as being The Band That Did The Best Album Of The Naughties And Not Much Else, and redefine them as A Great Band You Should Go And See (And Forget The Slightly Boring Bits). Because in full flow, those massed guitars and everything, that wonderful baroque groove they have, is damn fine, and you wouldn’t change that for the world.

Still have no idea what they are on about, though.

1 Get with the program, daddio!

2 Go and look, then come back and tell me that’s not the most clever album title ever. Go on, I dare you.

3 And weirdly, he got on the tube and sat next to us at Earls Court, then got off at the same stop. Small world.

4 I must admit, I did have a bit of a go at someone for being an asshole. To her friend, if she is reading this, thank you very much for helping. You restored my faith in Canadylandians.

MP3: Churches Under The Stairs by Broken Social Scene Featuring Brendan Canning

MP3: World Sick by Broken Social Scene

MP3: Prepare Your Coffin by Tortoise

Amazon’s Broken Social Scene Store

Amazon’s Tortoise Store