Swans Live – Koko, London

Nothing, but nothing can prepare you for standing at the front at a Swans gig. Being locked inside a blast furnace might help, or standing on the rim of an exploding volcano could do it, to some extent, but there is nothing to compare with the experience of the thundering, rampaging NOISE that this band of malevolent geniuses produce.

What’s more, it’s not just that noise that dumb kids produce with a big amp and some pedals. No, sir, this is carefully calibrated, thumping, driving noise, created by a bassist and drummer in perfect, horrendous harmony, ably built upon by two guitars, Thor the Percussionist, and a man whose craggy visage would have made the late Johnny Cash look like a L’Oreal model. In those dark, grim Westerns of Sam Peckinpah, Swans would be perfectly cast as the bunch of miscreants riding ominously into a small, vulnerable town, and you would know that what would come next would be bloodshed, and who the perpetrators would be.

And of course, there is Michael Gira himself. A man of absolute and utter belief in his mission to tell us, each of us, individually if need be, that we are the cursed and damned children of an unforgiving and intemperate God. There is precious little redemption, or even much hope, in his music; instead, he uses the words of a firebrand preacher, and the close to “Sex God Sex” spells this out in no uncertain terms. As the squall abates, he yells, in a booming rancorous baritone, “JESUS CHRIST! SAY HIS NAME! JESUS! COME DOWN! COME DOWN NOW!”.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of things here a little. For, as a live experience, Swans make sure you know you are about to face something unique. First off, the set times posted showed the band coming on at 10; a good hour later than any band I’ve seen in London for many years. Second off, the choice of James Blackshaw was possibly a demonstration that Gira’s not merely interested in pummelling us with big fucking boulders of noise; he’s also a record label boss with some uncommonly good bands on the roster (such as Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family).

Seeing James Blackshaw live, up close, can be described in one, simple word: incredible. If you have not seen him yet, do. Do it soon, before he decides to pack it in, as playing such gorgeous songs in front of an audience who seem more interested in gabbling away. Look, you fuckers, this guys is one of the most talented musicians doing the rounds in London, enjoy seeing him, and shut the fuck up for a moment.

A Very, Very Talented Man

Support out of the way, it was a short wait before Thor came ambling on the stage and starting doing something. That something was to kick off some kind of drone machine, part airraid siren, part foghorn, at near-deafening volume. He then buggered off, only for the winner of Mr Craggy Face 2010 to wander on about five minutes later, muck about with his lap steel, adding a whole new layer of deafening noise, then bugger off as well. Thor buggers back on again and starts bashing his tubular bells.

Do. Not. Mess.

So there we are, standing there, trying to resist the temptation to put our fingers in our ears. A few long minutes later and the band saunter back on, and start a thumping, driving one-chord riff that mutated into “No Words/No Thoughts”. The man Gira acts as a kind of conductor to the band, guiding them forward to higher levels of torture. At the end, we try and clap and cheer, but these cheers seemed strangely quiet. Maybe because we were all deaf by this point.

A couple of older tracks followed, notably “Sex God Sex” (the most Swans title ever), featuring the aforementioned Screaming About Jesus bit. Then came the song that, to me, demonstrates exactly why the return of Swans is something to be celebrated.

Stop Doing That

“Jim”, on the album, is a slow-burning, dreadful (in the old sense of the word) waltz. Live, it builds from being loud, and ominous, to hugely loud and deeply disturbing. Watching the band slowly add more and more – in particular Norman Westberg, who taps out time between chords on his guitar – is thrilling, and quite worrying. Every few bars it seems as though another layer of sound is built on top of an already dangerously overloaded behemoth. The effect is stunning. At the song’s climax, the band suddenly strip away much of the sound, leaving a ruined husk of a song remaining. Utterly electrifying.

Other highlights included oldie “I Crawled” – like the other old tracks, slightly prettier than their original incarnations, and a version of “Eden Prison” which, although quieter for the first half than on record, more than made up for it during its destructive second half.

Cheer Up Mate, It May Never Happen

By the end, the volume was such that most of the people who’d been crowding to the front during the first few songs had sought out the relative safety of the rear. They were missing out. Swans are best experienced up front; that was you can truly experience the band’s dynamic – bassist Chris Pravdica and drummer Phil Puleo in their own private world, driving each other on; Thor manically bashing the life out of assorted tubular bells, drums, cymbals, a dulcimer and some kind of home made thing; Norman Westberg and lap steel player Christoph Hahn staring out at the crowd with utter contempt and no small portion of malevolence, indifferent to the squall; and centre-stage, Gira himself, driving the whole affair like a damned preacher at the fiery gates of Hell. Some songs even featured a pair of startled trombonists who, frankly, struggled to make themselves heard over the din.

Run Run Run

One encore, and they were gone. Much of the band departed with no wave at all, but Gira and Thor stayed for a moment; Thor grinning, Gira looking as though he knew a job had been well done. A job of making us feel as uncomfortable as possible. They were majestic. To have taken the core of their sound from the eighties and update it so successfully, to make Swans vital and urgent and damn well unmissable, is a remarkable achievement.

See them now, see them from the front, and have a story to tell the grandchildren when they play you something unlistenable in years to come. Then you can tell them: “You find this noisy? That’s nothing. I saw Swans live”.

Did I say they were loud?

Swans – ‘Eden Prison’ by theQuietus

Buy “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky” (CD/MP3)

Totally Wire-d

Music, in case you hadn’t read the memo, is as much about tribalism as anything else. Some music – like gospel, Welsh close-harmony singing – brings people together. Others, such as the massed choirs of football fans, or genres like Emo and Oi, are as much about separating a group of people from their peers. The reunions of The Pixies and Pavement brought a tribe of people together that had been busy getting on in life as middle managers and thrust them back to their sweaty, confused adolescence and made them rejoice in their lost youth; and unambigous pleasure in these brittle days.

So where does that leave a band like Wire? A band who, in the late seventies, did as much to change modern music as anyone you could care to mention? A band who took punk and twisted it, adding odd little tunes and a bloodyminded cleverness that’s been the template for middle-class rebellion ever since? A band who showed the way out of the straitjacket of three-chord thrashes and anger and guided everyone, however unwillingly, toward post-punk? In a half-empty Garage, that’s where.

I've Forgotten The Words!

The tribe here is balding, greying, and largely a-paunched. I feel young, which is a rare experience for me these days. And this is a band that’s setting up their own rig. Whether this is part of their infamous curmudgeonness or the aged’s way of never spending a penny1 when it can be avoided, but you must wonder if they think to themselves “Shit, I never thought I’d still be doing this after 34 years. Still, at least the crowd aren’t spitting at us these days”. Only because if we tried we’d run the risk of losing our dentures.

And the band are on marvellously belligerent mood. Aside from a number of disparaging comments about our “Mojo” (the night being sponsored by Mojo magazine, who quite frankly would have run a mile from this lot back in the late ’70’s, clutching their Rush albums), the general atmosphere is that the band started out being sarcastic fuckers, and they aren’t going to stop now they’ve grown up a bit. Or a lot. Frankly, it’s refreshing. So many of our heroes have reformed and are gushing with pleasure at the whole affair that there is a certain amount of joy to be had when a band comes along that looks like they’d rather take us up the nearest alley, do unspeakably nasty things to us then give us a good shoeing.

Two Page Setlist

The crowd are more than happy to heckle. On introducing their rather young and hirsute replacement guitarist, Matt, someone yells “He’s nicked all your hair!”. The rest of the band pretend to ignore this. Requests are met with shakes of the head and the occasional sarcastic comment, ending in “These requests? It’s just general British blokes shouting. “OI OI OI””. After opening with a new song, the response from the crowd is positive, and met with “Your reward is another new song”. Charmed, I’m sure.

Of course there’s a huge amount of pantomine to this. You can tell they are loving being up there, and the fact that their set features a healthy number of tracks from their initial triumvate of records shows that. This is, of course, the band that took a covers band as support on a tour in the 80’s, so they wouldn’t have to play any of their old material themselves. You don’t see Oasis doing that (not that you’d notice, but hey ho). Age certainly hasn’t calmed the early tracks either; they tear through “106 Beats That” and “12XU” like they were at the 100 Club; only the sight of Graham Lewis wearing glasses with those stringy bits brings you back to the present.

Crowd-pleasing came in the form of “Kidney Bingos”, prompting something of a singalong, but didn’t extend to “Outdoor Miner” (boo!), despite a number of increasingly desperate pleas. “Map Ref. 41N 93W” does feature, thankfully, and we should be thankful there’s some old songs thrown in amongst the new material.

Getting Too Old For This

Live staple “Drill” was a well-drilled (sorry) motorik chug, “German Shepherds” was another well-chosed gem from their most tuneful period, and “One Of Us” showed they’ve lost nothing of their anger in their newer songs; like the other new tracks on display tonight, they definitely hark back to their 70’s period rather than to the mid-80’s records like “A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck”. Which is a shame for me, since that’s the era that I most like. Yes, I know that’s not the common wisdom, but what do I care?

Four encores later, off went the Wire tribe into the night, warmed through to their core with the shared memory of singing that immortal chorus to “Kidney Bingos”, “Money spines, paper lung\Kidney bingos organ fun”. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. This lot don’t need new tricks; the old ones still blow the young kids away. Just a shame there weren’t more of them here to see how it’s properly done.

1 Stop sniggering at the back.

MP3: Kidney Bingos by Wire

MP3: Map Ref. 41N 93W by Wire

MP3: Outdoor Miner by Wire

Buy “Chairs Missing: Remastered” (CD)

Buy “154: Remastered” (CD/MP3)

Buy “A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck” (CD)

Imperialous – Metric at Shepherds Bush Empire

The more I think about it, the more I’m starting to believe that the real brains behind Broken Social Scene isn’t Kevin Drew and the beardy one, but Leslie Feist and Emily Haines. Just check the evidence. Before they came along, BSS were a couple of guys bumming around Toronto. Next thing, they hook up (not in that way1) with these talented ladies, and some other folks, and the next thing any of us know they’ve produced the shiny disk of utter fabiousness that is “You Forgot It In People“. Then Feist and Emily go back to their day jobs bands, only sporadically helping out, and the result? “Broken Social Scene” and “Forgiveness Rock Record“. Come on, you know as well as I do that either record isn’t fit to lick YFIIP’s white leather thigh boots.

What, you want more evidence? Ok, go and see either of them live. Trust me, that’s no hardship. Feist is a fantastic musician, utterly in control of her music, and a fine performer to boot. And on last night’s performance at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Emily’s up there with her.

Haring through pretty much all of “Fantasies”, plus some older stuff thrown in (which I, dear reader, haven’t got a clue what the track names are), Emily and co demonstrate that they aren’t just another bunch of indie-rock chancers. The glistening shininess of their last record is all present and correct – amazing, given the ability of the sound man to not realise there’s a woman on stage with a microphone that we might want to hear singing. That, and the fact that Jimmy Shaw looks like my mate Idriss after a crash diet. The two Sleeperblokes are damn good at the whole drumming and bassing bit, too.

The songs, well, you know, they are pretty damn fine songs, so hearing them live was always going to be a pleasure. The loonie ending to opener “Twilight Galaxy” certainly made us wake up. “Sick Muse” was frantic, “Gimme Sympathy” was power-pop heaven, and “Collect Call” utterly lovely.

It’s all about Emily though. Emily spends her time away from the keyboards bouncing, pointing at the balcony grinning, bouncing some more, gurning, posing, then doing little shy coquettish smiles. She’s quite the character. There aren’t that many frontwomen (or frontmen, for that matter) with her kind of charisma. She’s the kind of singer you just can’t keep your eyes off, wondering what she’s going to get up to next. She’s dancing like a crazy robot! She’s headbanging at the keyboards! She’s flirting with the bassist! She’s posing for photos! During “Help I’m Alive” she leaned back and pumped her fist in the air like a ballerina on PCP.

Of course, the fact that she can safely be said to be easy on the eye helps. With the kind of angular, slightly gawky beauty that she shares with Feist, there’s not a moment where some lovelorn indieboy (or indiegirl) isn’t lifting up their cameraphones like antennas to heaven, hoping to catch that one shot to safely see them through their long nights at sea. This was, as you’d expect, somewhat irritating, but in life you have to take the rough with the smooth.

And it has to be said, she seems to be really enjoying herself up there; and in fairness, the rest of the band did too. Jimmy Shaw had a massive grin on his face the entire time. At the end of the gig, Emily put out a heartfelt plea about wanting to make things different (maybe they should help out The Pop Cop), the main gist of which was how they loved being on an indie label. Well, we love it too; seeing a band winning awards (oh, ok, some Juno awards) without major label backing is wonderful.

Metric area band I’d love to see hit the bigtime. They’ve got energy, great songs, and a frontwoman who could charm the toughest of crowds. Like Mew, this lot should be supporting U2 or Coldplay or Muse or someone on some enormous stadium tour. Ending with “Stadium Love”, of course.

MP3: Stadium Love by Metric

MP3: Gold Guns Girls (Acoustic) by Metric (Courtesy of the marvellous Tsururadio)

1 Though they have, you know. I’m sure you don’t need me to spread gossip.

Amazon’s Metric Page

Live – Joanna Newsom, Royal Festival Hall

Joanna newsom is a genius. There, I said it. The G word. A proper, certified, unambiguous genius. There is no-one, but no-one out there (except perhaps Sufjan Stevens) who writes music so perplexing, so full of unexpected twists and turns, with lyrics so poetic and mysterious. She’s something of an enigma. After all, she’s also certifiably beautiful, graceful, whimsical, and more than a little bonkers. Comparisons with Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell are easy to make, but only tell about a hundreth of the story. This woman is once-in-a-decade special, and always a massive pleasure to watch live.

What’s even more pleasurable is, having seen her play only her second London show, back in 2004, developing into such a stunning artist. First time, in the Conway Hall, she was shy and self-effacing, just her and her harp. Now, she’s bantering with band and audience alike, demanding that we ask questions of the band whilst she tunes her harp (standout question – “What’s your opinion of the pedestrianisation of Norwich High Street”; this met with huge applause from the crowd and an exasperated “We’re sitting ducks up here!” from the drummer Neal). Her music has developed exponentially too; from the relative simplicity of “The Milk-Eyed Mender” through the stunning “Ys”, to this year’s baffling, astounding, and undoubtedly soon-to-reach-modern-classic-status-once-we’ve-all-listened-to-it-100-times “Have One On Me”.

Given that the new one has 18 tracks, some of which are about an hour long, it’s no shock that tonight’s set is taken mainly from it. This does pose something of a problem, in that this is an album that clearly needs about a year of solid listening to make sense, but this isn’t stopping our old Joanna. The easier tracks, like, er, “Easy” and “Good Intentions Paving Company” (if that’s not song title of the year I want to know what is) are more easily digestible, and met with rapturous applause. Some of the tougher songs still get the crowd going, but you can tell that we’re all still a bit confused.

Harpy!

Earlier songs are given a tasteful wash and brush up. “The Book Of Right-On” maintains its air of tentative flirtatiousness, with the band adding beautiful touches here and there. And “Inflammatory Writ” has become much more delicate, and a far better song as a result; I’d love to have that on another “Ys Street Band” EP. The work she has done with the band has worked wonders for the show; she is blazingly confident, and with good reason.

Sadly, there’s no space for easy-going crowd favourites “Emily” or “Bridges And Balloons” (as if a nine-minute long song, and one about bleedin’ Narnia, can be classified as “easy-going”), both of which were yelled out by crowd members as the band returned for the single encore. “Excellent choices”, Joanna replied, “But we kind of have our own plan”. Spoken without a hint of apology, there’s a determination in the subtones of her voice that show you exactly what a fiercly ambitious and hugely intelligent musician she is.

For she truly is a special talent. How the hell does she memorise all these songs, let alone remember the lyrics? Whilst I know I’ve gone on about Mew or Russian Circles in the past, but Joanna really is in a different league in the challenging yet accessible music stakes. She even got a London crowd – normally filled with morons yapping to each other about a scarf they had seen in a boutique in Hoxton – to shut up. Now that’s genius.

MP3: Kingfisher by Joanna Newsom

(Note: MP3 originally posted on Drag City website)

Buy “Have One on Me” (CD/MP3)

Note: Apologies for the somewhat slapdash post. Normal over-verbose service will be resumed once Real Life buggers off to its hole.

Squalor Victoria and Albert

The National are the American Elbow (or, for the Americans amongst you, Elbow are the English The National1). Purveyors of heartfelt, grandiose music, with a touch of prog in amongst the melancholy. And then there’s the history of both bands; both struggled for years before slowly, painstakingly building a loyal and suprisingly large fan base; both bands elevate themselves above the fray by releasing increasingly confident, ambitious albums whilst never turning away from what made them special in the first place.

The National’s core sound – guitars just on the edge of distortion, military drums, Matt Berninger’s charismatic baritone vocals – suits the Albert Hall, which normally struggles with rock bands. Although opener “Mistaken for Strangers” sounded a bit claggy, things soon righted themselves. With a healthy mix of mostly rapturously received new songs, and even more rapturously received older numbers, the band deftly worked their way through an enviably strong set.

This was one of those gigs where you could see the band playing their new material with an attitude of utter confidence. Mostly bands plying their great fabby shiny new release do so with a slight air of embarrassment; not this lot. “Afraid Of Everyone” was tumultuous, “Conversation 16” left everyone wondering if he really is singing “I was afraid, I’d eat your brains”2, and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, reeled out as an encore, was a touch rough around the edges, but judging from the audience reaction is fast becoming a fan favourite before the record has even been released.

Older songs – hailing from Alligator and Boxer – remind us just what a band we’re dealing with here. “Slow Show” was marvellous; a slow burning wonder. “Squalor Victoria” is all drums and thunder. “Mr November” sees Matt Berninger go for an extended walkabout through the crowd like a more lovable, and somewhat more drunken Bono. And “Apartment Story” was a delicate, touching paean to a generation that wouldn’t, or didn’t understand how to, protest against the Bush administration: “Stay inside ’til somebody finds us\Do whatever the TV tells us\Stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz”.

But the standout track tonight was “Blood Buzz Ohio”, one of their best songs, old or new. I’ve no idea what it’s about, but the lovely rhythm of the chorus – “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe\I never thought about love when I thought about home” – carries you along, no matter what the meaning of the song is. The backing from the two-man horn section is just perfect too. Stupid grin on face time.

This is one of the magical things about The National. When the songs make sense, they drill into your brain and refuse to leave thanks to their marvellous lyricism (“Another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults”) and the stunning musicality of the Dessner brothers, and in particular the astonishing drumming of Bryan Devendorf. He even got his own moment in the spotlight at the start of “Squalor Victoria”, where he looked like drumming like that is the easiest thing on earth. And even when they don’t quite make sense, the music pulls you along, capturing you until you’ve unlocked the secrets of what on earth he’s on about.

Like Elbow, The National aren’t so much a feel good band, as a feel good about feeling bad band. Last year, Elbow played their largest London show yet; this was The National’s largest show in London. It seems like the world might finally be waking up to what a special group this is, in the way that it did to Elbow in 2008; whether “High Violet” will be the breakthrough record it could so easily be, only time will tell. They’d certainly deserve it.

High Violet is out Monday

MP3: Afraid of Everyone by The National

(Track removed as apparently the Web Sheriff has been doing the rounds again. Bad Web Sheriff! Bad!)

1 Speaking of which, on my way to work this morning, feeling avuncular after doing my democratic duty, I saw a lady on the Tube listening to Elbow. I wanted to tap her on the shoulder and say “Listen to this”, before passing over my pre-release “High Violet”. She’d like it. Mind you, it’s not really the done thing, no matter what all those warm and fuzzy ads tell you.

2 He is, you know.

Russian Around

Russian Circles have made something of a name for themselves by making music that sits somewhere between Mogwai and Mastodon on the noise spectrum – vast, intricate instrumental soundscapes that build on repetitive guitar riffs, overlain by thumping bass and some remarkable drumming. Over three increasingly diverse albums, guitarist Mike Sullivan has tried to develop their sound, adding horns and strings, without compromising what they can do live. And so, to the Underworld in Camden, a small-ish venue that they seem to have sold out fairly easily.

First thing to say about it is that Russian Circles fans are tall. I mean, proper tall. I’m over six foot and even I was struggling. Thankfully, we managed to somehow get ourselves a plum spot at the front of the raised area, with a great view of the stage, and although I wouldn’t be able to see Mike Sullivan messing around with his effects pedals (being a bit of a geek like that), at least I’d see something. Support act Earthless were pretty decent too, with their Kyuss-on-speed the perfect taster for what was to come.

I Don't Think The iPhone Camera Is Up To Photographing Gigs

And what came was glorious. It’s hard for me to spell out highlights, partly because I can’t remember any song titles, and the wall of sound that emanated from the stage was overwhelming.

Reader, I zoned out. When listening to instrumental music, the emotional bond that comes with singing is removed, so the part of your brain that deals with words and language and all that switches off, and it doesn’t matter whether the singing is in English, French, Esperanto or a made-up pixie language; you don’t listen to singing in the same way as you deal with instruments. So, as the music grew and swelled, I entered a weird zone of being, well, utterly monged out.

As you can imagine this makes writing a review somewhat harder than usual. Notes are hard to make when you can’t remember the song title, and given that the band had no mics whatsoever (other than for the drums), so we didn’t even get a “Hey, this is called Malko, it’s from our new record!”1. And notes such as “The one that went da da da daaaaa DAAAA DAAAAAAA KRCHUNG KRCHUNG was really good, like” are no use whatsoever.

So this is more a random collection of thoughts. In general, the more intricate numbers got you wondering why wildlife documentary producers haven’t got hold of them yet – maybe some Icelandic wailing over the top would do the trick, and would do wonders for their bank balance. The brutal clarity of the records is somewhat lost; the delicacy amongst the noise is largely lacking, but you expect that at a gig. Sullivan’s tapping technique is astonishing, and mixed with his dexterity and use of looper pedals, allowed him to create a stunning orchestral sound from his Les Paul. And the thundering drummer Dave Turncrantz was possibly the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. The noise between the songs whilst the band tune up, or in the case of the fantastic drummer, a well-earned rest, is like the low metallic drone from the engines of some huge intergalactic spaceship. And talking at gigs is a mortal sin alongside murder and putting used matches back in the box.

A Pedalboard, Courtesy Of http://www.whatsthatdudeplay.com

One of the tracks featured a wonderful drum solo – and how often can you say that, eh? – before exploding into the sound of twenty million untuned valve radios. At the end, a bloke shouted “Play that song again!”. It was hard to disagree. Of the few tracks I remembered the names of, “Youngblood”’s staccato metal churn showed that they aren’t your average post-rockers, whilst “Philos” clearly demonstrated their increasing range and their development into something more than a metal/post-rock hybrid. And encore “Station” turned the place into a huge moshpit, which was then delicately calmed down again by the Godspeed-style closing section. I came home with “Philos” earworming its way through my skull, which didn’t leave till a few days later. Some band, some tune. See them soon.

Set list:
Harper Lewis
Malko
Philos
Death Rides A Horse
Hexed All
Youngblood
Geneva
Carpe

Encore:

Station

MP3: Philos by Russian Circles

1 They did wave very enthusiastically when they walked off stage though. Which was nice.

Amazon’s Russian Circles Store

Live Review – The Xx

The Xx caused something of a stir last year. Coming from nowhere (ok, Putney), they quickly became media darlings and their debut album nestled near the top of almost everyone’s best-of lists. But all’s not been rosy with the band; following the departure of keyboardist Baria Qureshi from exhaustion, they then went to cancel shows in Europe due to illness. But they’ve sold out two consecutive nights at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and the place was buzzing in anticipation. Would they live up to the hype?

Speaking of hype, let’s talk first about These New Puritans. My mother always told me that if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

After their set, the roadies came on and did their stuff. And then pulled a huge white sheet down over the front of the stage. As the lights dimmed, the reason became clear. Unseen, the band launched into “Intro”, and suddenly lights at the back of the stage lit the band’s shadows onto the sheet, in time with the music. One second, the drummer, the next, Romy Madley Croft on guitar, then Oliver Sim. The shadows overlapped one another, grew and shrunk, to hugely hypnotic effect. At the climax of the song, the sheet fell to the ground. I’ve not heard such a rapturous response to a band’s entrance for years.

This care and attention is at the heart of The Xx. Putting up a white sheet and playing behind it is easy. Anyone could do it, but no-one else does. And like the sheet trick, their music seems simple – just drums, bass, guitar, a little keyboard, two singers. It’s just R’n’B mixed with New Order and The Cure with some drowsy singing on top, isn’t it? But it’s not. The simple lines intertwine to become so much more than the sum of their parts that it’s nearly beyond belief.

Chatting to a mate on the way home from work before the gig, he wondered aloud what The Xx would be like live. “Quiet, I expect”, he said. That’s what I thought. But Jamie Smith seems quite willing and able to use his Sarf Lahndahn upbringing to infuse his backing drums and keyboards with a heavy dubstep sound This is a sound impossible to miss in London, even in nicer parts of the city like Putney1. You can’t even listen to Radio 42 without some pirate station bursting over the top whilst you’re trying to concentrate on In Our Time. And they were surprisingly loud; ok, not quite Mastodon or The Twilight Sad loud, but enough to make my trousers shake. Trouser-shaking is good.

Their set did, somewhat predictably, consisted of everything from “Xx” plus “Teardrops”, but we weren’t complaining. “Crystalised”, coming early on, displayed everything that’s good about The Xx; their twin voices meshing together, the bassline and the guitar dancing around one another, and with the drum machine being played live, a sense that these weren’t just pre-programmed beats and an exercise in going through the motions.

Moody Oranges

“Heart Skipped A Beat” was memorably brilliant and sent me back to my iPhone to listen afresh in the morning (always a sign of a good live band, that). “Teardrops” was introduced with “We played this last night for the first time in ages, so sorry if it goes wrong”. It didn’t, with the two-step reinvention showing lesser bands how to do this cover version lark properly (looking in your direction, Florence and the Overhyped Machine). “Basic Space”, my personal favourite, almost got me tearducts going. Almost, but not quite – what kind of a wuss do you take me for?

It was an evening of stepping into someone else’s world. A nighttime, teenage world, of doubts and heartbreak and lust and that wooziness of not knowing or understanding what was happening in your outer and inner life. You can just tell how this music was created by close friends, growing up together, creating a feeling of seeing into their little gang, eavesdropping on those nights in one or another’s bedroom, painstakingly crafting these little nuggets of beauty with the magpie instinct natural to a generation growing up with all the music in the world just a click away.

They really know what they are doing, this lot. In some ways, they remind me of The White Stripes, with their singleminded purity of sound and image. I wonder where they will go next; maybe they’ll be like Tindersticks and make a second album that’s just like the first one, only more so. If they can harness their enviable talents and push on to make another great record, we could be talking about them in hushed tones in years to come. Their sound has already developed from last year, with a much heavier backline, and stronger singing voices, so I look forward to whatever they come out with next.

Catch them on tour in the UK and at SXSW in the US later this month. Do it now, before they either become huge, or disappear.

1 Yes, I know they went to the Elliott School, bang in the middle of a large council estate, but it’s hardly Brixton or Tower Hamlets, is it?

2 The BBC radio station, rather than the band, obviously.

MP3: Crystalised by The Xx (Keljet Remix)

MP3: Teardrops by The Xx

Buy “XX” (CD/MP3)

Mastodon Rock

Heavy metal is full of daft ideas. From Iron Maiden singing songs about the genocide of the Native Americans whilst screaming like their bollocks are caught in a mangle, through Judas Priest’s superb “I’m not gay in all this leather and this mustache isn’t a coded message that I like a bit of the other, honest” USP to Metallica’s “We’re hardcore metallers, us, we’d never shop at Armani. Doh!”. But some of the greatest daft ideas in metal recently have come from dumb-but-clever specialists Mastodon. A concept album based on Moby Dick as a metaphor for touring? Check. A concept album about a mountain filled with ravenous beasts that drain the blood of anyone that climbs it, as a metaphor for joing Warners? Check. A concept album about Rasputin, astral projection, quantum physics and black holes and lord only knows what else, as a metaphor for, oh Jebus, I don’t know? Check. All albums filled with thundering riffs, growling, psychedelic interludes, free-jazz inflected drumming, more arpeggios than you can shake a 12-string guitar downtuned to C at; yep, check all those.

I love Mastodon. They distill everything that has been great in heavy rock in the past twenty years and turn it into a huge, ornate, massively complex yet brutally simple monster. They delight in twisting songs constantly, changing time signatures, keys, anything to unsettle you or make things more interesting (see, Midlake?). They’ve become, over the past few years, the go-to band for chin-strokers who want to rock out. Like me.

So, the prospect of seeing them live, playing all of 2009’s “Crack The Skye”, got me more excited than any other gig so far this year (yep, more than Pavement reforming). And it’s fair to say they didn’t disappoint. First off, the crowd was as diverse as you’d expect, given the band’s status as the Pitchfork-approved metal band of the day. Teenagers with Mastodon t-shirts (suprisingly polite, too), indie kids, grown up old codgers like me muttering about “In my day this whole place would be a mosh pit”, and the occasional nutter (I’m looking at you, tall bloke in the red t-shirt)1. All were united during some of the heavier moments, nodding their heads in unison.

Launching into “Oblivion”, one thing was clear. Mastodon rock. Despite a slightly muffled sound (expecting their recorded sound to be reproduced live was asking a bit much), their rampant riffs came rampaging through the crowd. Sure, you’re never going to get Brett Hinds’ intricate guitar playing reproduced as clearly live as on record, but what the live experience lacks in clarity is comfortably replaced by the sheer force of their riffs.

The riffs, and the noise. At first, I thought it wasn’t really loud enough, until I noticed the bottle of water in my hand vibrating. Still, what’s a metal gig if not loud? Wasn’t as if I’d come to watch Norah Jones. Next up came “Divinations”, and this too rocked like a herd of very, very angry buffalo. Buffalo angry with you. “Quintessence” followed this, and was ludicrously good. The speed at which Brett can play his arpeggiations (sic) is mind-boggling. Now, some people criticised Mastodon for being too “poppy” on the opening three tracks on “Crack The Skye”, but when they are this good, who can blame them? The visuals – a largely black-and-white movie of the album, featuring Rasputin, Hell, starfields, psychedelia, and all sorts of silent-movie tropes – were stunning. Though they didn’t exactly do much to help decipher the lyrics.

The set then dove into the more psychedelic/grunge/metal/stoner rock of “The Czar”. 10-minute long treatises on the Russian revolution have the potential of being, frankly, dull; even the sight of a twin-necked guitar didn’t stop this from rocking. As did the rest of the set; the more traditional metal of “Crack The Skye” was simply brutal. Much of the crowd busied themselves by going mental, and the rest spent their time doing the universal hand signal of metal. “The Last Baron”, heavily influenced by Kyuss, proved to be a superb closer.

The band went off, leaving the keyboardist onstage to make some ominous sounds. A few moment later, they rejoined the stage and piled into “Circle of Cysquatch”. This second half of the set was made up of tracks from their earlier albums. No “Bladecatcher” or “Colony Of Birchmen” sadly, but this far heavier material rocked like a bastard. Released from trying to decipher what the hell “Crack The Skye” was all about, I found myself drifting into that wonderful blissful state that comes from seeing a truly great band. The noise, the riffs, the sheer power of the music made me forget everything other than being enraptured. Looking around the crowd, I wasn’t the only one.

Shamelessly Stolen From Songkick

The band thanked everyone profusely, and looked goddamn happy as they walked off. Us? We left the Roundhouse grinning like total idiots. I wanted to immediately listen to the whole of “Crack The Skye” again (and am listening to it typing this). I tell you what, this lot are special. Take any preconceptions about metal and cast them aside; their more accessible material off the album is easier on the ear than much of Muse’s recent output. Some of the more hardcore fans might not think that’s a good thing, but I don’t care. This was the best live band I’ve seen in some time, and I’ll be at the front of the queue for tickets next time the rock up in London.

Mastodon rock.

MP3: Quintessence by Mastodon

1 And thankfully, no-one talked during the quiet bits. Not that they could, as the quiet bits were still pretty damn loud. But they didn’t even try.

Buy “Crack the Skye” (CD/MP3)

The Week Of Mixed Gigs – Midlake, or Poor Band (Minor Key)

Many years ago, I went up to the eastern Highlands of Scotland with a bunch of friends, for a long weekend of walking and drinking. Mostly drinking. One sunny day, we took a walk up into the mountains to Loch Brandy, and (as tends to happen in Scotland) the weather turned. There we were, hunkering down behind a rock to avoid the worst of the horizontal rain, when a thought struck me. “It sure is beautiful up here”, I pondered, “But I wish I was somewhere else”.

Loch Brandy, In Glorious Monochrome

Which is exactly where I am with Midlake’s new album, “The Courage Of Others”. One song is beautiful, but taken as a whole, all adds up into one big melange of doom and gloom. Writing an album with 11 songs, and making 10 of them in a minor key, doesn’t make for a chirpy or pleasant listen. And this is a real shame coming from a band whose previous album (“The Trials of Van Occupanther”) was, for the first half at least, an absolute joy. Tender, rollicking, evocative, deftly written, wonderfully played and sung, it’s one of my top albums of the naughties. I’ve given the new one a chance, and whilst I can see that it’s lovely, in its own way, it’s not really for me.

Will I change my mind seeing them live at the Shepherds Bush Empire?

On trundled the band, augmented by a couple of extra guitarists, beards and all, launching first into “Winter Dies”, a slow-to-mid-tempo song in a minor key. Then “The Horn”, a slow-to-mid-tempo song in a minor key. Then, “Small Mountain”, a, yes, you got it, a slow-to-mid-tempo song in a minor key. By this stage, I was thinking “Well, they are great musicians, the flute playing is all well and good, but I’m getting, you know, a touch bored.”

Set List (in E#m)

Thankfully, the band heard my errant brainwaves and played “Bandits”. And herein lies the rub, like Billyboy Shakespeare said. Hearing the new songs interspersed with older numbers just threw the problem with the newer songs into sharp relief. “Bandits” was lovely. “Young Bride” was equally lovely. You know, these songs have texture and style and are little bundles of exquisite songwriting. They don’t batter you into submission with their minor keys and unvarying tone of doomosity.

Then, after a power cut (dealt with in charmingly insouciant manner), came some more tracks from the new album. Minor key, major key (“Fortune” – the only major key song on the album, fact fans), minor key with a dual flute assault. And then relief! “Van Occupanther”! Hurrah! A charming little song, with the most heartbreaking chorus, with the ascending “Let me not be too consumed\With this world”; if the band aren’t playing your heartstrings like a harp at that point, you should just give up on seeing bands. Or give up on music altogether.

And then “Roscoe”! Double hurrah! Which, the clever clogs amongst you will point out is also in a minor key. But it doesn’t matter. The song moves along at a pretty decent clip; the harmonies are exquisite, there’s a palpable tension in the lyrics and it tells a story – it’s not just “Minor key, we’re all doomed, here’s a flute solo”. Speaking of which, we then had “Acts Of Man”, “Children Of The Grounds”, “Core of Nature” and “Bring Down”. All of which were, yep, minor key. Except Sarah Jaffe came on to sing one of them, which lightened the mood a touch.

Thankfully, the set closed with “Head Home”, with a bolted-on new intro, fooling us all into thinking it was another slow-mid-tempo minor key number, but of course mutated into a truly wonderful stormer. And having “Branches” as the encore again showed exactly what this band can do when they want to.

Minor Key!

I wouldn’t want you to think I dislike the new album, or didn’t like seeing them live. Not in the slightest – we had a great night1 out, the band are charming, friendly and wonderful musicians, and seeing the work experience kid (joke courtesy of Arseblogger) run out those guitar solos like he wasn’t even trying was an experience all on its own. That kid is the new Slash, I tell you. Genius.

It’s just that these songs work well when they are listened to individually. On a whole record, the listener gets battered into submission by about track 6 and it’s a struggle to keep listening. Live, a track here or there interspersed with their other material would be fine. They are good songs, after all. The problem is that there’s precious little variety. The songs are so similar compositionally that they just blur into one. I don’t want to get all Fix Your Mix on you (go to this utterly amazing article on “Ready, Able” by Grizzly Bear to see how this compositional analysis lark should be done – frankly, it’s completely beyond me), but there are ways of making minor key songs interesting. “Van Occupanther” had a few (“Head Home”, “Roscoe”), but you didn’t notice, as they were gorgeous songs, interspersed with diverse and varied songs. “The Courage Of Others” doesn’t. My sole notes from the first listen I had to the new album simply read “Minor Key? WTF!”.

(In case you’re thinking “This guy is a total muppet! He wants happy music!”, well, let’s just say that Tindersticks first three albums are amongst my favourites, and there’s about a handful of major key tracks on there. And even the major key songs are effing miserable. It’s not about the key, or the message, it’s about what you do with it)

I’ve got no doubt that this lot are hugely talented; you don’t write an opening four song sequence as seen on “Van Occupanther” unless you really, really know what you’re doing. But it seems as though they’ve got themselves stuck in a musical place that may well be interesting for them, but isn’t for us. Or me, at least. Please come out of the dark, dark woods and into the sunshine, chaps.

1 Notwithstanding the usual London gig-going idiots, who think it’s fine to talk over the intros and the quiet parts of the songs, and then bellow along to the songs they know, out of tune, like a drunken walrus. Not that it would help if they were in tune. I came to the gig to see and hear the band, not listen to some fool yell along. This isn’t Oasis, you know. Shut up.

MP3: Small Mountain (Live) by Midlake

MP3: Van Occupanther (Live) by Midlake

Buy “The Courage Of Others” (CD/MP3)

Buy “The Trials Of Van Occupanther” (CD)

The Week of Mixed Gigs – Beach House

I really like Bush Hall. A lovely old hall, replete with cherubs over the stage (shabby chic, the missus called it) a nice bar and a friendly clientele who generally shut up when the band are on. And in London, that’s unusual. So we were fully expecting a nice, pleasant evening watching a band I quite like, with support from a band I’d heard of and was looking forward to seeing. Simples.

Lawrence Arabia, hailing from New Zealand, make perfectly nice West Coast country-rock with the occasional arty wig-out. And they’ve got beards. Plus, they seemed like a thoroughly nice bunch of fellows, something which is not to be underestimated in a support act. We once saw Louis XIV supporting someone or other, and whilst one of my main tenets of this blog is to not be too rude about bands I don’t like, I can only say they were utterly dreadful, and unpleasant to boot. They nearly got bottled off.

So, Lawrence Arabia: Good. Must check their stuff out properly.

Beach House have been one of those bands I’ve admired, and liked, but never really taken to my heart. Sometimes I find that I need to see a band live before their songs start to make sense. And writing this now, a day later, I think that’s just happened. I put on “Teen Dream” on the way to work this morning, and you know what? It sort of made more sense. Their special brand of woozy narco-pop, like listening to Joy Zipper as an acid trip starts taking a bad turn, works surprisingly well onstage.

Victoria Legrand’s vocals, even more strident live than on record, keep a sharp edge to the generally relaxed music, stopping them from descending into a sleepy blur. Alex Scally’s guitar playing is elegant and delicate; sometimes he’s hardly touching the strings. He reminded me of Vini Reilly, which is never a bad comparison.

The set consisted mainly of songs from their recent “Teen Dream” album, with a few oldies thrown in for good measure. Now, I didn’t manage to do my usual set list thing, so I really can’t run through what they played (and this is also due to me not knowing the song titles. Look, I’m forgetful, ok?), but of the night’s highlights: “Silver Soul”, introduced with an ominous “Get a hold of your neighbour”, was magnificent. “Norway”, driven by Victoria and Alex’s twinned voices, was full of yearning. Closer “Take Care” even had people in the crowd dancing, twirling each other in little circles.

And so we all left happy, strolling into the cold dark wastes of Shepherds Bush. I think I’ll be listening to Beach House a while longer yet. Back to Shepherds Bush tonight, for the folk-rock stylings of Midlake. More beards!

MP3: Apple Pie Bed by Lawrence Arabia

MP3: Norway by Beach House

Buy “Teen Dream” (CD/MP3) by Beach House

Buy “Chant Darling” (CD/MP3) by Lawrence Arabia