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”

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

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… 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

That Southern Thing – DBT At SBE

Like The Hold Steady, Drive-By Truckers take the sound of mainstream American rock and add a big dollop of literary nous. Desperate to overturn the notion that Southerners are a bunch of gator-wrestling, tobacco-chewing inbreds, their Southern-fried country rock albums are more like mini-operas than your average meat-and-potatoes rock bands could ever imagine. Plus, they’ve always worked hard to build a fanbase online, as well as touring, and that’s in evidence tonight. I haven’t seen a hardcore set of fans like this since Mastodon, and what’s more, they are tall. Very tall. Being over six foot myself, I felt like a normal person (although I had to apologise to the guy behind, who thankfully was seeing them the next night as well, and wasn’t too fussed that I’d blocked his view. They are that kind of band). Lovely fans too; the rapport between them and the band was clear to see, with the fans singing along – for once, not an irritant, more a validation that their tales of Southern woe have resonated with people from all walks of life.

Without meaning to descend into cliché, this is the sort of music that if it came on the radio as you were driving along a state road in one of the sweltering, humid states, as the night starts to finally cool, with your arm hanging out of the window and the lightning flickered on the horizon, would make you damned happy. Now, in the interests of total disclosure, I’ve only got one of their records (the 2001 magnum opus Southern Rock Opera, which is as good a place to start as any). So coming to see DBT was more an exercise in finding out if they really are as good live as people say, as opposed to hearing live versions of songs that I love. Would they be the finely-honed Southern Rock Gods that I’d heard about?

Look, My Camera Is Rubbish, Please Stop Moving

The answer to that came in two songs, “The Fourth Night of My Drinking” and the follow up “Get Downtown”. The first sounds like the result of a drinking contest between The Hold Steady and REM, and the other is the kind of country-rock hoedown in which each band member gets to do a little solo. It goes without saying that both were utterly mesmerising; these boys (and gal) know exactly what they are doing, and the years of touring ensure that they do it damn well. So I’d say, without going into much detail about the rest of the songs (that I don’t know), that they goddamn rock. “Hell No I Ain’t Happy” thundered along with its tales of touring woes. “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So”, one of bassist Shona’s songs, a country rock stomper like The Jayhawks and the like used to make, got people singing along – not bad for a song from the new album.

Later on, Patterson Hood tells us all about the old Country Soul dude Eddie Hinton, and the band dive into two of his numbers. As you’d expect, they are superb, especially “Everybody Needs Love”, which leaves us all with stupid grins on our faces, band included. Sadly, we had to duck out before the encore, but those stupid grins stayed on our faces until well after we got home.

So, good gig? Yeap. The South might not rise again, but if they did, I’d rather these guys at the vanguard than those Tea Party crazies. Tales of Southern life – warts, poverty and all – told over great rock’n’roll. You know, I think I’ll be buying me some of their records and get myself back into their music. Isn’t that what live music should do?

Note: Track names taken from the marvellous One Of These Days.

MP3: The Southern Thing by Drive By Truckers

Buy “The Big to Do” (CD/MP3)

Jason Lytle at Hoxton Bar And Kitchin

How Grandaddy never became successful is beyond me. Great tunes; intelligent lyrics about love, life and the struggle between nature and technology; a charmingly unpretentious band who gave the distinct impression they were just a bunch of mates who got together to form a band whilst skateboarding, all wrapped up with a slightly shambolic air of second-hand guitars and analogue synths. They sounded just different enough to be unique without being too challenging. Yet the world wasn’t quite ready for their tales of dogs, AM radio stations, broken-down robots and office workers gone astray on activity day outs. Breaking up in 2006, Jason Lytle has continued touring as a solo artist (often taking some of the band on tour with him), but their legacy is slowly mouldering in a forest surrounded by broken washing machines.

Which is what leads me to the Hoxton Bar and Kitchen to watch Jason perform to what can only be described as an adoring crowd. Maybe they all feel the same as me – that he’s an unfairly forgotten genius – and have set out this evening to give him love. Or rather, make him feel loved, as I’m not sure he’d want to hook up with many of the beardy, “I work in IT” crowd here tonight1. At times, Jason appears rather embarrassed by the whole thing; a modest, retiring fellow by nature, he seems equally baffled and scared by the shouts of “We love you!” and “You’re a genius”. Admittedly though, later on, the number of wags in the crowd shouting “get on with it!” increases, to general laughter.

Other than the love, what shines through is that Jason Lytle really is quite special. Whilst his guitar playing isn’t up to the stellar likes of, say, Sam Beam, his knack of writing songs that hit you as much in the heart as in the head is thrown to the fore when it’s just him, an acoustic and the occasional drum machine/sequencer thing. Without all the trappings of a band, vintage synths and all, you’d expect songs like “Now It’s On” and “I’m On Standby” to suffer without the squelchy noises, multi-tracked vocals and power chords, but they come across remarkably well. Always a sign of good songwriting that. Indeed, Jason even makes a joke of the bits missing, one time asking for the crowd to make “a sound like a swarm of bees buzzing around inside a motorcycle helmet”, another time laughing at the crowd filling in the “aaaahs” between his lines. “Hewlett’s Daughter” – possibly one of the finest songs of the Naughties – features a couple of bars of a thrashed acoustic guitar, which fails to break the magic of the song, and when he repeats the trick shouting “Slayer!”, gets the requisite laughs.

It’s a loving crowd alright. New songs, bashfully introduced, get a rapturous round of applause at their culmination. A long story about how he’s going to be snowed in for months which will give him time to write about three new albums is greeted with the response “Good!”. And a couple of the new songs really do sound promising. Older Grandaddy songs are played to a combination of rapturous awe, and then some gentle singing along, until at the gig’s end, a rendition of “(Chilean) Miner at the Dial-A-View” manages to be heartbreakingly poignant and comical, what with the singing along and Jason’s attempts at a female voice.

There’s a surprising amount of old material too, like “Levitz” and “El Caminos In The West”, both excellent, and even the less accessible songs from The Sophtware Slump like “Chartsengrafs” and “Beautiful Ground”. The latter is, as you’d expect, beautiful, with Jason showing off his really rather nice voice. Indeed, I’d forgotten what a lovely voice he has, swallowed as it normally is under echo and reverb and whatnot. Alone with a guitar, it really shines.

At the end of the night, one is left with the distinct impression that, this coming winter, he’ll be holed up in a snow-bound shack, writing new songs with his old acoustic and a drum machine, and occasionally will stop and think “I hope that lot in London will like this one”. We probably will, old chap. The missus had to miss this gig as she was looking after our poorly kid, and she’s very grumpy about it. Can’t say I blame her.

1 Full Disclosure – I work in IT too.

MP3: Everytime I’m With You by Sparklehorse (feat Jason Lytle)

MP3: El Caminos In The West by Grandaddy

MP3: Rollin’ Home Alone by Jason Lytle

Buy “Yours Truly, The Commuter” (CD/MP3)

Buy Sparklehorse’s “Dark Night Of The Soul” (CD/MP3)

Amazon’s Grandaddy Store

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)

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

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
Death Rides A Horse
Hexed All



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 – Freelance Whales

Fifteen seconds. That’s just about all it took into the first song of Freelance Whales‘ set at The Borderline before the hairs on my arms stood up. Must be a record. Still, it’s kind of what I expected. Their album “Weathervanes” (out March 16th in the US, and not at all in the UK yet) has been on near-constant rotation on my iPhone for weeks now, so the main question about seeing them live was whether they could translate their slick recorded sound to a live stage. And the answer to that is: Yes they can (mostly).

Some Freelance Whales

First off, the support. Being a man of advanced years (ok, in my late thirties), seeing a bunch of young whippersnappers come on stage and play like they’ve been doing it for years can be somewhat annoying. Or at least, it would be if they weren’t any good, but they are. Melodica, Melody and Me (I would complain about the name, but I’m the guy who called his blog “Loft and Lost”, for Pete’s sake) make a wholeheartedly charming folky sound. They reminded me of a young Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, only not so Welsh, obviously. Or a less scruffy Band Of Holy Joy1. Send me an MP3 chaps, and I’ll happily chuck it up on here. The song about the fisherman or the last one, would be great, ta. Oh, and they got a great reception from crowd (some of whom really should have stayed around for what followed).

Anyway, back to the Whales. After setting up their instruments – an impressive collection of keyboards, guitars, a mandolin, a squeeze box, an ocelot and a drumkit, which they spent all night swapping with each other – they launch straight into “Generator^1st Floor”. With all the band singing their “Ah ah ah”‘s to a massed crescendo, you can see exactly where the Arcade Fire comparisions come in. It’s a sheer moment of pure joy, causing the aforementioned hairs on arm moment.

For “Hannah”, the band clump together on the stage, as if for comfort, bringing out the song’s delicacy. It’s one of the songs that show that this lot really are onto something. How many bands construct their songs so well, with lovely, graceful changes in tempo and tone, filled with great little hooks and riffs and charming opaque lyrics, like “Hannah takes the stairs because she can tell that it’s a winding spiralcase”? How many do it on their first album, after only being together for a year? I can remember being this stunned by bands like Broken Social Scene and Grizzly Bear, but they’d already recorded and released an album before their breakthrough; they certainly weren’t this sharp on their first attempt.

That's Not My Lipstick

Sailing through their album “Weathervanes”, nearly in order too, these thoughts keep cropping up. The album is so well-made, so beautifully written and recorded, that I half-expected them to be some new manufactured act (*cough* Kings of Leon *cough*), manipulated with invisible strings by some shadowy svengali. But that’s so clearly not the case. They really do look like a bunch of folks from Brooklyn and Queens brought together by a shared love of the geek rock of REM, Weezer and Ween, inspired by the togetherness of Arcade Fire and nutured by the fertile Brooklyn music scene. Other than a missed beat here and a slightly out of tune harmony there, the songs worked well live and were less mannered and a touch rawer than on record.

And it’s on that note that I’ll come back to the “mostly” comment at the top. For all their songs and performance, there’s not the cohesiveness you’d expect of a band that have made such a great record at their first attempt. They’re lacking a bit of that togetherness, that tightness, that comes of playing together hundreds of times. They don’t quite feel like a full proper band yet; sure, they get along pretty well onstage (there’s some charming chats between them and they definitely gel well), but they need to get out on the road and become a fully-fledged band. Just like Arcade Fire did. Doh!

Some More Freelance Whales

And this is exactly what they are doing, with a big tour of the US lined up and appearances at SXSW in March. Their happiness to come and meet their fans after the show bodes well too2. By the time they head back to the UK in July (or possibly later) I’d expect them to have taken over the world, and I’ll be able to proudly say, I was there at their second ever London gig.

The funny thing about last night is that they don’t even have a record label in the UK, let alone a release date. Pitchfork and their closest UK equivalent Drowned In Sound have hardly mentioned them at all, despite a whole bunch of people in the crowd who knew the lyrics to their songs. But anyone can clearly see this lot are hugely talented, with a killer debut album. Sure, it doesn’t have the same kind of strong theme as Arcade Fire’s “Funeral”3, but it’s a gobsmackingly fine album nonetheless, and one that could propel them to some kind of indie stardom once the world wakes up to them.

Pre-order the album here. Do it, and do it now. You have to listen to this album and you have to see them live, before they get so big that you can’t get a ticket to their shows for love nor money.

Just like the Arcade Fire, then.

MP3: Hannah by Freelance Whales

Note on the title: I’m going to three gigs in four days; this, Beach House, and Midlake. So this is the first in three-part series, I suppose. A prize to the person who correctly identifies why the title is the way it is4.

1 Of whom I really should write a post about one day. Go and look up “Tactless” on YouTube, and if you’re not utterly charmed then you have no soul. You’ll probably be baffled by the appearance of Vic Reeves, who I believe was dating her from Transvision Vamp at the time.

2 I’d loved to have stayed longer and had a proper chat with the band, but we had to go and have a debauched all-night tequila and mescal session with some Mexican filmstars. Oh, ok, we had to go home and rescue the babysitter. So sadly I never got to ask them if they really do use autotune. Next time, maybe.

3 A comparison with Wolf Parade’s “Apologies to the Queen Mary” is probably more apt.

4 Don’t get excited.