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

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 – 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

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.

Frightening Rabbits In East London

“Ah, The Troxy, we meet at last”.

After two aborted attempts to get to London’s newest swish venue, The Troxy, in the past two weeks – missing The Flaming Lips due to a prior engagement (hey, Kate!), and Monsters Of Folk due to illness – it was nice wandering down Commercial Road to see Frightened Rabbit there. Well, when I say nice, I mean it was nice not getting mugged. Let’s just say the Troxy is a salubrious venue in an insalubrious part of town. The barstaff are nice, if somewhat disorganised, and the vast team of people working in cloakroom seem cheery enough.

I was at the Troxy to watch Frightened Rabbit support Gomez, seeing as I’d managed to miss them at The Lexington earlier in the month1. Now, I’ve only known about Frightened Rabbit for about a month or so when I was sent a link for the video to their new single, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”. To say I was gobsmacked is not even the half of it. I’ve played that bloody song 43 times according to my iTunes, and their last album “Midnight Organ Fight” has been played rather a lot in the past couple of weeks.

Since recording that album, they’ve expanded to a five-piece, and they shambled onto the stage and launched right into “The Modern Leper”. The audience was bigger than you’d normally expect for a support act, and they were treated to Scott’s impassioned yelling of the final chorus (“Well, are you a masochist, to love a modern leper, on his last leg?”), joined by his brother Grant on drums who was happily yelling away too. The band then tumbled through “Old Old Fashioned”, with Grant again going, frankly, a bit mad. The reception was positive, if somewhat muted.

But if the crowd weren’t quite sure about the Rabbit after the two opening tracks, they should have had their minds made up by “Good Arms vs Bad Arms”. It’s a great song on the album and it’s even better live, with the rest of the band providing lovely backing vocals to Scott’s entreaties to his ex to “Keep her naked flesh under your favourite dress”. That song got the hairs on my arm standing to attention, I can tell you.

During “Fast Blood”, Grant’s attitude veered between frantic and laconic, which is quite a trick if you can manage it. There’s a lovely thick richness to their sound, with various band members swapping guitars, keyboards, odd pedal things and a lone bass. Not sure the sound guy was quite up to it, though, as the sound sometimes descended into swampiness2.

Then came “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”. As Scott introduced it, there were more than a few cheers from the audience, which got him looking up at the crowd, astonished. Slower than on record, it’s still best song you’ll hear all year. There’s a gorgeous Calendonian melancholy to it that perversely lifts the soul. 43 times in my case.

The last pair of songs – “My Backwards Walk” and “Keep Yourself Warm” – show the band’s darker lyrical side. Now, when I first posted about FR, I said that they were much lighter in tone than their compatriots The Twilight Sad, which prompted a comment from a lovely chap called Drew pointing out that their lyrics were somewhat darker than I’d realised. And indeed, he is quite, quite right. For example, “My Backwards Walk” starts off with Scott talking about how he keeps returning to a woman he shouldn’t return to, including the great line “These trousers seem to love your floor”. The song then ends on a far darker note of the repeated line “You’re the shit and I’m knee-deep in it”. I wonder what the massed hordes of Gomez fans thought about that one?

Even better, the last song has the great, bitter, twisted line “It takes more than fucking someone you don’t know to keep yourself warm”. Oh, and then “I’m drunk, and you’re probably on pills, if we’ve both got the same diseases, it’s irrelevant, girl”. Charming words for sure, and part of the reason why they are such a cracking band. They say things that your brain might conjure up in dark, desperate moments, and chuck them on top of songs filled with tunes and hooks. It’s a combination many bands grasp at and by and large fail, but Frightened Rabbit succeed with aplomb. What’s better, they can do it live too.

When leaving the stage they got a huge cheer, and hopefully won over a fresh set of new fans. On collecting my bag, the cloakroom staff (and someone in the queue) asked why I was leaving. I told them I’d only come to see the support act, had to rush home to babysit parent3, and then gushed over-verbosely for a couple of minutes. One guy said “That’s quite a testament to how good they are, I’ll check them out”. Mate, do it. There aren’t many better bands in the UK right now.

Catch them on tour now round the UK, supporting Gomez (on some nights) and Modest Mouse (on others). One day, with any luck, they’ll be bigger than both of them. And if “Swim” is anything to go by, new album ‘The Winter Of Mixed Drinks’ (out next March) will be a real treat.

MP3: Swim Until You Can’t See Land by Frightened Rabbit

MP3: Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms by Frightened Rabbit

1 Even though it may seem that way, I’m not totally and utterly disorganised or anything. Honest.
2 Which, curiously enough, my friend S mentioned about the Monsters of Folk gig. Though she put it more along the lines of “I was going to punch the soundman because he was shit”.
3 A shame, because I wanted to see Gomez again. I love their singer, and the quote I once heard of “Somewhere, in the Mississippi basin, there’s a grizzled old blues guy who sings like Morrissey”.

Buy “Midnight Organ Fight” (CD/MP3)

Am I Live? Yes – Mew at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire

Going to a concert whilst wearing a suit is an interesting experience, especially after previously being at a do at the Polish Embassy (yes, really). Ignoring the puzzled glances from my fellow gig-goers at the Shepherds Bush Empire, I settled into the capacity crowd, sadly not at the front. What, you think I’m going to get creases in these trousers?

Mew, in case you didn’t already know, are one of the most adventurous rock bands around these days. Their songs blend heartstoppingly brilliant bits with slightly more tedious bits. Their best songs blend heartstoppingly brilliant bits with even more brilliant bits. If you get bored at any point, you are safe in the knowledge that in a minute or so they will change the tempo and the key, and probably everything else they can think of. Sometimes their songs go from strange to utterly fantastic gradually, so you are suddenly aware that a tune that had only moments earlier made no sense whatsoever had become akin to the music played at the gates of heaven.

Jonas with Tele

Having seen them live before, I kind of knew what to expect, so my main concern was whether their new material would stand up to the live treatment. And my other main concern was, do they still have the freaky videos?

To which the answers were yes, and oh sweet Mary mother of Jesus, stop it with the mouths.

Kicking off with “Intro/Reprise”, they soon kick into gear with “Hawaii”. What shocks you immediately is their ability to translate their hugely complex songs into a live performance. Jonas’s voice is a truly wondrous thing; crystal clear and pitch perfect. And they are loud. Properly, knee-shakingly, chest-tremblingly loud, almost up there with The Twilight Sad. Which is good, as I don’t have to listen to the people behind me wittering on. About halfway through, the screens behind the band suddenly flash to life, showing men dancing around with deer’s skulls. It’s really quite odd. And up go the hairs on my arms for the first of about fifty times.

Scary Dancing Things!

Scary Dancing Things!

Next up comes a sequence of songs that a less talented band would have broken up and scattered throughout the show, but Mew have such utter confidence in the strength of their material that they can joyfully play four of their best songs in a row without worrying about keeping folks interested. Those songs are, of course, the New Order-esque “Special”, “The Zookeeper’s Boy”, “Am I Wry? No” and “156”.

“Special” kicks off with a down and dirty guitar riff, far rougher than on record, and during the song everyone starts clapping. You can’t beat a bit of audience participation. “The Zookeeper’s Boy” is played with a backdrop of dolls, with toy animal heads with human mouths, singing along. It’s really quite, quite disturbing. And odd. The song ends with four of the band singing counterpoint1, and it’s really quite, quite astonishing. I was at this point standing there with my mouth hanging open. I can only hope there wasn’t any dribble coming out.

Then the opening riff to “Am I Wry? No” starts, and the place goes, as they say, mental. Now, this being the first song of theirs I ever heard, it’s got that special place in my heart, and I love it when a band can translate everything you love about the song on record into an even better live version. I had to stop myself singing along (not that this would have mattered, frankly). And “156” is stripped down – yes, Mew can strip songs down, believe it or not – until about half way through when the guitars come in and tear through the ominous quiet of the first half.

Scary Children!

Scary Children!

After that, songs came thick and fast, and unfortunately I don’t have an accurate set list (despite those marvellous people at the Mew Forum). “Introducing Palace Players” has such a bizarre, discordant riff that it makes me wonder how the guitarist introduced it to the rest of the band at a practice. “Hey, Jonas, it’ll sound much better when you start yodelling over the top, honest”. I would dearly love to walk past a guitar shop and hear some spotty teenage axe hound trying to play it. Maybe that’s why this lot aren’t selling out the O2 like Muse – whilst the latter also make hugely complex, ornate music, you can still just about knock out one of their riffs. This lot? No hope. Still, I’d much rather be here than at the O2.

There was even an exceedingly odd moment with a talking bear thing. I really have no idea what the hell was going on – see if you can make sense of it yourself.

So, on went the wonderful songs, and the bonkers videos. Wolves, lampreys, more dolls with animal heads, and the guitarist dancing around with a mask on was a real eye-opener. “Silas The Magic Car” was a gratefully recieved quieter moment, and I was struck by just how great this lot sound singing together. Take that, Fleet Foxes! “Repeaterbeater” swooshed by like a train filled with mutant guitarists. The icy ferocity of “Snow Brigade” shook us to the core, and then the band left the stage. But we all know what was to come next; well, at least those of us who’d seen them before.

A Cat!  Playing A Violin!

A Cat! Playing A Violin!

On came Bo Madsen to play the “Comforting Sounds”, and Jonas sauntered on just in time to start singing. Then, as his singing reached the climax, the rest of the band came on, and anyone in the venue who had even the slightest doubt about Mew being absolute masters at this lark had those doubts thrown into the skip outside. The starfield behind the band suddenly changed to more animals, but this time they were actually cute little things, all playing violins. Look, a teddy with little round glasses! A bunny with a twitchy nose! A strange corpse skull thing! I was struck by the thought that this is possibly the best gig-ending song I’ve ever experienced.

All I have to say about Mew is this. They should go on tour with someone properly, massively huge, like U2, or Coldplay, or the aforementioned Muse, as they would blow the headline act totally and utterly out of the water. Whilst I wish huge success on all the bands I love, I really wouldn’t want to see Twilight Sad or Tindersticks or whoever play Wembley Arena or the O2. But Mew could just fill a place like that with a song like “Comforting Sounds”. And whilst their music is complicated and sometimes bizarre, so are Muse, and I know who I’d much rather go and see. Please go and see them for yourself and find out what I’m on about and why I have written this huge article. You won’t regret a second. Except the bits with the mouths. Stop it with the mouths, will you?

MP3: Silas The Magic Car by Mew

MP3: Comforting Sounds by Mew

MP3: The Zookeeper’s Boy by Mew

1 At least I think that’s what it’s called. They all sing different bits, not like a round. Oh, you know what I mean.

Buy “Frengers” (CD)

Buy “And the Glass Handed Kites” (CD)

Buy “No More Stories” (CD)

Note: All photos courtesy of kind people posting them on Flickr.

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London Grizzly Orchestra

The concept of a band playing their material with a full orchestra has a long and not necessarily glorious history. When the band has songs that make the most of a full orchestra, it can work rather nicely. Think of Elbow’s show this year with the BBC Concert Orchestra, or Tindersticks playing at the Bloomsbury Theatre. But just bunging strings on top of basic meat and potatoes rock just doesn’t cut it, as many bands during the Britpop era discovered, to their (and our) cost.

Grizzly Bear are about as far from meat and potatoes rock as you can get. Now, as I’ve posted about them about 100 times this year, I don’t really need to go into describing their extraordinary music again. So, dear reader, on with the review without any more guff from me.

Concrete (and grass) jungle

First things first. Isn’t the Barbican a freaky old place? It’s like a strange concrete oasis sat in the weird bit of London between The City and the West End. At first sight it looks like some nightmarish sink estate in Bradford or Loughborough, but then you sneak a look in an estate agents window and see that a one-bedroom flat goes for £500,000. Half a million! Sheesh. Then you notice the lack of litter and graffiti, and the nice little signs directing you along the raised walkways. Indeed, after a while you start to think it’s like running round a level of Quake 3 but without the monsters shooting at you.

Look, No Graffiti!

And the actual Barbican centre itself is really quite nice. I like venues where you can have a sandwich, a slice of cake, and a nice sit down.

Sorry, enough with the guff.

So, what do Grizzly Bear sound like with the LSO? Well, let me put it this way. Every time I go to see a band, there’s a little, totally unscientific test I carry out. It’s pretty simple and there really isn’t a way I can easily replicate it. But it works and frankly I can’t think of anything better.

It’s this. At what point during the show does the hair on my arms stand up? Music is a visceral thing that affects people in all sorts of ways, on an emotional level that no other artform can match. I got it about thirty seconds into the opener “Easier”, which says a great deal about how beautiful those opening moments were. “Cheerleader” was simply stunning, a much softer proposition than at Koko, with Daniel Rossen’s guitar stabs toned down to suit the occasion. Hairs still raised, then.

Then came “Southern Point”, and the drawbacks of playing with an orchestra come to the fore. The complexity of the song, mixed with a presumable lack of rehersal time, made the song a bit too cluttered and ineffective. It doesn’t help that Daniel Rossen’s guitar has been moved further down the mix, removing the brutal dynamic of his playing.

Normal service was resumed during “Central and Remote”, with the orchestra again providing beautiful backing to one of the band’s more dynamic numbers. Better still, the jamjar lights surrounding the bands started circling, matching the rhythm of the song, to hypnotic effect. They made me think of fireflies lighting up a tropical night. The coda to “All We Ask” was astonishing, with a subtle backing to the band’s vocal harmonies.

But the highlight came with “Knife”, and on their best known song the band and their new friends pull out all the stops. Whether it’s because the song is so well known, or whether it just suits the orchestral treatment, “Knife” was an absolute triumph (dahling). From gently plucked strings echoing the staccato guitar line near the start, to a soft swell of violins building behind and above Chris Taylor’s beautifully treated vocals, the song was a glorious demonstration of everything that this band can do with an orchestra.

Both “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait For The Others” were played sans orchestra, presumably to give them a bit of a rest. They spent their time smoking cigarettes, playing poker, and scratching their names into their chairs. Oh ok, they sat back and enjoyed the songs (especially the conductor, who looked like he was having a whale of a time).

The set came to an end with the trio of “He Hit Me” (Ed Droste in wonderful form), “I Live With You” (really quite pleasantly noisy), ending with a wonderfully understated “Foreground”. A standing ovation ensued, with the band returning with a decent version of “Colorado”, which, as it isn’t exactly my favourite song, I was glad to enjoy more than I expected.

So, was it a success? By and large, yes. Some songs, like “Knife” worked so well they totally overshadowed the songs that didn’t, like “Dory”. And the song selection was a bit odd too; the aforementioned “Dory” isn’t one of their best songs in any way, shape or form, yet a song like “Marla”, which would have worked beautifully with a full orchestra, was bafflingly left off the set list. But as the band themselves said, this opportunity doesn’t come along very often, and I’m so very glad that the hairs on my arms stood up. You can’t hide an emotional response like that, and you can’t hide from the fact that Grizzly Bear are one of the finest bands this decade – with violin-toting buddies or without.

On another note, isn’t the Twilight New Moon soundtrack looking interesting?

MP3: Two Weeks (Live) by Grizzly Bear

MP3: Slow Life by Grizzly Bear (featuring Victoria Legrand)

Buy “The Twilight Saga : New Moon Music From The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” (CD/MP3)

Buy “Veckatimest: Special Edition” (CD/MP3)

Note: live photos courtesy of various posters at Songkick.

Doolittle, Doolive

This whole “Doing A Whole Album From 20 Years Ago Live” thing is a curious matter. When bands like Teenage Fanclub do “Bandwagonesque” and Tindersticks play “Second Album”, it’s really nice, because you’ve kind of forgotten about them, and it’s lovely to be reminded afresh about what great bands they are. But the Pixies did the whole reunion thing five years ago. And that was a fantastic, angry, furious, joyful reunion, the audience’s rapture at the sheer inconcievability of the whole event absorbed by the band and reciprocated hundredfold in superb performances.

So this feels odd, especially as we’re back to the Brixton Academy again, scene of their great triumph back in 2004. “Doolittle” is possibly rock’s finest hour, a pure distillation of strangeness and sex and lust and religion and monkeys and Spanish surrealism and Biblical fury and environmentalism, all wrapped up with screaming and yelling and dischords and songs with so many hooks you could hang a whole bunch of coats on. But there’s a touch of redundancy about the whole thing, especially when the night kicks off with a bunch of B-sides.

The Most Redundant Set List Ever

The Most Redundant Set List Ever

The Pixies were never a B-sides band. Some, like New Order, hid their best songs away on B-sides and obscure releases on tiny Belgian record labels staffed solely by beer-quaffing nuns. But The Pixies released two astonishing records, and frankly you just need “Surfer Rosa” and “Doolittle”, and find “Isla de Encanta”, “Caribou” and “Cecilia Ann/Rock Music” somewhere. That’s pretty much it. The B-sides are pretty much entirely redundant. Buy the new, limited edition extended “Doolittle” with the B-sides, say the adverts at the start. No thanks, say the crowd.

Then, Kim starts that bassline, the lights drop out, and “Debaser” precipitates a frenzy. Everyone goes mad. Then comes “Tame”, one of their fiercest and most deranged songs, and everyone goes mad again. So it goes.

Hearing “Doolittle” song by song, you are struck by how much variety their songs feature. Even when they try to be poppy, in a Velvet Underground meets Beach Boys of “Here Comes Your Man” (featuring a great video of the band nodding their heads in approval), it comes across as pretty weird. The weirder songs are weirder still. “Mr Grieves” is still so bloody odd. “Tame”, “I Bleed” and “Gouge Away” still have such bewildering power twenty years on that your are left feeling breathless (aside from the huge crush at the front).

At the end of “Gouge Away”, the band bow and jape and joke at the front, with the display behind showing a video of the band bowing, japing and joking, soaking up some of the loudest cheering I’ve ever heard at a gig. And the first encore, ending with “Into The White”, feels a bit tacked on. But the second encore starts with “Isla De Encanta” and then jumps straight into “Broken Face”, whereupon every single person in the place goes utterly mad, yet again. Frank “Black” Black “Francis” actually looks, for the first time, like he’s enjoying it up there. Then it’s “Where Is My Mind”, and the night is over.

You know, I never thought I would say this, but I’m starting to wonder if they should give touring a rest for a bit. I mean, it’s wonderful to see them but some of the joy seems to have seeped out of Black “Francis” Frank “Black”. Ok, he wasn’t exactly a particularly cheery soul to start off with, but there’s a definite feel of him going through the motions. You know, calling this the “We Never Made Any Fucking Money From Doolittle So Give Us Some Now Tour” might be more appropriate, and who can begrudge them getting some belated glory? Lord only knows they deserve it, what with totally reinventing rock music and all.

So, maybe they need a break. But then again, who cares? They are still one of the best live acts out there, and show up bands twenty years their junior with ability to just sound so damned good. Much better than the Ally Pally shows from a few years ago, but sadly not quite touching the heights of their reunion shows.

And they are still the best band in the world to see a fat, bald middle-aged man screaming at the top of his lungs. Frank, Joey, Kim and Dave, we salute you.

MP3: I Bleed (live) by The Pixies

MP3: Gouge Away (live) by The Pixies

MP3: Hey (live) by The Pixies

MP3: Silver (live) by The Pixies

MP3: Tame (live) by The Pixies

MP3: Broken Face by The Pixies (Live)

Buy “Doolittle” (CD/MP3)

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Grizzly Bear, Live

Koko is a lovely venue. Opened originally in 1900, the spirit of old-style music hall is alive and well with the ornate balconies and the rich red paint; the new bar at the back works wonderfully with the period detail. The bar staff are friendly, the loos aren’t completely horrific, and there’s one of the best Japanese restaurants in London on its doorstep.

But whoever writes the bumpf on their website needs shooting. “Grizzly Bear have gone massive really quickly, the jury is out as to whether they are merely Animal Collective copyists or are ploughing their own field” I could just see them writing in the 60’s: “the jury is out as to whether The Rolling Stones are merely The Beatles copyists or are ploughing their own field”. And “gone massive really quickly”? Sure, no-one noticed them back in 2006 when they released what was widely regarded as one of the best albums of the year1. As the current vernacular states, seriously, dude, wtf?

Ranting aside, there is something about Grizzly Bear’s meticulously constructed Beach Boys chamber-noise pop stylings that really suits the venue. The sound really helps; pretty much clear as a bell all night, even during the furious wig-out at the end of “I Live With You” and “Fine For Now”. That latter song was one of the highlights of the night – on the album it’s maybe too constrained, too mannered, but live it bursts into life. Daniel Rossen’s guitar onslaught was beautifully controlled, just the right side of outright noise.

Lovely Lights, A Bad Camera

Lovely Lights, A Bad Camera

“Ready, Able”, with its baroque stylings, was a perfect example of what makes Grizzly Bear so great, and yet so discombobulating. Starting off with edgy drum rhythms and Daniel Rossen’s discordant guitar stabs, it suddenly switches to a beautiful Cocteau Twins-esque chamber-pop section, before changing yet again to reach ever more gorgeous heights. On record it’s beautiful enough, seeing the transformation happen live is almost transcendant.

And I wasn’t prepared for quite how much was involved in making their songs. Chris Taylor played bass, some kind of glockenspiel thing, a flute, a bass saxophone, and possibly a clarinet (my view was somewhat obstructed). During “Lullabye”, drummer Christopher Bear seemed to do some mucking about with an electric drum pad that involved a bass so heavy it made my trousers shake in a way they haven’t done since the Notting Hill Carnival in 2004. As for the singing; any of these guys could happily be the lead singer in any band you care to mention. Their harmonies put the likes of Fleet Foxes to shame. Chris Taylor’s heavily altered singing during “Knife” was stunning.

This lot are seriously talented. I have a recurring image of them in lab coats, cackling like mad scientists, whilst they write songs. There’s some very odd things going on musically, such as the odd guitar tunings to create lots of diminished sevenths and the like (ok, I don’t know, I’m making it up – if you know, feel free to comment!). I have no idea what tunings Daniel uses, but whatever he’s doing he’s obviously not doing it to make his fretting any simpler.

Grizzly Set List

Grizzly Set List

Sadly, there was no “Marla” (the creepiest song since Smog’s “I Was A Stranger”) or “Deep Blue Sea”, but you can’t ask for everything. The night ended with their cover of “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)”, another song that works far better live than on record. A quick rushed goodbye, and they were gone. I can’t wait for the Barbican show, with a full orchestra and everything. If it’s half as good as the Koko gig, we’re all in for a treat.

One last thing. What is it with London gigs and people talking? Seriously, can people not shut up for 90 minutes? You’re not at home watching it on TV, you are surrounded by people who have waited months to see a band live, and they did not pay good money to hear you shout at your friend. Seriously, shut it. Funnily enough, after the gig, in the lift at Mornington Crescent tube, someone went “SHHH!” to everyone talking. At least it’s not just me.

On the way home, we saw this:

Another Bear

Another Bear

As one friend said, “That advert is a hundred times better than the actual place”.

MP3: He Hit Me by Grizzly Bear

MP3: Fine For Now by Grizzly Bear

1 As previously noted, I did of course miss them. Look, I was tired, ok?

Buy “Veckatimest” (CD/MP3)

Buy “Friend EP” (CD/MP3)

Growl Growl Growl – Live Review, Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli

“He looks like David Mitchell” says Mrs Loft and Lost.
“You go and tell him that” say I.
“Actually, he looks like the lovechild of David Mitchell and Stephen Fry”
“Are you trying to get us killed?”

Mrs Loft and Lost is right though. Greg Dulli doesn’t really look like the sex-and-drugs obsessed rock demon of Afghan Whigs and Twilight Singers fame. He really does look like he could be David Mitchell’s taller, stroppier older brother. Not that I would tell him to his face, as he’d likely take me into the concrete wilderness of the South Bank and give me a good shoeing. On our way into the Royal Festival Hall I asked the lovely lady on the door if we could bring drinks in, and she replied “Of course, as long as it’s in plastic”. Yes, because I’m actually feeling suicidal right now, and I’d like to end it all by chucking a wine glass at the two grumpiest men in rock – Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli, otherwise known as The Gutter Twins. And playing acoustic, too.

I’ve seen Mark Lanegan live about six or seven times now, both with his band and with Queens Of The Stone Age, and I don’t recall him saying anything more than a couple of sentences each time1. Tonight, he managed a couple of jokey lines, but that was about the end of it, leaving his somewhat more forthcoming2 partner Mr Dulli to talk to the crowd, lead us in handclapping, introducing the (fantastic) guitarist (Dave Rosser, as both Martyn and Goonerandy have let me know – thanks chaps!), and exhorting us to “live life to the full”. Even sitting down, on a huge stage, with the usual huge amp stacks and drummer and the rest of the trappings of heavy rock replaced by a couple of acoustic guitars and a piano, he’s still a force of nature. On the third song in, whilst Greg and the guitarist are singing in harmony, a low, low growl comes through the speakers. I thought, “What the hell’s that?”. It took me a couple of seconds to realise it was Mark singing. He sounds like a particularly disgruntled tiger.

But by the sweet Mary mother of Jebus, does he have a voice. Quite frankly, it’s astonishing. He sounds like he’s spent an eternity sitting in run-down bars, drinking cheap whiskey and rueing the day he met that cheap no-good low-down woman and how she broke his heart. You can just as well picture him hunched over a glass of gutrot bourbon in a one-horse frontier town in 1874, as in a tavern by the docks in Plymouth in 1534, or drinking fermented woolly mammoth milk in an ostentatiously shabby cave about 5000 years BC, muttering something about how the dark days are going to come, and how that cheap no-good low-down woman has run off with Zog from the next cave along, and he’s going to have some of that there cactus juice tonight. There’s thousands of years of pain and heartache in that voice, and hearing him sing accompanied with just an acoustic guitar is a pleasure beyond mere words.

Don’t think that it’s just the tone of his voice that is special though. Mark’s actually got a better vocal range than you’d first expect; not just the bass growl that makes Barry White sound like he’s on helium. During “Sworn And Broken”, he actually sings, properly, and it’s a fair old treat. Ok, so he’s hardly Jeff Buckley, but the contrast with his usual rumblings makes the times he does venture above low C all the more effective. Oh, and thankfully the dreadful keyboard solo has gone (almost as bad as Sugar’s “Hoover Dam”), replaced with a marvellous guitar solo from Mr Rosser.

“Creeping Coastline Of Lights”, the sole track from Mark’s covers album “I’ll Take Care Of You”, was lovely, and was followed by “Resurrection Song”. In all honesty, the Lanegan material worked better acoustically than Dulli’s; partly because Dulli’s best songs have been balls-out, drink-sodden rage-filled soul-inflected numbers about doing all the wrong things in life (see “Teenage Wristband” or “Uptown Again”), so he had to fall back on either the quieter numbers, or try and make as loud a sound with two acoustics (or an acoustic and a piano). Some worked pretty well, like “Martin Eden” and the old Whigs number “If I Were Going”, but others don’t quite click as well as the Lanegan numbers do. But that’s harsh criticism, in fairness – there wasn’t a single moment that I got bored or wished a song was over. If anything, from the stage, they probably saw looked at me sitting in the front row wondering who that galoot was with the dumb grin on his face.

Setlist

Setlist

The last song before the encore was Bukka White’s “I Am In The Heavenly Way”. As both of them sang “Moving, joy, joy, joy\Wonderful joy, I’m movin’ on ”, we all thought “You know, you guys can stick about a bit longer if you want to”. So they did, and finished off with another cover, this time of Nick Drake’s “Three Hours”, with Dulli and Lanegan’s voices about as far from Drake’s fragile soprano as you can imagine. They sent us off into the South Bank night, happy as songs of misery, pain and addiction can make you.

Which, as it turns out, is pretty happy indeed.

(MP3’s courtesy of Mundo Eleven)

MP3: I Am In The Heavenly Way by The Gutter Twins (Live in Glasgow 2009)

MP3: Creeping Coastline Of Lights by The Gutter Twins (Live Glasgow 2009)

1 Andy, who’d originally told me about this show, said that when he first saw QOTSA live, he saw Mark shambling onto the stage and thought to himself “What the hell is that roadie doing?”. I can see exactly where he’s coming from there.

2 That’s not saying much. Lichen is more forthcoming.

Buy Mark Lanegan’s “I’ll Take Care of You” (Please, please do, it’s utterly fantastic)

Buy Gutter Twins “Saturnalia” (CD)

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