Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Fee Fie Foe Fum @ Cargo, 16/12/08, featuring Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons, Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit, Jay Jay Pistolet and more.

This year’s been a good one for homegrown folk music. A whole host of bands and solo artists have emerged, acoustic guitars in tow, to create a veritable sonic movement. New-folk distinguishes itself with an emphasis on earthy, acoustic musicality and stylistic integrity – a breath of fresh air in a digitally manufactured and commercially driven industry.

Fee Fie Foe Fum is new-folk’s Christmas party. It feels just like it, too, as the artists stand among the audience between sets, supporting one another and celebrating their individual successes and collective critical acclaim. We arrive to catch the end of Cherbourg, but cannot help being distracted by Laura Marling and Marcus Mumford, just a few feet away, in a romantic clinch. Most of the acts on the bill tonight have been touring together, across the globe, in one combination or another throughout the year, and there is an observable sense of community that makes the rest of us feel like the lucky gatecrashers.

Lucky is the word, though. Jay Jay Pistolet looks quite solitary as he takes to the stage after Cherbourg. He is softly sung, the vocal distorted by a mic effect that resounds in Cargo’s warehouse rafters as though emanating from a gramophone. There is an faux-sadness to his performance that is impossibly endearing, and a respectful hush falls upon the onlookers for each quiet, melancholy love song. What he lacks in versatility is more than compensated for in charisma, as he wishes us all a pleasant evening and, doe-eyed, departs the stage.

Mumford & Sons are next as the midnight hour approaches and the mood in the audience loosens up. The talented four-piece are waistcoat-clad and stand in a line, each absorbed by the task at hand as they dance, subconsciously. Their set is infectiously jubilant – there are soon people jigging in the audience, bottles held aloft. Mumford & Sons come off best in passages of magnificent male harmony (‘The Banjolin Song’) that sees all four of them singing like a dog-eared, growling Fleet Foxes, but without the same drifting tonality. If anyone steals the show it is Marcus and friends – and seeing as they don’t have an album out yet, that’s good going.

A little later, Laura Marling comments on how honoured she is to be playing on such an amazing line-up. “You are the line up!” someone shouts back from the floor, and is duly ticked off by Marling. She does look singularly beautiful in a dress and make-up tonight though – as though the boyish, dressed-down girl that we’ve all grown to love finally learned to take pride in her pretty face. She plays a meagre four songs – one new – and creeps off, before being encored back to the stage by the crowd. A rendition of ‘My Manic And I’ turns into a bit of a sing-along, which is utterly bizarre for a fatalistic little number without anything even approaching a chorus. But everyone loves it, and so we sing all of the well-worn words, encouraged by delighted smiles from the Joni Mitchell of new-folk.

“No one should ever have to follow Laura Marling,” Johnny Flynn grumbles as he takes to the stage. Although he is absolutely right, he still manages it as well as anyone possibly could. Flynn makes an angelic, if visibly nervous frontman, showing off extensive talent on any number of instruments while his band provide musical and moral support, ribbing him for his anxious chatter. Though it is the evening’s most unsure performance, with a lyrical slip-up mid-set, it still encompasses all of the best of qualities of new folk – earnest musicality, inclusivity, and humility. There’s not a single person without a smile on their face by the time Flynn and his band play the closing chords.

Forget idiotic day-glo lycra and faddy electro – if tonight’s anything to go by, 2009 will belong to new-folk.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Live Review: First Aid Kit @ 12 Bar Club, 15/12/08

The flyer says we’re in for ‘a night of new Swedish music’. At least I think it does, it’s in Swedish. And anyway, in truth, we’re here for First Aid Kit. It’s the duo’s first appearance in the UK tonight, and there’s a kind of featherlight anticipation in the air. At just 15 and 17 respectively, Klara and Johanna Söderberg gained mini-notoriety in the blogosphere this year due to their astounding cover of Fleet Foxes ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’, recorded in one take, in a forest (youtube it). They have but a handful of handpenned songs on their myspace that demonstrate glorious, viscid vocal power, thick with harmony, that has attracted quite a crowd of good looking neophiles to hear the real thing for the first time, this evening.

Support comes from Ben Thomas, a plaid-clad thick-set Scandinavian-type. He hulks over his guitar under dense dirty-blonde curly hair, his voice a vibrating growl. Although songs teeter on lyrically clichéd, there is a quiet magnetism about him that hones attention until the end of the set.

Chairs have to be cleared before First Aid Kit, to cater for the swelling audience. Klara and Johanna look unafraid, almost vacant, as they prepare the stage, but when the set opens with an almost-acapella call-to-arms that shakes the dust in the small backroom, the reason for their quiet confidence is suddenly quite apparent. They befit simple, sometimes green sounding folk songs with very little accompaniment, with Klara on lead vocal and acoustic guitar and Johanna colouring harmonic holes with autoharp, keyboard and vocals.

While First Aid Kit’s lyrics, which seem to dwell curiously on infidelity, sometimes slip off the boil with juvenile sentiment, the duo are, for the large part, capable of remarkable maturity, both musically and otherwise. At times Johanna screws up her pretty face and clenches her keyboard stand with the force of her vocal power, which rips through the room. What’s more, there is clear versatility in what the girls produce, ranging from seductive, bluesy vocals to the razor-edge country twang of ‘You’re Not Coming Home Tonight’. And then there is the Fleet Foxes cover, which threads aural vines of earthy forest-folk through the floorboards, leaving everyone spellbound.

Their set finishes with big smiles as the elder bashes the keyboard and the younger strums a coda, and their giggles get lost in applause. The endearing childlike edges that colour their set might not endure, but this is music and talent crafted to last. What we’ve witnessed tonight marks the beginning of a very exciting time for the Söderberg sisters.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion Preview

Gigwise went down to Plastic People in London for a very special invite-only preview of Animal Collective’s eighth album last night (3rd December).

‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’, as the record is titled, will already sound familiar to those who have witnessed Animal Collective live in 2008, with much of it made up from retitled set material performed this year.

From first listen ‘Merriweather’ steps away from the pop sensible inflections of 2007’s ‘Strawberry Jam’, which induced a bit of a panic amongst fans that AC were becoming more commercial. Instead it shows shades of minimalist techno, especially in album closer ‘Brothersport’, perhaps the closest AC have ever come to dance music. This is overlaid with their familiarly strong preoccupation for fuzzy psychedelia, realised through much lo-fi production and down tempo 8-bit.

‘Merriweather’ follows in a more experimentalist vein that might be best described as garage electronica, much like contemporary releases from fellow avant garde noise proponents Deerhunter and TV On The Radio, which will likely delight long-time fans of AC’s ability to push through accepted generic form.

‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ will be released on Domino in 2009.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Ladyhawke Interview: The Accidental Popstar

It happened somewhere in a field near Leeds in 2007, watching Johnny “firstly, I’m a genius” Borrell strut across a stage lit up brighter than the heavens, clad in skin-tight white, like the Jesus of a generation: the realisation that indie music has a habit of creating these truly ridiculous egomaniacs who will stop just short of actually nailing themselves to a backlit crucifix to prove that they are the undisputed saviour of music. It was the same sentiment that surfaced upon hearing Reverend And The Makers frontman, Jon McClure, proclaim that he was going to quit music earlier this year with the words, "I'm gonna go out having told the truth and with my head held high and having stood for something.” (Did anyone ever work out what?) Thankfully, this mutated sub-species of musical hubris generally results in a nasty media backlash (like this one) and the perpetrators of such usually end up looking like silly pricks (like McClure).

The absence of this all-too-familiar arrogance is one reason why Ladyhawke is somewhat of a breath of fresh air. She’s not reinventing the wheel with her synth-laden Stevie Nicks-esque take on modern pop. Ladyhawke takes what any self-respecting music lover once loved about the eighties – those Kate Bush synth-choirs, that hypnotically tinny drum machine, and that impressively voluminous backcombed barnet – and dusts it off a bit for a new generation, spruces it up with a plaid shirt for the indie kids. This isn’t just all hot air and blonde hair – take a good listen to Ladyhawke’s debut and you’ll hear everything from Tangerine Dream in ‘Manipulating Woman’ to Gary Numan in ‘Paris Is Burning’ to Human League in ‘Better Than Sunday’. So yes, plenty of early eighties references here then. And all that from a Kiwi girl the wrong side of twenty-five with roots in hardcore and punk.

“I guess I never really expected it to get to this,” Ladyhawke admits. Only she’s not really Ladyhawke today – there’s no sign of the vampish alterego that the name suggests – no Jesus complex, thank God (apologies). This is just Pip Brown, admitting that her aspirations “were quite small. I was writing in my bedroom, expecting to sign to some indie label and release an EP in Australia, and to be honest I think I would have been quite happy to do that.” Instead she accidentally made a wildly successful pop record, selling 3500 copies in the first week of release and catapulting her into the media spotlight. Which hasn’t been easy, especially as Brown suffers from Aspergers, a condition on the autistic spectrum that can affect communication, interaction and imagination – three qualities that at first glance seem fairly essential for your average aspiring popstar.

“Sometimes, if I didn’t have stuff to do I’d just never leave the house, I went through a period of time when I didn’t leave the house for ages [three months, to be exact] and my friends were telling me that I had to get out!” Pip says of her social nervousness. She doesn’t come across all that shy in person, but she visibly suffers from stage fright in her live shows, something that the media have often noticed. “I always worry I’ll fuck up – make a mistake, sing off key, make a fool of myself on stage…” It was to counter this that Ladyhawke was invented – an alterego for Pip that could embody the starry qualities her creator lacked. This kind of method acting isn’t new – The Beatles tried the same tack to counter the professional pressure they felt with Sgt. Pepper in 1967. But has it worked?

“It didn’t work out, because we’re just the same person,” she admits. “Sometimes I try and use Ladyhawke more, I try to dress differently on stage. But mostly I just take that side of it as it comes, I don’t expect it to get better.” Strangely then, it’s actually the gigging that Pip likes best. “Even though I get nervous and everything, I just have to tell myself it’s over in about forty minutes – my sets aren’t very long. I love playing – it’s kind of a love hate thing. And you get so much free alcohol!”

It’s the same with her music – Ladyhawke is absolutely a pop record, and yet Pip loves heaps of stuff from the other end of the musical spectrum. “First I was in a hardcore band, and then a grunge band, and then this punk rock band. I still listen to AC/DC, and I always think it’s only a matter of time before I revert back to that.” She talks of side projects in sixties rock that feature her on the drums for future collaborations, and reminisces about her early punk days, which even saw her play at New York’s CBGB club – the birthplace of New York punk.

As for Ladyhawke, Pip has no plans to procrastinate over her second album. “I already have an idea of exactly where I want to go with the next album, I want to try something new.” And when asked if she plans for it to come out next year she squeals, “definitely, I don’t know why I would wait until 2010, it seems far too far away! I’d get bored and probably move home!” Pip seems fairly savvy about the fickleness of celebrity culture, quick enough, anyway, for her to realise the importance of capitalizing on 2008’s success with a sharpish followup.

Ladyhawke has had a few run-ins with the weirder side of celebrity this year. “My friend actually put me on to this youtube video called ‘Ladyhawke Lover’, and it is so scary!” she tells me, of her biggest fan. “This girl is obsessed! She has this big picture of me above her bed with lights all around it, and then she goes to her cupboard and she has a shrine with a picture of me in it. And then she gets a glass of wine and she dips her finger in the wine and rubs it on my face, and she says, “Please Ladyhawke if you see this get in touch with me!” She’s a New Zealander though so that made me feel a bit safer – I’m over here and she’s over there!”

Pip seems to find it hilarious that someone out there could really become obsessed by her and her music. There is genuine bemusement at her own success in her voice when she says “it surprises me how things happen and once the ball starts rolling people just seem to catch on – it’s insane.” This kind of humility is a breath of fresh air in an industry saturated in self righteous Jesus-types and mediocre reality TV victims. Here’s hoping Ladyhawke hangs around in the UK long enough for it to rub off.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Jefferson Airplane: White Rabbit

Released in 1967 following ‘Somebody To Love’, ‘White Rabbit’ is arguably Jefferson Airplane’s finest achievement. It was written and performed by Grace Slick whilst she was vocalist for The Great Society (as was ‘Somebody To Love’), and was part of the reason that bassist Jack Casady asked her to join Jefferson Airplane in 1966. ‘White Rabbit’ came from their sophomore LP ‘Surrealist Pillow’, although it was only featured on the US version of the album, and peaked at number 8 on the US billboard charts.

Slick is rumoured to have written the song in an hour, as a reflection of the drug-addled sixties counterculture and based on ideas in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’. The original included an oboe solo played by Slick herself, but it was her haunting, sturdy contralto vocal in ‘White Rabbit’ that was to go some way in establishing the solo female vocal in rock music (most vocalists were male at this time) and influence numerous female vocalists throughout the seventies and beyond, including Stevie Nicks and Patti Smith.

The music itself is has a strong Spanish rhythm that Slick claims to have taken from Ravel’s famous ‘Bolero’, the idea for which came to her after taking LSD and listening to Miles Davis’ album ‘Sketches Of Spain’. The propulsive, hypnotic quality of the music climaxes in a terrific crescendo, at which point Dr Gonza demands that Raoul Duke throws the tapedeck into the bathtub with him during a nasty acid trip in Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas’. The ‘one pill makes you larger, one makes you small’ refrain is also an idea rumoured to have influenced the dilemma faced by Neo in the 1999 film ‘The Matrix’.

In reality, ‘White Rabbit’ became the soundtrack to the 1967 Summer Of Love. It represented the lysergic euphoria of a generation of young people who turned to drugs to escape from the horrors of Vietnam and Nixon, as the seventies approached and America began to rot from the inside.