Monday, 23 February 2009

Live Review: The Phantom Band + Scanners @ The Macbeth 21/2/09

It’s rare that the support act trumps the headliner, but The Phantom Band are certainly giving it a go tonight at Twisted Licks. The Macbeth is swollen at the seams by nine, quite a feat for a Saturday night, and as the band come on the door staff have to resort to one-in-one-out. The amazing turn-out is for a good reason: The Phantom Band have finally ventured down from Glasgow to unleash prolonged, moody Scot-rock upon us London types, aided by more various and copious percussion instruments than you could shake a beater at. It’s almost reminiscent of music lessons at primary school, each band member equipping himself with a wooden hitty-shaky-scrapey stick that swaps hands during the set.

There’s nothing amateurish about The Phantom Band, though, whose quiet confidence imbues every feedback-laden guitar effect and each dark, layered chord. With six of them on stage, it’d be hard not to produce a sound thick with instrumentation, but this is achieved with such guile that disparate elements, including keyboards, melodica and synths, seem inseparably mashed.

The Phantom Band are, at times, as noisy as fellow Scots The Twilight Sad, but rhythmic preoccupations makes some songs more angular and anchored than their distortion-laden contemporaries. There’s something indelibly Scottish about the way frontman Rick Anthony plays the melodica, too, as though it’s a budget set of bagpipes held aloft to the mic. The audience absorbs walls of intoxicating sound through shifting tempos and keys, awestruck at the level of technical brilliance and talent that The Phantom Band have managed to hide for so long (they’ve been playing together for some six years now). This is a band destined for big things.

Scanners, meanwhile, were a band destined for big things some three years ago, but for one reason or another early hype about 2008’s album, ‘Violence Is Golden’, never quite delivered. The four-piece create punk-pop rock PJ Harvey would be proud of, saturated in friendly hooks, catchy melodies, and formulaic lyrics about nightmares and heartbreak and the like.

There’s confusion over what exactly they want to achieve though – Scanners aren’t quite filthy or raw enough to match Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, although frontwoman Sarah Daley is turning heads with her blunt cut black hair and slightly whiney rock vocal. Equally, if they want to court a pop market there needs to be less rock-star posturing, a la Howling Bells (whose comeback album this year smacks of watered-down, chart-hungry blandness). That ‘Lowlife’, one of their earliest tracks and already twice released without causing much bother, should still come off as their finest moment among much new material, speaks volumes.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Live Review: The Soft Pack + Stricken City + The Invisible @ The Lexington 20/2/09

The Lexington, with its sunken dance floor and freshly revamped red décor, is an apt setting for tonight’s line-up, courtesy of Rockfeedback vs. White Light. The Invisible’s close, proggy electro-funk reverberates in the heat of the dark room, infectiously rhythmic and almost hypnotic in its intensity. The Invisible are a three piece consisting of borrowed members of other bands (Jade Fox, Matthew Herbert, Polar Bear) that have been playing together for about three years; long enough, at least, to hone their synth-laden guitar-based space-pop to a level of mesmerising polish. Their sound isn’t a million miles from TV On The Radio’s, but infinitely more laid-back, with Dave Okumu stealing all the limelight as a huge silhouette in a glistening tunic, anything but invisible himself.

Stricken City is a million miles from this opening. After the honed precision and obvious experience of their forebears they appear especially young and musically flawed – although it is clear that intentional imperfections are part of the act. Front woman Rebekah Raa is an act in herself, in fact. Dressed in an odd concoction of sportswear, feathers and animal print, she cuts a diminutive, unwashed figure centre stage, flicking her wrists and babbling nonsense between tracks.

Stricken City’s produce piecemeal indie-pop heavily informed by the lo-fi twee-indie-pop of the eighties. At first it’s unclear whether Rebekah can sing for all the affected tweeting and whooping she is mustering, but there are moments where notes tail off into magnificent vibrato, hung on the scratchy indie-hubbub of the band. Although she commands the limelight admirably, Rebekah’s stage persona grates with its stylised eccentricities, and it is somewhat a relief when Stricken City depart the stage ready for tonight’s headliners.

Heralded as ‘the new Strokes’, The Soft Pack gained mini-notoriety recently for changing their name from ‘The Muslims’ because of racist concerns. The gimmick has worked as a small masterstroke in PR, managing to grab them headlines that they perhaps hadn’t quite earned with the recent release of their only EP. The hard work starts here for this San Diego four-piece, as they try and retain the interest in them sparked by the name-change. While comparisons to the Strokes aren’t unfounded, there is something woozier and less-angular about their fuzzed, west-coast rock that suggests Wire or even The Velvet Underground. It’s delivered with confidence, but The Soft Pack lack panache tonight, perhaps due to the heavy touring they’ve been doing of late.

This is rock music that wears its influences on its sleeve, too, and while revivalist rock ‘n’ roll has its place, for those of us savvy to recognise sonic nostalgia like this, it tends solely to ignite a yearning for the real deal. With this in mind, whether or not The Soft Pack can carve their own niche will be critical to their longevity in the coming year.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Live Review: Ra Ra Riot + The Answering Machine @ Kings College 17/2/09

Tonight’s Ra Ra Riot gig has been upgraded from Borderline to King’s College – and it’s a masterstroke. Not only did the freshfaced New Yorkers sell out Borderline’s 300 capacity, making them eligible for a bash at flogging the 700 tickets needed to fill the College, they’ve also attracted what feels like half the student population to their gig in the upper echelons of the student union. (Prompting the question: why is it that all student unions look like oversized squash courts?)

It’s already packed when we arrive in time to catch the end of The Answering Machine. They’re a young and lacklustre fourpiece from Manchester, and that’s pretty much all there is to say without being downright nasty. File under ‘landfill indie’ and back away.

Ra Ra Riot are on hand to add some class to proceedings. This Syracuse sextet have been playing together for some three years now, and it shows. Just months after they began showcasing their polished orchestral pop, their drummer, John Pike, was discovered drowned in Massachusetts. It wasn’t enough to put an end to the band, but the scars of the tragedy still run clear on the surface of their music. Nearly all the songs on their debut album ‘The Rhumb Line’ strike of a kind of joyous loss, a resolutely exuberant tribute to a departed friend.

Live, the band manage to fill the stage with infectious energy. Both guitarists seem to have styled themselves on the Ben Folds school of geekery, and are flanked by two pretty young string players brandishing fancy electronic stringed-things that lend an air of professionalism to an otherwise young-looking outfit. The strings define Ra Ra Riot – they carry every track from the realms of upbeat, quirky pop and into a kind of majestic and mesmerising higher plane. This soon becomes evident when the strings segue seamlessly from first track ‘Run My Mouth’ into ‘Each Year’. While the youth of Ra Ra Riot is overt, much like with Welsh pop-ettes Los Camposinos, they aren’t quite so gratingly twee, hitting on a Vampire Weekend-esque kitsch-pop and making it all their own with that string section.

Ra Ra Riot are jubilantly received in Borderline tonight, frontman Wesley running across the front of the stage clapping hands with the crowd during ‘Dying Is Fine’. But the best is saved for the encore – a cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds Of Love’ that blows the Futureheads out of the water. No, really. Wesley’s voice is remarkable, and surrounded by such impressive musicianship, they make the cover their own. Tonight marks the end of the band’s UK tour, so you may have to wait a while to see them perform this side of the pond again, but you’d be well advised to catch Ra Ra Riot on their return.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Royksopp Interview

In the words of Royksopp’s Svein Berge, “there are things brewing in the north.” Not least among them is the third album from the smooth-talking electro-pop pair. Entitled ‘Junior’, this latest instalment of gilded Royksoppian glitch-pop promises to fall somewhere between their million-selling debut of 2001, ‘Melody AM’, and the catchier, melodic sensibilities of 2005’s follow-up, ‘The Understanding’. Though ‘Junior’s’ list of guest vocalists reads like a roll call of Scandinavian pop goddesses, it’s the return of the internationally acclaimed Norwegian duo that that fans are most anticipating. In a very special early preview, Svein tells Gigwise what we can expect…

“For us ‘Junior’ is following the concert of Royksopp in terms of trying to create unique songs – that sounds very pretentious but that’s what we try to make in all honesty,” Svein begins of Royksopp’s third studio album. Even on the phone, his famed good-humour and silver-tongued press-manner shine through. He tells me that the new album contains “special songs with emphasis on trying to present interesting sounds in the traditional heritage of Royksopp,” in a description so spectacularly evasive that there seems little point asking him to elaborate further.

Instead, we move onto Junior’s Scandinavian celebrity line-up. Robyn, Lykke Li, and The Knife’s Karin Dreijer are holding the Swedish fort, while Anneli Drecker represents Royksopp’s own Norway. “There are a lot of good things coming out of Scandinavia at the moment from Sweden, Norway and Denmark,” Svein says of his contemporaries. “We know these people and they know us: it is all intertwined and very inclusive, the whole operation. I don’t mind being associated with these enormously talented artists. Royksopp are a bit on the side of it, but we try and invite ourselves into that clique, obviously.”

But Svein is keen to make clear that Royksopp have never quite courted convention: “I notice that we are still being called either a downtempo, chillout duo, which I believe is quite wrong, or I see us branded as a dance act, which I also think is mistaken. I wouldn’t really go out and shake my hips to a song like Royksopp’s ‘Forever’, you know? It would be kind of hard unless you have very special dancing abilities!”

“There’s no one around quite like us,” Svein elaborates of the difficulties of being a crossover between dancefloor acts like Daft Punk, Justice, or the oft-compared polished electro-pulse of Air, and the recent surge of indie-electro bands, like MGMT. “This album in particular I believe is quite eclectic and diverse: I couldn’t really recommend one single place to listen to it. Torbjørn likes to listen to it while he’s driving a car. I’m more of a shower man myself, I like to listen to it when I’m showering. I’m an Aquarius, so I like being close to water, and then there’s nudity, which adds to it.”

The ten years of Royksopp’s history make for impressive reading. Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland met at school, though Royksopp came into being a few years later, in 1998, in a Norwegian musical renaissance remembered as the ‘Bergen Wave’, after its place of origin. Just three years on, the success of their debut, with its ingenious videos and ubiquitous commercial licencing, catapulted them into an international sphere of recognition that has seen them win numerous awards and sell millions of records. It’s an illustrious career, no doubt, but Svein isn’t quite finished just yet: “I’ve always wanted to touch Vangelis’ beard. I want to touch divinity, and to me he is the god of synthesizer. After that I can just wither and die, I’ll have done my share of mortal toil.” I meekly suggest that some Royksopp fans might object to this rather unexpected demise of Norway’s best-loved musical export, at which point he muses, “well, there’s always the option of remastering Melody A.M. ten times with different remixes…”

To the contrary, new single ‘Happy Up Here’ more that suffices to prove that Royksopp have no intention of living off their past successes: “Age is coming whether you like it or not – but it’s not as if we are going to drift into mediocrity,” Svein assures. The single’s seductive, reverberating throb coats familiar Royksoppian melodic murmurings that promise, "You know I really like it/ I know I'll always be here.” And while, much like ‘Forever’, the allusions to eternity strike of ambition beyond Svein and Torbjørn’s mere-mortal means, it’s clear that Royksopp haven’t quite lost their charisma, musical or otherwise, just yet.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Live Review: Crystal Stilts + A Classic Education @ Windmill, Brixton 13/2/09

Brooklyn has been at the centre of a garage-pop revival of late, born of stripped-back diy-rock that finds its feet somewhere between the dreampop of C86 cohorts The Shop Assistants and lo-fi post-punk outfit Young Marble Giants. Key players on the scene include Cause Co-motion, Vivian Girls, and tonight’s Windmill headliners, Crystal Stilts.

First up from Italy, A Classic Education are a sextet with an unpretentious yet unoriginal take on tambourine-bashing indie-pop of late, a la Arcade Fire (the band once opened for Win Butler and co. last year). Despite hailing from Bologna, their lyrics curl with a thick American accent that reminds of Deathcab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. Two guitars give the band sound depth, while a violinist lends an orchestral element that veers towards the grandiose, but is limited by lyrics that tend to lack guile. They finish with ‘Stay Son’, a track from the ‘First EP’, and depart the tiny corner stage to disperse among the tight-packed crowd.

First impressions of Crystal Stilts confirm them a frosty bunch. The sporadic elements of their sound, shot with lo-fi romance, seem in constant conflict, which lends itself to a stuffy tension. Vocalist Brad Hargett towers at the front, but his voice is barely audible beneath rattling tambourines, the tinny chimes of a sixties organ, reverberating surfer guitars and what can only be described as ferocious drumming on the part of ex-Vivian Girls’ percussionist, Frankie Rose. It’s at once gloomy and infectious.

What Crystal Stilts lack in variation they make up for in sonic consistency, adopting a contrived unbalance that makes their sound lysergic and dour. Hargett reminds of Ian Curtis as he sways, arms swinging, steely gaze fixed and voice deep and droning. When the band address the audience, the words come from Frankie on drums, drenched in sweat and grinning, or muffled and vacant from Hargett. There’s something irrepressibly revivalist about the spectral guitars and faux-romanticism of the doom-pop Crystal Stilts purport. But they carry the flag unapologetically ahead of their Brooklyn-based peers and if art reflects life, Crystal Stilts are the perfect soundtrack to empty purses in the half-light of this wintry city.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Emmy The Great Interview

I’m thinking that interviews aren’t meant to go like this. Emma Lee-Moss is sitting opposite me telling me about living with Charlie from Noah and The Whale, and coming home from a holiday to find Laura Marling in her house, and nicknaming Marling ‘Anne Frank’ because she was always in Emmy’s attic.

I ask her about Charlie as though I’ve known her for years, when in reality her PR only just introduced us, and I’m suddenly aware of just how unusual it is to speak to an artist that isn’t answering-by-rote. To the contrary, Emmy is completely unguarded when she leans forward and says, “We never touched or kissed or anything, but he lived at my house, and we slept in the same room because we were so inseparable. We were intensely good friends for six months, and then one day I came back and Laura Marling was in Charlie’s room. And then Charlie violently moved out, I don’t know what happened.”

What happened is that Emmy went on to shun everyone’s predictions that 2008 was her year, veering past major-label record deals and turning her back on the hype – and the new folk ‘scene’ in the process. It’s now 2009 and her album is only just about to be released. It’s called ‘First Love’, a title almost on a par with her own in levels of unbearable tweeness. Emmy’s been trying to tell everyone that the title ‘First Love’ has some kind of literary origin, but it seems unlikely, and the fact that the media lap up her stories is clearly a game to this deadpan, half-chinese, middle-class English girl with her smiling eyes. There’s a Catch-22 irony about a humble person self-titled ‘great’, and it smacks of good humour.

Personal difficulties aside, Emmy seems to struggle with the very idea of any ‘scene’. “Most of this new folk thing, I can see all the contradictions,” she says. “There are so many complications when the press decide that something is a scene, it’s just so much hassle. I just want them to all get in a group and say that they’re a scene and then for someone to take a picture.” She sounds at once brave and slightly indignant, but the message is clear: Emmy The Great intends to do things her own way, whether anyone else approves or not.

‘First Love’ rattles with that homemade feel; it sounds like faded wallpaper and peeling lacquer and the lingering warmth of recent sunshine. I assume this is intentional, but Emmy doesn’t seem so sure. “I’m aware of the record's flaws,” she says. “We made a lot of mistakes. I didn’t want it to sound hi-fi, so it sounds fucking awful, I wanted to use bad equipment. We maybe didn’t spend enough money on the actual recording.” A couple of days later she will hunt me down on facebook to give me a link to the remastered version with its much improved attention to balance and sonic consistency, and I’ll be left thinking, again, how rare it is in the music industry to find someone quite so unaffected.

Today, Emmy is half way through telling me about the time she got sold for ket at Reading Festival when her PR tells me to wrap up the interview, and it seems suddenly formal juxtaposed with all the chatting we’ve been doing. The NME, perhaps confused by someone so reluctant to leap onto bandwagons, described Emmy as the girl that boys want to take care of and girls love to hate. In truth, Emmy The Great is much like her music: disarmingly honest, steeped in good-humour and genuinely charming – qualities that confuse most people in this business. Here’s hoping she stays that way.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Live Review: Cherbourg @ Borderline 5/2/09

Scenes are funny things. It’s near-on impossible to pin down the moment that a meeting of like-minds under the right conditions becomes a movement of cultural significance. And while NME like to hedge their bets by labelling every artist that emits so much as a squeak with a gibberish genre tag, the likelihood is that by the time we on the receiving end catch on to a musical trend, it’s already all but finished for those who instigated it.

That’s what Phil of new-folk’s latest offering, Cherbourg, means when he tells me the scene is over as we talk over cigarettes outside Borderline at the band’s EP release. He doesn’t mean London new-folk is dead – far from it with albums from Mumford & Sons, Noah and The Whale and of course, Cherbourg, scheduled for release this year. He means that now London new-folk is established, labelled, and accepted by even the most genre shy, those within it will inevitably start to grow out of its artistic constraints. What usually happens at this stage is that major labels sign lesser-talented imitation acts, rather like commercial vultures picking at the popularity of original movement.

Cherbourg are perhaps the last genuine new folk act, and to some extent even they surface in the shadow of their predecessors, Mumford & Sons. Frontman Andrew Davie sings with the same throaty folky drawl as Marcus Mumford, and the four members slip into similar four part harmonies throughout their set. They distinguish themselves by always erring on the unapologetically dark side of the lyric-stick, the line ‘it’s just another nightmare and you forgot to close your eyes’ but one example. Also, Phil swaps his fiddle for an electric guitar every now and then for some quite indulgent solos that he could probably pull off if they weren’t accompanied by closed eyes and a ‘meaningful’ expression.

Taking themselves too seriously might be Cherbourg’s greatest danger as they navigate the ‘scene’ this next year. They’re new-folk’s darlings boys – there’s a show of support from Noah and The Whale’s Tom and Jay Jay Pistolet mixed in with a very lovey-lovey crowd at Borderline tonight – but they haven’t quite made it yet. While songs about heartbreak proliferate, Cherbourg’s lyrics tend towards the formulaic and they’ve definitely been peeking at Mumford and Sons’ rhyming dictionary (at one point even rhyming ‘ear’ with ‘ear’). But as a tight musical outfit with mates in the right places, there’s no reason why 2009 shouldn’t work out excellently for them and their fiddler-friends in new-folk.