Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit, The Old Blue Last, London, 21.05.2007

'I sometimes find it hard to be a man,' sings Johnny Flynn, and he looks like he means it. He's top of the bill at the Old Blue Last, a venue better known for its hosting of Shoreditch’s dazzling guitar-band legacy than for the kind of sensitive (if hard-edged) folk that Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit purvey. The first half of his set is almost drowned out by the braying of pissed Hoxton kids. But to his credit, Johnny manages to more or less silence the idiots by the end of his set, thanks to the tightness of his chamber band and his own multi-instrumental musicality. The closing song — Tickle Me Pink, which is available on Young&Lost Records — is the clincher: 'Pray for the people inside your head, for they won’t be there when you’re dead.' It's difficult for the audience to focus on looking cool in a trilby when that kind of sentiment is in the air.
Cash-like in his intensity, Johnny Flynn doesn’t belong here. Like so many before him, he falls into the black hole between folk and pop. Too delicate to mesmerise a pub crowd, but too rocking for the beardy-weirdy circuit, he needs a concentrated, dedicated audience. Occasionally, when a lyric is so strong that even this modest youngster knows it ('All the dogs are lying down, all the dogs are lying…'), he shows a self-belief that the Shoreditch Twats can't fail to notice. But too often the coherence of his songwriting is let down by his lack of stage presence.
There's serious promise here, nevertheless. With the right audience, Johnny could be good.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Dummy Blog Album of the Week: 'Ongiara' by Great Lake Swimmers

My ceasless complaint with British indie is that it never does anything new – seems to spit, in fact, on the very notion of newness – and yet when a folk album like this comes along, an exquisite retread of timeless styles, I have no complaint. Why? Perhaps because rock is supposed to be rebellious and exciting, and there is nothing in the world less rebellious and exciting than four young white males for whom history ended not with the fall of the Berlin Wall but with London Calling or Entertainment; folk, on the other hand, is supposed to be older and wiser. And Tony Dekker, the Wainfleet, Ontario singer-songwriter behind Great Lake Swimmers, certainly sounds old and wise – like Sam Beam and Will Oldham, he has one of those ninety-year-old-man voices that's as hoarse as a pile of dead leaves.

Only once on Ongiara, on the contemplative Passenger Song, is that voice left unchaperoned with an acoustic guitar; for the rest of the album, Dekker is backed by banjo, drums, double bass, organ, and/or string arrangements by Arcade Fire-collaborator Final Fantasy. The strangely stop-start, wax-wane pace of many of these songs reminds me of Nina Nastasia, with whom Dekker shares a country-esque stoical melancholy; but Dekker, described amusingly as a 'pine-gazer' on Allmusic, is more likely to let songs like Changing Colours and I Became Awake swell, often beautifully, into a proper chorus. And although we've seen everything here before, Dekker does it all exceptionally well. That also includes the lyrics, which are a long way above the folk standard 'Oh, it's winter, look at the crows' or 'Wasn't it nice back then with your lovely hair?'; Your Rocky Spine, for example, is an elegant and sustained metaphorical riff on woman's-body-as-mountain-range over an uptempo banjo melody that could be Seven Swans-era Sufjan Stevens. (Although I don't know whether Backstage With The Modern Dancers is just about a modern dance show or whether it's really about, like, regret.) 2007 has been a huge musical disappointment so far, but I don't mean it as a half-compliment when I say that Great Lake Swimmers' slow, moving third LP may be the best thing I've heard this year.


Out now on Weewerk.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Blow, The Luminaire, London, 30.4.2007

“You London people, with your cool clothes and your driving on the left,” sighs Khaela Maricich, half of Portland's The Blow, to a glowing Luminaire. “All I do is write songs about things I can’t have.” It’s a theme throughout her set of winding anti-folk vocals (taken mostly from recent fourth LP Paper Television) that float alternately above big sexy beats and nothing but the sound of her finger tapping against the mic. Between singing, robot-dancing and acting out her lyrics, she tells us long, funny stories about her attempts to understand love, get over herself, and write “hot songs” that link the whole set together as some kind of exploration of the human condition. And when she’s finished telling us about her struggles with intimacy and about imaginary sexist truckers who are really just scared of the immensity of the universe, she announces she’s going across town to play another gig. Sweaty, exhilarated, and hungry for more, we have no choice but to follow.

Ned adds: You could characterise The Blow as a sort of anti-Hadouken. Like the castaway in Watchmen who sales home on a raft of dead bodies, Hadouken have achieved NME-cover/Vice-party success by reappropriating cleverly from the failed genre of grime. The Blow, too, are white people borrowing from black music - in this case The Neptunes' click'n'b - but while Hadouken will probably sell ten times as many records as JME, The Blow, of course, won't sell 1% as many as Chad and Pharrell. Producer Jona Berchtolt, aka Yacht, is stealing from success to enrich their failure, not the other way round. And so, while Hadouken just peddle a carrion gimmick, The Blow's pastiche beats become a way of consciously contrasting their geeky, self-deprecating indie-electro against all that Billionaire Boys' Club platinum-record pop glamour, resulting in a deadpan bathos which fits their purposes far better than an acoustic guitar ever could. 'I may look pathetic now,' Khaela Maricich is saying, 'but imagine how much more pathetic I look when I dance badly to r'n'b at a house party with a guy who's out of my league.' It's not about irony so much as agony.

It could be that they're the anti-Hadouken, anyway, or it could be that they just worship a hot beat. On the evidence of this gig, it's almost certainly both.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Deerhoof, Koko, London, 2.5.2007

My GCSE music teacher once told me that the structure of jazz is about 'question... answer... question... answer...' The problem with Deerhoof is that they're more 'question... answer... question... ELEPHANT!... PHOTON!... DIGNITY!' Their attention wanders so far and so frequently, it's probably discovered new planets. The San Francisco trio is one of those fun-loving avant-garde rock bands that America sprouts by the dozen but which we apparently don't make over here, and, like the Fiery Furnaces or Animal Collective, they put more ideas in each song than can possibly fit. On Friend Opportunity, their eighth album, which came out in January, this approach had great results: twee, elated, complex songs that drew on everything from Broadway musicals to seventies heavy rock.

But, live, it's not the same. A gig like this, craning your neck over a big crowd, invites full participation – you want the music to carry you along like an ocean current. But Deerhoof's constant chops and switches mean that every time you've started to enjoy part of a song, it's snatched away. The panicked riff from The Perfect Me, for example, drew a big cheer, but, too soon, it drops out, and singer Satomi Matsuzaki is cooing pleasantly away instead, and then before long that's gone too. This pinball quality is very entertaining, but at the same time it stops any real drama from building up, and it's pretty tiring after an hour – sometimes you just want some 'question... answer...', or, even better, some good old 'verse... chorus...'.

The band's skills still shine through, like Matsuzaki's surreal lyrics ('If I were a man and you a dog, I would throw a stick for you') and enigmatic hand signals, or Greg Saunier's frenzied drumming, but it's all just too alienating. I couldn't help comparing them to the brilliant Death Sentence: Panda!, who I'd seen a couple of days earlier and who come from a similarly childish, experimental dimension, but whose songs really felt like songs, not endurance tests. I'd still rather have one Deerhoof than a hundred British indie plodders, but, still: calm down, Deerhoof!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Dummy Blog Album of the Week: 'Boogy Bytes 3' mixed by Modeselektor

Modeselektor love silly, so I was worried this mix might be larded with novelty records. But, thankfully, apart from a pointless outtro and the nudge-wink electro-lounge of Siriusmo's Discosau, this instalment of BPitch Control's Boogybytes series is sixty-five eclectic minutes of gritted teeth and moppable brows as the Berlin duo explain what techno means in 2006. There are lots of hits here, including Spank Rock's Rick Rubin, Radiohead's Idiotheque, and Skream's Midnight Request Line, which makes this good for parties, but it's also a shame they went with such obvious choices – well, not obvious for a techno mix, but overfamiliar nonetheless. The last of those is one of four dubstep tracks, along with Burial, Various Production, and the Plastician, and all of them fit beautifully, apart from Burial's Southern Comfort, where the production seems to come from a colder, more precarious place than the consistently muscular buzz, squelch and snap of the rest of this mix. (Look at me complaining - how fast I've gone from excited to jaded about the techno-dubstep crossover.) Other highlights include µ-Ziq's ravey µ-Ziq Theme and the chopped-up TTC collaboration from 2005's excellent Hello Mom! LP. As with any techno mix, there are a few stretches of anonymous clanking that aren't of any use outside the club, but most of Boogybytes 3 is glorious technicolour.

Out now on BPitch Control.