Thursday, 26 February 2009

Late of the Pier + Support - Komedia, Bath - 23.02.09

Standing across the street from Bath’s shiny new Komedia club I puff on my cigarette. The red neon sign bathes the pavement and washes over those in the respectably hefty queue. An aesthetic dominates: angular haircuts and fine facial hair for the boys, similarly geometric haircuts and shimmering, multicoloured leggings for the girls. I think I spot someone who is over 21.

Komedia’s neo-classical opulence appears better suited to opera than sweaty Rock ‘n Roll but no one minds as groups of students and teenagers huddle in groups in front of the stage, no doubt exchanging tips on what shampoos to use (or not, in some cases).

‘Thank you for clapping; people sometimes throw things at me after the first song’, says Connan Mockasin, standing alone with his guitar. Flitting from the psychedelic to the haunting to the unashamedly catchy, he manipulates his guitar like a Hawaiian Jimi Hendrix, bending and twisting notes out of all recognition. His songs take off properly when he is joined by his drummer, gaining a ramshackle bounce which would make Jack White proud.

Four young men walk on the stage looking like they’ve just spent the day in Topman. They are Post War Years and they are criminally ripping off Foals. It is so painfully predictable, so painfully now that half of the audience are resigned to obligingly pay attention whilst the other half lap it up like Pavlov’s dog as the band lay on synths and clipped guitars over jarred, fidgety drums. Keep looking interested and move slowly towards the bar...

As the house lights go down, a wave of clammy anticipation washes over the venue. Late of the Pier launch headlong into singles 'Space and the Woods' and 'Heartbeat' and the sound is thunderous. The brittle synths and keyboards are replaced by thick zaps of sound, the bass threatens to bring the walls down and my nostrils actually start quivering.

Looking like the confused offspring of Gary Numan and Freddie Mercury, they are dressed in capes and binliners as they storm through Fantasy Black Channel. The band whip the pit of teenagers at the front of the stage into a hot, sticky frenzy; 'Focker' is a particular highlight grabbing the audience by the neck and refusing to let go until it has its way. Which it does.

As they play their final song, 'Bathroom Gurgle', the band is looking drained. Vocalist Samuel Dust is sitting on one of the speakers dangling a beige dap on the end of a hospital-thin leg out towards the audience who are trying to get a touch of their hero. They don’t quite reach. They never will.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

David Bowie - Low (1977)

Ask someone what 1977 represents in music and the answer is invariably the explosion of Punk. Punk Rock’s primary policy was to bulldoze the Establishment into touch yet David Bowie was always aloofly separated from the Establishment despite his stratospheric success. Whilst Punk was gobbing away in London, Bowie had set up shop in Berlin with Brian Eno to begin work on a set of albums which would come to be known as his ‘Berlin trilogy’.

However, this was no holiday. After spending the first half of the seventies in a vacuum of cocaine, Bowie’s move was a type of rehab: shutting himself off in a bleak and fractured Berlin wrought with social and political tension, he was rid of the slimy hangers-on, the yes men and (the majority of) his drug dealers which had been following him for the previous five or so years as his star rose and rose.

Low was the first album of this new musical path. The album could easily be viewed as an apt metaphor for Berlin itself; an album split into two distinct halves – the decadent and the bruised.
If Bowie was experiencing a new clarity of mind then it is obvious from the off. Opener Speed of Life (one of four instrumentals on the album) strides forward triumphantly with the determined optimism of someone who thinks the only way from here is up. The perky Breaking Glass follows with its strolling funk, showing that Bowie had lost none of his precision showmanship.

The album’s first single Sound and Vision continues the upbeat mood with its rubber drums before Be My Wife (verging on self-pity) and Always Crashing in the Same Car (a sombre admission of clumsiness, both physical and emotional) ease the listener into the album’s more textured landscapes.

The tracks co-written with Brian Eno have the ubiquitous producer’s mark stamped all over them. Warszawa is a grand gesture complete with primal howls whilst Art Decade is unsettling and haunting; both songs perfect for a German Art-House flick never released in a cinema (not one near you anyway).

The album has something of a futile, limp ending. Weeping Wall comes and goes without kicking up any fuss whatsoever whilst Subterraneans meekly rounds things off (although it does feature some cool smoky sax).

Bowie’s glam disciples were thrown off track with his previous effort Station to Station, yet these were the same fans who felt bemused at his foray into ersatz-Soul. Low heralded a new era of experimentation and furthered artistic restlessness and the album shows an artist unafraid to confront demons and forge new musical expression. It alienated fans even further but by this point Bowie had more than earned his right to do what he damn-well pleased. (8/10)

Sunday, 1 February 2009

The Human League - Dare!

Question: What happens when two of your original band members leave to form their own group?
Answer: You recruit two schoolgirls you find in a disco as backing singers and create a genre-defining masterpiece.

By the end of 1980, having released two albums, the Human League had fractured after singer/songwriter Phil Oakey and co-writer Martyn Ware fell out due to differing ambitions for the group; Oakey wanted to pursue a poppier, more accessible pathway whilst Ware was insistent on furthering the group’s more experimental facets. With a UK and European tour perilously imminent Ware finally left taking other member Ian Craig Marsh with him (both going on to form Heaven 17).

Oakey remained the sole survivor of the Human League and was all but written off by the music press. That is until he hired two musicians to replace the departed Ware and Marsh but, more importantly, recruited two 18 year-old schoolgirls, Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley, as backing singers/dancers, giving the seemingly moribund group a galvanising injection of glamour.

After completing an often tumultuous tour (the integration of Catherall and Sulley was not a smooth one due to an adverse reaction from some hardcore fans) the band went into the studio to record Dare!, the pop-influenced album which Oakey had wanted to record yet which had cost him his partnership with Ware. Cue huge success.

The album is an impressive display of crisp, hygienic production which, seemingly against the odds, manages to possess a degree of warmth and depth. Oakey’s heartfelt croon and intelligent lyrics lend the songs a passion which complements the album’s otherwise distant, often alien sounds. Unlike electro’s common tendency to sound like the artist in question is just discovering new sounds on his synthesizer and laying them down before your very ears, there is not a great deal of ostentation here; everything is in its place for a reason.

By the time you reach the album’s final track, the world-eating Don’t You Want Me, the ears have been tended to by ten crafted pop diamonds, each with their own story to tell. The kitsch boogie of The Things That Dreams Are Made Of is a cloudy-eyed paean to materialism; the elegant Darkness a fearful, paranoid cry for help; whilst I Am The Law is told from the perspective of a controlling lover (it’s chorus is the creepiest passage of music on the album).

Elsewhere, you can almost see the disco lasers swish and chop before your eyes on Do Or Die and the plaintive Seconds casts a nostalgic eye on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The soap opera of Don’t You Want Me is still a superb pop song after all this time, despite Oakey’s initial reservation that it was merely an album-filler (thank God for record executives going behind artists’ backs and choosing the singles themselves).

A pre-requisite of any great pop album is that each song sounds utterly unique, creating it’s own individual imprint in your mind. In this department Dare! does not fail. Whilst it occasionally sounds like an 80s porn soundtrack there is a real sense of innovation throughout the album. It often sounds so simple, like the majority of great pop should, yet if you listen closely the construction of the album is meticulous and one can imagine Phil Oakey obsessing over what sounds should be where. It is fantastic pop music in all its catchy, hummable glory and despite being held to account for creating all manner of awful 80s electro groups is as big an influence on modern pop imaginable.