Monthly Archives: November 2011

L’Empire des fauves

Wild Beasts — Shepherd’s Bush Empire — 23rd November 2011

Can you tell a lot about a band from the fans who show up at their concerts? For a Northern quartet who recently upped sticks for Trendsville, Dalston, and whose stock is on the up even as they trade in lithe funk for pastoral art rock, Wild Beasts‘ assembled crowd pretty much fits the bill. Young, well-dressed professionals interspersed with the occasional gaggle of lairy, not-quite-scary freshers. Yours truly, straight from the office of a third-sector organisation; two pints swiftly imbibed during the forgettable opening  set from Braids. Snuggling couples lingering behind the bar, all-too aware of the lush romanticism at the heart of Wild Beasts’ recent offerings.

The band begin on an uncharacteristically sprightly note, all thought of Kate Bush and Talk Talk shoved temporarily to one side for the jaunty, swooping “Bed of Nails”. “O! Ophelia! I feel yer fall,” moan the sparring frontmen Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming—the Hamlet reference surely isn’t lost on such a hyper-literate crowd. The former deals in a seductive falsetto (halfway between Antony Hegarty and Kate Bush) while the latter shows off his bluff, Northern baritone (like a more sultry Guy Garvey). Against such distinctive vocalists whirr shadowy keys and delicately textured guitar-work. And, always, Chris Talbot’s intricate, polyrhythmic sticksmanship, colouring in the gaps with deft bongo fills.

From there, the set takes a more sensual turn, with a decent mix of new and older materials. The high drama of “We Still Got The Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues” is followed by the sparse, sub-bass-heavy “Albatross”, for which the frontmen face each other across hefty banks of keyboards, like lovers squaring up for a fight. Respite from the relentlessly pattering rhythms comes courtesy of the post-rock suite “Two Dancers”, its two constituent parts reversed in order and shuffled around. We’re also treated to the otherworldly “Loop The Loop” and the gentle, wafting “Deeper” (both from the recent album Smother), with its muted plucking and pinging synths. Even here, they can’t resist their love of earthier stuff, with cavernous bass tones lurking around the song’s middle section.

When the band gets round to playing the hits from their previous album, Two Dancers, the crowd raise their game. In a live setting, you kinda forget the gritty homoeroticism of “Hooting And Howling” and “All The King’s Men”, and end up bouncing along innocently enough to this scrunchy, steely brand of pop.

Then, in the encore, they plumb new depths, with every ounce of disco-noire potential extracted from “Lion’s Share” and distilled into a heady, intoxicating concoction. The bottomless bass pulses combine exquisitely with Thorpe’s plaintive piano and the additional thump of touring helper Katie Harkin on floor tom. As a final hurrah, we get the epic “End Come Too Soon”, that paen to all things premature, whose rousing first section soon tumbles into a rising fog of quasi-ambient noise, simultaneously recalling Oneohtrix Point Never and My Bloody Valentine. As this wall of sound approaches the unbearable, the band return to the stage, bringing back the original melody for a colossal and richly-deserved finale.

There is nothing earth-shattering about this performance; nothing to place it in my pantheon of live music. But it is a glorious display of a group at what seems like the peak of their prowess. On the basis of it, I hope their artistry continues to grow—even more bass! even more ambience!—pari passu with their popular appeal. There’s something extremely wholesome to finding unpretentious lads making pretentious-in-a-good way music, imbued with emotive storytelling and a very particular aesthetic. Do catch them before they end up in a concrete corporate arena-cum-shed.

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The right forum for Battles

Battles — Kentish Town Forum — 21st November 2011

All good live music contains within it an element of remixing: if it didn’t, I may as well have stayed at home and listened to the album on a pair of good headphones. The art of performance requires a degree of spontaneity; however, the more complex the music, the harder it is to survive without some grid to which to adhere. And so it is that Battles, reduced to a trio, not only persevere with their most multi-faceted compositions but actually carve them into something altered, goofy yet utterly compelling. Continue reading The right forum for Battles

Three great songs with the same great beat

If I were a disc-jockeying man, I’d so be all over these three tracks.

  1. The Rapture — “Come Back to Me
  2. Omar S. — “Day
  3. Daft Punk — “Burnin’

Man, they are hot. From the accordion-and-percussion-heavy Rapture track, through the mechanized clattering of Omar’s unique vision of Detroit, to the elastic joy of Daft Punk’s take on funky house.

Ambience, Beasts, Bush

Isn’t it great, or at least interesting, when people not really interested in guitar-based music make loosely guitar-based music? The Cumbrian foursome Wild Beasts now make delicate, pattering art rock, under which trickle gurgling, questioning electronics seemingly informed by Oneohtrix Point Never, Caribou and Emeralds. And, when they play London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire this Wednesday, both the opening acts will be experimental, firmly electronic—Norfolk’s Luke Abbott and the droning Braids.

Consider the final three songs on Wild Beasts’ most recent album, Smother. “Reach A Bit Further” lopes along simple, repeatable plucked chords but, halfway through, these are supplemented by lingering synthesised chimes and vibraphones which ultimately engulf the track. “Burning” (see above) is even stranger, with salvaged miscellany fashioned into Oriental reeds and reversed-prepared-piano. As the composition builds, massed wailing voices threaten the prettiness, as do gloaming synth pads and Tom Fleming’s forlorn baritone. Finally, there is “End Come Too Soon”, which begins canonically enough but soon drops out into an ambient, drifting passage. When the song, proper, cuts back in, it harnesses the playful experimentation and spurs it on into the anthemic.

This week sees the release of a new Kate Bush album, 50 Words For Snow. Bush is often seen as a reference point for Wild Beasts: both acts are blessed with easily identifiable lead voices, a passion for the pastoral, and also a similar aesthetic in their arrangements. And, according to Joe Kennedy of the Quietus, other contemporary records evoking a similar mood to the Bush album are from as experimental a stable as the acts I mention in relation to Wild Beasts: Burial’s Burial, and Plastikman’s Consumed. The circle, it would seem, has been completed.

Fizbeast of a tune

You know how it is: you’re scouring through old records and you chance upon a 1980 album put out by a traditional Yugoslavian group called Ansambl Bakije Bakića; you sample one of their songs for your 37-minute minimalist techno workout; next thing you know, their cheerful brass fanfare is blasting out of the PA in every happening club.

Well, if you’re a pioneer like Ricardo Villalobos, it’ll be a familiar story, and you’ll probably have dined out on it numerous times.

I’m not enough of a 3AM hedonist to picture myself dancing to “Fizheuer Zieheuer“, or even its sparser cousin “Fizbeast”, but I think I’m just about cerebral enough to enjoy it as a piece of music. From maybe three elements, Villalobos sculpts an subtly shifting work: the primary snippet of brass; a solitary horn figure; an endlessly tinkered-with boom-tick beat. The piece is endlessly joyful—a victory march totally untinged with the familiar regrets of war.

Look at that artwork: an unrelentingly graphic cutaway of the human head, displaying every layer of inner working. Tissue and muscle, nerve, vessel and bone—these are the anatomical equivalents of the fragments that combine to form the piece. Alone, insignificant; together, unimpeachable. You can swear at Villalobos for being frustrating or oblique—a track this long and static takes serious balls, after all—but you can’t argue about whether it achieves the end goal. As Four Tet names a track on his Everything Ecstatic album a year earlier, it puts a “Smile Around the Face”.

Villalobos exposes the method to his madness, and all it turns out to be is some sneaky filtering and delay which, when applied to these everyday ingredients, gives rise to an amorphous creation. Yes, the choice of sample is astute— you should listen to the source material, “Pobjednički Čoček”, in its complete state, to see how craftily he repurposes such a fleeting moment of joy—but this is no tapestry of disparate elements. Instead, it is a twenty-first century refashioning of the beating retreat: something straightforward and accessible from which we can all derive some pleasure.

It’s jam I require

Do you remember the 1990s, when all shades of pop music briefly flourished, through the medium of the one-hit-wonder on Top of the Pops, before briefly fizzling out? Life’s constants were chiefly innocent manufactured pop groups like Boyzone, Take That, Spice Girls—trade blocs whose domination was tolerated because of their lack of offence. And, somehow, an acid jazz collective fronted by a hat- and car-lover became an actual big deal.

It might be that album-wise, the apotheosis of Jamiroquai was 1996’s Travelling Without Moving. But for their finest five minutes, you have only to look to the opening track of the album which followed this. The pre-millennial Synkronized kicks off with “Canned Heat”, which sees classic disco influences seeping into their chart-friendly jazz. An orchestral flourish ushers the listener into a heady—but ultimately innocuous—slice of funk. The strings permeate through virtually every phrase, sending Jay Kay’s distinctive vocal phrasings skywards. Phat bass-lines swap between disco octaves and a kind of synthesised slap-bass riff. Twinkles of overdriven Rhodes and Clavinet summon memories of Stevie Wonder and the acme of soul. This is emphasised in the final minute, wherein subtle bongos fill out the spaces between the four-to-the-floor rhythm.

Is it not peculiar that no subsequent scene in music has explicitly nodded to Jamiroquai? For sure, their music was utterly derivative when boiled down to its root elements—the aforementioned presence of soul and funk greats (consider the closeness of “Virtual Insanity” and Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much“), more than a whiff of Prince in Jay Kay’s falsetto and the predominant texture of the keys. But this surprisingly compelling melange still crops up now and again: if you want to be startled, listen to Hercules And Love Affair’s “This Is My Love“, and compare it with Jamiroquai’s “Alright“. We think of H&LA as channelling decades of disco music in the spirit of the best historian—so why do the efforts of Jay Kay and his chums go unappreciated?

In fact, the only wider cultural reference I can think of having been bequeathed to Jamiroquai is a brief, pivotal scene in Napoleon Dynamite (see above video), in which the titular protagonist wins over an audience of his dubious schoolmates in order to promote his friend’s election campaign by unexpectedly boogying to “Canned Heat”. It’s essentially apropos of nothing, and maybe it is that by-the-wayside quality of Jamiroquai’s music that earned it a place in the scene. Perhaps it is the case that we just don’t think of these passing fancies of the 1990s as being created with the intention of having cultural impact down the line.

DFA at 10

Newsflash: I write too much about DFA Records. Geeky fact: my iPod is engraved with “The DFA” on its back. All context aside, however, it’s really great that the label set up by Messrs. Murphy and Goldsworthy in 2001 has hit such a milestone, and I helped ring in the years on Tuesday night when I attended a little party-cum-gig at the cosy 100 Club on London’s Oxford Street.

Given that the last gig I went to was Flying Lotus at the Roundhouse two weeks prior, this was a radically stripped-down affair. Three tight bands; no fluff, no guff; adoring fans standing not farther than five metres from the stage. First up were the comically stark Prinzhorn Dance School, back after something of an extended spell making their second album. Deadpan to the extreme, the lyrics about small-town gruesomeness were set against abrasive, Gang Of Four-style post punk. Martial drums from a ponytailed extra left plenty of air in the mix for Tobin Prinz’s caustic fretwork and Suzi Horn’s bottomless bass-lines. The new songs sounded slightly more heartfelt, rather like the closing track on their debut album, “Spaceman In Your Garden”, but there was something so primal in the yelping of older cuts like “Up! Up! Up!” and “Crackerjack Docker”.

Next came Y△CHT (ultra-stylized, as ever), with the core duo of Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans still expanded to take in the backing band who are, I think, still called The Straight Gaze. Evans was striking in a space-age ecru dress, writhing and gesticulating all across the stage and floor. Behind her, the feel-good white boy funk proved mildly intoxicating, recalling the Tom Tom Club. Plinky-plonk keys and socially awkward beats were very much the order of the day; moderately amusing PowerPoint graphics projected onto a rickety screen provided further entertainment. The band were good enough to stop for a Q&A halfway through (unrequited) but more of the crowd took them up on their offer after their set.

Lead billing was given to The Rapture, whose breakthrough album Echoes was literally the coolest thing I’d ever heard when I finally got round to buying it in 2007. Back when they were a foursome, they did for dance-friendly music what The Strokes did for rock ‘n’ roll. Now reduced to a trio, they’re still a raucous live act. Luke Jenner and Vito Roccoforte look a bit more padded round the edges nowadays, but they still whip up a sonic storm between the drumkit and the ubiquitous red Telecaster; meanwhile, multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Andruzzi looks like he hasn’t aged a day since 2003, and flits between keys, saxophone and cowbell. Opening with a salvo of newer songs, the band still felt relevant and history-making, but the real fun began when a pummelling 808 beat kicked in, marking the unmistakeable “Olio”, the Echoes opener which incredibly crossed the divide between punk and acid house. The crowd went nuts, and rightly so. From there, the set took a darkier, clubbier vibe, with standout new track “Come Back To Me” emerging from a foggy accordion sample into a wildly filtered beat, and the anthemic “House Of Jealous Lovers” transforming the floor into a joyous riot.

There was a short encore, embraced by the nostalgic crowd in spite of its lack of retrospection. Their comeback single, “How Deep Is Your Love” was given a triumphant airing, with its house piano chords tapping into the soul of the venue, before the band closed shop with “Sail Away”, another victory march.

What a brilliantly low-key way of celebrating the tenth anniversary of a record label who truly changed the way we think about music to dance to.

You can find some photographs which do justice to the sheer emotion of welcoming back The Rapture over at This Is Fake DIY.