Saturday, 19 February 2011

Gruff Rhys – “Hotel Shampoo launch” @ Gresham Hotel, Blackpool

There are a few ways to make the first visit to a new town less fun than could be hoped for. A constant drizzle, non-existent hotel bookings and the words “bus replacement service” are but three front-runners, so kudos to Blackpool for good-naturedly providing Team TLOBF with all of ‘em.

After seven hours of travel our alternative hotel feels, in the words of Seb the snapper, “like the beginning of a horror movie”. We fully expect to encounter freaky identical twin girls at the end of the corridor, but instead we get a sunken-cheeked crackhead dressed like a nu-rave lollipop lady, accompanied by a disoriented woman we swiftly surmise to be her (drunk) mum. The bedroom carpet is the crimson of tourist blood, and my bathroom towel is a size 22 woman’s blouse.

“This had better be worth it, Gruff Rhys,” we think, as we plod through the rain to find food. For he is why we’re here: the Super Furry Animals singer’s chosen Blackpool’s Gresham Hotel to host the launch party for his new solo album, Hotel Shampoo. The Gresham is co-run by two of Wales’s (and presumably the world’s, come to that) biggest Welsh-language pop stars, Tony ac Aloma, who apparently reached such airless heights of fame in the 60s and beyond that they had to up sticks and settle here instead to escape the pressure. “They sold 75,000 singles which means every Welsh language household would have a record,” Gruff explains later. “Tony got fed up of touring and thought, ‘I’m just gonna stay on one place and let people come to me,’ which is a genius idea.” We meet them, and they are the absolute personification of lovely.

But that comes later. First, it’s time to sample some of Blackpool’s famous entertainment. Only everything’s closed – everything, that is, except the disingenuously named Coral Island amusement arcade, with its pre-teen girls brandishing plastic AK-47s half their size, and row upon row of blinking, tinkling money-filching machines. Having gone all out and lost one pound twelve on one of those piles-of-tuppences-on-a-moving-staircase infuriate-atrons, it’s time to head back. We buy sticks of rock, and realise, Morrissey-style, that we’re somehow in the coastal town that they remembered to close down. And it’s Sunday. And we chose to be here.

Hotel Shampoo is so named on account of the vast number of miniature shampoo bottles (and other free ephemera) collected by Gruff since SFA got going – see also the art installation he created in Cardiff last year – and tonight’s venue choice is part of the thought process. “Every hotel needs a soundtrack,” Gruff reasons simply after the gig. “I’ve no interest in shampoo…” As Gruff’s backing band, aka support band Y Niwl, will later enthusiastically agree, performing at the Gresham is “like playing in John Lennon & Paul McCartney’s hotel” for all of them. Not for the first time, we feel a little ill equipped to comprehend the import of the situation.

But all is gritted teeth and quiet industry at the Gresham. The 46 rooms in the hotel are occupied thanks to Gruff’s ingenious “the only way to see the show is to stay the night” policy, but the earlier closure of the M6 has led to a severely late start. The punters are happy enough with pints and chat – many are lifelong Furries fans who know each other of old – and when a smiling lady (who, it later transpires, is Aloma herself) pops her head round the corner to say “the lads are running a bit late – everyone alright?”, the reaction can only be described as comparable to the moment at a wedding reception just before the newlyweds make their entrance.

“Kiss me quick, squeeze me slowly” hat count: two. The spirit, it must be stressed, is being entered into with gusto, vim and welly. Clearly nobody’s working tomorrow. Everyone’s got blue Pete Fowler-designed “Beware! Shark-ridden waters” key fobs to prove their presence at the hotel is official – everyone, that is, except us. “Where’s your blue thing?” We haven’t got a blue thing. “You need a blue thing.” Nobody gave us a blue thing, and besides, we’re not staying here anyway. “You should have a blue thing.” We’re waved in anyway.

Y Niwl, it quickly transpires, are a preternaturally accomplished instrumental surf-rock quartet. All their song titles are numbers, in Welsh. Do they play in their native tongue? I guess we’ll never know, but boy, they’re tight. Some of the crowd parrot twangy guitar licks back at them between songs, to general amusement. Subtle Y Niwl are not, their style running the zippy 60s gamut between The Castaways and Simon & Garfunkel to ? and the Mysterians. They’re terrific fun and everyone immediately wants to take them home.

And then, with a DING! of a classic Fawlty Towers-style hotel reception bell, Gruff’s onstage with Y Niwl, explaining that the night is “super-loose” before lolloping into ‘Lonesome Words’ from 2008 album Candylion. Clearly, this is to be more than just an album launch gig – and sure enough, as the night progresses the tracks from Hotel Shampoo – released through PIAS on Gruff’s own label Ovni so “I don’t have to explain to anyone what I’m trying to do,” he reveals – are joined by fan favourites including ‘The Court of King Arthur’, SFA’s ‘Drygioni’ and a near-punishingly long but elatedly received ‘Skylon’.

The 70s soft pop styling of ‘Honey All Over’ is introduced by Gruff admitting that “every [new] song we’re doing live for the first time with live people”, and the reasons for electing to host such an intimate affair become clearer. This crowd doesn’t mind piercing feedback, false starts or fluffed lines; they’re just happy to be here, within touching distance of a man they love in a room better suited to bingo. The suggestion that the lights are too bright is met with someone standing on a chair and removing a bulb from the chandelier – on some level, all gigs should be like this.

Gruff and Y Niwl power through new single ‘Sensations In The Dark’, its giddy kids’ TV theme ambience leading immediately to the thought that it’s high time Gruff put in an appearance on Yo Gabba Gabba. “If I drop dead, it was probably deep vein thrombosis,” he notes wryly, in reference to the torturous 11-hour journey up the M6 earlier in the day.

‘Vitamin K’’s poignant ending makes up for the instrument-bludgeoning scariness of the performance; it’s true that for all their skill, Y Niwl’s natural playing style is doing something to remove the more subtle arrangements evident on the album. Elsewhere, Gruff shows off his fine way with a metaphor. In less able hands, a song like ‘If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)’ could end up unbearably twee, but lines like “Wandering hands/Ticking together but always apart” render it sweet, cosy and perfect for the increasingly drunken love-in the evening is fast becoming.

A rollicking ‘Christopher Columbus’ is prefaced with the query: “What do you call a duelling guitar solo… with three guitars?” The answer from the cheerily rowdy crowd rattles back like lightning: “Indulgent!” Having finally settled on (ahem) a “triall”, the piss-taking tone for the rest of the night is set.

As midnight comes and goes, we realise we’re now at a serious disadvantage as non-Welsh speakers, as Gruff and band joke about (in Welsh) and lead singalongs with the audience (in Welsh). During the post-gig debriefing, all of Y Niwl and Gruff speak earnestly, passionately – and, praise be, largely in English – about the significance of the choice of venue for Welsh speakers. “I’m just in awe, seriously,” says Gruff of meeting Tony ac Aloma. It’s genuinely touching and we feel privileged to be welcomed into this uniquely homely experience.

By now, the gig is closer in spirit to an impromptu birthday party/pub lock-in than a serious musical event (news reaches us that one dad has brought his daughter here to celebrate her 21st birthday, which might explain a bit). Candylion track ‘Cycle of Violence’ descends into multiple distorted vocals, like an aural hall of mirrors – but, yes, just like that particular fairground feature, its air of menace is only surface deep and it ends up about as nightmarish as a kitten in a cardigan. It’s starting to feel like Y Niwl and Gruff could go on jamming for days, like The Grateful Dead in woolly hats, if somebody doesn’t stop them.

“At a rave in the early ‘90s, our friend thought he could fly and jumped off a dune. We all spent the night in Casualty, they drew the curtains around us with all the machines pulsating – it was quite a heavy experience,” says Gruff before unfurling ‘Skylon’, a hypnotic, mantra-like monster that appears to lift the front four rows, one by one, as if hoisted by strings. “We’re in this shit together/Let’s let each other live,” we’re all singing now – sometimes, it seems all that’s needed are three chords and the Gruff.

The night – or at least, the gig – ends appropriately with Candylion oldie ‘Beacon in the Darkness’ and a lot of delighted whooping. But while a quick scope around the room reveals many a slurring gent and at least two sleeping fans, by and large everyone’s still buzzing. In fact, one glinty-eyed couple – who appear to have, ahem, found each other during the gig – try to spirit away a stray roll of duct tape, with which to do heaven knows what in the privacy of their hotel room… but eagle-eyed tour manager Dan is there in a flash to confiscate the impromptu sex aid. It really is that kind of night.

Gruff and the band hang around for a chat and some commemorative snaps with Tony, Aloma, her husband Roy (who also co-runs the hotel) and their daughters, who’ve been keeping our glasses full all night. Our pints are now empty – indeed, Aloma cheerily admits: “For the first time in 22 years you’ve drunk all the lager and Guinness.” – and our train leaves in four hours. O diar…

Charlie Ivens

Originally published on

Friday, 4 February 2011

Efterklang presents An Island, a film by Vincent Moon

A so-called “abstract documentary” about the band (sort of) and, well, an island off the coast of Denmark (sort of), An Island is 48-odd minutes – or perhaps an odd 48 minutes – of pure, unfettered artistic collaboration, documented Dogme-style. Sounds unwatchably pretentious? It’s precisely the opposite.

The aim, cooked up by Moon and the eight-piece band, was to create an album-length movie featuring music from Efterklang’s 2010 album Magic Chairs. But not just any old recorded versions of the songs, oh no: the band hooked up with all manner of musically-minded children, parents and instrumentalists on the island to record, remix, reversion and generally turn some of the album’s highlights inside out and back again to see what new shapes emerged.

Vincent Moon, let it be said, has form in this milieu. From 2006 onwards, the French director’s series of 121 guerilla Concerts à Emporter (Take-Away Shows) included one-take impromptu mini-gigs by everyone from Jens Lekman and Xiu Xiu to Stuart Staples and even REM. A more extensive collaboration with the latter followed after Michael Stipe convinced him to jump on board.

For their part, Efterklang are well known for having always taken an overtly visual approach to music-making, as a quick trip around their label Rumraket’s YouTube page will attest (in fact, you’ll find a teaser for An Island there too).

By turns dizzying, stirring and just plain inspirational, it’s undeniably fascinating to watch the island’s inhabitants forging rhythms out of clanging farm equipment and squeezing atmosphere out of raindrops. ‘Raincoats’ takes on new life in a forest, we find out how the band first met – “I remember I saw you at high school, walking every day as if you were 10 minutes late” – ‘Alike’ is lovingly recreated in a farmhouse, and if the stamping, trilling schoolkids of ‘Me Me Me The Brickhouse’ don’t lead you to find, ahem, something in your eye, you have a heart of coal, my friend.

In an interesting promotional move, Efterklang and Moon are offering An Island to anyone who’d care to show it, at what they’re calling “private/public screenings” – all you have to do is promise not to charge anyone, and ensure at least five people are present at the screening. The offer’s valid until the end of March – check out for details. All we can say is DO IT: it’s a beautiful, soul-warming film that goes way beyond its remit.

Charlie Ivens

Originally published on

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Hurts + Clare Maguire @ Brighton Dome, 2 Feb 2011

To be fair, it’s not Clare Maguire’s fault. No doubt she didn’t ask to be put on a tour with one of 2010’s most heartening pop success stories, and who knows, maybe she didn’t hand-pick her band, or choose her songs or single out the dress that’s wearing her tonight. She’s got a Cher-sized ‘80s power ballad monster of a voice, for sure, but I’m guessing she didn’t elect to have her whole backline turned down to mobile phone levels either, and it seems nobody’s told her the late-period trip-hop (Crustacean? Mulu? Exactly) aped by show opener ‘Ain’t Nobody’ may not be the best route to travel today.

Clare’s one of the pre-ordained few to have been saddled with the BBC’s Sound of 2011 albatross – not surprising, given that she’s being packaged as an even less ingratiating Welch/Winehouse amalgam – but let’s not kid ourselves there’s anything of interest happening here. She’s got the commanding stage presence of the last Quality Street in the tin – at least twice she limply implores “come on, Brighton…” and then does absolutely nothing to warrant any reaction – and the sparkling personality of a nine-year-old on Britain’s Got Talent. I can almost imagine her parents standing just offstage, fists clenched, willing their little girl to be as transcendental as they insist on repeatedly telling her she is.

There is no need for Clare Maguire to be heard outside a cruise ship, or perhaps an old episode of Wogan, sandwiched between Duncan Norvelle and Keith Harris. Her painful trudge through Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Big Love’ is as bloodless as a building. But on the piss-weak “strength” of ‘Bullet’ (which ironically sounds like Hurts might have written it) and the deeply cynical, irksome remix-in-waiting ‘The Last Dance’ – both of which, incidentally, have lyrics so calculatedly inoffensive they may as well be in Simlish – Clare Maguire will be one of the defining voices of 2011. You have been warned: turn the radio off.

Then it’s lights down, phones up, and Hurts. A year ago Hurts played a sold-out double header at London’s 1,400-capacity Koko with Everything Everything, another of 2010’s pleasantly surprising crossover winners. But tonight they’re in different company altogether, the blog-reading trendies replaced by Actual Real People who squeal and dance and sing along to blimmin’ everything. This suits Hurts just fine, being that singer Theo Hutchcraft and coat-tail-flicking synth tinkler Adam Anderson are basically Gilbert & George’s idea of what Bros should’ve been, Duran Duran styled by Helmut Lang (the duo are joined by four cohorts onstage).

And they come out fighting, the dynamic theatre of album opener ‘Silver Lining’ swooshing into classic electro half-ballad ‘Wonderful Life’. Theo comes across as half classy crooner, half Butlins Redcoat, a persona that affords him free rein to sing earnest lines like “Devotion, save me now/I don’t want to stray from the hallowed ground’ with a straight face, while at other points flinging roses into the crowd and mugging cheerily to the upper tiers. Such is the showmanship, it scarcely matters that A-ha, Erasure and the ever-present Pet Shop Boys should probably have their lawyers on standby if Hurts ever try to pass their schtick off as new.

Crucially, though, Hurts have a handful of deathless tunes that should cement their place in pop history. If tonight serves to highlight the weaknesses inherent in Hurts’ nevertheless enjoyable Happiness album – ‘Unspoken’ feels free of nutritional value, and the less said about Adam’s foray into axe-wielding, the better (suffice to say, he looks about as natural as Paul McCartney holding a chicken drumstick) – it also proves the ‘80s maxim that a few tent-poles and a lot of vim are still sometimes all that’s needed to hold up a pop LP.

Had BBC boss Mark Thompson been here tonight to witness ‘Blood, Tears & Gold’ and ‘Stay’ – essentially the same song wearing different coloured frock coats – he’d have instantly recommisssioned Top of the Pops just so Hurts could appear on it. The chugging Pete Wylie bombast of ‘Sunday’ heralds the disco section, and suddenly Theo looks like Tom Hardy dancing to Morrissey at an Edwardian funeral while Adam bashes all fuck out of his ole Joanna. How Hurts manage to avoid turning into the mother of all gauche trifles, I’ve no idea, but they do. Sadly their cover of Kylie’s ‘Confide In Me’ doesn’t work as it should, the woozy narcotic effect of the original drowned out by thunderous drums, but their point is made anyway.

Hurts close with a belting, euphorically received encore of ‘Better Than Love’, a club-friendly anomaly on the album and the inevitable “what was that hit single we had?” moment tonight. ‘Stay’, which precedes it, once again proves that Hurts’ music is precision designed to soundtrack fireworks displays (despite calling to mind Trevor & Simon singing “Sting!” to East 17’s ‘Steam’ on Live & Kicking passim). Flawless, they’re not, but like many high-minded art-pop duos before them, Hurts deliver a live spectacle that does much to convince that they’ll fill an all-killer best-of in seven years’ time. Now for that tricky second album…

Charlie Ivens

Originally published on

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Sea Monsters festival: Brighton’s Kraken wakes

What more appropriate name than Sea Monsters could promoters One Inch Badge have chosen for their first ever festival in Brighton? We’re choosing to assume it’s a reference to the Wedding Present album of the sameish name, combined with a cheeky tilt at the host city’s coastal location. Whatever the truth – and we don’t really care what that is – Sea Monsters looks set to be a treat and a half over the next five gruelling but gratifying days.

Actually, is it even a festival? Not in the strictest sense, since there’s no daytime fun. One Inch Badge are taking over the Prince Albert venue (right near Brighton station, potential commuters – it’s the one with the giant mural of John Peel on its outside wall) every night between today and Sunday, in a wholehearted sledgehammer/nut-cracking scenario to promote their debut compilation album, also called Sea Monsters.

Who’s playing? Well, they’ve handily made a full colour programme available here, but if you just can’t bring yourself to click on the link, here’s the full band list, split into days.

Wed 26/1: Salter Cane, Crowns on the Rats Orchestra, The Squadron Leaders

Thu 27/1: Drum Eyes, Cold Pumas, The Sticks, Speak Galactic

Fri 28/1: Pope Joan, Nullifier, Hind Ear, Illness

Sat 29/1: Mary Hampton, Jane Bartholemew, Curly Hair

Sun 30.1: Stuart Warwick, Us Baby Bear Bones, Birdengine

Really you should see the whole damn lot, obviously, but if we had to choose, our pick of the five nights would definitely be Thursday’s noisy-assed Drum Eyes/Cold Pumas lunatic double-decker…

Tickets are £4 a night or £15 for a five-night pass (which gets you a free copy of the album as well) from – so you see, if you miss it, you’ve only yourselves to blame. Not us, let’s be sure about that. Right.

Sea Monsters, the album, will be released in Brighton through OIB Records on Mon 31 January, and in the rest of the world on Mon 4 April. Don’t ask why, it just is.

Charlie Ivens

Originally published on

Monday, 17 January 2011

Midwinter Picnic 2011 - a Spotify playlist

On Sunday 16 Jan 2010 I had the pleasure of playing other people's tunes before, between and after the bands at the second Midwinter Picnic [Facebook link with footage filmed on the day], a delightful, ramshackle affair held at West Hill community hall in Brighton.

The bill (assembled by Chris T-T) was made up of the sublimely eclectic likes of Paris-based Scottish singer-songwriter Mark McCabe, the noisily compelling Napoleon IIIrd, a harpist called Serafina Steer, and local folktronica heroes Grasscut, among others, so I responded with what I hope was an appropriately varied selection.

Here's the whole thing* on Spotify, should you like to hear it yourself.

Future Bible Heroes – She-Devils of the Deep
Ella Fitzgerald – Two Cents a Dance
Robert Wyatt – Little Red Riding Hood Hits The Road
Islet – Ringerz
The Organ – Stephen Smith
Stereolab – Equivalences
Anais Mitchell – Flowers
Jonsi – Animal Arithmetic
Sufjan Stevens – Enchanting Ghost
Gruff Rhys – Candylion
Yeasayer – Mondegreen
The Like – Don’t Make A Sound
Fats Waller – Your Feet’s Too Big
The Decemberists – My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist
Janelle Monae feat Of Montreal – Make The Bus
Trembling Bells – Garlands of Stars
The Research – I Love You But…
Billy Bragg – Help Save The Youth of America
Marlene Dietrich – Ich Bin Von Kopf Bis Fuss Auf Liebe Eingestellt
Joachim Witt – Goldener Reiter
Anna Calvi – Suzanne & I
Wayne County & The Electric Chairs – Eddie & Sheena
Seelenluft – Manila
Field Music – Them That Do Nothing
The Zombies – Time of the Season
John Grant – Silver Platter Club
Morrissey – Such A Little Thing Makes such A Big Difference
Gavin Osborn – There’s An Awful Lot Wrong With A Little Bump N Grind
Hefner – Painting and Kissing
Ray Stevens – Misty
Chumbawamba – Dance, Idiot, Dance
Penguin Café Orchestra – Telephone & Rubber Band
Laura Marling – Rambling Man
The Divine Comedy – Have You Ever Been In Love
Warpaint – Shadows
The Specials – Enjoy Yourself
Nosaj Thing – Fog
Beans on Toast – MDMAzing
City – Am Fenster
Hot Chip – Down With Prince
The Books – Motherless Bastard
Lali Puna - Micronomic

*a handful of songs aren't on Spotify, so I've replaced them with something else by the same act


Tuesday, 4 January 2011

2010 - The Full Stop (a Spotify playlist)

Here's my very personal impression of the 12 months that made up 2010, in the form of a 50-song Spotify playlist. If you're looking for some idea of the kind of music that makes my synapses fizz, for whatever reason, this might help.

Allo, Darlin' – If Loneliness Was Art
The Divine Comedy – The Lost Art Of Conversation
Johnny Flynn – The Water
Robyn – Dancing On My Own
Broken Bells – The High Road
MGMT – Congratulations
Vampire Weekend – White Sky
Tinie Tempah – Pass Out
The Decemberists – Down By The Water
Cee-Lo Green – Fuck You
Brandon Flowers – Crossfire
Broken Social Scene – Meet Me In The Basement
Wild Nothing – Summer Holiday
Glee Cast – Don't Stop Believin'
Aloe Blacc – I Need A Dollar
Hurts – Wonderful Life
The Joy Formidable – I Don't Want To See You Like This
Savoir Adore – We Talk Like Machines
Tame Impala – Lucidity
Kurt Wagner & Cortney Tidwell Present KORT – Incredibly Lonely
White Hinterland – Icarus
Wavves – King Of The Beach
Memory Tapes – Bicycle
Factory Floor – Lying
Efterklang – Modern Drift
Field Music – Them That Do Nothing
Thea Gilmore – You're The Radio
Diana Vickers – My Wicked Heart
Stereolab – Silver Sands
Yeasayer – O.N.E
Caitlin Rose – Shanghai Cigarettes
Gorillaz feat Mos Def and Bobby Womack – Stylo
John Grant – Silver Platter Club
The Magnetic Fields – You Must Be Out of Your Mind
Men Among Animals – Parrot Eyes
I Am Arrows – Green Grass
Caribou – Odessa
Janelle Monae – Cold War
Lady Gaga – Bad Romance
Marina And The Diamonds – Hollywood
Warpaint – Undertow
Kisses – Bermuda
Chiddy Bang – Opposite Of Adults
LCD Soundsystem – I Can Change
Panda Bear – Tomboy
Apples In Stereo – Dance Floor
Sleigh Bells – A/B Machines
Frank Turner – Try This At Home
The xx – VCR (Four Tet Remix)
Freelance Whales – Hannah

And it you're a real glutton for punishment, here's the full 150-song Spotify playlist (in alphabetical order by artist) from which I gleaned my Top 50.


Monday, 8 November 2010

Peak-era Pulp line-up reforms for Primavera, Wireless 2011

Following months of rumours and increasingly feverish interweb speculation, various quarters have now confirmed that Pulp are reforming to play a select handful of festival shows in 2011.

The classic line-up of singer Jarvis Cocker, bassist Steve Mackey, violinist Russell Senior, keyboard player Candida Doyle, guitarist Mark Webber and drummer Nick Banks have not played together since 24 August 1996. Senior left the band in 1999, and Pulp have officially been “on hiatus” since 2002.

Confirmed gigs for the returning six-piece so far include the Primavera Sound festival in Spain on 27 May and the Wireless festival in London’s Hyde Park on 3 July. While the idea of Pulp reforming but not playing Glastonbury seems absurd – the band having delivered one of the festival’s all-time greatest headline sets in 1995 – no announcement has yet been made about a return to Pilton.

Pulp have long resisted the idea of a comeback, with Senior in particular having expressed distaste at the idea and Doyle’s recent ill health bringing its own troubles. But Blur’s triumphant return to the spotlight in 2009 is said to have given frontman Jarvis pause for thought, according to the tabloids at least – and no doubt Suede’s impressive return to the arena stage this year will have further fuelled the fire. Perhaps Oasis splitting up had some bearing on proceedings as well.

Pulp’s official website,, has been resurrected and currently features a series of “FAQs” about the reunion, starting with “Is this really happening?”. Our favourites include “Is this an accident waiting to happen?”, “Is this a collective midlife crisis?” and “Is this just the kind of tonic the country needs at the moment?”.

There are, as yet, no answers to any of these questions, but “Is this a chance to see the last truly important pop group this country produced?”, while a little cocky perhaps, is pretty much bang on the button.

Although only two dates have been announced so far, it’s highly unlikely Pulp will have regrouped for so few gigs. If you’ll allow our minds to wander a little, an appearance at Coachella 2011 is by no means out of the question – and consider for a second the prospect of a Pulp-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties/Nightmare Before Christmas!

“Do you remember the first time?” Not half…

Charlie Ivens

Originally published on

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Decemberists – ‘Down By The Water’ // Song Of The Day #164

Not, has we had at first excitedly thought, a cover of the sinister PJ Harvey blues-beast – although just sit back and think for a second how awesome that might’ve been – The Decemberists’ first new material from forthcoming album The King Is Dead (out in January) sees Colin Meloy & co on melancholy, harmonica-accentuated form.

As “Brian Molko, but a country version” (according to the missus) sings “Queen of the water/Queen of the old main drag” it’s impossible to get past the hollering lyrical and musical nods to The Pogues, and you’ll hear no complaints about that from these quarters.

Vocal assistance comes from Americana figurehead Gillian Welch, and REM’s Peter Buck contributes something or other (vibes, by the sounds of things), so it’s clear our Tolstoy-lovin’ chums are upping their game somewhat – perhaps even aiming for a more, gulp, mainstream audience.

Look at it this way: if all those millions who bought the Mumford & Sons album took a wee step to the left and embraced The Decemberists as well, Oregon’s finest folkish storytellers might be able to buy their kids nicer shoes next year…

Charlie Ivens

Originally published on

Monday, 1 November 2010

Chrome Hoof @ Brighton Corn Exchange

Many hours have been squandered down the decades in a largely fruitless effort to tuck every band into a tidy box, a place where it can happily gambol around with all its musically similar chums – as if such a concept would naturally produce concord and mutual respect. So what to do with Chrome Hoof?

Perhaps incredibly, they’re not the first band to wear anachronistic matching outfits and vault vimfully between Krautrock, jazz, doom metal and disco – that particular flag was planted a decade ago by the perpetually neglected They Came From The Stars (I Saw Them) collective, albeit wearing white robes rather than the ‘Hoof’s trademark silver suits. And maybe TCFST(IST) played a secret Brighton show last week: that’s the only explanation we can think of for why the Corn Exchange is only a quarter full tonight. Indeed, it’s some miracle the venue isn’t overrun mid-set by the city’s hordes of shitfaced Hallowe’en-clad students, drawn Pied Piper-like by Chrome Hoof’s hypnotic motorik roar. Must be the soundproofing.

Luckily a handful of ghouls, Draculae and a female Alex from A Clockwork Orange (plus, y’know, some people wearing normal clothes) have shown up to bear witness, because you get the feeling Chrome Hoof might lack in purpose without an audience to bounce their ideas off. Frontwoman Lola Olafisoye doesn’t sing so much as yelp and issue commands – “put on your space suit”, “slice it, cube it if you like”, “first, step into your mind” – but that doesn’t stop her channeling Grace Jones and Siouxsie with ease, alternately running and prowling round the extremely full stage while her numerous bandmates bash, tease and wring out her commanding theme tunes.

It’s as if disco started with PiL’s ‘Fodderstompf’ rather than KC’s Sunshine Band, and in that darkly joyous universe Chrome Hoof reign supreme. They twist the 4/4 beat into unexpected yet still danceable shapes, all the while peppering proceedings with power chords and, at one point, a well-placed bassoon. Sometimes the violins approximate Sabbath playing Satie, others see the spectre of Ram Jam’s ‘Black Betty’ floating across the room from bassist and founder member Leo Smee’s neon-lit axe – an event that prompts two audience members to start a game of leapfrog. I swear I hear a snatch of what can only be described as progressive 2-Tone just after the gig-end stage invasion; to witness Chrome Hoof is to experience one of the 21st century’s finest, most impressively resourceful rhythm sections at work.

Admittedly, at various points tonight it’s hard to shake the image of Spinal Tap’s ‘Stonehenge’ from the mind, but strangely that’s nowhere near a criticism. For all their occasional forays into gloopy, green-hued Ozrics-prog territory, perhaps Nigel Tufnel’s immortal “no one knows who they were, or what they were doing, but their legacy remains” is the most we could hope for Chrome Hoof’s electrometaljazzplosion. On the strength of tonight’s performance – unmissable by all but everyone who missed it – they should be part of some sort of musical National Curriculum along with Devo, Faith No More, John Coltrane and Silver Apples. That, at least, is a box they might fit into.

Charlie Ivens

Originally published on

Friday, 24 September 2010

Bright Light Bright Light @ The Lexington, London 22 Sep 2010

From the get-go, there’s an atmosphere in here that brings to mind a ‘20s speakeasy, stylish ladies and gents who know how to make their way around a beauty counter without turning into Quentin Crisp. Onstage, however, it’s a different matter.

Stage right, two girls, frowning as if their (Gladys K)night depended on such an expression, wearing dazzlingly shining outfits complete with nonsensical headwear, surely created by crazed children on a Blue Peter “dress Pan’s People using only kitchen accoutrements” mission.

Stage left, two buff-as-you-like buzz-cut boys, so doused in glitter they may as well have just been dropped into Hamleys’ patented Insta-Sparkle formula, dancing throughout proceedings as if they’ve been dosed with enough veterinary anaesthetic to fell a rhino. Their singlets read “LOVE”. A little subtlety wouldn’t go amiss, but hey, why not aim for the motherlode?

And between them, there he is: the most unlikely pop frontman since Daniel Bedingfield. On the evidence of tonight’s pretty-much-sold-out performance, Rod Thomas is a one-man Sparks, the continuation of Scissor Sisters’ introduction – but less star turn, more ringmaster.

Let’s not muck about here: make no mistake, In Rod We Trust. ‘Cry At Films’, unbelievably relegated to the B-side (if such a concept even exists anymore) of his new single, contains such simple, astute observation that we’re seriously impressed. The single itself, the devilishly irresistible ‘Love Part II’, is (perhaps faux-)nonchalantly tossed off mid-set, maybe to prove BLBL’s got plenty of tent poles to hold up his particularly colourful Cath Kidston-does-Vegas velvet, satin & silk creation.

Here is a man blissfully unashamed at owning (we’re guessing here) a comprehensive Stock Aitken & Waterman collection, and perfectly happy to out-Hurts Hurts in his plundering of overblown musical tics and signatures. But he knows that the less complicated a song is, the more it’ll burrow into your soul, so even amid the heat and the froth and the babble and the sweat, there’s some seriously gifted songwriting bubbling under.

Is Rod Thomas a pizzazz-shitting egomaniac frontman superstar? No: he’s more Gary than Robbie, truth be told, but his enthusiasm – for his material, for the audience, for the whole gosh-darned wonderful thing that is creating and delivering music to our ears – is constantly evident nevertheless, and all the more affecting for its credibility. And with songs like pre-encore finale ‘Disco Moment’ – and doesn’t everyone, everyone want one of those now and again? – he’s in no danger of fading into the background.

He’s adept at turning new phrases that’ll become as established parts of the lyrical canon as ‘Fool If You Think It’s Over’ or ‘I Got You Babe’ if there’s any justice – and there’s actually a dash of Justice in these here tunes, come to mention it. Rod seems to have been quietly building a body of work that’ll either give him an omnipresent face or (at least) a queue of pop acts snaking around the corner outside his flat, hoping for some Bright Light Bright Light magic-by-proxy. The post-gig fizz could power an oil tanker, and rightly so – it’s just one of those nights. What a big, blooming surprise.

Charlie Ivens

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