Live Review: Frightened Rabbit
December 14, 2010, 2:12 pm
Filed under: Live Reviews

The Empire, Belfast
Wednesday 7th November 2010

The stage is warm, and nearly everyone can almost touch it. The people pool below, or stack up on all sides. Quiet guys and girl-next-door types abound, winding up and down the staircases, and up again into unseen groups with their backs against the back wall. Scott Hutchison: “We’re here” – cheers from the crowd – “And so are you”. Talk about human heat. Don’t we all need it?

‘Things’ drives with the manic hope you imagine enables Hutchison to manage, or ply the kind of quixotic majesty the Selkirkians conjure atop starkly naturalistic lyrics. His harried, exerting presence really fights, scrabbling up the loose scree to that long-lost smile opening The Winter Of Mixed Drinks. “Fuck the ice and snow’ as are his first words.

After ‘Old Old Fashioned’ and ‘The Modern Leper’ follows ‘Keep Yourself Warm’, gathering all the heartbeats, dirty fingernails and constipated minds of frustrated Scottish youth; Calvinist folk-rock of unquenchable passion from the impoverished Borders. It’s a sense of regional identity more pronounced in a live setting. The band’s too-heavy drums and clangourous guitar paint a picture of horny casuals, racing around dead industry towns on a house beat, engulfed by natural beauty but never learning to swim, or how to tell the fit bowling alley girl how they feel. Hutchison, its so happens, has a wry ear for sad words, and a natural understanding of the lowly pills-and-shagging existence in provincial communities, and finally a humanity you just can’t learn.

Sweating through the incessant, splendid fare on their second album, his wrist occasionally grazing his temple to steady the vocals, it’s funny to watch pretty girls fawn over a man with a mind like a wedding fight in hell. Stepping out alone for ‘My Backwards Walk’ and ‘Poke’ there’s not a dry eye in the house. Ringing out from near-silence, Hutchison’s opening “I’m practising my backwards walk” stokes the broken clock in your chest. The audience begins to sing hymn-like, even matching parts to Hutcheson’s vocals in new ways the band maybe never considered. It’s a very strange effect. Talk about human heat. John Calvert


Liars Live Review For AU Magazine
October 22, 2010, 4:17 pm
Filed under: Live Reviews

Black Box
Tuesday 10th August 2010

On as shallow a stage as the Black Box has afforded them, Liars look like two-dimensional projections, shadow-puppets in a sylvan netherworld with people for trees. The big Aussie even moves like a marionette. A snake on its end; a man and a half, as the music starts he grows to full height from nowhere. I don’t see him until he is right there.

‘No Barrier Fun’ prowls the prison bars, patrolling the hinterland between band and audience, biding time, unblinking. It’s the missing link between their latest and the allegorical “They Were Wrong…” which anticipates the terrible conclusion to expansionist US foreign policy. One of the great post-9/11 records, the villagers (that would be us) are holed up in the hollow of a mountain as the witches fight back. The swirling terror is deflected back on the terrorists, and we pay with our children’s blood. With this in mind, to imagine what they might make of L.A was fascinating. “Underground, I hear the footsteps of a girl / those sounds were close to paradise / I tied up my ears and i bought us some shades” confides Angus A. They haven’t lost their talent for a killing joke.

A grotesquerie of death-rattles rack up in hellacious fits and spurts, amidst the languid stretches of Morricone-esque guitar, the symphony conducted by the man on the floor in the corner – Angus (here tonight with a crazy-making voice manipulator).The city of existential agony makes itself known, a world where clown-faced housewives watch daytime soaps on astroturf lawns while squidgee men are murdered for their shoes. Madness approaches as WASP couples kill each other over car repayments while their children eat the family dog alive (“There wasn’t much to do / So we just watched TV”: a key line).The sprawl is endless and disconnecting. Expressed in moments of listing reverie, Liars (the anti-lies band) drive soundlessly past the dispossessed until on tonight’s indisputable hero moments – “Scarecrow…’, ‘Scissor’ and ‘…Outside World’ – the malaise bursts with Wagnerian power. It’s all one big gaff. You could very well laugh yourself to death.

The audience stand entranced, seldom are there any departures from the room and the gloom is comforting, if you can resist checking behind you for monsters. Refusing to play it straight, their frontman bucks against our adoration with sardonically toothy banter and groovy dancing – incorporating lager lout scissor-arms and a malfunctioning robot. Part of me hopes that Angus’ “Turn The Volume Up Glasgow!” boob was sly provocation to an overly believing, unsatisfactorily lively crowd. If I didn’t know better i’t be us he’d rather lined up on the street, with our “thoughts nailed to the wall”.

Though, even they can’t resist revelling in Bauhaus cover ‘In The Flat Field’ and anti-yuppie anthem ‘The Overachievers’, with Angus swallowing his mic and the bassist leaning back in ecstasy against the force of a joyfully bludgeoning Julian Gross. The likes of ‘Drip’ and the pretty/vacant ‘Too Much,Too Much’ shimmer like boiling pollution on an asphalt oasis.

The sun drops on ‘Good Night Everything’, plunging the city into darkness and Bacchanalian nightmare: not with a bang but with a whimper. After inserting the jungle-chug of corrosive spell ‘Broken Witch’ and a banging slices of danse macabre in the shape of “They Threw…’ we find ourselves at the gates of closer ‘Proud Evolution’. On “You should be careful / You should be careful” Angus points to the right of the crowd, then to the left, then to the bar and finally fingers his temple like a gun at his head; we are all to blame. Welcome to Sisterworld. Please drive carefully. John Calvert

Girls Names Live Review For The BBC
April 17, 2010, 4:27 pm
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Brighton’s all-girl art-garage trio La La Vasquez peddle a brilliant approximation of the (legendary garage rock compilation) ‘Nuggets’ sound. In true proto-punk style, between the spooked chants and tambourine heartbeats there’s a naivety that can’t contain their impetuousness and an undercurrent of forbidden teen-lust that would blanche a Shangri La. It’s dumb and dangerous, free-spirited and a little sassy. Before long it’s 1967 and we’re being shaken down for our cola-change by girl truants at a desert-town Dairy Queen.

Like Belfast’s Girls Names, it’s a sweetly inchoate sound with the dynamics remedial, the drums lean and tribal (neither band use a hi-hat) and the guitar clean but languorous; its crying out for a spoken-word interlude, something like: “You broke my heart/ so I slashed your tires”. As well as looking the part, the subject matter perfectly pastiches the prevailing sights and sounds of Sixties garage – the influence of California’s Mexican influx, flirtations with Middle-Eastern sounds and of course tales of the odd rumble, with ‘Clare Savage’ re-imagining Freya Vasquez’s brawl with a Mika Miko fan as a Tarantino Luau out. The prettiest creatures are sometimes the deadliest.

Of course the ‘sex = death’ equation is the centrifugal force at the heart of all good Sixties beat-pop and it’s what floods the milkshake punk stylings of top-billers Girls Names (newly accommodating of bassist ‘Caire Bear’). As drummer ‘Neel Peel’ concedes – it doesn’t get more complicated than ‘Love – Heartbreak – Death’. Like LLV, New York’s lo-fi label Captured Tracks is putting their home-recorded sound out, which is oneiric, spectral, always cute and never remiss of churning a good pop melody, with bottomless reverb acting as the salt-water conductor in a séance with dead youth, their souls forever trapped in monochrome Polaroids. It’s a kind off surfer noir, narrated by Cathal T Cully’s brackish murmurings that haunt the local breakpoints while a tremolo’d, trebly guitar rakes your exposed skin like glassy waves breaking on black sand. All the while, Peel is bludgeoning his sweetheart to death with a long-board below Venice Beach pier. Because they’re also enamored with the ‘messthetic’ tradition spanning Beat Happening and Cocteau Twins, to the Postcard bands and onto the millennial twee revival, it’s a more heartsick, nymphish (if faster tempo-ed) affair than conjured by the sultry Vasquez femmes and their tequila-soaked brand of profane lilting.

So, we know they have aesthetic. The presentation is immaculate; the most perfect configuration of genre signifiers and pop-cultural iconography hitherto evoked by any Northern Irish band in recent memory. It’s a timely blow for local art-rock at a time when our pop bands are primed to dent the charts for the first time since the mid-Nineties. What’s clear from tonight’s set though is that they also have the tunes, in abundance, chief amongst them being single ‘Graveyard’ which recalls an abbreviated version of Beat Happening’s ‘Godsend’, and is every bit as radiant. John Calvert

BBC: Live Review, Beach House [Extended Edition]
March 10, 2010, 11:57 pm
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Beach House, The Speakeasy, February 14th

The midnight dance of young bohemia plays out in the confines of the speakeasy tonight. Lit in valentine-red, their wrists are marked with a pink entry-stamp smudge that looks like a kiss. So far, so Beach House. Out-numbering 2-to-1 the plebs like me, who class a nicely laundered Bench t-shirt as cutting edge fashion,  they’re the type of beret-wearing contrarians who write free-association poetry compositions in the afternoon and have stylised indie sex to warped Shang-ri-la’s vinyls. Propped up by self-consciously unkempt facial hair, there’s enough ironic eyewear on the floor to fill out a Buddy Holly convention. Straight out of a Larry Clarke showcase, these glamorously sullen gamines and laterally the male of the species – that dishevelled part time painter with rent-boy good looks and cheek bones that could vivisection a tin of baked beans – are a better source of interest than support act Lawrence Arabia.

The bland but good-natured Aussies win a quaintly warm reception, but the band is far easier to love than their music, which is a quirky composite of 4-part harmonies, rockin’ American classicism, some ethnic elements and a tasty bit of trumpet. They play like they have nothing to prove and with a brotherly kinship. Its an amenable set but ultimately they’re just frivolous diversion  next to the theatre of high-romance conjured by Beach House’s timeless, impossibly majestic love songs..

The daughter of  Parisian Soprana Christiane Legrand, irrefutably Victoria Legrand has the greatest voice in indie today. The timbre, the tone, the mellifluous control, the exquisitely bended vowels, its so powerful and true that it sounds synthetic, like the most beautiful police siren you ever heard. You can do nothing but close your eyes and try your best to keep it together. Its easier to paraphrase the girl who retreated from the front in tears twenty minutes in, telling her boyfriend “Its too much, I can‘t deal with it. I’m shaking”. If you reckon that’s a bit wet, then why not drop in next time? You’ll be that incoherent crazy, rambling about sunsets and the fragility of life to a disinterested doorman.

If Grizzly Bear left their hearts in Vekatimest (a little island thingy where they wrote the eponymous album), then Beach House are writing their tear-smudged diary entries from a place of perpetual youth, where in rainy summer-towns, literate kids like Beach House feel too many things all at the same time. A hyper-emotive carousal of wonder, the live set charms to an almost indecent degree. ‘Good Times’ is your Mum and Dad falling in love on a moonlit bandstand in Maine, and ‘Take Care’ a peaceful committment to there. ‘Gila’ boasts a keening guitar line that keeps it firmly heaven bound and ‘Lover Of Mine’ – their “Michael Jackson song” – is a crisp respite from the smeared wooziness that defines their third album. But their creased folk rock is never more divine than in ‘Zebra’ which provokes a chorus of gasps from the captivated audience.

Suffice to say they’re an uncommonly attractive trio (even their drummer looks like a GQ model) and Legrand runs the show from her organ on centre-stage. She’s a powerful presence, rather than the type to feign a beatific Laura Marling-esque facade (give us a break Laura, we’ve read Noah And The Whale’s sleeve notes – everyone knows you don’t take any sh*t). They intermittently address the crowd with dreamy non-sequitars and nuggets of cryptic advice that couldn’t be anymore typical of the wistful nature of the act than if they wrote them down in blood on a manila envelope and delivered the package by horseback. Things like “I hope you find love, even if you don’t ever tell anybody about it” and “we wish you good life, good love and good law”, and their greatest stab at self-parody – “thank you for being our first.”. It seems a lot less giggle-some, though, after they roll out closing gambit ‘10 Mile Stereo’, which offers tender Gainbergian love through the comforting heat of bottomless reverb. All is dream, as they say. “Happy Valentine’s Day” says Victoria. John Calvert

Live Review:The XX ([Director’s Cut]
January 11, 2010, 3:32 am
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The Speakeasy, 15 December 2009

Right now in the grips of early winter’s future-obscuring spell, in the Speakeasy a surprisingly swollen crowd convene, battling the freeze to experience The XX live, indisputably one of 2009’s It bands. As best as they can the lovers-strewn congregation shelters in the embrace of the combo’s debut, its private, yearning mystique all the more enchanting when prettily lit and made flesh by its now three-dimensional authors. The last pixel of May sunshine is extinguished from our mind-photo and the glow of less inhospitable times is made an ethereous memory. If ever there was a winter band the XX are that band.

Live, just as if we are at home under the covers, the measured caresses, made light-footed by skeletal R’n’B/Micro-House dynamics, are immersive. The economy and understatement that the combo traffic in is very much something to cherish in this day and age. It takes a certain kind of self-belief to purge your pop of pomp and flash and harder still is it to make the music as addictive and persuasive as they have, without relying on trite hooks and pulse-racing crescendos. Have no doubts though – this is still pop music, just a type that has become rare these days; an edgy, unfussy, naked and considered kind that holds fast to a personal vision, with not a single moment pushed on us for empty effect or a single song that entertains a rash, incongruous passage which might undermine the core premise of the song.

With both their voices sounding gorgeous and true, Romy Madely-Croft and Oliver Sim’s hive-mind murmurs pillow talk to an unnamed third-party, that faceless interloper to whom their binary ruminations are addressing throughout XX. In steady procession they draw evenly from their uniformly perfect suite of bedsit-noir confections with apparently no wish to interact with the crowd, short of Oliver’s apologies, – presented in the voice of a sedated Barry White – for the sometimes soupy sound or for the possibility that they’ll botch b-side ‘Do You Mind’. Romy looks at the front rows tiredly while the talismanic Jamie Smith is just too busy filling for the dearly departed Baria Qureshi to even look up from his panel of toys. Though they were never going to be the band that quips or amps up the crowd, the subdued performance renders the gig a mite too much like a sitting or a recital, rather than a show. Often the songs kind of just lie there after deployment, like an open book.

Yet, it’s churlish to begrudge a faithful run-through. The puritanically retrained, almost contrary tracks were never intended for taking flight for the Big Finish, that ejaculation of crowd-pleasing opulence. And for the most part, the tracks are played with a conviction and passionate intent that must be difficult to muster at the back end of a long headline tour, so if the performance is muted its of little consequence.

Whilst not all of the spooky, bewitching charm of their debut is preserved, it’s such an incisive expression of the stillness of witching hour London, a strikingly original record birthed under the hum of sodium-emitting streetlights, that it withstands the ravages of a shuffling, live venue, almost. Almost, if not for an irreverent minority.

Somewhere in their minimalist L.P (though there isn’t very many places it can hide) a tenuous sense of space and time is moored. Teased into a precarious existence, this tiny kernal of aural ephemera, sometimes no more than an idea in the listener’s head but which is central to the band’s magic and air of modernity, is pervious to even the minutest change of environment. Tonight, that bubble-delicate magic competes with a ceaseless chatter courtesy of a small yet effectual percentage of saloon-rowdy shits, mostly dwelling at the back of the room, seemingly at a totally different event and extolling the psychedelic properties of Kasabian’s latest album, or something equally as asinine.

Whatever it is that’s so important that it couldn’t be divulged at the Pothouse’s depressing w*nker-disco, the din provides a distracting bed to the songs’ pauses and voids, like the band are playing above a municipal swimming pool at peak time. Thusly, we’re denied the out-of-body experience wished for. It’s these digestible guitar-inclusive adaptations of inner city trends you see, them casual Indie-fans go crazy for it (you know the type, labouring under the assumption the genre began with Hot Fuss). Elitist you say? Yes, maybe. Call us old fashioned, but the accepted wisdom is that soft songs were not written so they could be jabbered over by the human equivalent of a Nuts Biggest B*obs In Britain double-edition. Just about detectable above the shuffling crowd is the act’s Dubstep-esque skill for interring kinetic energy in a hermetic seal, compressing human emotion (and often in the XX’s case, sexual longing) under a membrane of oppressive urban psycho-geography.

If the more intangible elements of their aesthetic perish, the basics remain. The great song-writing and catchy melodies flourish in spite of the prevailing thrum. Beginning, appropriately, with ‘Intro’, our appetites are whetted despite an overbearing low end, which is followed by ‘VCR’, sucking us deeper into the abyss. ‘Islands’ and ‘Heart Skipped A Beat’ retain their time-slowing, incubating power and ‘Shelter’, both sterile and lush, suggestive but naïve, is a highlight and worth the cost of admission alone, provoking a generous round of applause.

Consisting of the likes of ‘Basic Space’, ‘Infinity’ and the amazing ‘Fantasy’, a more lively (and crucially louder) second act keeps the Keiser chiefs fan club from inanely tweeting on their I-phones or yapping obliviously at the top of their voices. Romy’s ionised picking provides subtle shading and delicate filigree over Oliver’s stern-sounding bass, with the feline, geezer-chic 20-year-old draped in gold necklaces and sporting the classic garb of a Nineties D’n’B pioneer: a black polo neck. They finish with Oliver smashing a rhythm into Jamie’s cymbal and depart for their next appointment via their delectable reformulation of Florence And The Machine’s pish version of club-classic “You’ve Got The Love”. Good bye kids, hurry back. Now back to those headphones and the cover of darkness. John Calvert


Live Review: Gallows 2 ( [Director’s Cut]
November 10, 2009, 1:08 am
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25 May 2009

Plaguing the Limelight is a dry heat that has you panicking for your next breath. Part of the problem is in accommodating the metastasising sentient that is the Gallows Sect, delivering droves of rapscallions into the venue’s L-shaped confines.

We prefer to imagine, though, that in order to expel such sepulchral ire and infected hopelessness in the making of Grey Britain, the band made it all the way to hell and brought a little of the weather back with them.

Emerging to ‘The Riverbed’s ominous cello, they swiftly pull the rug with the sulphurous intensity of ‘The Vulture (Part II)’ which is tailed by the ruinous mania of ‘Friendly Bombs’, marble-sized clots of adrenaline congressing at the base of your neck. In the bastard heat ‘Just Because…’ is almost a religious experience. Frequently, Frank will run a thumbnail across his Tattoo-ravished neck and his inked collar could just as easily be a noose..

Needless to say in the midst of London Is The Reason (it’s ‘Belfast’ tonight) Carter is soon travelling to the bar and back via the chalky network of valves and steel pipes overhead and when he stage dives, well the guy means it. Rather than ego-flopping onto expectant palms, Carter rakes his shoulder across meters of squirming mosh before his skinny calves can capsize from their Jesus-pointing poise.

Frank’s reflux-damaged vocals have dropped noticeably in pitch from altissimo chainsaw to mid-register Blunderbuss and dueting with shojo harlequin Eva Spence (of support band Rolo Tomassi) on ‘Black Hearted Queen’, he puckers his lips in awe as she does things with a still-developing larynx that they don’t have a name for yet.

Perhaps you favour Orchestra of Wolves’ kinetics to the blustering metalcore on their Grand Guignol of a second album – the sweeping scope and ostentatious riffage seem somewhat gormless, orthodox even, next to the debut’s rollicking anarchy and debased sense of mischief. Live, though, ‘The Riverbank’, ‘Misery’, ‘Death Voices’ and the incredible ‘Black Eyes’ all are meted out at a determined pace and the Young Turks at the front rage merrily to the amusement of the band.

They encore with ‘Crucifucks’, both guitarists upgrading to a snare and mobilized for an end-of-days tattoo. As the bass drops away to just Frank and the drumline, his ragged doomsaying, exorcised with bug-eyed conviction, is just about the most exciting 30 seconds of the show. God bless this great depression, indeed.

John Calvert

Live Review: The Virgins
November 9, 2009, 3:35 am
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The Virgins
The Speakeasy
Sunday 26 April 2009

Is it ever less than intoxicating as when New York comes to town? Emitting a grotty cosmopolitan glamour, Donald Summer, a gangly coquette with a complexion like scarified wax, stuporously relays tales of bedding Uptown debutants and unruly Ketamine trips in the gloom of the Speakeasy, with a slight over-reliance on rock ’n’ roll cliché and Karen O’s patented fist-on-hip. If he was once a pretty club-kid model, several tough years on the circuit and 25 preceding European dates has left him a black-toothed ne’r do well.

Of course, a Manhattan loft address and a dying liver don’t make you Lou Reed. It’s a wan artistic statement and lyrics like ‘Let’s have a cocaine brunch’ don’t exactly counter their reputation as catwalk-garnish, the televangelists of New York cool, counterfeiters. You‘ve got the Duran Duran-commemorating ‘Murder’ the Olsen-esque “Hey Hey Girl” and on conclusion of the irritatingly starchy ‘One Week Of Danger’, you’d settle for one song.

In the end, though, when it’s a good Sunday night out you‘re looking for, a nifty touch for fluid pop-craft trumps originality as the essential. Their funk-pop confectionary flourishes in a live setting, helping to vanquish the sensation of déjà vu-all-over-again that percolates their debut LP. A cover of INXS’s ‘Devil Inside’ is entirely appropriate and the Strokes-ian ‘Private Affair’ and roller-boogie strut ‘Rich Girls’ are both irresistible.

When greeted with the sweetly sincere ‘Fernando Pando’ and a gorgeous slow-dance rendition of ‘Love is Colder…’ their obvious plagiarisms rapidly shrink in importance, as they eclipse their support act Amazing Baby by merit of a fearsome yet accessible star wattage. While observing the frequent bouts of proud smiles traded between the band, it’s clear that as opposed to being imperious fashion-whores, the Virgins are a group of relatively civilian pop-lovers who can’t believe their luck and a breath of fresh air before the real thing emerges.

John Calvert