Monthly Archives: May 2013

Neko Case, London Village Underground, 24 May 2013

NekoCase1Feel like I’m being spoiled now. I seem to have been griping for months about shoddy sound mixing at gigs and how not being able to pick out the vocals can leave your evening irrevocably marred (or Marred, even) and now, less than a week after John Grant’s brilliant show at The Junction demonstrated the value of actually being able to hear the words, here’s Neko Case doing a rare UK show to further restore my faith in the power of the popular song. Case trades mainly in country music, or country-rock, or possibly alt-country (I don’t really understand what the differences are between these, and I suspect she’s not bothered either) and has been putting out albums loaded with wonderful songs about disappointment and longing and redemption and the importance of the natural world for a good few years now, all set to sympathetic and finely tuned arrangements and sung with wild, but never self-indulgent, abandon. After John Grant, that’s two amazing vocalists in a row.

LadyLambBeeKeeperActually… make that three in a row. Case’s support is an act called Lady Lamb The Beekeeper, which turns out to be 23 year old Maine resident Aly Spaltro playing solo. She comes out on stage with zero fanfare, dressed down in a denim jacket and having something of the look of Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games or Winter’s Bone about her, picks up an electric guitar and then with no introduction launches into an extraordinary, densely complex, acapella ballad…no, not a ballad, more of a spiritual…with a passion and intensity that the whole room is silenced. It’s a showstopper and the show’s only just started. She follows it immediately with another one, this time accompanied by her own fierce but highly accomplished playing and this time it feels less like a song than a suite, with changes in tempo and mood rife. Spaltro seems to be laying herself bare in these songs with all five of the songs she plays displaying a heightened emotional pitch and ambitious, unconventional structures but she’s more than up to the task of keeping the audience’s attention through the power of her voice and conviction alone. She’s really impressive and well worth seeking out (you can listen to one of her songs here).

NekoCase2Neko Case, when she takes the stage after the interval, is by contrast positively relaxed. She’s dressed uber-casually in hoodie and jeans with no make-up or jewellery apparent, less like a rockstar than someone about to walk the dog, and straight away starts making jokes about zits. Her band consists of four pleasingly grizzled looking men of indefinite age who between them have thoughtfully managed to represent the four main stages of beard growth, plus backing vocalist and all-purpose sidekick Kelly Hogan, with whom Neko spends much of the between-song tuning-up and swapping instrument time swapping jokes about the menopause and how remembering being at a gig might one day replace just filming it on a mobile phone. All of this rambliness is excused once they start playing, and particularly once Neko starts singing – she’s absolutely spellbinding, throwing her head back and giving full throat to a well chosen set of songs. We get a healthy chunk of the two most recent albums Middle Cyclone and the classic Fox Confessor, as well as one or two earlier tracks, a couple of covers of songs by Catherine Irwin and Willie Nelson, and intriguingly a few songs from her not yet released new record, which sound well up to par and possibly slightly more rock than country (they end the main set with one of these newies, which features a lovely Beatle-y descending chord sequence). Amongst all the other instruments on stage – a banjo, a double bass, a pedal steel, an organ, lots of acoustic guitars – there’s a curious affair that Neko plays from time to time which I’d like to think is an electric ukulele complete with tremolo arm but is probably just a four string guitar. Whatever it is, it sounds just fine, as does the band – every song seems clear and fresh and briskly put over, with no horrible rock’n’roll grandstanding anywhere in evidence. Favourite moments for me were probably the ballads, the heartbreaking Margaret vs. Pauline and the yearning I Wish I Was The Moon, but I don’t think anyone could have been disappointed with the setlist. It’s a highly appreciative crowd, and the hall is coated with good cheer by the time the band signs off with a punchy Train From Kansas City. A treat for the ears – country is the new rock’n’roll.

Stephen Collins: The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

GiganticBeard1I had a day off work this week with some class of cough and cold combination and spent the better part of it engrossed in Stephen Collins’s The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, a fable-like tale of a perfectly ordered world being disrupted by a sudden invasion of inexplicable facial hair. This is a comic strip book I guess, in that the story’s told via a series of beautiful and simple pencil drawings laid out in panels with spare rhyming captions providing quiet narration, but it’s got more in common with the writings of Franz Kafka or Kazuo Ishiguro than it has with anything produced by Marvel or 2000 AD. For the first half of the book we follow the daily routine of a seemingly ordinary office worker called Dave, who goes to work every day to produce bland spreadsheets and charts and then goes home to spend his evenings listening to The Bangles and sketching the street that he can see from his window. The town (actually, island) that he lives is in known simply as Here and is kept pathologically neat and clean and free from unsightly expressions of individuality but this doesn’t seem to be due to any oppression from above – it’s more to do with an underlying fear of the unknown, and the unknown is represented by There, the unruly wilderness that lies all around the island, just across the sea. One terrible day There finds a way to establish a presence on Here through a moment of uncertainty on the part of Dave and we’re thereafter shown the ways that the powers-that-be struggle to contain this unholy infection.

Gigantic Beard is, despite its slightly self-consciously wacky title, a really quite eerie work that refuses most of the opportunities for cheap humour that present themselves in favour for some touching insight into the thinness of the veneer of civilisation and the quiet despair that permeates a life spent in meaningless routine. Which is not to say it’s not also very funny in places and brilliantly rendered throughout, with the muted greyscale tones aptly fitting the subject matter and some imaginative framing and subversion of comic book conventions providing more than adequate relief from the potentially depressing subject matter. I’ve read stories like this before but can’t remember ever seeing one drawn, and it’s great that something as offbeat as this can get published.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, graphic novel

John Grant, Cambridge Junction, 18 May 2013

JohnGrant1The omens weren’t too great for this gig: I’d come under sudden attack from a heavy cold and had spent the last 24 years streaming and snuffling, and more seriously a couple of nights before somebody had stolen John Grant’s laptop (“my whole life is on there!”) from the stage where he’d been playing in Brighton. Surely one or the other of us weren’t going to make it tonight.

In the event both of us do turn up, and within seconds of the bear-like Grant stepping out on stage and starting a pristine and beautiful version of the plaintive You Don’t Have To I’ve forgotten all about my maladies – it’s obvious straight away that this performance is going to be several cuts above the normal ear-straining distortion-ridden Junction experience. Grant trades in laceratingly confessional, angry and self-loathing lyrics that deconstruct his various failed relationships and issues with homophobia and callous pigeon-holing with wit and venom, but musically he’s miles away from the one-dimensional feedback fury that’s the standard accompaniment for such sentiments, preferring to wed his acrid verses to sumptuous 70s soft rock or eerie and austere electro-dance beats. But he wouldn’t be getting the rapturous reception he receives tonight for his words alone – while he’s undoubtedly a formidably talented and wickedly funny lyricist his real strong suit is his rich and powerful but also vulnerable baritone and the gorgeous melodies he composes for it, and thankfully whoever’s supervising the sound mix appreciates this. His band, made up mainly of musicians from Iceland which is where he currently lives, is supple and technically flawless but a few tinkly piano figures apart is very much in the background: Grant’s superb vocals dominate the sound in a way I’ve rarely come across at a rock concert. And he doesn’t confine himself purely to the microphone, taking regular sorties to a spare keyboard to play some fills that bring the word “Moog” irresistibly to mind.

Set-wise, the songs are drawn almost entirely from Grant’s two solo albums, with the recent Pale Green Ghosts eventually being rendered in its entirety. He cannily frontloads the session with the moodier, less immediately accessible tracks  like It Doesn’t Matter To Him and Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore but takes the trouble to introduce and place the songs in context and indulge in some very funny anecdotes and some good-natured to-and-froing banter with the audience. He seems remarkably relaxed and convivial given the painful nature of the material (he even laughs off the laptop theft), and the evening flies by. Eventually we get to the poppier stuff – the insanely catchy GMF which would be a surefire radio hit if it wasn’t for that problematic F in the chorus, the similarly jaunty and similarly vitriolic I Hate This Town – before Grant ends the set with the magisterial double-header of Glacier and Queen Of Denmark, both of which start like sensitive ballads before crunchy sledgehammer blows of electric guitar convert them into searing roars of anguish. The crowd goes wild, and we get an extended encore that takes in the funky Chicken Bones, the yearning Sigourney Weaver and the heartbreaking Where Dreams Go To Die from his first album before the evening ends with Grant alone on stage, providing his own delicate piano accompaniment for the fragile and beautiful Caramel. This will almost certainly be the best thing I see this year, and I didn’t think about my cold or who might be winning Eurovision once.


Mud: take me to the river

MudComing-of-age drama Mud, set among the houseboats and islands of Mississippi, feels in some ways like a canny updating of Huckleberry Finn. A pair of fourteen year olds discover an amiable, but obviously fugitive, man living rough in an abandoned boat and decide to help him, initially by bringing him provisions and later by assisting him with his plans to flee the area, but find the stakes of the situation raised when the complicated nature of his personal affairs and the ruthlessness of his pursuers become apparent. A set-up like this is far from original but Jeff Nichols’s film is immediately likeable and involving, mainly because of the care that’s been taken to convey events through the viewpoint of the serious and steadfast boy Ellis, who has problems at home and with girls to cope with as well as the practical difficulties he faces in honouring the promises he’s made to the mysterious outlaw. It helps also that all the characters we meet are well-written and fully rounded, and that while there are enough reversals, revelations and scenes of conflict to sustain the drama over the running time all of them flow naturally from the scenario that’s been established and even the tense climactic stand-off at the end doesn’t seem overly contrived. Matthew McConaughey gets the showy role as the wild-haired unwashed Mud and he’s very good, exhibiting both a convincing empathy with the boys who have befriended him and a real edge of desperation when things get dicey but the movie really belongs to Tye Sheridan – he’s onscreen most of the time, and is able to sell Ellis’s agonising over the various dilemmas he’s presented with some highly accomplished underplaying and a minimum of histrionics. You really feel for him. There are also good parts for Reese Witherspoon as Mud’s longsuffering sweetheart and the veteran Sam Shepard as the solitary mentor figure Tom Blankenship (I didn’t recognise him till the end credits came up, thought it was odd that the character had old photos of a celebrated New York playwright on display in his living room). This is a film with a lot of heart and mercifully little empty sentimentality, made with intelligence and restraint.

Tracey Thorn: Bedsit Disco Queen

TraceyThornBedsitI first heard of Tracey Thorn via the 1982 sampler album Pillows And Prayers which featured tracks from seventeen artists signed to the independent label Cherry Red and retailed for an impressively affordable 99p. To the thirteen year old me this record was a thing of wonder, a door to an alternative universe of obscure arty pop groups and shadowy cult figures making music variously angular or noisy or occasionally unashamedly shambolic. Thorn managed to feature on there three times: once as part of lo-fi legends The Marine Girls (one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite groups), once with a track from her solo mini-album A Distant Shore, and once with her long-term partner Ben Watt as Everything But The Girl, the name under which she eventually found fame. She, alongside other notable cult acts on the album such as Felt and The Monochrome Set, was of the generation that was inspired to take up music by the initial wave of post-punk groups, for whom lack of technical expertise on an instrument was a positive virtue – Thorn was however in contrast a naturally talented singer and quickly mastered the arts of guitar-playing and songwriting to the extent that when Everything But The Girl’s first album appeared a couple of years later it tended to garner comparisons with Sade’s ultra-smooth and jazzy Diamond Life rather than anything by The Raincoats or The Au Pairs. EBTG’s subsequent career consisted of an interesting series of sideways moves into different styles: Smiths-like guitar-based indie, bombastic orchestra-enhanced torch songs, introspective balladry, FM radio friendly modern R & B, and eventually, after Ben Watt’s recovery from a life-threatening disorder of his immune system, the impeccable trip-hop crossover Missing which became a worldwide hit in 1994 at the very moment their record company dropped them.

Bedsit Disco Queen is Thorn’s account of her somewhat stop-start musical career and it’s a delight: witty, unpretentious and full of insight into the way the music industry expects recording artists to remain within certain clearly defined parameters. She starts by sketching vivid pictures of her first groups’ stumbling and self-conscious efforts at staking out a distinctive identity in the band scene around the anonymous commuter town she grew up in before describing the writing and release of the Marine Girls’ album Beach Party (a brilliant and disarmingly primitive sounding collection that was more or less recorded in a shed) and the awkward band dynamic that led to the rapid break-up of the group. The story then continues on to her teaming up with Ben Watt at Hull University and the first EBTG gigs and records, the thoughtful and sophisticated nature of which received much critical acclaim as well as support from such august figures as Paul Weller and Morrissey. Thorn presents her impressions of a 1980s that’s in stark contrast to the usual media shorthand of yuppies, shoulderpads and vacuous electro-pop – the music scene that EBTG moved through was politically savvy and almost painfully right-on, with every other concert being a benefit for a noble cause and the thought of appearing on Top Of The Pops being sneered at as a hopeless sell-out. She’s sharp enough to recognise the contradictions inherent in this stance and some of the later chapters detail her ambivalence about the compromises her career ends up confronting her with. Her enduring musical curiosity eventually led her to her group’s second wind of popularity in the nineties when she accepted the offer to work with Massive Attack, an unlikely collaboration that inspired a new direction for EBTG and ultimately their most successful album Walking Wounded – after this Thorn retreated from the frontline of the music business in order to raise her children, though she’s not completely retired as a couple of solo albums and an active presence on Twitter demonstrate. Throughout the book she’s funny and incisive, with a keen eye for the ludicrous (a trip to Florence is disrupted by a gang of teenagers who have mistaken her and Watt for Matt Bianco) and an awareness of her good fortune, even when her album sales start drying up. Her account of Watt’s illness is unsentimental but still pretty affecting, and her reasons for giving up live performance seem entirely sane. I’m not particularly a fan of Everything But The Girl but got through the book in a couple of sittings nonetheless – highly recommended for when you’re killing time before your next beach party.

Star Trek Into Darkness


Star Trek is now one of those pop culture inventions, like James Bond or Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who, that’s always going to be around and always going to be in line for a make-over or re-imagining no matter how spent or uninspired the previous incarnation may have been. This franchise hit its low point about ten years ago with the pretty dismal Next Generation outing Nemesis and the final TV offshoot Enterprise, a prequel which may actually have been OK but had such an appalling soft-rock theme tune that nobody I knew could bear to watch it. By then it seemed like the world might have reached Trek saturation point, what with four multi-season spin-offs from the original series and ten feature films of varying quality to digest and for the first time since the 70s the stream of new product dried up as the age of the cast members started to preclude demanding action sequences and the scope for new scenarios seemed limited. Eventually however Paramount studio bit the bullet and hired the hot producer and ideas-man J.J.Abrams (previously of Lost and Alias) to fully re-boot the concept, starting at the beginning with the origins of the Enterprise crew and as part of the process re-casting such iconic parts as Captain Kirk and Spock and McCoy for the first time. The result was a 2009 movie that boldly went and called itself simply Star Trek in a bid to establish itself as the definitive article and surprisingly it turned out to be pretty great, despite a few bits of slightly laboured retro-continuity designed to placate long-standing fans by providing an explanation for inconsistencies between events in the film and those in the established Trek universe. The original series became a cult hit not because it was about spaceships and aliens but because it was funny and charming and presented moral dilemmas and tests of character that felt authentic even while the external situations were blatantly not, and Abrams, despite not being a particular fan of the programme, was careful not to let the spectacular big budget explosions and chases in his film overshadow the human (or, in one case, Vulcan) elements. It took a bit of adjusting to, but the new cast pulled off an impressive coup by gelling just as well as William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and co, and even Simon Pegg’s enthusiastic but not always convincing accent didn’t have one missing the original Mr Scott agonising about dilithium crystals. In particular, Chris Pine as the young Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock fitted into their parts so well it was slightly uncanny.

The film was such a huge hit that a sequel was inevitable, so now we have Star Trek Into Darkness which is made absolutely to the same template but seems to run more smoothly as it doesn’t have to waste time with all that bothersome character set-up that took up the first half of the running time before. The movie kicks off by throwing us straight into a manic chase sequence on an alien world that involves an erupting volcano, a horde of possibly hostile natives and an underwater Star Ship Enterprise – it plays like the climax to a film rather than its opening scene and raises the worry that they’re going all out for thrills and spills this time, but things settle down in short order with an assured and well-paced storyline about a rogue Star Fleet officer emerging and some nice points of conflict between the impulsive Kirk and the unshakeably logical Spock being established. Our heroes set out on a hunt for the mysterious John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, who from some angles looks like an elongated George Osborne…rather appropriate, given the character’s disdain for the weaker members of society) which leads them into a hairy stand-off with the Klingons and eventually to some call-backs to the original series that will have the hardcore Trekkers in the audience whooping. The plot is clear and engaging, with some surprising twists that never irritate by seeming arbitrary, and it’s all further enlivened by some good jokes, touching character moments and some judiciously applied stock Star Trek memes (usually via Karl Urban’s lovely turn as Dr McCoy,  it’s not every actor who’d get away with the hoary old “dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not an engineer” line). Rather ironically it’s the stuff that the production have spent most money on and put most effort into that is the least interesting and most distracting aspect of the film, namely the extended CGI-enhanced climactic scenes of things crashing and exploding that go on for what feels like hours – it’s all terribly impressive, but you can get all that in a video game these days. Happily though STID has got more than enough going on elsewhere to make it worth sitting through. Once again Abrams has made a smart, funny and visually spectacular film that will appeal to Trek fanatics and the general public alike and that’s no mean feat.