Monday 28 February 2011

P J Harvey at Troxy - 27 February 2011

P J Harvey

It’s a cold and damp February night in the East End of London. However, the venue is packed and hot and buzzing with anticipation. Performances by P J Harvey are as rare as a solar eclipse and tend to be just as dark and mysterious.

When the pitch black stage is suddenly bathed in light there is a collective intake of breath at the bizarre creature in front of us.

Polly Harvey is a tiny shape swathed in a dress that might best be described as a contemporary take on Victorian widow’s weeds. Her head is crowned with a magnificent tower of black plumes. She’s dressed for the Ascot Ladies’ Day of Death.

Her band, Mick Harvey, Jean-Marc Butty and the ever loyal John Parish are nattily turned out as 19th century card sharps. It’s a good start before they even start playing.

The first song is the title track from the new ‘Let England Shake’ album, which is played pretty much in its entirety this evening. Harvey coos in her newly powerful falsetto, twisting from foot to foot and thrumming a tightly clasped auto-harp.

As the song stops, all the lights are extinguished and the stage goes dark until the next song begins. This is repeated throughout and means that each tune is performed in isolation from that which precedes it and the set unfolds in a series of tableaux.

The band next assay ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ and there is a gradual, urgent build up of tension until the final lines that quote ‘Summertime Blues’ “I’m gonna take my problem to the United Nations”. This reclaims the lyric from a petulant teenager’s whine to something much more deadly earnest.

The album, and this set, is an emotional rather than a political response to English and Australian involvement in foreign wars, both historical and current. The weight of this theme makes for a slightly heavy evening. It’s all brilliantly done, and much of the music is genuinely jaunty, but you do feel slightly guilty for hollering and whooping after each number.

Harvey lays down her harp and grabs a guitar and the set progresses to encompass songs from her back catalogue. There is a magnificently sinister reading of ‘Down by the Water’. It is clear that although there is serious business at hand, that Polly is enjoying herself.

Returning to the new album there is a stirring rendition of ‘The Glorious Land’ replete with a trumpet sample playing ‘taps’. ‘All and Everyone’ is equally strong, from its opening line of “death was everywhere” onwards. Impressive yes, jolly no.

The abiding genius of Polly Harvey is that she can make songs that are as emotionally searing as this into crowd pleasing anthems. Despite the funeral home demeanour, this is definitely an upbeat evening.

Even so, it is with some relief that when the band come back for an encore it is with ‘Meet Ze Monsta’. At this stage, Harvey even unwinds enough to finally speak to the crowd, generously thanking her fellow musicians.

P J Harvey don’t play often, and when they do, it is an event. Tonight’s gig is all about the commemoration of those that have gone before. Polly Harvey is something of a national treasure herself.

Monday 21 February 2011

Yuck, Cults and Guards at Bush Hall - 18 February 2011


The first thing that you notice is the hair. Really.

Guards and their sister band Cults could front for L’Oreal and provide the music for the adverts while they are at it. We’re talking tresses way below the shoulder and over the chest. This is Rapunzel rock.

Guards are the vehicle for Richie Follin, a guy who knows the value of a wrung out guitar solo and whose voice ranges from the normal register to a wild keening falsetto. This last does not seem natural for him, as it involves a lot of painful-looking scrunching up of the face. It sounds good though.

For reasons known only to the band, Guards’ equipment is adorned by a variety of stuffed crows. These birds are never reverenced in an explicit British Sea Power kind of way. It’s just that Richie and the guys thought that they look cool.

The music itself is an eerie amalgam of Dinosaur Jr rock and 50’s pop. Noisy as hell, but somehow pure at the same time. I like what I hear.

The next act Cults are a kind of remixed version of the previous band. They have some of the same personnel in common, mostly playing different instruments. The key difference is singer Madeline Follin (relation), whose voice fades in and out of the mix and who is so uncomfortable that she spends almost the entire set with her hand clenched tight on the hem of her white mini dress.

For Cults, the sound of the 50’s and 60’s girl groups is even more pronounced, and, despite the vocals being fashionably distorted and indistinct, the mental image that the band conjures is of teen couples at the Prom, clinging to each other as they sway slowly together beneath a glitter ball.

I like them a lot, possibly because they sound so familiar even when I’ve never seen them before. The familiarity may stem in part because their great track ‘Come Outside’ is being used extensively by Sky as part of their Cricket World Cup coverage.

Headliners Yuck are going places. They’ve been picked for the BBC’s Sound of 2011 list and their album has been streaming on the Guardian’s website all through the week. Short of appearing on a TV show spawned from the demonic loins of Simon Cowell, these guys have had all the media breaks that a band could want.

And they have got to this position because of the simple, old fashioned fact that they are bloody good.

Sure, this music will be familiar to aficionados of the likes of Sonic Youth, Pavement and Teenage Fanclub, but it doesn’t matter. The influences may be old, but the songs are great, as tonight, Yuck absolutely OWN Bush Hall.

Their new self-titled album gets a good work out and it’s all wonderful, with ‘Suicide Policeman’, ‘Georgia’ and the epic set closer ‘Rubber’ each bang on the money.

Yuck have got to the stage where they have now honed their material to such perfection that they should only be judged on their own merits rather than damned because of similarities to the past. I suspect that they are going to go down a storm on the summer festival circuit.

Excellent support from Guards and Cults too. A top night out and all the bands are worth it.

(Did you really think that I was going to mention L’Oreal at the top of the page and NOT do the painfully laboured and obvious pay off?)

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Sleigh Bells, Teeth!!! and MEN at Heaven - 14 February 2011

Sleigh Bells pic by Joe McCabe

It’s Valentine’s Day, so naturally I’m spending time with my loved ones. In this case, three electro/noise bands playing under the arches at Charing Cross.

This venue is more famous in its other guise as a gay club. So it is somewhat fitting that the first act of the night is MEN.

This three piece play militant electro disco and showcase the wiry feisty JD Samson, who is probably better known for her role in the much missed Le Tigre, a band who were pretty well untouchable in this genre.

The spectre of Samson’s previous band hangs heavy this evening and it makes me wonder if it might have been a smarter move to strike out for completely different pastures.

Songs such as ‘Off Our Backs’ and ‘Credit Card Babies’ are good booty-shaking stuff but I find myself distracted by what is not here rather than what is. I miss Kathleen Hanna’s stridency – which is not fair on MEN, who deserve to succeed on their own terms and are an energetic and welcome start to the evening.

The last time I saw Teeth!!!, singer Veronica So was being paraded at shoulder height around a tent at the Offset Festival.

Tonight, in the dark confines of this venue, with its incessant strobe lighting and industrial décor, the vibe is more like the vampire night club scenes in the first Blade movie. It suits Teeth!!! down to the ground.

Teeth!!! make a cacophonous racket, with So screaming over a drummer and a succession of programmed beats that sound as if they have been sampled from some vast machine that is malfunctioning and chewing itself to bits.

So jumps up and down and throws herself about and it’s all good rowdy fun. However, there is a sense of conflict within the band as they are clearly torn between going full out on the noise front and aspiring to something more melodic and (dare I say it) mainstream.

This is best exemplified by the bands’ last song, which they describe as a ‘remix’ and which is a lengthy, rather dreary house number that is out of keeping with their fiercer ( and to my ears at least - better) stuff.

Sleigh Bells headline tonight and bring the noise big style, starting with the apocalyptic double-punch of ‘Infinity Guitars’ and ‘A/B Machines’.

It’s a ridiculously reductive concept – Derek Miller slashes at a guitar that has been amped up way past eleven, whilst Alexis Kraus jumps up and down and works the crowd into a frenzy. The songs are propelled by pre-recorded beats that detonate like grenades.

It’s an impressive performance, but necessarily limited in scope. However, to criticise Sleigh Bells for being repetitive is like being surprised that a goldfish only swims one way around its bowl – it doesn’t have any choice in the matter.

The only real change of tempo in the set comes with the track ‘Rill Rill’, where the punishing percussion is turned off to allow Krauss to cajole the crowd to accompany her. This is but a brief respite before ‘Tell ‘em’ thunders out like a twenty one gun salute.

This is a short set that finishes with ‘Crown on the Ground’ and sees Krauss flinging herself off the stage into the throng below. The silence after they stop is almost louder than what has gone before.

It’s been an enjoyable evening, even if I have slight reservations about each of the bands. Some people are spending Valentine’s Day with a box of chocolates and a single red rose – I prefer a heaving throng and a pair of ringing ears.