Friday 30 March 2012

Those Darlins, The Good Suns - Lexington 28 March 2012

Those Darlins

Those Darlins pic David Quinally

By the time I wander into the venue, The Good Suns are just comfortably a couple of numbers into their set. And even though I get to see the majority of their act this evening, I regret the loss of those early songs. Because the Good Suns are really rather good.

This is guitar-based melodic pop. There are harmonies, nifty tunes and a sort of C86 jangle. I’ve no idea what is fashionable, but I’m very happy to soak in their music.

The band have gained a bit of attention by getting desperate attention whore Lembit Opik to appear in the video for their single Pop Wound. It’s better tonight without him.

The first thing that you notice about Those Darlins is that they are shy one Darlin, Kelley Anderson having left the group just prior to the current tour. Jessi, Nikki and Linwood are joined by a new/stand in? bassist who enjoys himself, but stays out of the way.

As this is the band’s first time in Europe, it’s hard to say how the line up change has affected them. However, nothing seems awkward, everything is fun, so no complaints from this side of the stage.

Those Darlins hail from Nashville, Tennessee and their accents give each tune a real rootsy twang. The songs themselves are simple stripped down garage punk, no nonsense, all business.

Jessi and Nikki alternate vocals, with Linwood occasionally chipping in from behind his drum kit. This three-pronged approach works well, allowing for variety and for each to play to their strengths.

The Darlins give off a magnificent vibe of good girls gone/goin’ bad – fiercely sensual but in utter control.

Jessi is petite, exotically dressed and works the crowd with selected use of her fantastic eyes. These are as big as saucers. Jeepers Creepers, where’d she get those peepers!

Nikki, resplendently and apparently haphazardly tattooed, beams out with deadpan detachment. She’s wry and relaxed and appears highly amused.

The set is divided between the debut album and the latest ‘Screws Get Loose’. There is more of an obvious Country influence on the older material such as ‘Red Light Love’.

As the set ends, Jessi hops off the stage and into the crowd, guitar and all. It makes for a suitably riotous end to a damn fine show.

You’ve gotta love Those Darlin’s.

Thursday 29 March 2012

Jacuzzi Boys, Paws, Drop Out Venus at Madame Jo Jo's - 27 March 2012

Jacuzzi Boys pic by Marc Fuya

Before the gig, a diversion.

I pop into the Strand Gallery to catch their current exhibition of photography featuring iconic women in rock snapped by female photographers. It’s called ‘She-Bop-a-Lula’ and is presented in aid of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Charity.

There’s some great stuff here, from a 1967 Jane Bown shot of an impossibly young and gawky Cilla Black slurping a cup of tea, through a Roberta Bayley triptych of Debbie Harry in a Las Vegas motel room in 1979 right up to more modern stuff like Anna Calvi at the George Tavern earlier this year. The whole exhibition is highly recommended and in aid of a good cause.

My main reason for coming out tonight is the opportunity to watch Drop Out Venus once more. This band become more, not less, extraordinary each time I see them.

The main focus is always on Iva Moscowich. Her face is wide-eyed and expressive, her body wracked with jerks and twitches. She tears off her woolly hat to reveal a head brutally cropped to military or prisoner length. The power and anguish that she projects is mesmerising and harrowing in equal measure.

Guitarist Zaek and drummer (momentarily unfindable on Google) are a phenomenal pairing. The beats are complex yet sparing, the guitar making sounds that I’ve never really heard before. Things seems completely loose and yet utterly controlled. The band describe themselves as ‘junk jazz’ and they don’t lie.

There is chatter at the bar, and apart from a vexed sigh and a dismissive shake of the head, Iva ignores it.

Recent Soundcloud release ‘Love In Vein’ gives way to an impassioned spoken word piece with the refrain ‘I hate myself and I want to die’. The whole room shrinks to spotlight on Iva’s face. The noise from the bar might as well be in a far off galaxy, such is the intensity.

The final song references the dehumanisation of prisoners and may address the treatment of women during the Holocaust. This is not light stuff. Drop Out Venus are completely singular, there is nothing else like them out there.

In contrast (and anything is a contrast after DOV), Paws are three punks from Scotland who wear their influences proudly. They are a little bit Pavement, a little bit Dinosaur Jr and a whole lot of fairly unlucky this evening.

The drummer bears the initial brunt, as he becomes entangled in the Jacuzzi Boys’ banner, which eventually falls on him. Meanwhile, singer/guitarist Phil Taylor is having difficulties with his twin microphones, one of which has a fancy gizmo strapped to it to add distortion to his voice. Unfortunately, this contraption is not functioning and vocals for entire songs are lost.

However, the band thrash along at a pleasing lick and they trigger the first signs of jumping and moshing in the crowd. In the throes of their finale, Taylor plants his mike stand squarely in the audience and leaps from the stage, guitar and all. It’s a fine gesture, but the song finishes almost immediately, before he can really create any mayhem.

Jacuzzi Boys are another three piece, proud to come from Miami and possessing the kind of guitar chops that have got them signed to Jack Black’s Third Man record label.

This band too utilise distorted vocals, this time with more success. Singer/guitarist Gabriel Alcarla employs a high pitched trembling and heavily reverbed technique that echoes round the room.

This is good time garage music with a twist, as drummer Diego Monasterios often keeps time with an almost motorik beat, occasionally leaning to the side to bawl along. It’s rather like watching a Bizarro World version of the Cramps in which an obsession with ghoulies and ghosties has been replaced with a love of baseball instead.

The crowd happily bounce around and the evening comes to a fitting conclusion. Another very successful evening.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Katzenjammer, Karima Francis at Scala - 22 March 2012


Karima Francis faces an uphill task. She’s sat on a stool with an acoustic guitar and she’s trying to gather the attention of an audience who are stoked and excited for the headline act that follows.

She’s not quite alone. Hidden in the shadows at the side of the stage is a second guitarist. His profile is so low that I was only alerted to his presence at all after her set has finished.

Francis is certainly distinctive in appearance. I’ve often commented before on performers’ hair, but the huge pile of curls on display here is a magnificent construction that puts even Yehan Jehan in the shade. If it’s not a wig, then going to sleep must be like climbing into a nest.

Karima wins the crowd over by the simple expedient of being very sweet natured and having a terrific voice. There are big echoes of the likes of Joan Armatrading, so this is not revolutionary stuff. But it is really well done.

Norwegian band Katzenjammer have established an absolutely rabid fanbase that is similar to that of Amanda Palmer. The crowd talks to the band, the band talks back. The audience know that it is Anne Marit’s birthday and hold up cards and messages. Everyone laughs back and forth. As an outsider, I feel a bit excluded.

Katzenjammer are Fun with a capital ‘F’. They are deliberately zany and kooky and play to their considerable strengths. This includes multiple swapping of various esoteric instruments, including a spectacular bass balalaika which is as big as a desk.

The songs are mostly riotously upbeat numbers which lean more towards musical theatre or cabaret than rock. There is much stamping and singing and clapping from the audience, which is so pleased with itself that the air hangs heavy with self-congratulation.

The girls take it in turns to showcase themselves. It is pure Vaudeville. Banjos are plucked, ukuleles are strummed, and accordions are wheezed. There is much harmonising. Anne Marit, Marianne, Solveig and Turid are so impressive that it is hard to resist them.

New album ‘A Kiss Before You Go” gets a good airing, including a pounding version of single “Rock Paper Scissors.”

Watching them perform, you get the feeling that the only thing that could limit Katzenjammer’s success would be the size of audience that they can play to. They will do fearsome damage at this summer’s festivals.

Saturday 17 March 2012

The Chapman Family, Cold In Berlin, The Naturals at Bull & Gate - 15 March 2012

The Chapman Family

The pub is full of young Russians. Not a bad thing, but unexpected. It turns out that they have arrived en masse for a show by popular singer Zemfira up the road. Good for them, but I think that I’ve got the best line up right here.

The first thing that you notice about The Naturals is that they are pedal freaks. Robin Stewart, Harry Wright and Felix Drake have vast banks of gear strewn across the stage in front of them. No guitar is struck unless it is distorted, feedbacked and reverbed to within an inch of its life.

Song structures are intricate and complex. There is a ghost of afro beat, hints of jazz, wafts of heavy metal. But mainly there is noise and thrashing and general guitar mangling head and hair flailing din. I like it.

Robin occasionally adds vocals to the mix, surprisingly plaintive and emotional. And then it’s back to the Sturm und Drang again.

Interestingly, a member of my group takes violent exception to the Naturals for the very same reasons that I like them. She thinks that they are pretentious, indulgent, formless, silly. I classify most of these as good points, although I don’t agree with her assessment.

The band finishes with an even more expansive freak out than previously, incorporating a sudden ludicrously heavy riff that the Bo Ningen boys would be proud of. I am content and very deaf.

This is my first encounter with the transformed Cold In Berlin. Their new incarnation is completely different from the old and yet still utterly extraordinary.

Singer Maya, long dark hair and flowing robes is possessed by the spirit of Barbara Steele. This is proper celluloid witchery in its purest form.

Her devotion to the performance is total. Her body contorts; her arms become talons, her tongue licks lasciviously. Her voice, always strong, now positively roars. It’s mesmerising. She does everything short of levitate and crawl across the ceiling.

The boys in the band wear T shirts adorned with wolves’ heads and occasionally howl at the lights. The ritual continues…

Maya processes from the stage and clears a corridor through the crowd. In the dark, we surround her. It adds to the general creepiness – I feel that I should be holding a flaming and guttering torch.

The band’s set is completely full of new material. Old favourites have been jettisoned. Fortunately, the new stuff is great. Highlights include ‘The Lie’, ‘The Witch’ (naturally) and pounding new single ‘…And the Darkness Bangs’, which is an odd phrase but a helluva song.

Cold In Berlin. They’ll put a spell on you.

I’m equally overjoyed to see The Chapman Family once more. They too have mutated in the past year or so. And they too seem invigorated by the change.

Front man Kingsley has now completely abandoned his guitar, preferring instead to lean on a small keyboard and howl and grouse into a microphone. The rest of the band takes up his mantle – their guitars are ferocious.

As ever with this band, songs are chopped, diced, rearranged. They certainly end with a version of ‘Kids’, but I’m not sure that they don’t start with it too. In between, they simply rage – the barely concealed anger is part of their great appeal.

Kingsley seems battered and worn down. He bemoans that their single ‘Sound Of The Radio’ was lost in the London riots of last summer. Or as he deadpans “It was burned…by a cockney.” He’s not happy and I don’t blame him.

The band have seen line up changes in the past eighteen months, but stalwart Pops Chapman still stands and rants, just as impassioned as his colleague. The rest of the band forms a formidable unit, a barrage of intense sound.

The new material addresses life under the privileged boot of a contemptuous Government. Songs now have titles like ‘Cruel Britannia’ and ‘This English Life’.

It’s good to see. I love The Chapman Family. We need more like them.

I leave the venue with my ears whistling. My train is packed and slow and someone throws up all over everywhere almost immediately. It’s like a charnel house. And you know what? After tonight’s show, I’m STILL happy.

Friday 2 March 2012

Soko at Union Chapel - 1 March 2012

Soko pic by JS Hollis

The Union Chapel is a beautiful setting for a gig. Intimate, yet spectacular, it lends a real sense of occasion.

New Yorker Luke Rathborne is certainly taken by the rows of pews and the high, stained-glass windows. He says as much, I think, although I can’t say for certain, because from where I’m sitting (high above and to the left of the stage) the acoustics are pretty terrible. I just hear “Mumble…mumble…mumble”. He seems happy enough.

Rathborne mostly strums at an electric guitar, and there seems too much reverb or distortion, even when he is just being chatty. It’s all very laid back and pleasant, but you can’t really make anything out.

It’s been a while since I saw Soko. Previously, I’ve seen her tear up an I’m From Barcelona gig. I was also at a notorious Dingwalls gig where her behaviour and demeanour became so disturbed that it seemed a kindness to leave.

At first it seems as though we might be in for a repeat performance. Soko is initially extremely nervous and fidgety, her unease manifesting itself as an inability to choose a suitable guitar, as each instrument is tried and tuned and discarded in turn.

This time round, Soko has with her not only her usual accompanist Gillian Maguire, but her own younger brother Max and Luke Rathborne to lend a hand. Surrounded by friends, Soko visibly calms down.

Tonight’s lengthy set is heavily drawn from the new album “I Thought I Was An Alien”. The title speaks to the themes that run through most of Soko’s material – alienation, self doubt, unhappiness. You get a recurring sense that to be Soko is not to be in a particularly content state of mind.

The band swap instruments with alacrity and almost appear to be acting as a quasi-support group for the star, solicitously helping her to move around the stage or adjusting her guitar strap for her. Soko witters between songs, half to herself, half to the audience.

The sound problem has largely cleared up and the set progresses well. At one point Soko disappears behind a drum kit and bashes and screams her way through a song, an exercise which seems to do her good. Other tracks are so quiet and ethereal that they are barely there, and you lean intently forward to catch them.

The audience is called upon for assistance, notably on the song “How Are You?” the answer to this most mundane question being in Soko’s words “Often really bad.”

Having initially been nervous, Soko draws strength from the performance and becomes more and more upbeat as the night wears on. By the end she is almost enjoying herself.

However, it is a long set, which lasts over ninety minutes without a break. This is an awfully long time to concentrate on self-loathing and discomfort.

It is good to see Soko back and apparently functioning better. However she remains a very fragile presence and although she may have tamed her demons in the Chapel here tonight, it is clear that they have not been banished completely.